Small Business Storytelling with Chris Brogan | Small Business Matters Podcast Ep. 1

Published: September 7, 2021 by Gary Stockton

We are very excited to launch The Small Business Matters podcast with this post.  We will be interviewing small business owners, experts, and authors about what it takes to run a successful small business. We will also be including some helpful info about how to build strong business credit. Please listen and subscribe using the links at the bottom of our post.

Our first interview is with small business author and expert, Chris Brogan.  Chris really gets small business, and he understands the importance of telling a great story, and he knows a lot about how to weave stories into the fabric of a business. We hope you enjoy the interview as much as we did.

[Gary]: I have been waiting to speak with you for quite a long time about this topic because I see so much evidence of the storytelling you’re doing daily with people. For small businesses, I think storytelling can be a bit of a challenge when you’ve got your fingers in the weeds, so to speak; why do you think stories are becoming such an important tool for growing a successful small business?

[Chris]: I love to say to people that story is the basic unit of memory. If you think about the things that you remember most, you usually remember them because there’s a bit of a story around it. So if I say, what was it like at your first job? You remember a story from your first job. You don’t remember your wages, and you don’t remember what your duties were. You don’t remember some bulleted lists. You remember there was this one time that I got in trouble because I didn’t really know what this word meant. And I acted like I did, and all this stuff befell me. Right? So we remember in stories. So if a story is the basic unit of memory, why aren’t we leaning on that a lot more in our business? Partly because people hear story and think of princesses and dragons and sword play or something and what they don’t understand is that story just means an account of events. You know?

[Chris]:  So I could say right before this, I went out and got iced coffee here would be the least interesting story of the world that ever heard Gary. But what it is, is an account of events; what you might then think of is, oh, so he bought coffee?  Why didn’t he make it? What’s wrong with his coffee at home? You know you can infer. So before we go to your next question, the other thing that any business should be thinking about immediately with these, this particular small business matter, it’s what stories would my buyer need? You know, what if you sell air conditioner repair, for instance, air conditioner repair, I couldn’t think of a more boring thing to sell, but you’d be the kind of person that has to say to me, if you do this every spring before the weather changes from, you know, warm, heating problems to air conditioning problems. And if you do your maintenance every spring, you’re going to have it so much better in Summer, so much better in Autumn, it’s going to cost you less money. So the story becomes about savings and timing, and prep. And the fact that you’re going to extend the experience of your unit. And I think that once you hear that, you go, oh, well, I could be a storyteller if that’s how it’s going to impact my business. And so, I mean, hopefully, that’s a good starting point just for people to realize that I don’t mean anything weird or fluffy or star dusty. I mean, an actual business story.

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[Gary]: Do you think people have to be, good writers to be, a good small business storyteller?

[Chris]: I think they have to just be thoughtful writers. I think that to be a storyteller is to say, I gave this some thought, in fact, one thing I feel that storytellers need more than writing skills is they sort of need, permission and or reminders that they’re not handing this into some school professor. They’re not handing this thing that they’re putting together to some teacher who’s going to judge them or grade them. All you’re really doing is saying, I want to put together the bits and bobs of what my business is in a way that my customer will understand it, or my employees will understand it, or you know, all the stakeholders. So if you run even a little sandwich shop in a small beach town, you can say no matter what, our job is to get people in and out. But to never rush them, to give them that feeling, that they’re the only person in the world, no matter how big the line is for that moment, that we’ve produced and handed over their sandwich.

And maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s the only story you have to say. It’s never a rush. And you then from that, teach people at the counter, not to say my least favorite customer service phrase ever in my life “No problem.” I loath that and just replace it with “My pleasure.” So I think that there are some really simple ways to implement this. And again, you have to be thoughtful. What does your customer want in that moment? And, even if you go to the McDonald’s drive-through, what does someone want at McDonald’s? They want it fast. They want it efficient and they want it to be the same every time, they want consistency is the story of McDonald’s. So even if that’s not your particular food choice, if you go there, it’ll be consistent. And that’s what you’re aiming for in your business. So if someone were to say, I know about this business, I know this, what would you want it to be? And then do your work to engineer that to be what it is about?

[Gary]: Mark Schaefer told a wonderful story about visiting some friends in Knoxville, Tennessee in his book “Marketing Rebellion. While there, he noticed a stack of handcrafted soap from a local company, so he asked his friend why they bought that soap instead of Ivory or Dial, why did they love that brand and his friend thought for a moment and said, “I’m not sure I would say I love the brand, but I love the hands that made it.” His friend said that she knew the owners and that they made a sustainable product, was environmentally sound, but that they were good people who treated their employees well.  Can you share some examples of small businesses you’ve seen, who are telling powerful stories and, and what made them stand out to you?

[Chris]: So depending on whose definition of small, because of course we slice this different ways. There are some new companies I find that are doing interesting storytelling. One time where it’s really important to have storytelling is when the product is something that not many people know much about. For instance, Humm Kombucha out in Oregon they’re a smallish company. But when I say that they were, they were very small, they were kitchen table, batches and farm stand batches, but they were introduced into places like Target stores and Kroger and Walmart. So that’s not small anymore, but what they had to explain was everything about Kombucha, because it’s just not a product that people have a lot in many circles. It’s not very widely understood. So people were saying things like, “well, I hear there’s an alcohol content to it.”

[Chris]: My person’s a recovering alcoholic. Should they be drinking this? Should kids drink this? it’s got alcohol. Well, it has, it has some alcohol consistency, but it’s almost like when you eat Brandy flavored food, you don’t loll around in the bushes afterwards. They had to explain it well, is it fermented? I heard it’s fermented like some kind of fermented tea what’s that about? And so the story had to be about how this is great for gut health and how this is a simple product that’s made with very natural things. It’s very low sugar in a world where there’s so many sugary drinks. It does all this incredible stuff to your belly, and it’s just generally full of helpful, properties. And so, that became the story. And I find that companies that are having to sort of work with a new category or a new approach on a category, have the best opportunity to tell a story.

[Gary]: What if you are working in an industry that’s boring. Can you still use storytelling as a tactic?

[Chris]: I will tie this in, in a weird way. And then I’ll also tell you a story that gives you a sense of how this works well, that happened to me just the other day. So my weird story first is about home pregnancy tests; there were TV commercials for home pregnancy tests. And for a very long time, the commercials were always, basically someone looking down at the test and going, “we’re pregnant.” And, the unspoken joke was that that’s not always how people want to read that stick sometimes. It’s, we’re safe, you know, we’re not pregnant. And, they started making commercials for both outcomes. And so you would see different ones at different times, or maybe in different channels or different demographics. And it was a grand thing because, that to me told the story much more realistically for how does someone use that product.

[Chris]: Now, to tie that to things like credit scores, some people are like, oh, I’m just really trying to work my credit score up. And other people like myself, I’m an entrepreneur, entrepreneurs have the worst credit because a lot of times we put all our own money into the projects we get, you know, one client says, forget it. And you cascade a bunch of bad credit indicators down the line. Last I checked with your company, it said, maybe just don’t. But I got a letter the other day, a sort of a status update because, you know, I’m using the service, and they said to me, Hey, we noticed that you took care of this bill on time. That’s great! You should do that more. And I felt oddly like positive. I felt oddly like motivated. And I thought, I can’t believe how that marketing just motivated me, but it really did, Gary. I thought, Hey, good for me. Maybe I’ll go see if there’s some other bill I can get ahead of. And it really was a positive feeling. So think about that as a story, right? These are not, you know, we’re not making “The Matrix” here. We’re not making “The Sixth Sense,” you don’t get to the end of the movie and go, oh, you know, this is just the story was, Hey, Chris, you’re doing better than you thought you were. That’s a really great story to tell any customer in any business you’ve ever had.

[Gary]: Yes, positive reinforcement of good behaviors. We’ve got a score planner on our website that helps entrepreneurs and business owners calculate what-if scenarios on delaying payment vs. paying on time. A lot of it comes down to just paying those bills on time, not over-utilizing certain credit lines, they call that the debt-to-limit ratio. Just those positive behaviors can, over time have a beneficial impact. Then on the consumer side, Experian came out with Boost, which you may have seen on the TV commercials.

[Gary]: Do you have a framework or approach that helps your stories come together in a way that connects with your audience? I mean, we’ve heard of the hero’s journey. “Star Wars” is based on that framework, but do you have a framework that you work within, or are you just really trying to understand as much as you can about the businesses that you’re working with?

[Chris]: So there are a couple of different types of tools that might be helpful. Things like The Hero’s Journey, a lot of time a hero’s journey story is a slightly larger kind of story. What’s the full origin story of my company that could maybe fit in a hero’s journey? Somebody like at Chobani yogurt, for instance, that’s a great story in the way it’s told. And, you know, we made all of our employees owners. That’s a great use of that story, but there are other kinds of stories. And, and for instance, in software and planning for software there’s things called Agile user stories, and these user stories are basically this verb does this noun kind of a thing or whatever. So there’s these, these circumstances where you can use really simple tools to tell, use case kinds of stories.

[Chris]: I think that’s one really fast, easy tool for anybody paying attention to this podcast to think about, because — let me walk you through it. So you start with, what do I need a customer to think right now? How do I need them to feel while they’re thinking that, and what’s the simplest way I could walk them through it. So, there’s a hardware store beside my house. They sell, you know, hardware — they sell toilets and pipes and all that sort of thing. And I’m not an especially handy person. So every time I go in there, I’m lost. And to me, the simplest story they could say is, you know, “We’ll be your guides.” You know, “We are your Sherpa” You will feel smart when you leave this store. And I would feel so great. And that’s the simplest story to tell right? There there’s even the promise that you’ll feel confident leaving this store. That’s almost like a tagline more than a story. And yet, that’s what gets done. Stories can be used, even if you don’t express them outwardly or verbally, too. like I said, about customer service to explain that we want the person to feel like the most cared for person while they’re in our building, stories can be used like that. So they don’t actually have to be expressed to people. Stories can be expressed to people in places like email marketing or your advertisements, or in your instruction manuals or your customer service experience, even in the phone tree. When someone dials in and they, you know, for English, press one for Spanish, press two, what happens after there can be scripted like a story, “thanks so much for calling.”

[Chris]: This is so important. We know that if you’re on the phone, then you’ve either got some questions about something you’re thinking about buying, or maybe you’ve got some challenges with something you’ve already bought. Let’s walk through it together. You know, we’re here to make a good experience for you. There’s so many real simple touches that people can make. It can even be in the bill, right? “Your invoice is enclosed — It means so much to us that you continue to be our customer. If you ever have a question, here’s my cell.” If you have a small enough business, give them your phone number. What’s the very worst thing that’s going to happen is that they’ll call it. And I know there’s some business owners who are panicked that heaven forbid the customer try to connect with them, but to me, that’s the biggest possible opportunity you could ever have in businesses, direct access to your customer.

[Gary]: Where you share your story, just as you were eluding to, that’s so essential, you want to meet your audience where they are. Can you talk a little bit about matching story outlets to the audience? Our group at Experian is B2B, we tend to focus more on LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, and now the podcast, this is a new podcast for us and we want to reach small businesses with this podcast. I probably wouldn’t spend a lot of time of TikTok, a lot of time on the consumer facing social outlets with stories because I am not sure the audience would be there for us, am I wrong?

[Chris]: Business to business people tend to go over and look at places like Facebook and TikTok, and those other places, they sometimes bring their business mind to those places. Other times they think of it as an intrusion. So TikTok, for instance, I’m not a big fan of TikTok in general, so I’ll just put that out there ahead of time. But what I’m a fan of has nothing to do with as a marketing professional, how I advise people. My advice would be that people go to TikTok to be entertained. And if you just couldn’t entertain, “We’ve got cool office supplies.” No one’s going to be happy with you at TikTok. So you might pick a new thing. Instagram is a completely consumer experience, unless you’re a retail provider, it’s a completely consumer kind of space. And, you know, if you’re selling HVAC or you’re selling small legal services, or  you’re an accountant or bookkeeper, you’re not necessarily thinking Instagram’s your place, but it can surely be your place because people want to know who they buy from. We buy from people we like.

[Chris]: So if your story is just that, we’re lawyers, so you don’t have to be, I mean, you could do a lot of stuff with that. And you’re in your Instagram. You could do stories of here’s our client who just climbed a mountain. Here’s our client who just went water skiing. Here’s our client who just got the lake cabin that they’ve been dreaming about for 25 years. And you know, you’re not going to see that many pictures of us because we’re busy doing the legal work so that you don’t have to, right? So that becomes the story.

[Chris]: There’s so many ways to tell business, to business stories that humanize what goes on around the business. One thing for instance is if the only thing that separates you from somebody else is your installers, let’s say.  Then interview the installers, because if they’re the best thing, then they’re also the facing point of contact. So interview them. And so the people can have relationships of sorts with them. And they will say, Hey, I saw you in a video and it’ll be that strange sense of you feel like you know someone ahead of time. When you go to a conference, you’ve met someone that you know from online or something, well, you can do that in really small, local B2B circstances and people love it.

[Gary]: Yeah. The, I met, well, of course I met you at a conference and, I met a guy named Roger from Texas, and he’s a plumber. He really stood out to me because he had been to this conference. It was all about social media. And his business was in some trouble at the time. He had to turn things around, and he went to really study social media, came away from that conference thinking that YouTube is where it’s at. He set about recording a whole bunch of tutorials about fixing plumbing problems and became a center of excellence, basically on YouTube for plumbing. And now it’s almost like he’s got this whole entire other aspect to his business as a specialist in the field, but you wouldn’t think that a plumbing business could make that leap, but he showed us that he could. Now I’m seeing that in tons of other areas, too,

[Chris]: For sure. With plumbing in my house, I had a situation where my children were complaining about the showerhead. I didn’t even notice, it wasn’t a big deal to me, but I went out and I bought a new one and then realized, I don’t know the first thing about replacing a showerhead. And so I went right to YouTube and I found probably Roger. And, you know, he showed me how to replace a showerhead, and then I didn’t have to call someone to do it. So first I realized I probably saved $300 to $500, and second, I felt quite mighty, quite performative that I was able to put the shower head on. I felt like inviting people into my house to come look at it like this is a beautiful shower head.

[Chris]: So I think there’s so many opportunities for that.  How-to videos are great, instruction videos, care and maintenance type of things. Also, how to enjoy the space around your product, no matter what it is. So even if you’re doing office supplies or something like that, you can say, we’ve got some handy tricks to stop office supply thievery. You can have some fun with it. You can make things that we all think about into something else. Or you could talk about, how now that we’re all remote, what kind of office supplies do you need for your own houses? Here’s a cool checklist that you can give your people at the company and they can mail one of these out to each house that’s dealing with being a remote person. So there’s so many, storylines to be done. There’s no business too boring, a toilet seat company I talked to had an incredible campaign going. I’m super partial to things like HVAC and plumbing like you said with Roger. I think that there’s really hardly a business out there that I can’t find some reason to make interesting and useful content. And then the only challenge there is don’t go; you can’t really just follow any old formula that’s out there because a lot of them were created by people. Zig Ziglar said years ago, never buy an encyclopedia from an encyclopedia salesman. Well, a lot of the people that sell you one you should buy, you know, make content, they sell services on how to do content.

[Gary]: Chris, thanks for sharing so generously with us. Where can our listeners find out more about you,

[Chris]: They can come to chrisbrogan.com/nl for newsletter, pick up my weekly newsletter. It comes out every Sunday. And one thing you could do with my newsletter that you can’t with many is just hit reply, and it goes right to me. So you and I could start a conversation. So that might be a good start.

[Gary]: Chris, thanks so much for joining us on Small Business Matters.

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