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Small Business Center

Tell Your Story: How to Stand Out in a Crowded Market

March 29, 2024

Your personal story is one of your most powerful sales and marketing tools. It’s what makes your small business stand out in a crowded field and what humanizes your brand so it’s not just a product or service but also a relatable and authentic entity.

That’s where small business owners, all of whom have personal stories of getting into the business, have an edge over chains. “You can position yourself as the literal face of your business,” said Kelly Parker, a marketing consultant who helps brands and businesses tell their stories effectively. Larger businesses like Target face challenges in personalizing their brand because, as Parker said, “their store is not about a person, and people don’t buy from a brand, they buy from people.”

So how do you craft your story — and then use it in compelling and practical ways? Here are Parker’s top tips.

Define your audience.

Before you put anything down on a page, you need to know who you’re writing for. Who is your customer or, if you’re just starting, who are the people that you want to become your customers? You’d write differently if your target audience were teenage girls, for instance, versus menopausal women. “Start with not ‘What should I say?’ but ‘Who am I talking to?” Parker said.

Picture that person as you jot down notes about what to say.

Think about: What are their worries? What do they want? What are they fearful about? What makes them feel good? What do they need from me? How do they feel? How do they want to feel? “You need to know what buttons you need to push that speak to where your audience is and get them feeling how they want to feel so that you can work together,” Parker said.

Engage with your target audience.

One of the most effective ways to gather this information is by asking your customers directly. “Good storytellers are good listeners,” Parker said. “They’re good at paying attention.” Ask your customers or potential customers why they shop at one place versus another, what they are looking for in a brand or a product, what sort of advertising turns them on and what turns them off.

Retain that language.

“If you understand your customer, if you understand what they're struggling with and what they want, then you can create that thread between what they’re struggling with and how you can get them to what they really, really want,” said Parker.

Think about the structure of your brand story.

She said there are five points you need to make a great small business story:

A person-centric narrative: Your story must revolve around a person, whether it’s you or someone close to you. If the reason you decided to start your small business, for instance, was because you saw your friend struggling with adult acne and she couldn’t find any solutions, start with that scene. “If your story doesn’t have a person, then it’s probably not a story or it’s a poor story,” Parker said.

Emotional impact: Your audience really needs to understand the effect that, say, having acne as an adult had on your friend. Did she not want to go out? Was her self-esteem completely crushed? “If it’s something you can talk about, write about, think about and you don’t feel much of anything, then no one else will either,” Parker said.

Vivid imagery: Incorporate imagery that allows people to picture the scenario vividly. You could describe in detail how your friend meticulously applied layers of makeup to conceal the red patches on her face. “There doesn’t have to be 100 things, but those little touch points that give you a concreteness about what you’re talking about,” Parker said. “It helps to draw people in.”

Tension: “Think about when you go to the movies,” Parker said. “If a girl starts her day and everything goes great and the movie continues like that, that’s not a movie. That’s awful. That’s boring.” Part of developing a really good story is learning how to dramatize things and learning how to create contrast. “It’s not always a fistfight,” she said. “It could be something that you or someone else overcame like self-doubt or laziness.”

Resolution: Every story needs a conclusion. It could be that you or your friend found transformative makeup that helped with her acne and boosted her skin health and confidence, inspiring you to start a small business focusing on skin-boosting makeup. It’s this outcome that people really want to hear. “One of my business coaches’ tagline is: Prospects only care about outcomes,” Parker said. “If you think that somebody cares about your story for the sake of you telling the story, they don't. They care about it insofar as it illuminates how you can help them in some kind of way.”

Include a call to action.

“I call it a proposal,” Parker said, “because you’re inviting people into something.” You’re saying: ‘Here’s how you can be part of this story with the same happy ending.’ She explained: “That’s really important because a story is not just for information; it’s for action.” You want to make it easy for people to take that next step and show them how to do it.

Remember, you have more than one story to share.

Within every story are multiple angles you can take. You have your origin story, which is what Parker calls “the pillar story.” There’s also the “mistake story” in which you share a mistake you made along the way and what you learned from it. A “mountaintop story reveals the moment you knew you really had found success. There’s also the backstory, sharing behind-the-scenes moments of opening or running a small business. Be strategic and purposeful about the reasons you’re sharing those stories. “Every story doesn’t have the same objective,” Parker said. “Sometimes it could be about demonstrating your expertise, or sometimes it’s about humanizing you” to your customers.

Consider where you want to share your story.

Once you’ve identified the stories you want to tell, think about the most effective platforms for sharing each one. Your pillar story, for instance, should feature prominently on your website, perhaps under a headline like “Our Story” or “Our Beginnings.” When selecting social media platforms on which to concentrate — such as LinkedIn, Instagram, YouTube, Facebook or TikTok — think about where your customers are Parker said. If your target audience is perimenopausal women, TikTok may not be the ideal platform but Facebook could be where they spend a significant amount of time. Direct your efforts where your audience is most engaged.

Remember there are multiple ways to convey a story.

We often associate storytelling with the written word, but you can share narratives through video, photos, or livestreams, as well. A testimonial from someone else also counts as a story. “For some of us, that’s very underutilized, Parker said. To get an authentic customer story, Parker suggested asking: “Hey, can I record a quick minute of you?” One caveat: Before you record, Parker advises spending a few minutes coaching them on how to share their before, during and after experiences with your products or store. Providing a guide may be necessary, but testimonials “are an excellent method for establishing credibility,” said Parker.

Just put something down on a page.

“Sometimes, we are stuck at the start when it comes to story because we don’t know what to share, how much to share and all of this stuff,” Parker said. But the best part about writing is that you can always rewrite. “Sometimes, because we want it to be right, we’re just stuck,” Parker said. In the course of your business, you’ll have multiple stories to tell and “you have to introduce your story to the market to see what’s going to resonate,” she said. “You cannot keep your story in the lab because you’ll never know what’s good and what’s not. You have to get out there.”

By Rebecca Meiser

Contributor, Commerce + Communities Today and Small Business Center

Small Business Center

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