Stories ≠ Engagement

This post first appeared on Vessel Coworking's blog as a follow-up to a workshop I delivered on Storytelling for Small Businesses. The folks at Vessel are some of the best; if you need a place to cowork you should drop in - the first day is free!


After the 34th PowerPoint slide I realized I just lost the last person in the audience.

I was teaching a class at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas on the Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership and we were reading content off of a screen. It was one of those terrible presentations where you ask the class questions about things they don’t even know about yet, but try to place the blame on them for not knowing what the hell you’re talking about. It looks something like this: I would pose a question and then say something like: “I can wait for you to answer – I taught 10th grade English and have plenty of patience.” Then some brave person would fumble for a meaningless response and everyone in the class would feel bad.

When we prepare to communicate to a group of people it’s easy to forget to create something we’d actually enjoy ourselves. Why do we develop terrible lessons, presentations and PowerPoint decks for others when we know we’d cringe at the very same content? Maybe there’s a component of credibility we’re trying to prove – but it never works. Privately we dream and hope and believe there must be others out there who have the same passionate echo inside of them, but we turn shy when we get the microphone. We think being open may turn people off. We believe being vulnerable may make us look weak. We worry our ideas only matter to us. So we default to stock images and bullet points. We lose the soul and we run to safety.

I think we do the same thing when we talk about our work and our businesses.

To figure this out, I facilitated a conversation at Vessel’s Storytelling for Small Businesses Workshop  about what it means to understand deeply who we are, tell that story through our work and find the audience who’s ready to connect with that story. I used to believe in the value of stories simply as a salve for bad marketing: If you’re missing a component in your marketing strategy, just tell a story; slap on a narrative structure to whatever it is you’re trying to do and things will turn out just fine.

But stories don’t always equal customer engagement.

That’s not the reason we started telling stories in the first place; stories were never intended to provide a solution to a problem. Sure, sometimes they can make things more clear and understandable. Sure, parables and fables are great teaching tools. But at the core of it, deeper than anything else, stories are about connection.

And business – good business – is about connection.

If that's the case, it only seems natural that we’d engage in an activity that allows us to connect with the right people. The people who need our services. The people who think like we do and want what we want out of life.

But how do you find them? How do you hone your voice so they’ll be attracted? How do you really connect?

This gets slippery sometimes. Business owners may believe they’re pandering when they work to understand their audience and speak their language – like they are selling out to someone else’s desires.

But it’s not pandering, it’s finding your people.

What’s even more important to understand is this: you don’t find your people until you find yourself.

You’ve got to get deep about the motives you have for doing the work you do. You’ve got to get clear about why it makes you come alive. You’ve got to speak a language you’d want to hear and you’ve got to create content, products, services and stories that would hold your interest first. When you do that, you’re not connecting with just anyone, you’re connecting with people you need and with people who need you. Because you need the same things.

That’s what stories do – they give us a big circus tent to congregate under. A place where people believe in the same magic we do.

There are few rules here. Each person and each business has to approach the way they tell their story a bit differently. It’s not the details that really matter – it’s the pursuit of the same truths through our work that really connects us.

So what did we learn together at the storytelling workshop at Vessel? I don’t know – maybe a few people decided to detangle their website copy. Maybe someone thought about how to ask a question their audience might ask. Perhaps someone is now thinking about how their soul should be part of their work.

Maybe those things happened, or maybe they didn’t. But I can tell you what did happen: several dozen folks got together to wrestle with the big questions about connection and creation and belonging. That’s time well spent. That’s a story in itself. That’s a community I’m interested in being part of.