The Power of Stories: Ann Bevans Q&A

Ann Bevans
As a follow-up to my October 2013 post on Selling with Stories: How to Attract Your Ideal Client with Words and Pictures, by Ann Bevans, I asked Ann some questions so we can drill a little deeper on the role storytelling plays in business, as well as on her experience of writing the book.

Mark: Did anything about storytelling — or how businesses use it — surprise you as you wrote the book?

Ann: Sure! What surprised me most is how natural it is for humans to tell stories. My six year old spins fantastic tales about dragons and robots and superheroes quite spontaneously. We only run into trouble when we become self-conscious in our storytelling, which is the problem most entrepreneurs face. Self-consciousness takes many forms. It sounds like “I'm a bad writer” or “what if people judge me?” or “what story could I possibly tell?” I wrote Selling with Stories to provide business owners and marketers with a process that would help them rediscover what they already know how to do.

Another thing that surprised me is that, when you start to uncover how marketers use stories to influence you, it's almost like you can't unsee it. Even my 78-year-old father (who knew nothing about this topic before reading my book) starting saying things like, “All the commercials on television these days are horrible. Nobody's telling stories anymore!”

Mark: How did you come up with all the great examples of different kinds of storytelling (like Sutherland)?

Ann: I had a few sources. I mostly used videos because they are short and people can get the idea very quickly, even if they aren't familiar with the spot. For this reason, I started off by researching some of the top viral videos from the last few years. Unsurprisingly, they were all stories. (“The Scarecrow” by Chipotle hadn't come out yet. If it had, it surely would have made the cut.)

I also thought about what stuck with me growing up. The Folgers commercial in chapter 5 (“Peter Comes Home for Christmas”) got included because my mother used to cry every year when it came on. It was a part of our holiday tradition. Note: if it makes your mother cry, it's a good story.

Mark: I’ve long noticed that “asking probing questions” is one of your great strengths; you continued that with key chapters of the book as well as with the downloadable questionnaire. Are you a frustrated litigator, or did you develop that talent out of necessity after working with clients?

Ann: Some consultants seem to think they need to walk in with all the answers in order to justify their own existence. I prefer to listen to what my clients have to say before formulating an opinion. I learned this the hard way, and it's never led me astray. Clients always have the answers inside. Sometimes all they need is an outsider to pull it out and organize it so it makes sense.

Mark: How do you know what stories, and what types of stories, will “resonate” with your target market?

Ann: In a small business, I believe that your ideal client is your ideal client in part because he or she vibrates at the same frequency you do. If a certain story resonates with you, you can expect that your ideal client will feel the same way.

That said, it's important to have a variety of stories at your disposal and to think strategically about where and when you'll tell each of them. Not every story is appropriate for every situation, and telling the same story over and over is just boring.

Mark: Of the five story elements you outlined (setting, characters, plot, conflict, theme), do you think there’s a “best” one to use as an entry point in starting to craft a story? In other words, is it best to take them in that order in linear fashion, or have you seen good results from people adopting a more random path?

Ann: I could make an argument for any one of the five being the best place to start. As an example, consider theme. If you have an idea you want to communicate and you build a story around that, you are starting with theme. You can think about which setting or characters or conflict would help you make your point. But maybe you have a character in your head who fascinates you, or you've just come back from a trip to some exotic locale feeling like you simply must tell a story that's set there.

In Selling with Stories, chapter 1 begins with a story about a boy who served in the Red Cross in World War I. I won't spoil it, but there's a twist in that (true) story that made me want to tell it. The theme only came out at the very end, when I found myself typing these words: “Because the universe is not without a sense of humor.” I had no idea that's what my story was about when I started.

My best advice is to start with what you've got and see what happens.

Mark: When you craft a story, which element do you personally usually find easiest and hardest?

Ann: Character is probably the easiest for me. I'm pretty intuitive, and I climb into other people's heads quite naturally. I enjoy thinking of ways to show who a character is through their actions.

Setting might be the hardest, simply because I forget about it. When I create a story, I tend to construct an elaborate setting in my head but I forget to tell the audience about it. I often have to go back and add details that existed in my mind but didn't make it to paper.

Mark: Is a structured, analytical approach necessary before you can tell good stories about your business?

Ann: I hope not! I think the best way to use Selling with Stories is to answer every question fully, then put your answers aside and dream. The questions are there, not as a scaffold or blueprint, but to conjure up ideas and ways of thinking about your business that may not have occurred to you before.

That said, there are two types of storytellers in the world: outliners and non-outliners. We constantly debate the pros and cons of each approach among ourselves, but it's really up to each individual writer to find the method that works best for him or her. If you find it useful to plan everything in detail, go for it. Or, you can dream up an interesting problem and try to write your way out of it. There's no right or wrong way to tell a story.

Mark: Have you read Scott Adams’s recently published book about using failure to succeed? If so, any thoughts about his advice to be system-oriented instead of goal-oriented?

Ann: Yes, and I think this idea is critical to any successful marketing plan. Jot down a quick list of all those important-but-not-urgent marketing tasks that would make a difference in your business. Blogging, social media engagement, in fact, all of content marketing, falls in this category. And those are exactly the kinds of places we tell stories.

In short, storytelling is a system that will improve the odds that you'll achieve your marketing goals.

See more about Ann via LinkedIn.