Is your business telling the wrong story?

If you own or run a business, what kind of stories do you tell about it? Are they all about the products you sell and the services you offer? Maybe the back-to-school sale coming up soon?

If that’s the sum total of your business storytelling, you’re missing a huge opportunity.

Go to the website of any major retailer and you’ll likely find a tab of some sort labeled “story.” It’s an intriguing idea. But more times than not, it’s a depressing experience when you click and read on.

You’ll see that a big mistake too many businesses make is to assume that “stories” are just glorified descriptions—well-polished accountings of products, deals, and offerings. Naturally, you want these cornerstones of your company to be known and understood. The question is: Does anyone care?

If not, you may need a new kind of story. The trick is to cast the narrative away from you and instead to them–namely, the people whose lives are touched by what you do.

What’s your focus?

The stories that are told by businesses across virtually all channels and media fall into one of two broad classifications.

The first story type is the most common, and the most abused. It’s the transactional story. Essentially, it says “Here is a thing we sell, how it works, and where to buy it.” It is descriptive at heart, focusing on features, functions, and cost. Along the way, you may get a whiff of actual human interest, but it’s probably there to just manipulate some inner hunger or fear.

For example, on the website of a major US retailer (one with anchor locations in malls as well as a large online presence), you’ll find a label reading, “This is our story,” and a link to learn more.

“Once upon a time…” it begins, with the name of a founder and a description of her vision. Promising enough. But soon it’s clear that the “story” is just a vehicle for describing a business model, product lines, and store locations. The words “we” or “our” are used fifteen times in a single paragraph.

I don't mean to disparage the transactional story. Transactions are the lifeblood of business, and you need a way to light them up. The problem is that they tend to lack the human factors that engage people emotionally. To make that happen, you need another approach. You need to make it about them.

What is meaningful to your customer?

The second type of business story is the transcendent story—the story about how someone’s life changes as a result of something your business delivers or does.

Transcendent stories are concerned with challenges that are meaningful in the lives of your customers—usually far beyond the four walls of your business. Invariably, they’re rooted in struggles and problems, things that truly matter. In this light, your offerings are of secondary concern. They become relevant only when they help to ease somebody’s pain and spark a transformation.

Starbucks understands the power of the transcendent story. Their website’s home page features a “Stories” tab, which jumps to a complete “Stories and News” page with dozens of engaging stories. A recent lead article featured a piece about a man named Rudy.

“A scene from my life,” we hear Rudy say, while a clever animation plays. “It would be a high school hallway, I would be in the closet, and there would be a bully who has correctly called out that I am gay.”

The two-minute vignette ends in triumph, as Rudy discovers a new life in New Orleans. The story is part of a series called, “To Be Human,” featuring customers in all fifty states. Interestingly, Rudy never talks much about coffee. The simple fact that he is free to express himself, happy and at home, is all that’s needed to resonate with the brand. The message: This is what it means to be at Starbucks.

Transactional stories are about the how of the business. Transcendent stories are rooted in the much more powerful why. To get there, you must understand the landscape of meaning in the lives of your customers. This takes confidence, and a certain brand of selflessness. But the rewards can be huge.