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5 tips from Hollywood for telling better customer stories

In a recent post, I warned marketers not to blind themselves with the shiny object of storytelling. It’s just a tool. A good tool. But so is a hammer, until you need to drill a hole.

Like all good tools, storytelling has its place. One of those places is the customer case study. So, if we’re going to tell stories, let’s go all in and tell great stories. Here are five rules of storytelling from our modern-day bards, the Hollywood screenwriter:

1. Make us root for your hero

In most movies, the protagonist (or hero) is someone we can relate to. They are our entry point into this strange new world that's about to unfold. Marketers have a leg up on creating relatable characters, as customers in similar industries will likely recognize their goals and challenges, and see themselves in your story’s hero. (Just so we’re clear, the protagonist of your story is your customer, not your company, its products or services.)

But heroes in movies also tend to be likable. This is deliberate. If we like them, we care what happens to them, and stay emotionally engaged with their stories. Even when the protagonist is not a nice guy, there’s always some saving grace that makes us root for the anti-hero:

Michael Corleone loved his family. Dirty Harry believed in justice. Mel Gibson's Mad Max was an out-for-himself loner, but he still had a dog.

So, how do you make the protagonist of your customer story likable? Tell us something more about her than her name and job title. Don’t confine your story to the particular problem your customer is trying to solve. Weave something interesting about her personal life that relates to the problem, or better yet, raises the stakes as to why the solution is so important. Perhaps you sell network management software and your hero is a network administrator with a special-needs child and can ill-afford sleepless nights diagnosing network failures. Which brings us to another critical rule of storytelling . . .

2. Raise the stakes

The bigger the stakes, the greater the drama. If Indiana Jones doesn’t find the Lost Ark, the Nazis will wield the power of God. In Avatar, Jake Sully isn’t just trying to mend his relationship with his Na’vi girlfriend; the spiritual identity of an entire civilization is at stake.

Heck, even Austin Powers isn’t just about getting his “mojo” back. He needs it to prevent Doctor Evil from annihilating the fricken planet!

In all of your success stories, make sure the stakes are as high as they can be, and keep raising them. Ask your customer what would have happened if they didn’t implement your solution. Would it have increased costs or impacted revenue? If so, what would that have meant? What other projects or business objectives would have been negatively impacted? How would that have affected the company, its employees? Bring it back down to your hero, and his or her own personal story.

3. Keep the obstacles coming

In an effort to show off how great their products or services are, many marketers refuse to demonstrate anything but perfection. So, while many customer stories get off to a good start: the hero is introduced, we learn about his or her problem. Before you can settle in with your popcorn, the story is over. The company’s product, installation or services team swoops in to save the day, resolving the story with God-like precision. In the movie business, this is called deus ex machina. 

Latin for “God from the machine,” it refers to the practice in Greek Tragedies of lowering actors dressed as gods from a crane just in time to help the main characters out of a bind, and the playwright out of the corner he wrote himself into. In any business, it’s just bad storytelling.

If your team ran into problems, leave them in. Your prospects are likely to keep reading to learn how you overcame them. More importantly, it makes you and your story more believable.

4. Suspend disbelief

Sandblasting all the blemishes from a complex technical deployment not only removes any drama from your story, it breaks another major rule of storytelling: suspending disbelief. Remember, your prospects are not novices. They’ve had their share of dicey deployments. If they don’t believe that your customer’s implementation went off without a hitch, they may wonder what else you’re leaving out. Where else are you being less than honest?

So, when writing case studies — especially highly technical or complex solutions or installations — showcase all of the obstacles your team encountered along the way. Even if it may look bad for the good guys (that’s you, by the way), your story will be more dramatic, relatable and believable. And in the end, you and your customer will come out looking even more heroic.

5. Transformation

All stories are about change. It is the transformation that occurs within our main characters that makes for a rewarding story. In the late great Blake Snyder’s most excellent screenwriting book, Save the Cat, he talks about the six things your character needs fixing. These are typically character flaws, beliefs and life situations that need to be changed by the end of the movie in order for our hero, and the movie, to have a happy ending. In customer stories, the things that need fixing are all of the business challenges that were overcome or the opportunities that were seized.

But what about your customer? How did she change? Maybe she or someone on the team didn’t entirely believe in the project from the beginning? Great. Put it in. It’s not only good storytelling; it will make your hero and her story resonate with your more skeptical readers. After all, isn’t that one of the primary missions of a good content marketing program: turning skeptics into zealots?

Bonus Rule

These are some of the many techniques of good storytelling. You can take them or leave them. The customer success story is, by far, the most powerful type of content a marketer can publish. And while its name may telegraph the ending before you even begin, that’s no excuse to break the one rule that screenwriters and marketers break at their peril.

Don’t. Be. Boring.  

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