An unexpected event

With a heavy heart, I have to sell my hot and dearly loved Opel Tigra, because my lovely wife came home two months ago with a positive pregnancy test.

This was the humorous opening line of an eBay description written in 2015 by Firat Demirhan from Germany.

It seemed to beak every rule of eBay listings but it was remarkably effective. The car, which was only worth 2,000 Euros, sold for almost 56,000 Euros.

It’s a testament to the power that stories have in a sales environment.

Significant Objects

In 2009, journalist Rob Walker had an idea: sell low-value objects on eBay, accompanied by a story about the object, to see if it increases the value of the object.

These candles cost nothing and sold for $21.50.
This badge cost 50c and sold for $36.88.
This tiny jar of mayonnaise cost him nothing and it sold for $51.00.

Every object has a story, and when people buy an object they’re also buying that story. If told well, a story can add financial value to an object and this is why storytelling is so important in marketing.

Next, we’re going to look at the basic building blocks that make up a story.

The universal structure of stories

Wild Pig and Seacow were best friends. They always raced each other for fun. But Seacow injured his legs and couldn’t run any more. Wild pig was sad. Then he had an idea. He carried Seacow to the sea. Now they could race each other again, Wild Pig on land and Seacow in the sea.

This is a traditional story told by the Agta, a group of Filipino hunter-gatherers studied by the anthropologist Dr Andrea Migliano. The story structure is similar to many stories that we all know, but created by an isolated tribe. It demonstrates that story-creation is an innate human ability and that stories follow a distinctive pattern.

  1. Normality: Wild Pig and Seacow always raced each other for fun
  2. Unexpected problem: Seacow injured his legs and could not run anymore
  3. Emotional trigger: Wild Pig was sad
  4. Solution: Then he had an idea
  5. Action: He carried Seacow to the sea
  6. New normality: They could race each other again, Wild Pig on land and Seacow in the sea

A simple story should set the scene and give the hero a challenge that affects them emotionally. The solution to the challenge could be immediately apparent, or it might only appear after a long struggle. Finding a solution doesn’t fix the problem in itself though. The hero has to apply the solution through decisive action. Finally, we need a resolution. The story is only satisfying if we can see evidence that the hero’s emotional turmoil has gone and that the hero lived happily ever after.

This is a simple story structure. A skilled writer (an artist) can play with, subvert, invert and ignore the structure in any way they want. In marketing, it’s unusual for complex storytelling to happen. We’re usually telling simple stories that resolve very quickly because we’re salespeople, not artists: we have to do what we know works, and we have to do it quickly. So if you don’t see yourself as creative or artistic, don’t worry. Just use this basic structure in your writing and you will immediately improve your levels of engagement.

Calling out for a hero

Stories are about heroes with unfulfilled desires. Heroes defeat villains to get what they want. Without obstacles there are no stories. Human beings seem to have an insatiable need for stories because we all want things that we can’t have. Stories teach us about how other people overcame their challenges. They inspire us to do likewise and warn us about the consequences of bad behaviour.

It’s tempting to see your business as the hero, swooping in and saving people in trouble, but in a story, it’s the hero who needs help. If you’re going to help customers then you can’t be the hero.

So who is the hero, and what is your role in the story?


“At Coca-Cola, we want to create Coca-Cola stories and not stories by Coca-Cola. That holds true when our product is a character in the story with a credible role to play.”
Kate Santore, Creative and Content Excellence at Coca-Cola

We can learn from Coca-Cola that every customer is the hero in their own story and businesses have to play a different role.

Which character will you play in your customers’ stories? Will you be a mentor, like Tony Robbins or the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz? An ally like Nike, or Batman’s Robin? Or a gatekeeper, like Oxford University, refusing access to an elite club until the hero is ready?

One of the best ways to discover your role is through testimonials and case studies.

Telling your customers’ stories

Testimonials and case studies are sensitive because they contain personal information. Think carefully about how you store customer data and always get permission. This can be challenging so talk to me directly if you need specific advice.

Remember that, ideally, you need to write about five things:

  1. What was your customer’s life like before their problem appeared? The approach to uncovering this will be different for every customer and every business so if you’re not sure how to do this, get in touch and we can talk it through. The key as ever is to stop talking and just listen when your customers talk.
  2. What was your customer’s problem and how did it make them feel? It’s relatively easy to know a customer’s superficial problem, but extracting emotional information can be difficult. Instead of saying “how do you feel now?”, you could reframe it and say, “how will you feel when this problem is solved?”. It will give you clues to their current emotional state.
  3. How did they find you? This is best asked at the start of the relationship. Another way to reframe it is to ask, “why did you choose my business?”. Make sure you write the answer down because you’ll need it later.
  4. What did your customer do with you to try to solve their problem? Go into detail.
  5. How has your customer’s life changed since you helped them? You can only find this out by maintaining a relationship and asking them directly. Always follow up with past customers.

It’s not a disaster if you leave any of these elements out. Storytellers do it all the time. There are many ways to vary this exercise to suit your specific situation.

There’s a reason that you’ve read all the way to bottom of this article. Do you feel optimistic? Hopeful? We all know that the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. But the second best time is today. This is your time, right now. You have to do this. Join my free Coffee Tomorrow? Facebook community to talk more about the power of storytelling in business.


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