Getting your story straight

Getting your story straight

Inform, Excite, Reassure

Getting your story straight is essential if you’re a b2b or service brand. People don’t buy on impulse from a business like yours. They’re going to shop around unless they’ve had a strong referral from a trusted source. They might have baggage from previous experiences in your market. They’ll definitely have buttons that need to be pressed by any business that wants to be a serious contender for their custom. And getting your story straight is how you make sure to get those buttons pressed.

But businesses have a habit of tying themselves in knots over this deceptively simple task. Often it’s because they are too close to the issues to be strategic about it. Storytelling at this level has a strategic aspect because it’s as much about what you leave out as what you put in. If it’s your story, and all of it feels equally important, it can be hard to prioritise and to make those sacrifices.

I have a deceptively simple model to deal with this deceptively simple task. Inform, Excite, Reassure.

Getting your story straight is about informing, exciting, and reassuring potential customers. Or potential recruits. Or any other important audience. I said it was simple. In fact it’s so simple that “Inform, Excite, Reassure” probably doesn’t deserve to be called a model. It’s more like a to-do list. However, it must be deceptive because lots of brands screw it up.

Here’s an example of a brand doing it well. By way of disclosure, I’m one of their customers.

FreeAgent website homepage. Getting your story straight.
A lesson in getting your story straight

Getting your story straight – Inform

If I’m a small business and I’m looking for accounting software, I immediately know that I’m in the right place with FreeAgent. I know this because right up front it says, “accounting software for small businesses”. The first thing the FreeAgent website does is tell you what business the company is in. Getting your story straight should include an explicit, informative statement of what product or service you provide.

This seems obvious but more brands than you’d think fail to do this, especially service brands. They neglect to say what service they actually provide. Perhaps they believe that they’re so well known amongst their potential customers that they can skip this step. In other words the omission of basic information is a conscious decision. I doubt that. I suspect that it’s an unthinking oversight. These brands forget to inform customers because they are too focused on exciting them.

These brands forget to inform customers because they are too focused on exciting them.

You see this quite often in the creative industries. Company websites that gush about how they “help clients to connect with consumers”, or how they “create culture”, but neglect to tell you that they’re an advertising agency. Call me old-fashioned but I think that’s daft.

I’ve worked with service businesses who were failing to provide this basic information to potential customers. The first thing I noticed when I looked at their websites was that they weren’t saying in simple language what service they provided. And when I showed their websites to their existing customers, it was a discombobulating experience. Customers who knew my clients well couldn’t understand why my clients apparently didn’t know themselves.

The foundation for getting your story straight is telling people what your product or service is.

And you need to use the right language. Companies in b2b and service industries are prone to specialist jargon and acronyms. This jargon can be baffling and off-putting. It might say what you do, but it might also suggest to customers who don’t speak the lingo that they’re not welcome.

Getting your story straight – Excite

If informing is the beginning of your story, exciting and reassuring are the middle and the end. The middle and the end are where things get interesting (but only if your brand has passed Go with clear information about what product it makes or what service it provides). It gets interesting because there’s more to it than good messaging. To excite and reassure potential customers you need to think about body language as well as verbal communication. Getting your story straight involves style as well as substance.

Getting your story straight involves style as well as substance.

Exciting a potential customer is about emphasising and amplifying the rewards that come from doing business with you. This means that you need to understand the relationship between their problem and your solution. And you need to recognise that what you sell is not necessarily the same as what you do or what you make. Let’s look at FreeAgent again. What they make is accounting software for small businesses. What they sell is being in control and peace of mind.

As a small business, the most exciting aspect of accounting software is the idea of being in control of your finances. Freelance life is inherently precarious. Stressing about where the next project will come from is a planet-sized fact of freelance life. You don’t want any satellite worries in orbit around it. So anything that can relieve stress and increase the feeling of control in other areas is genuinely exciting.

FreeAgent clearly knows this. “Nail the admin.” That’s exactly what I want to do. It’s a three word statement of control and peace of mind, emphatically delivered. The website is peppered with this kind of language – “Take care of…”, “stay on top of…”, “relax about tax”, “let admin feel effortless”. As a small business owner looking for control it feels like FreeAgent is telepathic.

Getting your story straight – Reassure

If exciting is about playing up reward, then reassuring is about playing down risk. Exciting is about giving people reasons to buy in. Reassurance is about removing reasons to opt out. As such, reassurance is a function of earning trust and signalling compatibility. Reassurance runs on empathy, the ability to understand customer priorities and to pre-empt customer concerns. FreeAgent gets this. It knows that a deep concern for small businesses is the stress that comes from not understanding accountancy conventions or HMRC complexity. So it is comforting to see that its support team are all UK accountants with first names. There’s a credible promise of expertise and accessibility. I can testify to how quick and how good that support is.

Getting your story straight - FreeAgent reassurance

Compatibility is important when people buy from b2b or service businesses. Are your values a good match for those of your customers? Do you even know what values a customer brings to a potential transaction or relationship with you? Yet again, FreeAgent does this well. Their copy is written in a style that makes it clear that they’re not makers of bloated, expensive, enterprise software. Everything feels like it has been optimised for small businesses and freelancers like me.

Getting your story straight – multitasking

Talking about a beginning, a middle, and an end for this kind of storytelling is somewhat spurious. Effective brand communication is rarely that linear, which is ironic when we’re talking about getting your story straight. Not only is it possible to excite and reassure in parallel, more often than not it’s inevitable. The line between exciting and reassuring is frequently blurred.

Take that idea of compatibility, and the feeling when a business almost telepathically understands not just what you want but also how you want to be dealt with. Does being so well understood like that feel exciting, reassuring, or both at the same time?

In FreeAgent’s homepage header panel, I’m excited to read about nailing the admin, but I’m simultaneously reassured by the dashboard image which looks both useful and easy to use.

So separating your storytelling into the component parts of Inform, Excite, Reassure can feel like an artificial exercise. But I’ve found that pulling things apart before putting them back together again is a good way to identify the moving parts of a brand story and a good way to understand how those parts work best together.

Getting your story straight – summary

Inform, Excite, Reassure might sound like the work of a simpleton, but this simpleton approach has helped to dig more than a few clients out of a storytelling hole.

In all the excitement of trying to excite potential customers, don’t forget to tell them what product or service you actually provide.

Be careful not to inadvertently turn people away with language that they don’t speak.

People read all of the signals that you’re putting out, not just your words. Getting your story straight involves body language and aesthetics, as well as messaging.

What you’re selling, or rather what your potential customers are looking to buy, may not be the same as the product you make or the service you provide. Understand the jobs that your customers need your product or service to do.

You can’t do empathy and compatibility without doing your research. Talking to customers about what excites and reassures them in your market is the essential first step to getting your story straight.


If you found this post useful, you might like this – “Chimps and Champs” – about making a real difference with brand values.

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