Why your backstory is a key to referrals and word of mouth marketing

In our result-oriented culture, it’s essential to focus on tangible, real, results. Shipping real work. Start a real business. Make real money. Drive real results. Working with real clients. Releasing real articles. Author Bernadette Jiwa sums up the mindset well in Story Driven:

“We might register a domain name, get a logo designed, build a website, canvas our friends for their opinions, have a strategy meeting with colleagues, conduct a focus group, build a minimum viable product, pitch investors, create a marketing campaign, launch, pivot, scale. While we’re busy with the tactical stuff, we often skip the important first step—of reflecting deeply about the reason our idea or project needs to exist and the change we’re trying to create.”

In comparison, stories can seem too ephemeral to be worth spending time on. Even I fell into this trap, as I was starting my editorial studio Wonder Shuttle; I often found myself too busy finding new clients and telling their stories to tell my own. (If I could go back, I would’ve spent more time hiring myself!)

While there’s a lot of power in going through these tactical steps, stories are incredibly powerful for many reasons. People like to do business with people, and want to support projects and organizations that have similar values as them. If you’re stuck in business jargon, that means that story is the key to building a brand, and to generating very coveted word of mouth marketing.

Why backstories work

Business backstories work for businesses, and personal backstories work for people. These two should not be confused. For example, Elon Musk tells a very compelling personal backstory (teaching himself rocket science through first principles, his likening entrepreneurship to chewing glass, and sleeping on the factory floor on his birthday), and different stories when he’s talking about each of his businesses.

Filmmaker Eddie Huang tells a great backstory (and shares his perspective on it here). Author and marketer Seth Godin also tells a great backstory. Comedian Sarah Cooper tells a great backstory too. Their promotional efforts go further than other people’s, because the backstory resonates and people want to tell their friends about it.

Even for me, backstories work with me because I’m obsessed with learning more about the creative process. I like end results, but I love learning how stuff was made. I even wrote a book on the topic. As it turns out, a lot of people like learning about what’s behind the scenes. You don’t need to always project into the future—you can tell the truth about the past and what it means to you now.

The context is what makes someone or something interesting and worth learning—or talking—about. It’s just like art history and art. Or how a recording artist’s journey makes their music much more interesting. It’s why savvy entrepreneurs print summarized stories on packaging. 

How to discover and communicate your backstory

Backstory is discovered by doing things and telling people, connecting your present moment with past experiences, and by making noise about it. Publicists will offer frameworks on how to tell a good, interesting, relevant, backstory. While frameworks can provide good starting points, you’ll refine your story by telling it over and over again, and by answering more questions about it. 

In Jiwa’s book, Story Driven, she recommends some starting points for your personal backstory:

  • “Record the story of the time—the circumstances and events leading up to your decision and what you experienced at the time.”
  • “Who are the two people who have had the biggest impact on your life?”
  • “Can you remember and record a story about how they changed the way you saw the world?”
  • “What was your first job and what valuable lessons did you learn there?”
  • “If you could change one thing about yourself, what would that be? Why?”

And for your business story:

  • “Where did the idea for your business or company come from?”
  • “Describe the time and place and the events surrounding the epiphany.”
  • “Who was involved?” 
  • “What were they thinking and feeling?” 
  • “Who were the key players?”

Again, all of these are just starting points for your own backstory—and Jiwa asks many more in her book. Don’t just read these and skim along. Even just responding with a sentence or two could lead to an interesting idea.

Start your backstory

Once you’ve started putting your backstory together, the next step is to share it. You can do this through writing (at Medium or your own blog, wherever you’re most comfortable), or through asking people to join their podcast, or through YouTube, or whichever format you’re most comfortable with.

You don’t need to think too far beyond one of your heroes—or even one of your favorite fictional TV shows—to know the power of backstory and lore. It’s the stories that keep people sticking around.
As it turns out, backstory leads to real results.

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