Professional Development: Building a StoryBrand

Whether you are making an elevator pitch, building a website, sending an email blast to clients, writing your bio for a newsletter, or making a presentation—you are selling your brand.storybrand

But in the era of information overload, the average adult is exposed to thousands of marketing messages each day. How do you get your brand to stand out? According to author and podcast host Donald Miller, smart leaders use the power of story to engage audiences and grow their business. Story is a formula which filters out unnecessary information and increases clarity, which attracts customers.

In Building a StoryBrand, Miller outlines seven elements of storytelling that can be used to create a powerful message that will be heard by potential customers/clients.


1. A Character

In every story, there is a character who is the hero or protagonist (think Luke Skywalker in Star Wars). In business, your customer or client is the hero. Your brand is not the hero.

2. A Problem

Every story has a villain. In business, the villain is the problem your client faces. Identify the problem you are helping the client solve, and position your brand as a weapon to defeat the problem.

There are three levels of problems that people experience: external, internal, and philosophical problems.

External Problems
Examples of external problems a client may face include: taxes, debt, criminal charges, divorce, discrimination, injury, business formation, or navigating the legal system.

Internal Problems
An internal problem is the frustration or disruption caused by the external problem. Examples of internal problems include anxiety, confusion, self-doubt, embarrassment, fear, or sorrow.

Most brands try to sell solutions to external problems. But people are more motivated to buy solutions to their internal problems. Therefore, a smart brand will address potential clients’ internal problems in their marketing. Miller points to several brands that have succeeded by selling a solution to an internal problem:

Mercedes sells cars.
External problem: need a car
Internal problem: want perceived status, desire to belong to an elite group

CarMax sells used cars.
External problem: need an inexpensive car
Internal problem: want to avoid negotiating with a used car salespersonApple sells computers.External problem: complicated computer interfaces Internal problem: feeling intimated by computersStarbucks sells coffee.External problem: need for caffeineInternal problem: want comfort, seek sophistication, desire connection• Philosophical Problems

Perhaps your brand can invite a client into a story that is bigger than themselves, a narrative with a deeper sense of meaning. These narratives may include good versus evil, generosity versus greed, or equality versus inequality.

The author cites some brands that have used their product or service to address a philosophical problem:

TOMS sells shoes. TOMS gives one-third of its profit to grassroots causes to help underserved communities.
External problem: need shoes
Internal problem: want to look stylish
Philosophical problem: everyone deserves a chance at a better life

Tesla sells electric cars.
External problem: need a car
Internal problem: conventional cars are gas guzzlers
Philosophical problem: buying a car should not contribute to pollution


In a story, a guide or mentor appears to provide something (usually a service or wisdom) that the hero needs in order to survive and thrive. A guide helps the hero get what he/she wants. For example, in Star Wars, Luke Skywalker is the hero and Yoda is the guide. In business, your client is the hero and your brand is the guide who helps your client get what they want. To be effective, a guide must show empathy and authority.

• Empathy
Empathy shows that you understand the client’s pain or frustration. Empathy creates trust.
Examples of statements that express empathy:
“We understand how it feels to …”
“Like you, we are frustrated by …”
“No one should have to …”
“Everyone deserves …”

• Authority
Authority indicates competence and experience, and gains a client’s respect. Some ways to demonstrate authority include testimonials by satisfied clients, statistics that show how your firm has impacted clients, awards you received, and logos of organizations that you have advised or helped succeed.


A plan is like a bridge or path the client must follow in order to succeed. Miller uses an analogy of rocks to cross a creek. The brand must clearly place the rocks where it wants the client to proceed in order to get across the creek safely. Outline the steps the client needs to take in order to do business with you. This often starts with scheduling a consultation.


Inviting the client to take a step is a “call to action.” A call to action is where the client goes from merely seeing your brand to engaging with your brand.

The “Buy now” button is a direct call to action. Other examples are “Schedule a consultation,” “Learn more,” “Call today,” or “Register now.” In addition to a direct call to action, a brand can use a transitional call to action, which furthers the relationship with a client who is not ready to buy or schedule. Transitional calls to action usually offer something for free such as a downloadable PDF, a webinar, or a sample product.


Show the client what is at stake—what they stand to gain by doing business with you, or what they stand to lose by not doing business with you. For example, Whole Foods helps customers avoid unhealthy food. Walmart helps customers avoid high prices. Allstate helps clients manage mayhem. Identify what is at stake and what consequences you help a client achieve or avoid.


Miller says the biggest motivation for making a purchase is the desire to become someone different. People engage a brand to be part of their transformation. For example, a person may want to become financially secure, better equipped for a task, more competent, generous, healthier, wiser, or more popular. A brand should identify what the client wants to become or what kind of person they want to be. In other words, how does the client want to be perceived by or described by others? This is their “aspirational identity.” Identify your client’s aspirational identity and associate your brand, product, or service with that identity.


According to Miller, implementing the seven elements of story into your marketing materials will clarify your message, attract potential clients, and help grow your business. To learn more, visit

By Lisa Buck

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Ms. Buck practiced corporate law in Minneapolis and was an adjunct professor at William Mitchell College of Law. When she isn’t writing for the Hennepin Lawyer, you can find her behind the lens at Lisa Buck Photography.