Building a StoryBrand: Clarify your message so customers will listen by Donald Miller

Building a StoryBrand: Clarify your message so customers will listen by Donald Miller

Book Summary of Building a StoryBrand

A nice guide to aligning your brand with the hero's journey. I found much of it useful, but it's quite a lot to work through depending on where you are in your company's growth.

The book is divided into three sections, with the core SB7 framework–or seven elements of building a story brand—coming in the second section.

Overall, Donald Miller brings a refreshing guide in plainspoken language that makes this an easy read to clarify your message so customers will listen to what you have to say.

Part 1: Why Most marketing is a money pit

Even as a designer, I can respect the fact that Donald Miller kicks off the book with stating that pretty websites don't sell things; words sell things. He makes up for this later when describing how to build a better website in section three.

This book is about crafting your message, and the entire first section sets the stage to show us how we're typically getting in our own way. How we overcomplicate, talk too much, and don't focus on the aspects of their offer that will helps them avoid failure.

Simply; simplify your message so customers will listen.

Mistake number one

Brands fail to focus on the aspects of their offer that will help people survive and thrive.

Mistake number two

Brands waste too much time burning the attention span of our customers before getting to the actual offer itself. Our customers will burn out quickly, and they won't stick around.

Clarify your message so customers will listen.

Book quotes from Building a StoryBrand

Choose a desire relevant to their survival."
“We must tell our customers how great their life can look if they buy our products and services”
nobody will listen to you if your message isn’t clear, no matter how expensive your marketing material may be.”
“Is there a transitional call to action you can create that will grow your business? Are your direct calls to action clear and repeated often? If not, your customers likely don’t know what you want them to do. Remember, people are drawn to clarity and away from confusion.”

Book notes from Building a StoryBrand

The fact is, pretty websites don’t sell things. Words sell things. And if we haven’t clarified our message, our customers won’t listen.

The more simple and predictable the communication, the easier it is for the brain to digest.

when we ramble on and on about how we have the biggest manufacturing plant on the West Coast, our customers don’t care. Why? Because that information isn’t helping them eat, drink, find a mate, fall in love, build a tribe, experience a deeper sense of meaning, or stockpile weapons in case barbarians start coming over the hill behind our cul-de-sac.

The first mistake brands make is they fail to focus on the aspects of their offer that will help people survive and thrive.

This means that if we position our products and services as anything but an aid in helping people survive, thrive, be accepted, find love, achieve an aspirational identity, or bond with a tribe that will defend them physically and socially, good luck selling anything to anybody.

Processing information demands that the brain burn calories. And the burning of too many calories acts against the brain’s primary job: to help us survive and thrive.”

The second mistake brands make is they cause their customers to burn too many calories in an effort to understand their offer.

The key is to make your company’s message about something that helps the customer survive and to do so in such a way that they can understand it without burning too many calories.

Story formulas reveal a well-worn path in the human brain, and if we want to stay in business, we need to position our products along this path.

In a story, audiences must always know who the hero is, what the hero wants, who the hero has to defeat to get what they want, what tragic thing will happen if the hero doesn’t win, and what wonderful thing will happen if they do.

“If you confuse, you’ll lose.”

The essence of branding is to create simple, relevant messages we can repeat over and over so that we “brand” ourselves into the public consciousness.

the time Apple spent clarifying the role they play in their customers’ story is one of the primary factors responsible for their growth.

Here is nearly every story you see or hear in a nutshell: A CHARACTER who wants something encounters a PROBLEM before they can get it. At the peak of their despair, a GUIDE steps into their lives, gives them a PLAN, and CALLS THEM TO ACTION. That action helps them avoid FAILURE and ends in a SUCCESS.

What does the hero want?        

2.  Who or what is opposing the hero getting what she wants?       

3.  What will the hero’s life look like if she does (or does not) get what she wants?

1.  What do you offer?        

2.  How will it make my life better?        

3.  What do I need to do to buy it?

At StoryBrand we call this passing the grunt test. The critical question is this: “Could a caveman look at your website and immediately grunt what you offer?”



1. A Character

Nancy Duarte has done extensive research on how to create powerful presentations. The strategy she recommends to her clients is simple: when giving a speech, position yourself as Yoda and your audience as Luke Skywalker.1 It’s a small but powerful shift that honors the journey of the audience and positions us as a leader providing wisdom, products, and services our audience needs in order to thrive.

2. Has a Problem


Understanding and addressing the three levels of problems our customers face will help us create a brand promise that will connect with customers on a primitive level and at their deepest point of need. This, in turn, will help us endear customers and create passionate brand evangelists.

3. And Meets a Guide


4. Who Gives Them a Plan


5. And Calls Them to Action


6. That Helps Them Avoid Failure


Think of the StoryBrand Framework as a recipe for a loaf of bread. Failure is like salt: use too much and you’ll ruin the flavor; leave it out and the recipe will taste bland. Regardless, the point is this: your story needs stakes.

7. And Ends in a Success


StoryBrand Principle One: The customer is the hero, not your brand.

Many classical sonatas can be broken into three sections: exposition, development, and recapitulation. The final section, recapitulation, is simply an altered version of the exposition that brings a sense of resolve.

When we fail to define something our customer wants, we fail to open a story gap.

Defining something our customer wants and featuring it in our marketing materials will open a story gap

Conserving financial resources. In order to survive and thrive, your customers may need to conserve resources.

Conserving time. In developed countries, most of our customers have thankfully moved beyond the hunter-gatherer stage of survival.

Building social networks. If our brand can help us find community, we’ve tapped into yet another survival mechanism.

Accumulating resources. If the products and services you offer help people make money or accumulate much-needed resources, that will quickly translate into a person’s desire for survival.

The innate desire to be generous. None of the desires I’ve listed are evil. They can all be taken too far, but the reality is we are designed to survive. Still, we should be comforted by the fact that nearly all human beings have an enormous potential for generosity.

The desire for meaning. Viktor Frankl was right when he contended with Sigmund Freud, insinuating that the chief desire of man is not pleasure but meaning.

Not unlike giving our customers the opportunity to be generous, we invite them to participate in something greater than themselves. A movement. A cause to champion. A valiant fight against a real villain, be that villain flesh and blood or a harmful philosophy.

The goal for our branding should be that every potential customer knows exactly where we want to take them: a luxury resort where they can get some rest, to become the leader everybody loves, or to save money and live better.

StoryBrand Principle Two: Companies tend to sell solutions to external problems, but customers buy solutions to internal problems.

The villain doesn’t have to be a person, but without question it should have personified characteristics.

If we’re selling time-management software, for instance, we might vilify the idea of distractions. Could we offer our product as a weapon customers could use to stop distractions in their tracks?

Here are four characteristics that make for a good villain on your StoryBrand BrandScript:

The villain should be a root source. Frustration, for example, is not a villain; frustration is what a villain makes us feel. High taxes, rather, are a good example of a villain.

The villain should be relatable. When people hear us talk about the villain, they should immediately recognize it as something they disdain.

The villain should be singular. One villain is enough. A story with too many villains falls apart for lack of clarity.

The villain should be real. Never go down the path of being a fearmonger. There are plenty of actual villains out there to fight. Let’s go after them on behalf of our customers.

The Three Levels of Conflict

External Problems Internal Problems Philosophical Problems

Companies tend to sell solutions to external problems, but people buy solutions to internal problems.

After their near collapse, Apple didn’t find their footing until Steve Jobs understood that people felt intimidated (internal problem) by computers and wanted a simpler interface with technology. In one of the most powerful advertising campaigns in history, Apple showed a simple, hip, fun character who just wanted to take photos and listen to music and write books next to a not-so-hip tech nerd who wanted to talk about the inner workings of his operating system. The campaign positioned Apple Computers as the company to go to if you wanted to enjoy life and express yourself but felt intimidated by all the tech talk. What was the internal problem Apple identified? It was the sense of intimidation most people felt about computers. Apple started selling more than computers; they started selling a resolution to the problem of customer intimidation.

The only reason our customers buy from us is because the external problem we solve is frustrating them in some way. If we can identify that frustration, put it into words, and offer to resolve it along with the original external problem, something special happens. We bond with our customers because we’ve positioned ourselves more deeply into their narrative.

For example, if we own a house-painting business, our customer’s external problem might be an unsightly home. The internal problem, however, may involve a sense of embarrassment about having the ugliest home on the street. Knowing this, our marketing could offer “Paint That Will Make Your Neighbors Jealous.”

Framing our products as a resolution to both external and internal problems increases the perceived value (and I would argue, actual value) of those products

The Perfect Brand Promise

If we really want our business to grow, we should position our products as the resolution to an external, internal, and philosophical problem and frame the “Buy Now” button as the action a customer must take to create closure in their story.

TESLA MOTOR CARS:         Villain: Gas guzzling, inferior technology         External: I need a car.         Internal: I want to be an early adopter of new technology.         Philosophical: My choice of car ought to help save the environment.

Is there a single villain your brand stands against? And what external problem is that villain causing? How is that external problem making your customers feel? And why is it unjust for people to have to suffer at the hands of this villain? These are the four questions we want to answer in the problem section of our StoryBrand BrandScript, and when we do, the story our brand is telling will take shape because our hero, the customer who wants something, is being challenged.

StoryBrand Principle Three: Customers aren’t looking for another hero; they’re looking for a guide.

The fatal mistake some brands make, especially young brands who believe they need to prove themselves, is they position themselves as the hero in the story instead of the guide. As I’ve already mentioned, a brand that positions itself as the hero is destined to lose.

Always position your customer as the hero and your brand as the guide. Always. If you don’t, you will die.

The two things a brand must communicate to position themselves as the guide are Empathy Authority

Oprah Winfrey, an undeniably successful guide to millions, once explained the three things every human being wants most are to be seen, heard, and understood. This is the essence of empathy.

Expressing empathy isn’t difficult. Once we’ve identified our customers’ internal problems, we simply need to let them know we understand and would like to help them find a resolution.

There are four easy ways to add just the right amount of authority to our marketing.

1.  Testimonials: Let others do the talking for you.

2.  Statistics: How many satisfied customers have you helped? How much money have you helped them save? By what percentage have their businesses grown since they started working with you?

3.  Awards: If you’ve won a few awards for your work, feel free to include small logos or indications of those awards at the bottom of your page.

4.  Logos: If you provide a business-to-business product or service, place logos of known businesses you’ve worked with in your marketing collateral.

A process plan can describe the steps a customer needs to take to buy our product, or the steps the customer needs to take to use our product after they buy it, or a mixture of both.

Again, the key to the success of any plan is to alleviate confusion for our customers. What steps do they need to take to do business with you? Spell out those steps, and it’ll be as though you’ve paved a sidewalk through a field. More people will cross the field.

how many steps a process plan should have. The answer varies, of course, but we recommend at least three and no more than six.

The reason characters have to be challenged to take action is because everybody sitting in the dark theater knows human beings do not make major life decisions unless something challenges them to do so.

StoryBrand Principle Six: Every human being is trying to avoid a tragic ending.

Remember, if there are no stakes, there is no story.

Dominic Infante, Andrew Rancer, and Deanna Womack’s book Building Communication Theory, they propose a four-step process called a “fear appeal.”

First, we must make a reader (or listener) know they are vulnerable to a threat. For example:         “Nearly 30 percent of all homes have evidence of termite infestation.”

Second, we should let the reader know that since they’re vulnerable, they should take action to reduce their vulnerability.         “Since nobody wants termites, you should do something about it to protect your home.”

Third, we should let them know about a specific call to action that protects them from the risk.         “We offer a complete home treatment that will insure your house is free of termites.”

Fourth, we should challenge people to take this specific action.         “Call us today and schedule your home treatment.”3


StoryBrand Principle Seven: Never assume people understand how your brand can change their lives. Tell them.


New highlights added [[May 3rd, 2022]] at 7:26 AM

The three dominant ways storytellers end a story is by allowing the hero to        1.  Win some sort of power or position.        2.  Be unified with somebody or something that makes them whole.        3.  Experience some kind of self-realization that also makes them whole.

If our brand can participate in making our customers more esteemed, respected, and appealing in a social context, we’re offering something they want.

While I’ve been slightly philosophical in this chapter, try not to overthink it. What problem are you resolving in your customer’s life, and what does that resolution look like?


Everybody wants to change. Everybody wants to be somebody different, somebody better, or, perhaps, somebody who simply becomes more self-accepting.

Brands that participate in the identity transformation of their customers create passionate brand evangelists.


Everybody wants to change. Everybody wants to be somebody different, somebody better, or, perhaps, somebody who simply becomes more self-accepting.

Brands that participate in the identity transformation of their customers create passionate brand evangelists.

A few important questions we have to ask ourselves when we’re representing our brand are: Who does our customer want to become? What kind of person do they want to be? What is their aspirational identity?

The best way to identify an aspirational identity that our customers may be attracted to is to consider how they want their friends to talk about them.

If you offer executive coaching, your clients may want to be seen as competent, generous, and disciplined. If you sell sports equipment, your customers likely want to be perceived as active, fit, and successful in their athletic pursuits.

Once we know who our customers want to be, we will have language to use in e-mails, blog posts, and all manner of marketing material.


The main purpose these scenes serve is to mark the transformation the hero has experienced so the audience has a point of reference that contrasts the hero’s character from the story’s beginning.

Here are some examples of aspirational identities from StoryBrand alumni:

Above the fold, make sure the images and text you use meet one of the following criteria:         •  They promise an aspirational identity.

Can we help our customers become competent in something? Will they be different people after they’ve engaged us? Let’s spell it out clearly.

They promise to solve a problem.

If you can fix a problem, tell us. Can you stop my cat from clawing the furniture? My car from overheating? My hair from thinning? Say it. We didn’t go to your website to read about how many company softball games you’ve won; we came here to solve a problem.

The easiest thing we can do on our website is state exactly what we do.

There are two main places we want to place a direct call to action. The first is at the top right of our website and the second is in the center of the screen, above the fold. Your customer’s eye moves quickly in a Z pattern across your website, so if the top left is your logo and perhaps tagline, your top right is a “Buy Now” button, and the middle of the page is an offer followed by another “Buy Now” button, then you’ve likely gotten through all the noise in your customer’s mind and they know what role you can play in their story.

3. Images of Success

Many of us need to display our products, but if we can feature those products in the hands of smiling people, our images might have more power. Not everybody needs to be smiling, of course; this wouldn’t seem authentic. But in general we need to communicate a sense of health, well-being, and satisfaction with our brand.

4. A Bite-Sized Breakdown of Your Revenue Streams

This means they had to drive traffic to three different products: the life-planning product, the strat-ops product, and the facilitator certification. If this company sounds like yours, the first challenge is to find an overall umbrella message that unifies your various streams.

For our friends delivering life-planning and strat-ops facilitation, we chose the need people have for a customized plan. Above the fold on their website, we recommended the text “The Key to Success Is a Customized Plan” over an image of a facilitator mapping out a plan on a whiteboard for a satisfied client. As potential customers scrolled down the page, they would see two sections to choose from, personal life plans and corporate strategy plans. Each of these buttons led to new pages with messages filtered by two different BrandScripts. Customers were able to schedule facilitations on either page. The key to growing the business, though, was a button at the top and bottom of each and every page that said, “Become a Trained Facilitator.”

5. Very Few Words



To craft a compelling one-liner, we’ll employ a distilled version of the StoryBrand Framework. If you use the following four components, you’ll craft a powerful one-liner:        1.  The Character        2.  The Problem        3.  The Plan        4.  The Success

Your one-liner doesn’t have to be a single sentence, nor does it need to be four sentences. Think of it more as a statement. You simply want to communicate these four ideas. Who is your customer? What is their problem? What is your plan to help them, and what will their life look like after you do?


People need to be able to say “That’s me!” when they hear your one-liner.


Defining a problem triggers the thought in your customer’s mind: Yeah, I do struggle with that. Will your brand be able to help me overcome it?


When a customer reads your one-liner, the plan component should cause them to think, Well, when it’s organized that way, it makes sense. Perhaps there’s hope.


In the year we started StoryBrand, our first lead generator was a simple, downloadable document (in PDF format) called “5 Things Your Website Should Include.” It was remarkably successful. More than forty thousand people downloaded it, which allowed me to e-mail reminders about our upcoming StoryBrand Marketing Workshops.

few things are more foundational to a compelling story than the transformation of the hero.

What was the problem you were having before you discovered our product?        2.  What did the frustration feel like as you tried to solve that problem?        

3.  What was different about our product?        

4.  Take us to the moment when you realized our product was actually working to solve your problem.        

5.  Tell us what life looks like now that your problem is solved or being solved.

The point is that people are drawn to transformation. When they see transformation in others, they want it for themselves. The more we feature the transformation journey our customers have experienced, the faster our business will grow.

If the StoryBrand Framework is a foundation, the five marketing ideas that make up the StoryBrand Marketing Roadmap should serve as your opening.


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