What I Learned From Reading Building a Story Brand by Donald Miller

Make the Story Clear: The Customer is the Hero, Your Business is the Guide

Donald Miller’s Building a Story Brand teaches businesses, no matter the size, how to grow by making your message more clear, and to use stories to position your customer as the hero.

If your business growth is stagnant, or not positioned as well as you would like. If you want to cultivate a cult following of brand evangelists, take heed.

“If you confuse, you lose.” 

Miller, through years of practice and study, has put together a beautiful 7-Step framework that will help you use stories to connect with customers.

But first, understand this:

Customers don’t care about your story. They only care about their own story.

Stop boring, confusing, and repelling potential customers.

Instead, tell them right from the get …

  1. What you offer.
  2. How it will make their life better.
  3. What they need to do to buy it.

Focus on how your product and services will help them “survive and thrive.”

The starting point is clarity. Take your website for example. Most business websites try to blast everything they do on the home page. Too much. Prospects don’t have time to sort through reams of information to figure out if what you offer can help them.

The jumbled mess may make sense to you because you marinated in your business details for years. But, you have to assume the visitor has never heard of your brand or your products. You have five seconds to engage them.

Do this by showing how you can fix their problem, alleviate their pain, and make their lives better.

Make it simple, relevant, and repeatable.

Easier said than done. You have 100s of SKU’s. You serve dozens of markets. It doesn’t matter. You can’t slap that on the home page and hope your visitor sorts through it. You have to distill it down to an elevator speech that focuses on your best product for your most lucrative audience.

You can get into the details later.

Miller suggests putting together an elevator pitch for your entire business. Answer the question: “What do you do” with a one-liner. “A single statement that helps people realize why they need your products or services.”

Miller compares this one-liner to a logline in Hollywood, which is a one-sentence pitch for the movie that includes four components:

  1. The Character
  2. The Problem
  3. The Plan
  4. The Success

Craft this one-liner with these questions in mind:

  • Who is your customer?
  • What is their problem?
  • What is your plan to help them?
  • What does their life look like after you help them?

Working on this exercise will move you toward clarity for your customers, prospects, and your staff. And, it doesn’t need to be set in stone. Refine it over time.

Storytelling For the Win: The SB7 Framework

You refined your message about your business. Now, it’s time to tell stories. Business storytelling is all the rage. Miller stands apart in his ability to put storytelling into a business growing framework.

It’s quite brilliant. He runs workshops to help you craft them. Or you can start by going through his free BrandScript worksheets.

Before we dive into the framework, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. What does the hero (your customer) 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?

I know. I know. These questions sound a lot like the questions you asked while you built your one-liner. There’s a reason. You should always be thinking about this stuff. Infuse the answers into everything your business does.

Miller, a published fiction author, says every story you see or hear boils down to this:

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.”

SB7 Framework

Let’s go deeper into each principle of the StoryBrand framework.

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

A hero always wants something. That’s the primary piece of the story arc. Define what that customer desires. It should be a single focus and be relevant to their survival. 

These basic survival instincts include:

  • Conserving financial resources
  • Conserving time
  • Building social networks
  • Gaining status
  • Accumulating resources
  • The innate desire to be generous
  • The desire for meaning

Defining a desire creates a story gap needing resolution. They need to see how the story ends. Will they succeed. You’re hitting primal, psychological elements when you look at these basic human needs. Guess what? It’s compelling for a person considering doing business with you. It engages them with your brand.

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

When you nail the actual problems customers are facing, they recognize your company as a “brand that understands them.”

This is huge. You’re speaking their language. The guard drops, and you plant a seed of trust. 

In stories, the hero encounters three levels of problems: external, internal, and philosophical. Companies generally focus on the external, but you develop a stronger connection when you connect with internal problems.

To figure out the problems ask yourself what frustrations do our products resolve?

Internal problems manifest as external problems. Problems are the villains of the story.  Once the villain arrives the story starts to cook. A good villain has these four characteristics according to Miller:

  1. The villain should be a root source. Not frustration. Rather what causes the frustration.
  2. The villain should be relatable. Immediately recognized as something worth disdain.
  3. The villain should be singular. One villain is enough. Don’t be confusing.
  4. The villain should be real. Don’t be a fear monger. Don’t make up a villain. There are plenty of real villains to go around.

If you want to get deep, think about philosophical problems. Or the why question. “Why does this story matter in the overall epic of humanity.” Discuss the philosophical problems using words like “ought” and “shouldn’t.”

Ask yourself “what’s the deeper meaning.” People want to participate in stories bigger than themselves. If your product can give customers a deeper sense of meaning you win. 

This might sound a little too grand for some businesses, but it’s not. Here are a few examples from the book:

Pet-store owner: “Pets deserve to eat healthy food too.”

Consulting form: “Everybody deserves to work for a great manager.”

Travel agent: “Because this summer should be remembered forever.”

Putting it all together here’s what this breakdown of problems would look like for Nespresso Home Coffee Machines, according to Miller:

Villain: Coffee machines that make bad coffee.External: I want better-tasting coffee at home.Internal: I want my home coffee machine to make me feel sophisticated.Philosophical: I shouldn’t have to be a barista to make a gourmet coffee at home.

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

This is a key insight. A lot of companies think customers are looking for heroes to save them, so they position themselves as such. As a result marketing collateral features long-winded copy all about the company. Instead, position yourself as the guide. Guides have the most authority. They are the subject matter expert. But, they’re not the focus of the story. 

The guide encourages the hero to enter into the journey and gives them the tools to succeed along the way. Think Yoda with Luke Skywalker. 

Guides help the hero discover they have what it takes.

Answer this question for the customer: “How are you helping me win the day?”

To convince customers that your company is the only choice to be the guide use a combination of empathy and authority:

Empathy: Communicate clearly “We understand how it feels to ….”

Demonstrating competence establishes authority. The four best ways to do this …

  1. Testimonials – customers expressing why doing business with you is satisfying.
  2. Statistics – how many happy customers served.
  3. Awards – outstanding performance in your field.
  4. Logos – businesses you have served.

Principle Four: Customers trust a guide who has a plan.

Great. You’re empathetic and authoritative, but if you don’t have a plan for your customer, they’re going to bail. Offer a path of hope and create clarity with next steps.

Miller recommends two plans: the process plan to alleviate confusion and the agreement plan to alleviate fears. 

Process plans are clear step-by-step instructions for how to do business with you.

Agreement plans are “a list of agreements you make with your customers to help them overcome their fear of doing business with you.”

For best results, name the plan. 

Process plan example: easy installation plan.

Agreement plan example: customer satisfaction agreement.

Principle Five: Customers do not take action unless they are challenged to take action.

Add two types of calls to action to your website: direct calls to action and transitional calls to action.

Direct calls to action are buy now buttons. Miller suggests making them a different color than all other buttons and elements on a web page, so it stands out. And recommends adding it to the top right of every page on your site. 

He says add buy now buttons to the middle of your home page as well. Make it clear you are proud of this offer, and you want the visitor to click.

Transitional calls to action are like asking the visitor on a date. Give them a free resource in exchange for an email, so you can demonstrate your expertise by sending them helpful tips to address their problem. When they’re ready, they’ll hit the buy button.

Miller says a good transitional call to action will do three things for you:

  • Stake a claim to your territory. set up camp in their mind when they are thinking about the issues your business addresses.
  • Create reciprocity. The more you give, the more you’re likely to receive in return.
  • Position yourself as the guide. When they’re ready to go on the journey, you’re the one they’ll call to be their guide.

Transitional calls to action offers include free information, testimonials, samples, and free trials.

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

“Throughout a story, storytellers foreshadow a potential successful ending and a potential tragic ending.” 

This keeps the narrative fraught with tension and the viewer engaged. 

Help your hero escape something bad or experience something good.

Daniel Kahneman published a behavioral economics study about loss aversion that demonstrated people are “two to three times more motivated to make a change to avoid a loss than they are to achieve gain.”

Fear is the best motivation. But don’t overuse it. Miller says to use it sparingly like salt. 

Figure out what you are helping your customers avoid. Here are examples from a car dealer (and StoryBrand client):

  • Getting ripped off by a used-car salesman
  • Being stuck with a lemon
  • Feeling taken advantage of

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

One of the key takeaways from this book is never assume anything. People don’t care about you or your brand. They’re not reading your copy. And, you need to spell out the next steps for working you as clearly and simply as possible. 

Tell your customer what life is going to look like once they buy and use your products and services. Be specific. 

President John F. Kennedy didn’t say: “we’re going to have a highly competitive and productive space program.” He said, “we’re going to put a man on the moon.”

Very clear and specific.

Miller suggests using a tool built by Ryan Deiss at DigitalMarketer to visualize the before and after state of your customer.

Before Your Brand

After Your Brand

What do they have?


What are they feeling?

Cell Cell

What’s an average day like?

Cell Cell

What is their status?

Cell Cell

Here are Miller’s ideas for what your customer/hero can attain in the after state:

Power or position.

  1. Offer access
  2. Create scarcity
  3. Offer a premium
  4. Offer identity association

Unified with somebody or something that makes them whole.

  1. Reduced anxiety
  2. Reduced workload
  3. More time

Experience some kind of self-realization that also makes them whole.

  1. Inspiration
  2. Acceptance
  3. Transcendence

If your company can offer a promise related to one of these powerful desires the message will connect.

Bottom Line: You Should Read the Book

I don’t want to give away the whole book. Miller gets into more detail on what to do once you build your StoryBrand:

  • Participate in the customer transformation.
  • Implement your StoryBrand BrandScript into your marketing materials (he gives great suggestions for your website).
  • Transform a large organization with a StoryBrand (i.e. when a mission comes to life).


I gave Building a Story Brand five stars. It’s excellent. I will refer to it often. I’m going to use the free exercises at MyStoryBrand.com to clarify my goal for this website. 

It’s exciting. Not every book inspires me to action. Once I’m done with the process I’ll be clear on my direction and purpose, making me 100x more effective. 

Miller makes so much sense. He eats his own dog food. You can feel it. He elbowed his way into my world. I’m happy he’s my guide, helping me become the hero in my story. 

I started with his free material, including the 5 Things Your Website Should Include download, and the three-part video series: 5 Minute Marketing Makeover.

Then, I read the book. Soon, you may see me at a workshop

“When a brand commits itself to their customers’ journey, to helping resolve their external, internal, and philosophical problems, and then inspires them with an aspirational identity, they do more than sell products—they change lives.” – Donald Miller

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