Adam James.

Building a StoryBrand by Donald Miller: Book Review

Building a StoryBrand by Donald Miller: Book Review

A friend recently recommended I read this book by Donald Miller.  It’s a great short read packed full of interesting and useful information.  This is a quick summary and review of the book.  I definitely recommend giving it a read if you’re interested in marketing or business.  Donald Miller is a world famous story teller.  He presents some novel ideas.  I ‘read’ it on audible.  It’s a quick book that takes a little over 4 hours to get through.  

The Book in One Line

Building a StoryBrand is about making your customer the hero of a story.

donald miller building a story brand

The Seven Main Ideas

  1. The customer is the hero, not your brand.
  2. Companies tend to sell solutions to external problems, but customers buy solutions to internal problems.
  3. Customers aren’t looking for another hero; they’re looking for a guide.
  4. Customers trust a guide who has a plan.
  5. Customers do not take action unless they are challenged to take action.
  6. Every human being is trying to avoid a tragic ending.
  7. Never assume people understand how your brand can change their lives. Tell them.

Summary of Building a StoryBrand


Every successful business understands that you need to make your customer the hero of the story, not your brand.

“Businesses that invite their customers into a heroic story grow. Businesses that don’t are forgotten.”


Chapter 1: The Key to Being Seen, Heard, and Understood

“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.”

Mike McHargue, a friend of Miller’s, says there are two critical mistakes brands make when talking about their products and services:

  1. They fail to focus on the aspects of their offer that will help people survive and thrive; and
  2. They cause their customers to burn too many calories in an effort to understand their offer.

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

“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.”


Chapter 2: The Secret Weapon That Will Grow Your Business

Nearly every story you see or hear involves the following:

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.

At no point should we be able to pause a movie and be unable to answer three questions:        

  1. 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?


There are three questions potential customers must answer if we expect them to engage with our brand:

  1. What do you offer?
  2. How will it make my life better?
  3. What do I need to do to buy it?

Chapter 3: The Simple SB7 Framework

StoryBrand Principles

  1. The customer is the hero, not your brand.
  2. Companies tend to sell solutions to external problems, but customers buy solutions to internal problems.
  3. Customers aren’t looking for another hero; they’re looking for a guide.
  4. Customers trust a guide who has a plan.
  5. Customers do not take action unless they are challenged to take action.
  6. Every human being is trying to avoid a tragic ending.
  7. Never assume people understand how your brand can change their lives. Tell them.


Chapter 4: A Character

“When we identify something our customer wants and communicate it simply, the story we are inviting them into is given definition and direction.”

“In story terms, identifying a potential desire for your customer opens what’s sometimes called a story gap. The idea is that you place a gap between a character and what they want.”

“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. When we don’t open a story gap in our customers’ mind, they have no motivation to engage us, because there is no question that demands resolution. Defining something our customer wants and featuring it in our marketing materials will open a story gap.”

“As you create a BrandScript for your overall brand, focus on one simple desire and then, as you create campaigns for each division and maybe even each product, you can identify more things your customer wants in the subplots of your overall brand.”

“Survival simply means we have the economic and social resources to eat, drink, reproduce, and fend off foes.”


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


Chapter 5: Has a Problem

“The villain is the number one device storytellers use to give conflict a clear point of focus.”

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

The villain should be:

  1. A root source;
  2. Relatable;
  3. Singular; and
  4. Real.


“What is the chief source of conflict that your products and services defeat? Talk about this villain. The more you talk about the villain, the more people will want a tool to help them defeat the villain.”

In a story, a villain initiates an external problem that causes the character to experience an internal frustration that is, quite simply, philosophically wrong.

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

“In almost every story the hero struggles with the same question: Do I have what it takes? This question can make them feel frustrated, incompetent, and confused.”

“What stories teach us is that people’s internal desire to resolve a frustration is a greater motivator than their desire to solve an external problem.”

The external problems we solve are causing frustrations in people’s lives and, just like in a story, it’s those frustrations that are motivating them to call you.

“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.”

The philosophical problem in a story is about the question why.

“A philosophical problem can best be talked about using terms like ought and shouldn’t.”

“People want to be involved in a story that is larger than themselves.”

If you want to grow your business, you need to position your 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.


Chapter 6: And Meets a Guide

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

“The day we stop losing sleep over the success of our business and start losing sleep over the success of our customers is the day our business will start growing again.”

The two things a brand must communicate to position themselves as the guide are empathy and authority.

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

“Scan your marketing material and make sure you’ve told your customers that you care.”

“Real empathy means letting customers know we see them as we see ourselves.”             

“When looking for a guide, a hero trusts somebody who knows what they’re doing. The guide doesn’t have to be perfect, but the guide needs to have serious experience helping other heroes win the day.”

There are four ways to add authority to your marketing.      

  1. Testimonials;
  2. Statistics;
  3. Awards; and
  4. Logos.


In her book Presence, Amy Cuddy says human beings value trust so highly, it’s only after trust is established that a person begins to consider getting to know us further.                

“Once we express empathy and demonstrate authority, we can position our brand as the guide our customer has been looking for.”


Chapter 7: Gives Them a Plan

StoryBrand have identified two plans you can use to encourage customers to do business with you:

  1. A process plan; and
  2. A post-purchase.


A process plan describes 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.

A post-purchase process plan is best used when a customer might have problems imagining how they would use our product after they buy it.

An agreement plan is a list of agreements you make with your customers to help them overcome their fear of doing business with you. It can also work to increase the perceived value of a service you promise to provide.

“The best way to arrive at an agreement plan is to list all the things your customer might be concerned about as it relates to your product or service and then counter that list with agreements that will alleviate their fears.”

“Once you create your process or agreement plan (or both), consider giving them a title that will increase the perceived value of your product or service.”

“Titling your plan will frame it in the customer’s mind and increases the perceived value of all that your brand offers.”


Chapter 8: And Calls Them to Action

StoryBrand recommend two kinds of calls to action:

  1. Direct calls to action; and
  2. Transitional calls to action.


“A direct call to action is something that leads to a sale, or at least is the first step down a path that leads to a sale.”

“Transitional calls to action, however, contain less risk and usually offer a customer something for free. Transitional calls to action can be used to ‘on-ramp’ potential customers to an eventual purchase.”

A good transitional call to action can do three powerful things for your brand:       

  1. Stake a claim to your territory;
  2. Create reciprocity; and
  3. Position yourself as the guide.


Chapter 9: That Helps Them Avoid Failure

Prospect Theory: People are more likely to be dissatisfied with a loss than they are satisfied with a gain.

According to Daniel Kahneman, in certain situations, people are two to three times more motivated to make a change to avoid a loss than they are to achieve a gain.

To implement “fear appeal” in your marketing, you need to inform the reader that they are vulnerable to a threat. Then, you need to inform the reader know that since they’re vulnerable, they need to take action to reduce their vulnerability. Next, you need to inform them about a specific call to action that protects them from the risk. Lastly, you need to challenge people to take this specific action.

When people are either fearful or unafraid, little attitude or behaviour change results. High levels of fear are so strong that individuals block them out; low levels are too weak to produce the desired effect. Messages containing moderate amounts of fear-rousing content are most effective in producing attitudinal and/or behaviour change.

Ask yourself:

  • What negative consequences are you helping customers avoid?
  • Could customers lose money?
  • Are there health risks if they avoid your services?
  • What about opportunity costs?
  • Could they make or save more money with you than they can with a competitor?
  • Could their quality of life decline if they pass you by?
  • What’s the cost of not doing business with you?


According to Miller,

You’ll only need a few terrible, dastardly, awful things to warn your customers about to get the point across. Too much and your customers will resist you, too little and they won’t know why your products even matter. Once we’ve defined the stakes, your customers will be motivated to resist failure. Next, dramatically increase their motivation by helping them imagine what life can look like when they buy your products or services. After they see what you offer and how it can make their lives better, you’ll have included stakes in the narrative and customer engagement will grow.


Chapter 10: And Ends in a Success

Years ago, a friend gave Miller the best leadership advice he’s ever received. “Don,” he said, “always remember, people want to be taken somewhere.”

By foreshadowing a potential successful ending to a story, or, as Stew Friedman at the Wharton School puts it, defining a “compelling image of an achievable future,” leaders captivate the imaginations of their audiences.

“We must tell our customers what their lives will look like after they buy our products, or they will have no motivation to do so.”

“Brainstorm what your customer’s life will look like externally if their problem is resolved, then think about how that resolution will make them feel, then consider why the resolution to their problem has made the world a more just place to live in.”

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; and   
  3. Experience some kind of self-realisation that also makes them whole.


“Human beings are looking for resolutions to their external, internal, and philosophical problems, and they can achieve this through, among other things, status, self-realisation, self-acceptance, and transcendence. If our products can help people achieve these things, we should make this a core aspect of our brand promise.”


Chapter 11: People Want Your Brand to Participate in Their Transformation

“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:

  1. Who does our customer want to become?
  2. What kind of person do they want to be?
  3. 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.”

“A hero needs somebody else to step into the story to tell them they’re different, they’re better. That somebody is the guide. That somebody is you.”


Chapter 12: Building a Better Website

Your website should including:

  1. An offer above the fold;
  2. Obvious calls to action;
  3. Images of Success;
  4. A Bite-Sized Breakdown of Your Revenue Streams; and  
  5. Very Few Words.


Chapter 13: Using Storybrand to Transform Company Culture

A mission statement is not enough to turn a mission into a story.

“A thoughtmosphere is an invisible mixture of beliefs and ideas that drives employee behaviour and performance.”          

“A thoughtmosphere improves when a StoryBrand-inspired narrative is created, talking points are devised, and a plan of execution is put in place to reinforce those talking points so every stakeholder understands their important role.”             

“If an executive can’t explain the story, team members will never know where or why they fit.”

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I'm a musician, a podcaster, a blogger & I work in marketing. I live in Australia and have two dogs named Ned & Sasha.


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