If you want your company to draw in customers, attract and motivate talented employees, and raise capital it helps if you can tell a great story. A great story is viral -- meaning people who hear it can't resist the urge to share it with everyone they know. 

The key to a great story is igniting collective passions. That's what I take away from Yale economist (and Nobel Prize winner) Robert Shiller's book, Narrative Economics. According to CNBC, Shilling believes that some stories -- such as Bitcoin -- go viral because they combine many powerful narratives into one -- what Shiller calls a "super narrative." 

The viral power comes from the way such stories trigger what Nobel Prize winner, Daniel Kahneman, calls System 1 -- the part of the mind that makes choices instinctively -- which I think of as your lizard brain. Bitcoin does that by combining "narratives around anarchy, the desire for economic freedom, the fear of economic inequality, the feeling of helplessness, and technological advancement," according to CNBC.

But before I dive into ways to tell viral stories, remember this important warning: if your viral story slips the bounds of truth and reality, you will pay a high price for your lapse. That said, to help your business through viral stories, do three things:

1. Find Narratives That Trigger the Lizard Brain

The first step in creating a compelling narrative is to make sure your company is solving a problem that people find painful.

My 180 CEO interviews for Hungry Startup Strategy revealed that great company ideas come from the pain suffered by founders. That pain spurs a search for a product to relieve their pain that yields nothing. So they start a company to solve the problem.

Tell potential customers that story and they will often share your pain -- triggering an emotional connection with them. For example, this week, students in my entrepreneurship class pitched a business to help students buy used textbooks from their classmates.

Since students often have little money and resent paying over $100 for a book they will only need for a few weeks, everyone in the class were viscerally attracted to their idea. Odds are good listeners will repeat the story. 

2. Tell A Socially-Responsible Viral Story

The great emotional power of such narratives makes it crucially important that you have a strong moral compass before telling them.

A good example is the story of Theranos whose story hinged on the revulsion that many feel for having their blood drawn for medical tests via needle. Elizabeth Holmes, Theranos's founder, told potential investors and partners that she hated such blood draws and started the company to make sure nobody would have to go through that again.

Her vision of using a single drop of blood to conduct over 200 tests was viscerally appealing to investors who parted with some $900 million for a stake in Theranos. To keep the money flowing in, Holmes created a fake blood testing process. Theranos is bankrupt and Holmes goes to trial next year for fraud.

Theranos highlights the dark side to viral story telling. According to Babson College professor Scott Taylor -- a leadership expert who has coached executives at Coca-Cola and the Smucker Company -- "cult leaders have been [using such morally unhinged viral stories] for decades." 

Fortunately, there is a remedy. Taylor believes that positive viral stories come from leaders who are grounded in "emotional and social intelligence and concepts of responsible leadership and character." Avoid viral stories that stray from these concepts.

3. Practice Your Story, Get Feedback, and Keep Improving It

Once you've found your socially responsible, viral narrative, keep practicing it until it's both emotionally compelling and easy for others to remember and share with others.

One such narrative is the story of Beyond Meat. As Inc, reported,10 years ago, Ethan Brown, founded the company because he wanted to do something about climate change. He believed that replacing meat in peoples' diets would make more of a difference than alternative energy. Though others thought he was crazy -- he convinced Kleiner Perkins to invest and Whole Foods to carry Beyond Meat's product. Now it's a public company worth over $7 billion.

Such a story is an example of Shiller's super-narrative -- combining fear of climate change and a heroic struggle against conventional wisdom and business challenges to make a meaningful difference and getting rich. 

Brown's story is simple and memorable and I am guessing that he has told it many times to investors, partners, potential employees, and many others.

While you may not become as successful as Brown, you can get closer by following these three steps to tell viral stories that propel your business.

Published on: Oct 21, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.