Why telling your story is a bit like selling a used car

He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.
(George Bernard Shaw)

Part 1; Ramblings.

Have you ever had the Stairway To Heaven debate with your friends? you know the one;

Is it harder to write a genius piece of music, or learn and teach that same piece to others?

It’s a tricky one; one is about natural ability and creativity, the other technical skill and patience.

And, fifteen years after first being asked it myself, I’m still on the fence.

So, why is this important?

Well, I have a way with words. It’s not the right way. It’s not an academic or altogether correct way. But it’s a way. And it seems to work for me. I generally think in type and I translate things in a way only my pen and I know how; in words.

Tick. This is good news for someone who writes (a bit) for a living.

The bad news is that I can’t teach.

I can’t find a way to show others how to do what comes most natural to me. I’ve tried. I’ve tried and I’ve failed, repeatedly.

And then, a few nights ago, I was leaving the office slightly deflated (after yet another bout of failure to pass on the slither of wisdom in my bones). And then I had a thought; telling a story is a bit like selling a used car.


I went with it. I thought ‘this could work’. And on my walk to the station, while on the train and on the last legs of my journey home, I started jotting down ideas. A draft. And in the spirit of overcoming my fear of posting (I’ve spoken about fear before); this is it.

Part 2; The bit about used cars.

To sell a used car, just like to tell a compelling story, you need a formula. You need to find the point where magic and data collide. Find the point where sparks fly. And when you’re done, hand it back to the buyer and leave them to gather the pieces.

You see;

  1. You wont sell a used car with just great memories.

We all humanise our cars. We give them names. We refer to them as he, or she, or Olive or Pablo. We sing with them on our way to work. We feed them. We bathe them. We share pictures of them on Instagram. And why not? They’re the route to our adventures. Christ, some of us spend more time in our cars than we do with our kids. And so we look after them, we cherish them, like we would an elderly relative or a family pet.

So when it comes to selling this car; it’s tough.

We want the buyer to not only want the car (and match our price), but we want this to feel like an emotional transaction too. A passing of the torch. So we sell more than just a car; we’re selling the memories that go with it.

And so as the buyer, of course I want to know that this car is capable of adventure. I want to feel like I’m buying something special. Nobody wants to spend their hard-earned cash on ordinary, do they? I want the magic.

So when we write and tell stories, we need to find the magic; no matter how small. Hold it tight. Don’t let it go.

But the magic isn’t enough.

2. Data points are important too — they’re boring (but important).

Mileage, MOT history, insurance costs, previous accidents (as well as checking that the steering wheel isn’t stuck on with pritt stick). It’s all important when buying a used car. It’s boring, of course it is. And I don’t want boring. I want the magic.

But no one buys a car that has the magic but not the working brakes.

Remember this.

So, errrrrrmm, how does this relate to storytelling again?

Well, it’s all about balance.

Part 3; Balance.

So how do you take two extremes, the precious moments and the mundane data points, and use them to sell the dream to someone else?

We do this with balance.

We isolate what needs to be told and what deserves to be told. Both positive and negative.

What needs to be told? Details; the GPS; the data points. 
Because when you’re telling a story, it’s the small, ordinary things that lay the foundations for magic to happen. It helps the reader to build a trustworthy, well-informed picture of what lies ahead. And it’s key to building trust with your reader.

It’s these crucial, but boring, details that separate stories from myths. It gives you a time, a place, a name, a face. And all great stories give you this.

Look at Fargo. Why is Fargo such a great story? Because it took place in a sleepy, snowy town in the middle of nowhere. If that had happened in L.A. or New York, you’d shrug it off as an everyday occurance. The scene was set early in Fargo — and the magic is amplified — because it happened in such a normal location. The details told us this. It lay the foundations for fireworks.

And so when you sell a used car, details and the boring parts are important too. Like I said earlier, no one buys a car that has the magic but not the working brakes.

And so now we tell what deserves to be told
The magic. The excitment. The spark. The how. The memories.

These are the things that deserve to be told; and on a foundation of data and details, the magic now has its stage. Choose wisely, and the balance will do the work for you.

Because, in truth, it’s the journey we all want.

It’s why we still watch box sets, even when our friends or families have let slip what happens in the end. It’s why we re-watch the same films or TV shows over and over. It’s why we make our partners watch the shows that were once magic for us — even if they never get it — because we want to share the magic. And what happens when that magic fades? The details remain. The steady, ever-present heartbeat to our stories.

Because the details, as we all know, are never just the details.

So, telling your story is a bit like selling a used car. You need a formula. You need to find the point where magic and data meet. You need to let them collide. And when they do — get out of there, fast.