“Try helping people be themselves”

How to find a topic and create inspiring stories for your brand’s adjacent possible

A brand is a selfish thing.

It was founded as an idea about itself, it sells products talking about itself, and it hosts lavish conferences to tell you about its products and, thus, itself.

Brands, in this way, are Malkovich.

So is it any wonder that, when a brand needs attention, it has a hard time talking about anything besides Malkovich, itself, a brand.

This begs the question:

“But what else can a brand talk about?”

Consider a magazine or a magazine-like object — instagrams, twitters, blogs, whatever.

These things maximize attention by leading with whatever is most interesting to the audience. A clicky headline. A striking photo. A celebrity cover.

This is an attention strategy. It’s the basic idea of the upside down triangle.

This triangle isn’t just a pleasing shape. Its vertices signify three important things. You need each of those important things to attract attention.

You need an audience.

You need a topic.

And you need a point of view.

The audience is who you want to speak with.

The topic is an interest you and the audience have in common.

And the point of view is how you speak about the topic and to the audience.

In other words: know who you’re talking to, know what you’re talking about, and know why you’re talking.

Happily, this works for everything from magazines, to your favorite twitter accounts, to brilliant entreaties on gratuity jars.

Now like any Tom, Dick, or Euclid will tell you, you must have all three vertices to form a triangle.

If you have an audience and a point of view, but you don’t have a consistent topic of conversation, you’ll fail with respect to curation. This would be The Economist, if The Economist also covered recipes for soufflé.

If you have a topic and a point of view, but you don’t know which audience you want to speak to, you’ll fail with respect to tone. This would be Vanity Fair, if Vanity Fair were written in Latin.

And if you have a topic and an audience but no point of view, then you’ll fail with respect to being interesting. This would be a whitepaper.

Whitepaper. The word itself makes some men uncomfortable.

Anyway, the topic can not be you.

A brand wants people to desire its product, but people don’t desire products. People desire feelings that products give them.

People don’t buy cloud document storage because they care about cloud document storage; people buy cloud document storage because managing remote workers is a hassle, or because elaborate file permissions are onerous, or because maintaining servers is expensive. People want work to be easier.

People don’t buy mattresses because they care about mattresses; people buy mattresses because their back hurts, or because their spouse keeps them awake, or because they’re uncomfortable. People want to feel refreshed.

People don’t use AutoCAD software because they care about AutoCAD software; people use AutoCAD software because they want to design a LEED-certified building, or reimagine an elevated railway as a walking park, or develop a perfectly dimpled golf ball. People want to create.

These desires are your topic.

Your customers are searching for a feeling. You make a product that helps them towards that feeling. That means you know what ideas are relevant to your customers.

If you sell cloud document storage to people who want work to be easier, then those people will probably enjoy inspiring stories about how productive people and companies get things done.

If you sell mattresses to people who want to feel refreshed, then those people will probably be interested in stories about the science of shut-eye and how other people get to sleep.

And if you make AutoCAD software for people who want to create, you can bet those people will be inspired by stories about creators and the future of design.

These topics are not about your product. These topics are about your product’s adjacent possible.

The adjacent possible is the set of opportunities at the boundaries of our reach.

The east coast of North America was once the adjacent possible to Europe. The carracks and caravels that took adventurers across the Atlantic were useful, but adventurers did not aspire to travel the Atlantic aboard those ships. Adventurers aspired to the idea of America.

Trigonometry was once the adjacent possible of astronomy. The astrolabes that Arabic astronomers used to find the position of stars were useful, but Arabic astronomers did not aspire to use an astrolabe. Arabic astronomers aspired to measure the functions of angles and the movements of the universe.

We are always striving for the next thing, even if we don’t know exactly what that thing looks like.

Stories help us understand that thing.

Within a story, people see their own thoughts and feelings reflected back at them through the experiences of others.

Stories, in this way, help people to be themselves, or learn about who they want to be.

Help people be themselves, or help them be who they want to be, and they will trust you.

Which, of course, is the foundation of every great relationship.


This post is a part of Story Stories, a totally un-calendared series that’s published every other whenever and which explores the ups, downs, and what the actual fucks of creative storytelling. Each post is based on conversations and consultations with some of the world’s largest brands and publishers with my agency, Dicks & Betties. More from the series:
  1. People care about what they already care about.”
    The importance of being relevant to your audience’s interests.
  2. You don’t get it. You are not the point.”
    The surprising reason why your brand sucks at storytelling, and what to do about it.
  3. Try helping people be themselves.”
     How to create inspiring stories for your brand’s adjacent possible.
  4. Write for your audience’s audience.”
    Creating things that help themselves get shared.
  5. “Renting attention vs. owning attention.”
    The focused power of a dedicated audience.
  6. “Fine, can you make us three white papers?”
    Why content isn’t a number-of-articles game.
  7. “But who’s doing content right?”
    Brands who seem to know what they’re doing, and what that does (and doesn’t) mean for you.
  8. “So, like, how does content help us sell stuff?”
    Why it’s difficult and ill-advised (but not impossible) to link content to sales.