Tell unforgettable stories
The magical marriage of “once upon a time” and “how can I help you?”
When my son, Luke, was young I told him bedtime stories about two ill-fated best friends named Georgie and Meekly.
Meekly, a sweet orphaned dragon, had been pulled from his mother’s womb by the tongue, spoke with a lisp, and could only blow fire when he sneezed. Georgie was the seven-year-old son of England’s most notorious dragon slayer, Sir George. The circumstances of their 13th century births forced them to face trials that were mysteriously similar to those faced by Luke at the turn of the 21st century.
Knowing I was too old and irrelevant for my son to believe I’d ever know what it’s like to face a schoolyard bully or argue with a best friend, I offered advice through characters who struggled to understand the world, but who always managed to do the right thing. It didn’t dawn on Luke until much later that he was Georgie, and Meekly was a metaphor for his struggles. To him, my stories weren’t lectures or advice. They were bedtime entertainment that happened to arrive at the most helpful times possible.
“How do I tell great stories?”
That’s the question I’m asked most often by clients and conference attendees. I struggled with the answer until I spoke with my friend and National Book Award winner, Colum McCann. Here’s his take:
“The only thing more interesting to me than my story is my story told by someone else.”
As background, Colum is founder of a nonprofit named Narrative 4. N4 brings together kids from diverse — and often “opposing” — backgrounds so that they can learn each other’s stories. Think inner-city and suburban teens, or Palestinians and Israelis. N4’s philosophy is that if I can learn your story well enough to tell it to an audience, I will have developed “radical empathy” for your situation, and with that empathy, compassion and a willingness to act on your behalf.
“Radical empathy” is a powerful concept that all marketers who desire to be storytellers ought to embrace. You have to know your customers to the point where you can empathize with them and feel compassion for their struggles, or cheer for their aspirations. More than that, you have to own the responsibility to help them.
It’s sort of like combining, “Once upon a time” and “How can I help you?”
Ask the storyteller’s question
Rather than ask, “How do I tell great stories,” try expanding your question the way a storyteller might, so that it reflects the empathy you feel for your audience, and your desire to help:
“How do I tell great stories about courage to a 9-year-old boy who is nonviolent and deathly worried about moving up to a hockey league where checking is allowed?”
“How do I tell great stories about fashion and beauty to an insecure and frightened rising high school freshman whose friends all seem to have more money and less acne than she does?”
“How do I tell great stories that will educate an IT manager who has been told to evaluate cloud computing providers but who has absolutely no idea where to start?”
Stories don’t have to be about tragedy. Our rising high school freshman question could just as easily be, “How do I tell great stories to a confident rising high school freshman whose friends perceive her as a fashionista and who plans to solidify that reputation on the first day of school?”
Data alone won’t make you empathetic
Building empathy for your customers is so much more easily said than done. Often, when I ask clients for insights into the needs of their customers, I get reams of Google Analytics reports, data about sales trends, or focus group videos. Immersing yourself in data can often lead to fantastic insights about your audience. For me, though, nothing beats getting out in the world where I can see my audience in action.
Recently I was asked to develop a storytelling strategy to help a restaurant that does a great morning business fill their locations with women after 6 p.m. I ventured “out in the wild,” to interact with my audience, talk to them, and learn their stories. Soon I found myself able to frame my storyteller’s question:
“How do I tell reassuring stories to professional, married women who feel they’ve ‘earned a drink and a little bit of quiet time’ at the end of the day, and who desire to spend time with women like themselves without getting hit upon by men?”
Once I had a better understanding about what she needs and how I could help her, I began to formulate “hero” stories about her that began with the magical words, “Once upon a time there was a woman…”
“Once upon a time there was a woman who dreaded going home after a hectic day at the office. She longed for a place where she could decompress for a few minutes and separate the pandemonium that was home from the stress of her office.”
There were other potential stories, and all reflected what I had heard while talking to our audience.
There’s no time for research
That’s another one I hear all the time.
About a week ago I spoke with Luke. Over the course of an hour, he recounted to me his five favorite Georgie and Meekly stories. I remembered none of them, but all were vivid memories to him. That’s the power of storytelling. When you take the time to develop so much empathy for your audience that you know their struggles, and you are able to tell their stories rather than your story, they will never forget you.
What do you have on your calendar that is more important than making yourself unforgettable to your audience?
I suggest the answer to that is “nothing.”