When A Story Is Not A Story

by Becky Blanton on December 4, 2010

“Tell a story,” is the new marketing mantra. It’s a sure fire, guaranteed way to get your customers to listen, become entranced and then buy your product – right? Wrong.  Look around. Stories are everywhere. Millions of books, thousands of television shows, millions of blogs, billions of websites, ebooks, reports, white papers. Stories are everywhere. So why are so many unread? They’re unread for many reasons. Many are boring. Many are poorly told. Most ramble pointlessly or they’re self-promoting. The writer focuses more on selling something, rather than on solving something.

Great stories are like great jokes. We’ve all heard and told jokes that got laughs and jokes that got only blank stares. What makes the difference? Delivery, timing, context and commonality – how much does our audience relate to the topic. Stories are pretty much the same – all about timing, delivery and context.

A good story can overcome average or even poor writing. But even the best writing can’t salvage a poor story.  Combine a great story with great writing and you have a story that’s more likely to go viral. One of the things marketers, business and sales people fail to understand is exactly what makes a great story. Great stories aren’t just a recitation of a sequence of events. They involve suspense, tension, challenge, failure, success, risk, threat, and overcoming great odds. Great stories show how the unsalvageable can be salvaged, the hopeless triumph, the mediocre excel and the loser wins. Great stories touch that fear of failure in us all – giving us hope that magic and possibilities are real.

Don’t worry. You don’t have to recreate Harry Potter, or “It’s a Wonderful Life,” or any of the classic stories we all know. You only have to do two things to create a great story – (1) your audience can apply the story to their own lives and (2) make it personal.

Let’s start with (1) Your audience can apply the story to their own lives.

Whether you’re selling something or simply trying to convince an audience to see things your way (politicians, environmental movements, religions) your audience must be able to see themselves in the story. Real estate agents know this – which is why they “stage” a home in such a way that potential buyers are able to visualize themselves in the various rooms.

College recruiters often greet a potential recruit with a team jersey with the recruit’s name on it and encourage them to wear it during their visit to the campus. It helps the recruit experience and visualize themselves as a part of the college.  Ads that sell best portray realistic images of the people who would be using the product. Your story, whatever it is, must be told in a way that your audience identifies with, is comfortable with, and believes. Even Hollywood’s most popular sitcoms have failed the minute they pursued story lines the audience couldn’t identify with, or see themselves being part of.

(2) It’s personal. Give your characters a name, an identity, a personality, a challenge or problem they solve. If you can’t explicitly state all these traits, then use cultural icons to tap into an identity your audience does understand. Perhaps the greatest example of tapping into a cultural or Marlboro cigarettes for instance weren’t always identified with cowboys. In the Victorian era (1850-1900) through the first half of the 1900’s (to 1950) Marlboro’s were advertised as a women’s cigarette, with tag lines that aimed to appeal to female smokers, such as “Marlboro – Mild As May.” It wasn’t until 1955 Marlboro came out with the “Marlboro Man” concept. Cowboys were only one of the original Marlboro characters. Lifeguards, sailors, drill sergeants, construction workers, gamblers and other types suggestive of a masculine spirit and rugged independence also populated Marlboro ads.

In 1963 Marlboro’s campaign focused on the cowboy. The icons of the cowboy and all they represented – boots, hats, horses, and western landscapes became identified with the cigarette.

By the mid-1980s, Marlboro was the best-selling brand in the United States and the world, and the Marlboro cowboy was among the most widely recognized of American cultural symbols. According to Philip Morris, manufacturers of the cigarette, Marlboro has been sold in over 180 nations, and both the cigarettes and the ad campaign have become a global phenomena. Marlboro cigarettes are the number one selling cigarette in over 40 separate countries around the world. The advertising team at Philip Morris, makers of Marlboro, recognized the power of making their product personal in a way few companies ever do.

Nike, Harley-Davidson, Apple, and Kodak – the brands that consumers become passionate about tell great stories. Do you?

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Becky Blanton is a journalist, author and ghostwriter. She spoke at TED Global 2009 at Oxford University about her experience of being one of the working homeless for more than a year in 2006. She currently writes for Change.org and several national magazines about a variety of issues and features.

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