Category Archives for "Stories For Business Use"

Covid-19: The Story Perspective

I’ve become more interested in the story surrounding Covid-19 than the disease itself. At the highest level there seem to be two competing narratives.

1. The risks surrounding Covid-19 are basically a scam, and we can now open the economy.

2. Any relaxation of lockdown conditions will lead to death in the streets – a real life zombie apocalypse.

You can see the battle lines etched into social media. You may see more of one narrative than the other – social media tends to be an echo chamber of your own opinions. But these are high stakes narratives, with powerful interests behind them.

Those who control the story write the history books.

In reality there has to be a middle way. But as all ad copywriters know, middle way policies and moderate discussion do not generate great click through rates. When click through rate is your primary objective, you need the most sensationalist headlines imaginable.

Storytelling throughout society is fractal – with one story nested inside another. At the highest level we have broad narratives about society, lifestyle, culture, disease, governance and so on. Higher level stories you can observe but can’t directly influence. Covid sits at this level.

Nested within this is the story of you, your company, your customers. At the same level are other people’s stories – not every story you ever tell has to be about you. Which to most people is a relief.

Nested within this are day to day goings on. The gritty reality of daily life. Things you’ve been up to in lockdown. Challenges you’ve faced. Everything down to what you had for breakfast this morning. (Not all stories are meant to be shared with the world!)

Each level informs the other – and you can draw on stories at any level. Writing about the high level narratives gets people’s attention because it joins a conversation already going on in their head.

More granular stories about day-to-day goings on deepen somebody’s attention, because people see their challenges reflected in yours. We’re all more similar than we are different. It’s counter-intuitive that the most specific, most personal stories have the widest appeal.

The rule of thumb above may be helpful. Comment on high level narratives to people who know you the least. Find a conversation that is already going on in their head. Then share personal stories with the people who know you the most.

Why the Hero’s Journey isn’t enough

If you sell to people over a long period of time, the highest goal of your marketing is to upgrade someone’s thinking about your topic.

As with all real learning, an upgrade in thinking can only happen with a degree of discomfort.

It’s a lot to ask for your audience to feel discomfort. It isn’t what we’re ‘meant’ to do as marketers. But some discomfort they must feel, or else you’ll never get your point across. You might entertain, but you’ll never challenge someone’s current thinking.

I was thinking about this the other night. Linzi was watching a documentary about the James Bulger murder, which happened just a few miles from where I grew up in 1993. I would have been seven at the time. Old enough to remember it, but not old enough to appreciate how horrific it was.

Two ten-year-old boys abducted a two-year-old from a shopping centre, while his mother was distracted in a butcher’s shop. They then dropped him on his head by a canal. Later on – after being stopped by two different people – they took him to cemetery, tortured and killed him, eventually leaving his body on a railway line to make it look like an accident.

There is actually more detail to the story, which I don’t even want to write about.

Do you feel uncomfortable yet? You should.

And let me tell you, I do. As the father of a one-year-old, it’s been haunting my brain for the last few days. Not least because geographically it was very close to home. However you try to get your head around it, you can’t.

The most important stories to tell aren’t usually the most comfortable, for you or the reader. The ‘hero’s journey’ doesn’t often happen in the real world. But there’s a much deeper well of empathy and understanding in a more challenging story, if you manage to tell it.

That’s something to consider.

Should you tell old or new stories?

The chief storyteller in my family is my Grandad. He’s almost 85 and full of fascinating stories.

Stories about Berlin in the 1950’s. Stories about walking the Snowdon Horseshoe in Wales. The story about finding a dead guy on Ben Nevis. The wartime story about jumping over the fence at Everton to get in free, only to jump into an empty stand. The story about Everton’s PA announcer asking if anyone had brought their boots, because they were short on players. Stories about how he once cycled from Liverpool to Canterbury.

Of course, if you were to meet him a second time, he’d tell you all the same stories over again. But he’s old, so we let him off for that.

Importantly, the stories he tells the most often are all 40+ years old. Which is relevant to what we are doing here.

I see the same pattern recurring in my work. Many of the stories I tell are 5 years old or more. Stories about setting up in business. Stories about my solo travel in South America. Stories about my early creative writing efforts. Stories about truanting at school to play snooker. (I still maintain that occasional truanting encourages healthy independence, at any age and in any walk of life…)

Part of the story research process I follow is to explore very early stories – as far back as you can remember. I’m not being a nosy when I do this; I’m looking for early threads and patterns.

It’s normal for the stories that sit at the heart of your marketing to be not-so-recent, and not necessarily about your current line of work.

You’ve probably changed less than you think. It’s your older stories that build the most trust, because they showcase the real you in the most vulnerable way.


Stories For Business Use, #5

Have you ever been robbed, close up in person?

One September night in 2007 I was walking home about 11PM. The fastest route home passed a derelict university building under renovation.

As I walked two boys appeared at the top of the road. Both had hoods up. One was whistling.

“Excuse me pal! Excuse me!” I stopped and turned around. “Do you know where Broomhill is?”

They continued to walk up to me. As they got closer I could see that one was smoking a spliff. Both were about my height, perhaps taller. They positioned themselves either side of me.

“Yeah back up the road, left and right at the top,” I replied.

The taller one straightened up for a moment. “Just hand your phone over,” he says.

For a second we stood there watching each other. In those brief moments rational thought evaporates with a jolt of fear.

I turned and sprinted back up the road. Thirty metres. Twenty metres. I could hear the ‘thump thump thump’ of pounding footsteps behind me. I reached the junction with no space to turn. I ran blindly in to the road…

Today’s email is about suspense. Suspense is the next ingredient in our recipe for better stories.

Suspense is where you plant questions in your reader’s mind and withhold the outcome.

As a writer I find my written stories are better than my spoken stories. If I tell you a story in person I have a tendency to become self-conscious and hurry to the end of the story. Many people will do a similar thing with a written story, worrying the story is too long.

Suspense works on different levels. You can build suspense into the overall plan of a story, like my robbery story above. You can also build suspense into individual sentences. Sentences like ‘they positioned themselves either side of me‘ forces you to read the next sentence to see what they did next.

Withhold the outcome and people will generally read on.

Your challenge with marketing emails isn’t to write 300 word emails. Or 800 word emails. Or 1000 word emails. The length is less important than whether people want to continue reading, sentence after sentence.

If you re-read the ‘timeline’ article you’ll see I have factored suspense in to the timeline. You can do this up front when you are planning your story, or you can do it retrospectively to make an existing story more engaging.

Suspense doesn’t have to take up a lot of space. You just have to withhold the outcome, even for a sentence or two.

Your task for today is to take a story you have written and add in an element or two of suspense. Send it to me if you like and I’ll send you my thoughts.

I ran out into the road in front of a car. The car braked, blocking the path of my pursuers. The footsteps subsided and I escaped up a side road.

Don’t walk home late at night past building sites. And build suspense in to your stories.

The Empathy Zone

Stories For Business Use, #4

Have you ever been to a party and struggled to make conversation with the other guests?

When I was a student I wasn’t too discriminate about who I made friends with. I would end up at house parties where everyone would be talking about Final Fantasy 12, or some other computer game. I would sneak off into a corner, or perhaps out the back door.

I am friends with Steve. I met Steve at university, when we did archery. We now play squash together, drink beer, watch rugby and both run our own business.

So, there is a reasonable amount of common ground.

Empathy zone

Now, sometimes I will hang out with Steve and Mike will be there. I like Mike, but we don’t have a whole lot in common, and therefore not a whole lot to talk about.

Empathy zone + Mike

The areas of overlap are called the empathy zone. Squash, beer, rugby and business all belong in the empathy zone I share with Steve.

If I wanted to grab Steve’s attention I wouldn’t tell a story about football. Steve is from Wales, so football is vastly subservient to rugby in his world. I would select one about rugby, beer, or some other common item.

The problem of course is that when you tell stories to promote your business you are talking to an entire audience, not a single person.

Still, the people in your audience will have a degree of shared experience, and maybe a shared perspective or outlook.

If you sell to marketers their shared perspective is that they probably hate selling face to face. I can tell you for a fact that every marketer has nightmares about selling over the phone.

If you sell to business owners their shared experience is the struggle of getting a viable business off the ground.

If you sell to home owners then perhaps they are worried about flooding, taxation, or some other topical item.

Your stories will be more effective when you write stories that overlap to some degree with your reader’s story.

The only way I have found to do this is to journal every day and add the stories to Evernote. Every journal entry I write gets tagged with a specific word.

Next time I need a story about ‘entrepreneurial struggle’ there is a good chance a relevant story will exist in my story bank. If there isn’t an exact match there will be a story there that I can bend to the message.

I was on John Fancher’s email list for a while. John is Perry Marshall’s copywriter, and ghost writes a number of his emails.

John is into rock music, and every message he sent would involve some sort of music reference.

Eventually it just wore a bit thin. I’m sure some people really engaged with his stories, but I didn’t relate to them very much.

The most important thing is to set aside time to actually speak to people in your target audience. You can only write stories that overlap with your reader’s stories if you speak to people regularly. Most marketers prefer to hide behind their keyboard and use fancy words or made-up stories.

When I am writing for a client the stories generally come from the client, not from me.

One final example – my primary audience is people who use Infusionsoft. That is the main group I market my services to.

I spend a lot of time on Infusionsoft forums. I’m not always very chatty, but I’ll chime in where I have something to say. When I see something interesting I’ll add the conversation into Evernote. Stories don’t always have to come from you.

Selecting awesome stories isn’t as important as most people think.

You can nearly always find drama in any story, even the mundane day to day ones. I actually tell a lot of mundane stories simply because people relate to them more than the unusual ones.

Still, you should be aware of empathy zone items when you select stories to tell.

I think there is a degree of confusion between ‘empathy’ and ‘sympathy’. Empathy is an ability to understand the feelings of others. Sympathy is an ability to express pity for the misfortune of others.

I am not a very sympathetic person, on the whole. I think sympathy is more hard-coded in to us through our background and upbringing.

Empathy is just a degree of curiosity about the people you are writing to. I think you can acquire empathy, if you want.

Introducing the timeline

Stories For Business Use, #3

I was telling you last time about my habit of writing outlines to exam answers at university.

I have not always employed the same diligence when writing marketing emails.

For many years I just used to wing it, and rely on natural ‘writing flair’.

I got reasonably good at winging it over the years. Given enough information I’ll normally produce a decent story at the first swing of the bat.

Yes, my stories were good. I knew instinctively what I was doing. But I hadn’t really identified the essential parts. And I certainly couldn’t teach what I was doing to someone else. I thought storytelling was too much of a ‘dark art’ to distill down to a process.

This all changed in December 2015, when I attended Sean D’Souza’s story telling workshop. Within ten minutes it became glaringly obvious that Sean did indeed have a process. Not only that, he was also able to teach it to the group.

The most important thing I took from Sean’s workshop was the importance of mapping your story on a timeline.

Do you remember the story I sent about my presentation at the marketing meeting? You can read the story again here. The outline for that story looked like this:

Timeline example

Every story has an ebb and a flow. Positive and negative things happen throughout the story, and the timeline is a visual way to see the ‘ups’ and ‘downs’.

Without the timeline, the danger is you won’t include enough ups and downs, making the story boring. Or you might end up with all ups or all downs, making it monotonous.

In this case I’ve started with a ‘C’, which means context. As we move through the timeline the first negative change in the story happens when I gave my website presentation.

After that there is a positive change where I talk about the website changes I had been making.

Every good story constricts and expands on different levels, and the timeline is a tool to visualise the flow of the story.

As a contrast, consider any typical television advert. Most television commercials are dull because they only contain super-smiley positive things. The timeline would contain only ‘ups’, making the story desperately boring.

The S stands for suspense. ‘I could hear the knives being sharpened’ adds suspense because we can feel that something is about to happen.

I finish the story with two ‘downs’, Owen telling me the website wasn’t ‘zassy’ enough, and Colin’s interjection.

The one idea I wanted to communicate was ‘meaningful information’, and this forms the bridge between the story and the content. The last line of the story talks about ‘meaningful information’, as does the first line of the content.

The timeline should be drawn before you attempt to draft your story. The timeline acts as a blueprint or framework for your writing. The timeline will save you from waffling and keep you on track.

Avoiding waffle

Write Stories That Sell, #2

Do you remember taking exams? I do. The memory is perhaps a little too raw.

All the insecure students would mill about beforehand, testing each other. We were then herded into a cold gymnasium, where row after row of desks were spaced three feet apart.

A bald, serious-looking examiner would explain the rules. Awkwardly, everyone would watch the minute hand of the clock rise agonisingly to the top of the hour.

“The time is now 9.02, and you may begin…” announced the examiner.

As soon as those words were uttered a frenzy of paper turning and scribbling would begin. Everyone would turn over the paper, glance at the question, and write like mad.

Everyone that is, except for me.

I would spend the first seven minutes of an examination reading the questions and drafting an outline.

The outline was essential to keep me on track, and stop me waffling. Students tend to fill their brains with so much information before an exam that it tends to all fall out onto the page in waffle.

When you write emails to promote your business – especially story based emails, there is a great temptation to waffle. You have all this information in your head about your products and services. You have various stories you might use.

The problem is, how do you stay on track and avoid waffling?

The answer is to work to a structure.

The structure I work to is one called the ‘open sandwich structure’.

Open sandwich

When you read an email that follows the open sandwich structure it is like biting down into an open sandwich. We first encounter the filling, which is the story. An open sandwich can contain all kinds of fillings, just like your email can contain all kinds of stories.

At some point we stop telling our story, and start delivering our content. Your content is the information you want to deliver about your products and services. Most marketing emails skip the story part of the sandwich, and focus exclusively on information.

If you never include any stories in your emails, you are in effect asking your readers to eat dry bread. They may eat dry bread once or twice, but not over a significant time frame.

If you need to nurture a relationship with a potential customers over months and years, rather than hours and days, you need to be using stories.

At the point in the sandwich where the story meets the content, we have something called the ‘one idea’. The ‘one idea’ is a single word or phrase that encapsulates your story, and is like the margarine that holds everything together.

Without a cohesive ‘one idea’ there is a strong possibility that your story will not relate in any way to your content, and feel desperately random.

The one idea behind today’s email was ‘waffle’. If you look carefully at the end of the story (ends ‘onto the page in waffle’) and the start of the information (starts ‘when you write’) both sentences deliberately contain the word waffle. Waffle is the link between the story and the information.

If I had wanted the one idea to be planning I would have simply rewritten the last line of the story, making the last word ‘planning’ instead of ‘waffle’. Your reader will view your story as being about whatever you finish on.

The power of the one idea is it allows you to apply a single story to a wider range of purposes. The story and content don’t have to be directly related.

I select most of my stories because I like the story, not because the story matches my content. In this email I made the story about waffle by setting ‘waffle’ as my one idea.

Most story telling – especially within business use – is poor because the writer has not chosen a single idea for the story to be about. This one idea needs to link in to the information you want to communicate, which will normally come after the story.

The formula is:

1. Open with your story
2. End your story on your ‘one idea’
3. Begin your content on your ‘one idea’
4. Finish on your content, including a call to action if appropriate

If you tell stories without identifying a one idea you will waffle.

Are Your Stories Boring?

Write Stories That Sell, #1

It was a rainy Tuesday morning in September, 2012. I sat in the boardroom at the Q4 sales meeting, along with 12 sales reps and line managers. After dwelling on the sales figures it was time for me to stand up and deliver my marketing update.

I delivered most of my talk to glazed expressions. Then the subject I had been avoiding came about. The website.

In the weeks before the meeting I had been busy. I had replaced the stock images of unrealistically happy people with photos of real employees. I had rewritten most of the homepage content, cutting out the corporate drivel. I had increased the font size so everything was actually readable.

I published the updates, sent a company-wide email to 60 people, and sat back.

Can you guess how much feedback I received?

None. Zip.

None that is, if you ignored the sound of knives being sharpened.

Owen, the sales director, piped up first.

“I’ve had complaints about the website from partners and customers. It isn’t corporate enough. I don’t know exactly what I’m looking for, but it needs to have more zass.”

“Yeah!” piped up Colin. “Have a look at ABC Corp’s website! We want a website exactly like theirs.”

Contrary to what Colin thought I had actually looked at ABC Corp’s website. I thought it was another ‘mee too’ website, with meaningless corporate branding and empty statements.

I thought there was a big opportunity to zag, as the saying goes. I thought there was an opportunity to ditch the clichés and produce a website that actually spoke to our customers.

But no. That wasn’t what the sales team wanted. They wanted a safe, corporate website that was under no circumstances to impart any meaningful information.

I imagine you are reading this series because you want to communicate meaningful information to your customers. You want them to pay attention to that information and spend their money with you.

I believe stories are hands-down the best way to deliver information. Most corporate people are terrified at the prospect of exposing themselves and telling a story or two.

The one thing people struggle with above anything else is the idea that their stories are boring.

Please take a second to think about today’s video (link at the top) and the sales meeting story above.

I was not doing anything amazing or unusual in either story.

The stories became interesting because I identified the drama in them and followed a specific structure.

You already have all the stories you need. They may seem boring to you, but if you structure them correctly they won’t be boring to your audience.

We’ll talk more about that structure tomorrow.

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