Storytelling has become a powerful marketing tool because stories are memorable. When you’re meeting someone for coffee you’ll rarely lean forward eagerly and say, “Wow, did you see X’s website? It went like this`…”
But if you’re like me, you’ll love sharing stories, the juicier the better.
The downside is, negative stories go viral just as fast – if not faster – than heart-warming heroic stories.
First, your customers’ stories can make your company seem greedy and manipulative.
For a popular example, google “United Breaks Guitars.” When the airline broke musician Dave Carroll’s expensive Taylor guitar, Carroll responded by telling his story with a catchy, memorable song. The video’s gained over 17 million views and appears in some country music mixes.
Closer to home, here’s a memorable story I heard a couple of times about a “famous” marketer’s live event:
“We’d been going all day and we were tired and hungry. Griselda had promised us dinner that night. She’d assured participants they’d be done with the program by 5 and dinner by 8:00. By 6:30 we were finally done for the day — an hour late. Griselda chose this moment to launch into a one-hour sales pitch for her higher-end program. People kept looking at their phones to check the time. Griselda ignored us. Some of us had to skip dinner because it was almost time for them to leave. I don’t think anybody bought her program. I’ll never trust Griselda again.”
I’ve heard that story from three different people who attended that event. If there’s a Griselda in your life, you’ve probably got some stories too.
Second, your story can be misinterpreted.
On my first website, I followed the advice to, “Tell your own story.” So I wrote about how I’d always been a free spirit, moving and changing jobs frequently. The story was intended to show that I understood the ins and outs of job search and relocation.
My audience sent me comments like, “You’re really brave to be leaping without a net!” Actually, there was always a net: a Plan B, job waiting, and emergency fund.
Needless to say, that story was quickly removed from my site.
Just today, New York Times columnist David Brooks told a story than set off waves of rage around the Internet.
Brooks wrote a column about what’s usually called “social capital.” He seemed to be making the point that educated people possess advantages in social and business situations because they recognize and respond to social cues. When we limit access to education, we limit access to upward mobility.
This argument has been made before. I suspect most of us have been in situations where we felt clueless. We were the only one who didn’t “get it.”
Usually these experiences are uncomfortable but don’t lead to serious consequences. However, if you’re trying to fit in to a job or university, you might be counted out when you don’t speak the language of insiders.
To illustrate his point, Brooks told what I call a “concept story” — a story told to explain or differentiate an idea. If you offer a service that’s unfamiliar to your prospects, you’ll probably find yourself creating one. The biggest pitfall of concept stories is that audiences can “get” a point that’s almost directly opposite from what you intend. Concept stories must be handled with care.
Brooks told a story about taking someone with “a high school education” to lunch at an Italian deli. The woman was clearly overwhelmed by menu choices like soppressata, capicollo and a “striata baguette.” Brooks suggested they go elsewhere and they ended up eating Mexican food.
Like a good storyteller, Brooks provided details, which were used against him. Critics pointed out that a high school education doesn’t preclude knowledge of Italian food. They thought Brooks was being condescending.
From a storytelling perspective, what went wrong?
1 – What was the story’s purpose? Brooks wanted to show how people could be disadvantaged by not understanding social cues. Here, there’s no point. Brooks’s guest felt uncomfortable. So what? He could have said, “Hey this is a good place. I’ll tell you what to order.” There wasn’t much at stake.
The story could have been saved with a different spin. “Anyone can get overwhelmed by a restaurant. Imagine how you’d feel if you’re having lunch and everyone but you knows just what to order. In some places that’s a subtle test of whether you ‘belong.’”
2 – The story’s characters weren’t chosen to fit the point. It’s not about having a high school education; it’s being clued in.
3 – The story’s audience wasn’t on the same page. Many readers who wrote comments to the New York Time pointed out that they didn’t understand these menu items either!
Even better, Brooks could have referred to the best-selling book, Hillbilly Elegy, which makes the case better than he ever could. The author proudly identifies as a hillbilly from Kentucky and Ohio. Through the unlikely combination of the Marine Corps and Yale Law school, he gains access to top-tier opportunities. He learns how to crack the unwritten code, which most of his Yale Law School classmates weren’t even aware of. And he talks about why most well-meaning efforts to help other self-identified hillbillies don’t work.
If you’d like to learn more about the different types of stories, check out my course here:Build Your Brand One Story At A Time. You’ll discover 4 types of stories you can use to build your brand.
You can also schedule a one-to-one call to talk about the ways you can use stories for your own marketing … and avoid some of the most common pitfalls.
Download my new FREE guide – Create A Powerful Stand-Out Brand By Telling Stories: 4 Case Studies – Click here for FREE immediate access.
I’m working on a book about storytelling where I’ll be going into the details more fully. Stay tuned!