Are you telling overdog or underdog stories?

I attended a function recently and was introduced to a guy I hadn’t met before. He asked me what I did, and then cut me short and proceeded to spend 20 minutes telling me all about his wonderful life. How well his business was doing, his six-figure income that was likely to increase by 50% this year, the new Maserati in his 100m2 carpeted garage, the Europe cruise booked for later in the year and so on and so on. He was intoxicated by his own success and loved hearing the sound of his own voice. So much so, that I struggled to get a word in, and when I did, he didn’t really hear or register anything that I was saying.

This is a classic ‘overdog’ story and you’ve probably heard plenty of these yourself over the years. Don’t you find them a big turn-off? Many brands are like this guy at the party and are guilty of telling overdog stories – infatuated by their own sense of importance and their supposedly unique contribution to the world. How many websites have we seen where brands are talking about being innovative, world class, world leaders, best in class etc?

Legendary storytelling coach Robert McKee says that brands have got to stop bragging and promising, and start telling stories. Brands need to stop trying to be the hero in their own story, and let their customer be the hero. They should focus more on being a mentor – kind of like an Obi Wan Kenobi character, helping the hero on his journey.

I believe that brands are far better served by telling underdog stories.

Why? Because we always root for the underdog, and relate more deeply to his struggles, so there’s a higher trust component and a much stronger emotional connection. And the underdog always has something to prove so we feel like we can count on his loyalty. The underdog won’t abandon us in times of trouble.

Richard Branson really gets this principle, and always chooses new business opportunities and markets where he can tell a classic underdog story. One of his famous quotes is, “We look for the big bad wolves who are dramatically overcharging and under-delivering.” Notice his use of the term “Big bad wolves”. This is classic story language and an analogy that we all recognise from childhood.

A fantastic underdog story example is Avis campaign launched in the eighties. At number 2 behind Hertz, their campaign bluntly stated “We try harder.” The humility and directness of this line immediately builds trust and creates the feeling that Avis will work harder to please you than their competitors will.

There’s much more power in being the underdog than the overdog. The key to a great business story is to get your audience to make an empathetic connection with you.

Underdog stories do just that. Overdog stories just turn people off.

Felix Baumgartner didn’t feel a thing

On the 14th of October 2012 Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner became the first skydiver to complete a free fall jump from the stratosphere back to earth.

He used a helium balloon to ascend to an incredible 39km above the earth. On his descent he reached an estimated top speed of 1,357 km/h (Mach 1.25) and in the process, became the first person to break the sound barrier without vehicular power. He hung on to the skydiving height record for two years until Google engineer Alan Eustace broke it on 24 October 2014 when he jumped from 41.42km above the earth.

When I read about Felix Baumgartner’s amazing feat, one comment that he made really intrigued me. He said that even though he was travelling faster than the speed of sound he still couldn’t feel the effect of the wind rushing past him on his body. That’s because he was wearing a pressurised space suit. So many powerful forces at play and such physical intensity and yet he didn’t feel a thing. Wow.

I think this is a useful analogy for businesses.

So many business stories are like Felix Baumgartner’s experience. There’s drama, intensity and adventure, but the intended audience simply doesn’t feel anything. For business stories to be effective, they must first make the intended audience “feel something” and engage their minds and emotions through their senses. Why? Because we remember what we feel, and emotions are the key to inciting action. Logic leads to conclusions, but it’s emotion that leads to action.

If you want to inspire change, improve staff engagement and win new customers through powerful stories, you must first move people. How do you do that in a business story? Actually, the same way you would in a novel. Use sensory language.

The most powerful stories activate at least two of our five senses: hear, see, smell, taste, and touch.

Storytelling guru Karen Dietz puts it beautifully.

“Storytelling has its own kind of language. And it’s definitely not the language of acronyms, definitions, science, data, and information. What is it? Simply put, it’s using LOTS: the language of the senses. Stories go far beyond the sharing of experience. They need to be communicated in a conversational manner, such that people can re-imagine in their own minds what you saw, smelled, felt, tasted, heard, and intuited. When you use sensory language or lots of LOTS, people’s brains, emotions, and senses all become immediately engaged. And what could be more powerful than that?”

If you’re struggling to make an emotional connection with your customers, I can help. Story IQ is more than just a content marketing agency, and goes deeper than an advertising agency or creative agency does. 

Sweet and Salty Stories

I’m not a big popcorn eater but I do have a weakness for Sweet and Salty popcorn made by Sweet As Popcorn in Raglan, NZ. There’s something about the contrast of sweet and salty flavours and the way that they interact with my palate that I find intriguing and addictive. If I’m settled in for the night watching Netflix, its very difficult to stop halfway through a bag once I start.

I’m also a keen follower of the food series MasterChef. One of the comments that judges often make on the show about contestant’s dishes is that they need to balance the flavours better. Balance the sweet and sour flavours, balance the hot and cool, balance the crispy and smooth textures and balance the acidity and alkalinity. It’s the balancing of all these elements that makes food taste great, and it’s the creative and unusual juxtaposition of these elements that makes food exceptional.

Great storytelling needs to follow the same principles. Many B2B brands make the mistake of creating stories that are sickly sweet, have no flavour profile and are not engaging or memorable. Brand stories that are full of bragging and promising, talking about how wonderful their brands are and how successful they have been over time. These types of stories don’t resonate because they are not authentic, and they have no inherent tension or drama to bring them to life.

Like my favourite sweet and salty popcorn, great stories need to juxtapose contrasting elements to make them interesting. Every story needs a hero and a villain, opposing forces, contrasting settings, highs and lows, and struggles and triumphs to bring it to life. The reality is stories need inherent tension to move the story forward and keep the viewers or listeners interested.

The famous novelist Charles Dickens understood this principle well. Here’s the opening paragraph from his iconic novel A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…

Think about your favourite movies. Star Wars would not have been the same without the opposing characters of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Lord of the Rings would have been boring as hell without the treacherous journeys, opposing armies, battles, near death experiences and victories against the odds.

When you’re telling your brand story think about how you can use contrast and tension to really bring your narrative to life. Don’t just talk about your successes. Also talk about your failures. Identify the heroes and villains in your story. And add texture, colour and drama by setting your story in a rich, sensory world full of possibilities. At the end of the day it’s the delicate balance of the sweet and sour that creates depth of flavour.

Forget storytelling and start storymaking!

Imagine for a moment, that you have invented something totally novel that will revolutionise the world. Your ‘Aha!’ moment has arrived. You can’t believe no one has thought of this thing! It’s going to be fantastic and life-changing!

You spend months building the business around your thing. You develop your story and can’t wait to tell it and launch this thing to the world. Everyone will love it.

And at first, it seems everyone does love it. So it’s a successful thing – for a while. Then sales start to level out, and eventually drop off. Perhaps something has outperformed your thing, or maybe the need for it has been eliminated.

You’re sitting in your office alone, wondering what will become of you when the business fails. You Google to see what awful things people are saying about your thing. Scrolling through and becoming more disheartened, you come across people using your thing in an unintended way. You can’t believe it – it’s so wrong! So far off the mark of your original dream!

What do you do? You can either a) carry on telling your same old story and watch your idea die a slow death, b) work on a plan to secretly set fire to everything and hope for an insurance pay-out so you don’t starve, or c) embrace the market, adapt to your customers, share their stories and make them part of your story.

Now the easiest option is option a, and one to which many people sadly resign themselves. Option b isn’t really an option (is it?) and option c will require effort, flexibility, fluidity, communication skills and a new strategy… but it just might work.

The story above illustrates how a Storymaking strategy can be used to make or break a brand.

The telling of stories is as old as time. It is the means by which legends passed from generation to generation, predating the written word. Storymaking, however, involves empowering your customers to recreate the content for your story. It allows for your brand story to be retold through their own real-life experiences, building on the content and sharing within their networks.

Here’s a nice little story for you.  Back in the 1930s, the burning of coal left undesirable soot marks on walls. A cleaning company in Ohio created a simple putty that would remove the soot when rolled across it. Their wallpaper cleaner was a success! However, in the 1950s the advent of vinyl wallpaper and natural gas heat meant their prosperous run was over. A family member of the founders revolutionised their idea when she came across a newspaper article using the wallpaper cleaner to create art projects. She brought the cleaner into the nursery school where she taught and the children made Christmas ornaments with their new, softer and inexpensive version of modelling clay. In 1956, with coloured dye and new packaging, the wallpaper cleaner turned into Play-Doh – a multi-million dollar company today.

Now imagine that 1950s newspaper article as a social media post. Today Play-Doh’s Facebook page has over 2 million likes. On Instagram, #playdoh has over 450,000 posts, plus thousands more on variations like #playdohtime, #playdohcake, #playdohartist. Social media is filled with the endless projects children make and the ways in which teachers and parents are using the product. Who doesn’t want to share stories of their cute kids demonstrating creative genius?

Customers sharing their stories has driven new products. Young aspiring chefs and bakers use Play-Doh to create colourful inedible versions of everything from cupcakes to bacon. Through the sharing of stories on social media the trend has grown and now there is an entire line of accessories to help create the most realistic food – the Breakfast Time Set, Lunchtime Creations, Barbecue Playset, Sweet Shoppe – the list goes on. (By the way, Play-Doh sells 100 million cans of Play-Doh each year and seven million Fun Factory playsets have sold since 1999.)

Storymaking is the new storytelling, with the effective use of innovative social media platforms the driving force. As consumers share their stories within their networks, a brand’s story is recreated again and again. Great storytellers adapt those stories, driving evolution and expansion through story making.

What can content marketers learn from Dr Seuss?

Dr Seuss, one of the world’s greatest storytellers, can teach us Thing One and Thing Two about inspired story-driven content marketing.

“If you never did, you should. These things are fun and fun is good.”

Don’t be afraid to try something new – it might be FUN. Content marketing is about engaging your audience, being interesting, and empowering your audience to be involved in creating the story with you. Allow user-generated content to lead you down paths you hadn’t imagined. It can be terrifying to do something you’ve never done, but it will lead you to places you’ve never been. Who doesn’t love an adventure?

“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”

The way to find your people is to be YOU. Share your story, your why, your reason for being. If someone doesn’t like what you have to say, why are you expending your energy to win them over? They don’t matter. You might be surprised at just how many people out there share your kind of weirdness, so let your true self out and celebrate with those you attract.

“Why fit in when you were born to stand out?”

Shake things up. Be bold, not boring. How are you going to be different, stand out from the mass of content out there? Use storytelling. Maybe be like Superman and put your undies on the outside. No judgment here.

“The more you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”

There is a whole big world out there, and something to learn from everyone in it. Read, read, and read some more. Watch. Listen. Learn. Open your mind and expand your horizons. Look to papers, blogs, popular literature. Watch your competitors, and imitate the best by researching which posts are getting attention and why. Study completely different industries. There are no limits to knowledge and where it can take you. How exciting is THAT?

“They say I’m old-fashioned, and live in the past, but sometimes I think progress progresses too fast!”

Old doesn’t always mean obsolete. Putting out a bit of great content is just the start of the relationship with your audience. There is still a place for email, direct mail, and events. Think “high tech, high touch” – yes you need to be using up-to-date technologies, but don’t forget we are all human and those old school methods still mean a lot.

“A person is a person, no matter how small”

And since we are all humans, we still have to relate to each other on an emotional level. Tell your story in a relatable way. Whether your audience is the size of an elephant or a colony on a dust speck doesn’t matter.

“Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!”

Content marketing has to be engaging and interesting. More than just interesting words, you need captivating visuals. Tell your story in a variety of ways – make up infographics and videos, use user-generated content to tell your story. Dr Seuss excelled at using illustrations to bring his words to life, making impressions that last a lifetime.

“Step with great care and great tact. And remember that life’s a great balancing act.”

You know that guy who crossed the Grand Canyon on a tightrope with no safety net? He knew a thing or two about balance. Ok, maybe that’s an extreme example. I mean no-one’s going to die, but you still want to make it to the other side. The point is to find a balance of quality and quantity. Too much content and you’ll fade into the noise that is already out there, too little and no one will be watching.

“If you want to catch beasts you don’t see every day, you have to go places quite out-of-the-way. You have to go places no others can get to. You have to get cold and you have to get wet too.”

Stay ahead in strategy, technology and knowledge. Read trade publications and stay on top of trends to keep things fresh, but add your own spin. You might have to get a bit uncomfortable. My grandmother used to say, “You’re not made of sugar so you won’t melt if you get wet.” Maybe she just meant to stop whining about walking to school in the rain, but I like to think she was passing on a bit of encouragement as well. Get out of your comfort zone, and see what you can find.

“Think and wonder, wonder and think.”

If you have to call IT about your misbehaving computer, what’s the first thing they say? Turn it off and turn it back on. The flood of multimedia that exists today can be so overwhelming that we forget to turn off sometimes. Whether it’s getting into nature, going bowling or taking time out to enjoy a really good meal – whatever works for you – unplug and let yourself think without the noise.

“You’ll miss the best things if you keep your eyes shut.”

Or in the words of Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Stay alert, be confident and keep your eyes open. Technology is advancing at a rapid pace. Don’t miss out on opportunities presented to you.

“Will you succeed? Yes, you will indeed! Ninety-eight and three-quarters percent guaranteed.”

Unfortunately, no-one has the magic wand for guaranteed instant success. However, being consistent, engaging, and authentic – and having fun day after day – is the #1 formula. Do that.

Think big, catch those beasts.

Or in Dr Seuss speak:  Not sure if your content is working for you?