“The suspense is terrible, I hope it will last.” Oscar Wilde.
Your storytelling – your marketing efforts – must embrace uncertainty. It is a fundamental part of the story. Will the boy get the girl? Is this cream going to get rid of my acne? Will our new software increase productivity?
Uncertainty creates tension.
Your target market – the audience for your story – doesn’t know how this is all going to turn out. Meet them at this point of uncertainty. If your storytelling is compelling, they will become invested in that tension. They will crave the release that comes from finding out how the story ends.
Embrace that uncertainty. Even if you are uncertain yourself. Make a promise and live it. Invite your tribe to join you in that journey. You will gain attention. And, if you keep your promise, you will build trust. With trust comes the opportunity to make more change happen.
On 9/11 St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox church in New York was demolished when the World Trade Center towers collapsed. It was the only other building to be completely destroyed as a result of the terrorist attacks. Rebuilding the church, which include plans for a national shrine to the memory of those lost, stalled a few years ago due to lack of funding and amidst controversy of financial mismanagement.
In the shadow of that uncertainty the recently elected primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America -- Archbishop Elpidophoros – announced that the church and shrine would open on September 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
His Eminence Elpidophoros has embraced uncertainty. There is tension.
And awareness of this tension is increasing. Recently, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo joined the Archbishop to announce that construction will again resume.
That is bold storytelling. It has created a platform for carrying hope. We are all eager to find out how this story ends.
All impactful marketing starts with listening to someone else’s story. The story told by the people you want to assist. You cannot begin to shape a narrative around your offering if you don’t first acknowledge the pain that they have.
That pain is usually existential. I want to be recognized. I desire to be understood. I demand revenge. I want to reconnect with a part of me that I fear is lost.
Your offering fits that need. Your graphic T-shirts featuring philosophy quotes afford people a way to express their inner selves. The ancestry.com kit gives them a way to understand their place in the world. Your pasta sauce reminds them of their childhood.
But you must first hear their story. They may be reticent to share it, especially if it is based in shame. I don’t want people to know that I have fertility issues. I’m embarrassed by my acne.
I don’t want people looking at me in this state of homelessness I find myself in now. That is story that I perceived as I walked by a park near my office. You can start to think about your business by listening to the stories of everyone you meet. Even just people who are telling their story without words.
Hear the others.
The lobby of the PR firm I worked for in Los Angeles in the 1990s was vast. The elevator opened into an endzone-sized, marble tiled space with a single receptionist ensconced behind a chrome and glass desk that could seat six comfortably. There were minimalist touches -- few white leather couches and abstract art. It communicated “we are so powerful that we can dedicate pricy square footage to simply make a statement.”
The environment where you meet your client, the setting where transactions are done, the space where your offering is delivered is a critical element. It communicates your intent.
It is also true of the story you are telling. The story you are telling the people that you want to serve. The backdrop against which your story unfolds sets a tone. It creates a mood.
Think of the 1988 film “Die Hard.” Our hero’s goal is to reconcile with his wife on Christmas eve. That intentional choice of setting the story during the holiday season raises the stakes. John McClane shows up at his wife’s office Christmas party just as terrorists take her and others hostage. Everything plays out against this backdrop. And so in my mind I associate it as a Christmas movie. And I’m not alone.
The upshot is that you can dictate how your target audience receives your message by choosing the right setting. Be intentional about it.
Mario Fogg lowered his block-rimmed eyeglasses at me with a quizzical look. “I was at the gig last Friday night downstairs,” I explained, “great show.” I’d spotted Mario at a reception at my workspace on Auburn Avenue. His jazz trio, anchored by his drumming, had performed John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” to an intimate group shoehorned into a space that by day was a modest coffee shop.
In our conversation Mario shared his views that music is, at its core, a way to exchange ideas. That regardless of your background, culture, mother language, ethnicity or gender music provides a universal platform to express a thought. To convey an emotion. He explained that every performance was one-of-a-kind even if it was the same piece that he’d played a hundred times before. That he brought whatever was happening to him at that time – his hopes or disappointments or euphoric energy – to that moment in time. That split second his sticks hit the drum skin.
It is the same with the story you tell. The emotion that runs through your communication is what your audience will respond to. They want to be reminded of Coltrane because that is what you promised to play. But you must deliver your own take on it. Dig into the emotions that drive you to do whatever it is that you do. Bring that to every conversation, every touchpoint and every time you interact with your client or customer.
The music is not in the drum kit
Helen and I love to host dinner parties. For our “Friendsgiving Feast” this past weekend the guests brought the meal and left it to us to provide the apps and pre-dinner drinks. Our closest friends know of my penchant for mixing good cocktails.
I served up the “Vieux Carre” a New Orleans contribution to the cannon of classic cocktails.
The drink itself is complex and boozy. But like many experiences in my life, it is the story in the glass that contributes much to my enjoyment.
Vieux Carre is a shout out to the “old square” in the French Quarter – where settlers from France founded the city. It was first mixed after the repeal of Prohibition at the Hotel Monteleone. You can still visit the bar in the hotel which was founded by an immigrant from Sicily.
The base ingredients are a mélange of cultural touchstones, much like New Orleans itself: Italian sweet vermouth, French cognac and the original American spirit – rye whiskey - that was shipped in charred oak barrels down the Mississippi. The highball glass is first rinsed with Benedictine, a liqueur created by a botanist monk of that Catholic order in an abbey on the Normandy coast. Then a few dashes of Peychaud’s as well as Angostura bitters – both of Caribbean origin – are added.
The history of the city is told through international ingredients that come together in heady concoction. If you know that story, you might gain a different relationship to the drink. It might create a spot in your mind for that offering. It becomes memorable. It becomes nuanced.
Pay attention to the components of your story and how you mix them. It will become more than its base parts. It can become a classic.
It is not likely to happen overnight. It is going to take an uncomfortable amount of time. You will tell your story. You will tell it with passion and creativity. And then… nothing.
The website traffic stays stuck, attendance at the rallies has dipped, charitable giving is not increasing, employee morale remains the same.
And so you are frustrated. You question your offering. You scrap the campaign entirely. Or you take an entirely opposite approach.
What you need to do is stop and breathe.
Take the time to improve your offering. Test a different version of your story.
Once, on the island of Kefalonia, Greece, I observed the owner of a beach bar oversee the delivery of new chairs and umbrellas. A young worker of his was eager to immediately set up the chairs. But the owner told him to leave them in stacks while he sat in the shade and had a smoke. The old man watched as customers came in and out. He then put a couple of chairs in a new spot to see how people responded. And then he tried them in a different location. I watched this play out the entire week of my vacation.
You can see him in the photo above sitting in the background. Getting work done.
When I checked out of the hotel I stopped by and asked him about it. He said that he hadn’t decided yet what was best. But that was ok, because “Αγάλα-αγάλι γίνεται η αγουρίδα μέλι.” Which translates “Slowly, slowly, the sour grape becomes honey.”
Rearrange your story. And give it time to sweeten.
I cut open the persimmon and its orange flesh yielded a trickle of sticky juice onto my fingers. I lifted a fat slice into my mouth and was immediately reminded of apricot and the texture of a ripe tomato.
It was a gift from Pavan Iyer, owner of eightvillage, a place-based design consultancy that has an office in my workspace. He had brought a sack full of persimmons to share, explaining that his parents have a tree in their backyard that is laden with these sweet gems each October.
I was intrigued because I’d never tasted one. I didn’t know anything about persimmons. Had never thought to seek one out. Had never wondered about this delicacy. But because he shared one with me and told me about the tree in his parent’s yard, I had a new place in my brain for “persimmon.” And it is associated with Pavan.
Good storytelling – effective marketing – persuasive communications – starts with the generous act of sharing a taste of your offering with us. To create a connection in my mind with what it is you do.
What fruit are you sharing?
When we tell a story the world changes. Nothing remains the same.
First, you are different. Because in order to share your story you first had to articulate a specific point of view. You were deliberate about connecting the dots in a novel way. And then you took a stand.
Second, you changed the expectations of a group of people. Those people who share your values. They see things differently because of your story.
Finally, you changed expectations for the rest of us. You altered how we view customs and lifestyle choices. We all hope for something more after hearing your story.
No one else envisioned a coffee shop that provided job training for international refugees. Or that an outdoor clothing company would lead an international effort to give workers the day off to vote on election day.
You also have a unique way of looking at the world. Tell us that story.
We are often told to avoid negatives. That “YES” carries more weight.
But an emphatic “NO” is celebrated today in Greece on OXI Day. At 3 a.m. on October 28, 1940 Mussolini delivered an ultimatum to Greece – a demand that the Italian army be allowed passage across the border and enter unopposed. The Greeks responded with “OXI” – the single word “NO”.
The laconic reply became a rallying cry. A “no” to occupation. No to Fascisim. No to tyranny.
“OXI” became a story. Saying “NO” changed the world. The Italian army was held up by strong Greek resistance. The Nazi’s diverted resources to finish the job and occupy Greece. That delayed their invasion of Russia into a harsh winter. And that altered the course of WWII contributing to an Allied victory.
You can make change by saying no. No to a client with whom you do not want to work. With courtesy and in a timely manner. That gives you the resources to do something else.
No is also a story.
Impactful stories earn our attention through emotion. An emotion that connects to a deep desire. A desire to avoid loss. A longing to be important. A craving for love.
Open your story with strong emotion. Now that my heart is engaged, my mind will follow.
Tell me you can guide me to happiness, like this sign in front of Bantam + Biddy. Lure me into your story, into your brand, with an emotional story.
Novelists know the importance of an emotional opening line. One of my favorite authors, Donna Tartt, opened her debut work, The Secret History, like this:
“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”
Give me intrigue. Make me want to learn more about your offering.
I have a variety of interests and enjoy sharing my reflections on them here.