By Leigh Ann Hubbard
At a creative writing camp in high school, I wrote a short story about the house I grew up in.
The story gave me all the feels. It was poignant, nostalgic. It touched on all five senses like we were taught to. It painted a picture.
The professor said it was boring.
She didn’t put it that way. She said, “This is very nice. But why does it matter to the reader?”
It was a profound lesson. Just because a story means something to me doesn’t mean it will to everybody else.
Consider the reader.
Have We Gone Too Far?
In marketing, we talk a lot about storytelling right now. We’re kinda obsessed.
The next big thing will be listening. That’s my hot take.
“Storytelling” is rarely defined in these marketing discussions. There’s not much talk of how to do it effectively. Just “tell stories.”
That generic advice is taking us down these paths:
- “Let me tell you about me.”
- “I am very important.”
- “My business is very important.”
- “Here are a lot of words.”
In other words, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk. (Check LinkedIn any day to see this in action.)
Here’s something the marketing thought leaders never tell you: While storytelling can be powerful, it can also come across as pointless.
How to Listen to Storytell
One of my favorite parts of marketing is getting inside the target audience’s heads. I imagine one person (which marketers sometimes call a “persona”) and their pain points, dreams, goals. I try to become them in ways, similar to what an actor does. Then, I can write something that speaks to them.
It’s a form of listening, in a way.
But this kind of “listening” has a weakness: It’s still just me, relying on my own imagination.
There’s a step further that we can take: listening in real life.
Wendy O’Donnovan Phillips at Big Buzz (a Foresight partner, but this isn’t a sponsored article) talks about gathering voice-of-the-customer data, for example. (She has a method for doing that.) Then, you can use your customers’ language — their actual words — in your marketing.
However you do it, when you get to know your target audience, you can tell stories that speak to them.
Take a gander at your website, for example. Does your homepage speak to your target audience in this way? How about your “about” page? Your “services” page?
One thing we do for partners at Foresight is tell stories that help them reach their target audience. Sue Saldibar is one of our experts on this. She has written articles about Foresight partners for seven years. She often starts her articles with a personal anecdote and then talks about the partner.
But the anecdote isn’t about her.
And the partner article isn’t about them.
It’s all about the reader.
Here’s an example:
Back in my software sales days, right after the sale, we’d turn everything over to the installation team.
Thus began the hand-off from hell.
I grew up in sales, back in the ’80s, being told
1. It’s just a numbers game.
2. The more leads you put in the top, the more come out the bottom.
We had an excuse back then.
We didn’t have digital marketing tools.
If you keep reading the articles, you’ll see that each anecdote, while technically about Sue, relates to the reader’s experience or fears.
“I always go back in when I write something personal and usually end up shortening it drastically,” Sue says. “I try to reel myself back in and ask, ‘What is the problem the reader has that we’re addressing?’ to get to what the issue is.”
In your case, if you work in senior living, you have lots of stories you could tell about how your solution has solved residents’ problems or fears. This kind of storytelling helps other people in similar situations understand how your solution could work for them too.
“Does It Sound Like I’m Bragging?”
Of course, not every story has to be about the reader and their problems. There are different purposes for storytelling. But here’s an example that may surprise you: Say you’re writing your bio. Seems like it’s about you, right? It’s not really — or doesn’t have to be.
Start by asking, “What’s my goal?”
One answer could be: “helping my target audience trust me — and, by extension, my community.”
When you start with the goal, you may find that the tone you use and the details you choose change. You may end up coming across as more down-to-earth and relatable. Instead of feeling like you’re bragging, you’ll be communicating. You’ll be helping someone get to know you.
What Do You Want Them to Get Out of This?
If you feel like your stories aren’t resonating — like something is off — you may be spot on. Try listening — ideally in real life, but if nothing else, you can also use your empathy to imagine yourself into the prospects’ shoes. Then start writing, with a goal: What are you trying to communicate? What’s your message? What do you want the reader (or viewer or listener) to get out of this?
Write tightly. Cut extraneous details that serve you but not the reader. Get to the goal. Bring it home.
That’s when storytelling in marketing works.