We all do it – so why not use it to your advantage?

the power of storytelling

Did you blow out over Christmas? Wine, beer, sherry, turkey, mince pies, Christmas pudding, cakes, chocolates, and lots of yummy cheese? If you did, perhaps you’ve blown up too. And you’ve seen the inevitable New Year, new you! headlines in the glossy weekend supplements. So maybe you’re thinking about turning over a new leaf. And what better way to do it than a detox? Well here’s a newsflash: detox doesn’t exist. UK charitable trust Sense About Science recently investigated 15 detox products from bottled water to face scrub. And their conclusions? The detox claims, they said, are “meaningless”. We’d be better off, according to them, eating healthily and getting a good night’s sleep. Their claims caused a furious debate. I heard one myself, on BBC radio. On one side, a spokeswoman for Sense About Science. On the other, a woman who’d been through a five-day detox, and said the results were amazing. So who’s right? They both are. The scientists are right because the science is undeniable. But the detox fans are right because they believe they’re right. They’ve told themselves that detox exists – so it does. It’s their story, and they’re sticking to it.

Tell (a story), don’t show

We all tell ourselves stories. I do (I’ve even got some ‘detox tea’ in my cupboard to prove it). You do. Everybody does. It’s part of who we are and how we function. It’s something Seth Godin explores in his addictive (in a good way) book All Marketers Are Liars. It’s packed full of examples of how we tell ourselves stories about everything. That’s our way of justifying purchases, cutting through the clutter of choice, and making ourselves feel good. Often, we use stories to deceive ourselves. Here are just a few examples I picked up on recently:
  • A woman at my gym who spends £30 an hour (her membership only costs £35 a month) once a week to chat to her personal trainer. She’s told herself she’s working harder, that it’s easier when you’ve got somebody motivating you, that it gives her structure and purpose. But it doesn’t. In six months, to my inexpert eye, she’s lost no weight. If anything, she’s gained weight.
  • Two acquaintances of mine who proudly announced that they’re self-diagnosed dyslexics. Their spelling is pretty bad, but it’s easier to blame it on a medical condition than do something about it.
  • An art gallery in Melbourne that gushed with enthusiasm over a new artist, until they discovered she was only two years old.
OK, these examples are frivolous, but they prove a serious point. People aren’t looking for facts. They’re looking for a story. And it’s a hugely powerful marketing tactic you can use to your advantage.

The plot thickens

Let’s be clear here: we’re not talking about deceiving people. If you market something using deceptive practices, you’ll be found out – every time. Instead, what you need to do is put yourself inside the mind of your potential customer. What stories do they tell themselves? What, in the words of the Wise One (Seth), is their worldview? Find out that, and you know how to talk to them. Why do people pay what they do for works of art? An art dealer friend put it very succinctly to me:
“Art isn’t ‘worth’ anything,” she said. “It’s simply an agreed point on a spectrum, usually midway between the buyer and seller.”
In other words, they tell themselves a story. If they didn’t, how would they justify paying (or charging) a fortune for pickled sharks and unmade beds? Baby on board stickers work because it bypasses the need for speed and appeals to people’s parental instincts. The same goes for safety cameras (the new name for – you guessed it – speed cameras in the UK). Once you know what’s important to people, you can look at your product or service from their point of view – using their vocabulary and terms of reference. Or put another way, tell them a story. So what’s your story? Find out more: