Wednesday, November 30, 2011

“The Ordinary Girl”: Taylor Swift and the Phenomenal Power of Story

In a recent blog post, Sally Mabelle, president of the New Zealand National Speakers Association, wrote: "When I saw Kevin Roberts, Worldwide CEO of Saatchi and Saatchi speak last year, he said something that stuck: 'What our customers want more than anything else is a sense of intimacy, a personal connection with you and your product or service.'" (

And how do we do that? Through telling our story.

Story, you realize, is not just a verbal event; it's a whole framework of identity -- including the deep why of your business, the benefits gained in using your service or product, visual images that powerfully convey the persona of your business, and your supporting actions. Some marketing people call this framework a brand. To me, brand is a dead and isolating word -- it's all about Me. How I want you to perceive Me. On the other hand, story lives, breathes, and connects. I share my story; you listen for something you recognize about yours. Story is about the We of relationship -- business or otherwise. Story is the path to win/win solutions.

Lessons from a Pop Star
Taylor Swift, in case you never heard of her, is a cute, gawky, kind of asexual 21-year-old country singer who writes songs about the inner lives of teenage girls. Crowned with a cascade of blonde curls and dressed in a mini with cowboy boots, Swift sings in a flat “Whatever” voice of the yearnings and heartaches of female adolescence -- her own. In the last couple of years, Swift has swept just about every music awards show: the Grammys, Country Music, and American Music Awards. She just sold her 5 millionth album, has her own clothing line, acts as spokesperson for numerous cosmetics and perfumes, adorns dozens of magazine covers each month, gives generously to charities, and has an estimated worth of $50 million.

Swift writes good songs, but there are hundreds of good songwriters. What has made her a pop phenomenon? The intimate relationship she has built with her fans.

I'd been vaguely aware of her for a while; her songs play at my gym. I tuned her out like I do most pop. She was pretty much invisible in my musical world.

That is, until I watched a recent “60 Minutes” feature on her. In 15 minutes, she became a flesh and blood person to me -- and a moving one at that. Her story made me curious enough to google her, find out more, and now I actually pay attention to her songs at the gym. Her songs are kind of haunting: I remember the experiences and feelings about which she writes. If there were a teen in my life, I'd find out if she liked country, and if so, I'd buy her a couple of Swift's albums.

Deconstructing Swift's story, this is what I see:

1. Title: "I’m just like you.” This message is the core of her music -- she sings the life she's lived. A life that mirrors in some way that of almost any teenage girl.

2. Storyboard: A major part of her marketing strategy is to build intimacy with her fans. During her concerts, for instance, she leaves the stage and walks to the middle of the auditorium with her acoustic guitar, where she sings especially to the people in the back rows. After someone takes her picture, she asks if she can take theirs -- often asking someone else to photograph them together. The home page of her web site is a diary filled with daily activities familiar to any teen. She has photos of pies her mother bakes. When asked about her feelings of being a role model, she says she takes it as her responsibility.

3. Back story: Daughter of a Pennsylvania stock broker, she began singing at two and picked up guitar around age 10. She badgered her family about moving to Nashville until they did. Once there, she was picked up by a major recording company to sing other people's songs. But she wanted to sing her own, and at 14, had the guts and self-belief to go out on her own. A young record producer liked what he heard, signed her, and that was the turning point. Like any hero, she pushed the limits and turned an ordinary career into an extraordinary one.

4. Message: "Nice girls rock." Wholesomeness wins the day. Swift is the anti-Gaga. In her songs, you don’t have to be a total freak to feel like a misfit, get cut from cheerleading, be bullied, or get dumped by a soccer guy. And you don't have to be a diva to become a blazing star. (Full disclosure: I'm a Lady Gaga fan.)

Staying aligned with this story, Swift has forged a sense of mutual adoration and loyalty with millions of teenage girls around the world who feel like she’s not just singing their song but lifting them up with hers.

This story has enabled her to ride professional and personal setbacks, such as the Grammy awards two years ago when rapper Kanye West awarded her the Grammy for best new artist and then went into a rant that Beyonce deserved it more. She flubbed every pop star’s dream when sang a duet with Stevie Nicks off key and was lambasted by critics, who declared her career over. She's suffered heartbreak in her personal life, when much older John Mayer seduced and then dumped her. How did she triumph over these blows? She wrote songs -- i.e., told the stories -- about them. "Story, businesses are realizing, means big money," wrote Daniel Pink in his book A Whole New Mind.

Nice girls laugh loud, long, and last.

What’s your story?
Every human being, group, and movement has a story. But most of us don't know that, and even if we do, we don't know how to tell that story. So here's a very simple process for developing an authentic story to establish trust and connection with the people you want to serve:

1. What drives you?
Don't say money. We're dealing with another level here. Why this business and not another? What gift, experience, passion, or values propelled you to do what you do?

2. When, why, and how have you been a hero to yourself or others?
These moments are the critical turning points in your story -- the times that turn a bio into a real story with challenge, heartache, and victory -- when you show yourself and others what you're made of, who you are, and why you have something of value to say.

3. What do your listeners need?
What are they listening for from you? What are your prospective clients' deepest fears and most urgent needs? People don't buy products and services as much as they buy stories that promise happier emotional states and greater well-being. Can you imagine yourself into their lives? Can you look at yourself through their eyes?

4. What gift, lesson, or motivational message do you bring them?
How does what you do fill their need? Can you honestly connect your service or product with ending or reducing their pain? Can you back up your promise with results and benefits obtained by using your service or product?

Answer these questions truthfully and you’re on your way to developing a compelling and authentic story package that helps you not only make and but also sustain a meaningful connection with those who need what you can give.

Not easy, for sure.

Want help? Write

by Juliet Bruce. All rights reserved.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Benefits of Storytelling for Stressed-Out Staff

Story has a role to play in every aspect of your business, from external communications to internal functioning.

Some years ago I presented a storytelling program for technical and support staff at a major hospital in Washington, DC. These are the people who operate the technology and shepherd patients through the acute care journey, from the first terrifying admissions interview, through pre-surgical tests and prep, to and from the OR to recovery -- and ultimately to discharge. Their impact on a patient's experience is huge. (You may have experienced the spike of fear aroused by a sullen admissions clerk or the trust that you were in good hands inspired by a gentle touch on your shoulder.) They bear the brunt of the stress in our dysfunctional care system, are on the receiving end of most complaints, and yet they are the forgotten employees.

This was a special event arranged for Secretary's Day. It was held in a conference room usually reserved for hospital board meetings. The door was closed, with instructions not to enter during the two hours of this workshop. The atmosphere was determinedly non-clinical. With meditative music playing; platters of sandwiches, fruit, and cookies on a side table; and a complete absence of supervisors, there would be no mistaking this get-together for a departmental meeting.

I introduced the program: They had probably left home in the morning with everything they would need during the day: wallet, keys, credit cards, coat. Everything, that is, except what mattered most: themselves. Their hopes and worries about their kids; their plan for a dream vacation; the burden of caring for an elderly parent; and all the possibilities and potentials they had given up along the way to create a little security. This time was theirs to tell whatever untold stories they were carrying around, if they wanted. They could also just listen to the music, poetry, and stories I had brought in. Frankly, I wasn't sure how this invitation to more personal relationship would go over in a place like this.

There were 25 participants, and a day-long workshop wouldn't have been too long for them. They were starved for attention, respect, listening. Everyone had a story and together they created a sorrowful documentary of a day in the life of a hospital worker.

One woman, whose job was to transport patients, described the loneliness and fear that she felt constantly in the face of so much suffering. "Sometimes I hug the patients, but it's just as much for myself as it is for them," she said.

The stories moved -- as stories naturally do when people realize they are being heard -- from distress to hope to laughter and finally to transformational action. They shared with one another their dreams of taking night courses to finish college, getting a better job, going to Hawaii, seeing their grandchildren graduate high school. And they collaborated on an employee stress reduction plan to present to administrators.

1. They asked for a quiet room with plants, sofas, and soft music, where they could eat, read, catch a nap, and just relax. They got a small unused storage area.

2. They asked for a weekly support group for any staff who wanted to attend. They got a biweekly one.

3. They asked for more input in the staff weekly newsletter. They got article suggestion boxes in their departments.

But really, they got much more.

This project was only one clear drop in the toxic ocean of our healthcare system, but it changed things a little in one small place. It began with the spark of collective creativity ignited by story.

Imagine what an employee storytelling program could accomplish in your workplace.

by Juliet Bruce. All rights reserveed.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Small Businesses Have Big Stories. What's Yours?

"The keys to the kingdom are changing hands. The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind -- creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers. These people -- artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers -- will now reap society's richest rewards and share its greatest joys." -- Daniel Pink, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future.

There is nothing more powerful than a story. Those who tell stories recreate the world.

Stories create connection, communicate uniqueness, and ignite innovation -- qualities needed more than ever in these economically unstable times, especially by small businesses struggling to gain visibility and credibility in an ever-changing, jam-packed marketplace.

Assuming you're producing excellent products or services, what is it about your business that is unique? What do customers and clients get from you that they can't from your competitors? What's that indefinable something that creates charisma and belief? Passion for your work, deep knowledge, and a relaxation in your presence that can only arise from authenticity. (For example, I keep noticing how kinetic self-realized people are. They fully inhabit their bodies and the spaces around them. They're alive!)

Logic just doesn't move people, folks. Emotions do. People buy stories that help to create a vision that makes them feel better.

Stories accomplish this arc of higher expectation better than any other form of communication. Why? Because no matter what issue, stories always begin with a problem and end with a resolution. The middle of a story is the journey to get there.

There's the hook.

The story of that journey touches your listener beneath the level of intellectuality, hits a visceral conflict or need, connects them to their own intuitive sense, and guides them toward action that benefits both of you.

This is why highly successful business people and leaders meet their customers, clients, and the public on the common ground of story.

Not only do successful people tell a great story about their product or service; they understand the story evolving at the core of their business -- the story their numbers, customer feedback, and workplace culture are telling them. They pay attention! They tend to the heart of their business and take intuitive action to keep it healthy.

Photo: "The Boyhood of Raleigh," by Sir John Everett Millais, oil on canvas, 1870. A seafarer tells the young Sir Walter Raleigh and his brother the story of what happened out at sea.

by Juliet Bruce, All rights reserved.