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.