This week as I was cooking spaghetti sauce for my family, I blended in some veggies too. I’ve been playing this trick for years now, trying to get my girls (ok, my husband too) to eat more greens. Cunning, right?
It made me remember a commencement speech I saw a while back where Ira Glass, host of This American Life, spoke about a storytelling technique he referred to as “cunning.”
If you’ve ever listened to This American Life, you know that they address some big, important stories that we should be talking about: police culture, immigration, climate change, human rights, criminal justice… the list goes on. But the problem for Ira and his team is that most people are tired of these stories. “Numb to the narrative,” as my friend Ann Handley calls it, they scroll right past.
In marketing, we may not be sharing global issues, but we certainly come across customers who are tired of our narrative.
Even if our products and services solve very real problems that our customers face, it’s simply a reality that our customers are bombarded by ads 24/7 and couldn’t care less about our project management software for small businesses, or our B2B solution for pharmaceutical sales reps, or anything else… yes, even the market research company owned by yours truly.
What, then, is a marketer to do?
Tell smaller stories.
Yes, you read that right.
The key to getting people to pay attention to the story is to make the story smaller. Much smaller. The smallest story possible. Small stories are human. Small stories are specific. Small stories are just the right size for a person to process.
In one of my all-time favorite episodes of This American Life, the topic that needed to be covered was immigration bans in the US. But who wants to listen to something so daunting? So, the show started with a much smaller story: one about a public library. You see, this unique public library actually sits right on the border of the US and Canada. It has an entrance on both sides. That means that despite the immigration bans in the US, families who are not allowed to be in the same country are able to reunite in person, inside this library.
As Handley puts it, “Big and bold stories are often best told in small and specific ways.”
Let’s forget that one-liner about our business that we’ve repeated thousands of times… and instead talk about real people and their true stories.
Let’s talk about one snapshot in their lives, a moment where they struggled, and what they did to make a shift.
Let’s interview a customer, not for a testimonial, but to really get to know them.
Let’s identify a super-relatable feeling from the story. Small stories tend to pique audience interest, tug at heartstrings, and get your audience pulled in and listening before they even know what the bigger story’s about.
To know how to find the right stories to speak to your audience, we have to really get to know our customers. Before we can create our signature set of stories, we have to understand what’s going to touch, move, and inspire our target audience. And what better way than to ask them?!
We’ll get to the big. But it’s all about starting with the small.
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Sarah Weise is the CEO of award-winning marketing research agency Bixa and the bestselling author of InstaBrain: The New Rules for Marketing to Generation Z. For 15 years, Sarah has been a guide to hundreds of leading brands including Google, IBM, Capital One, Mikimoto, PBS, and U.S. Army, to name a few. Sarah helps brands achieve a laser-focus on their customers and build experiences that are downright addictive. She lectures at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and speaks at conferences and corporate events worldwide.