The Art of Telling Stories

Have you seen the “Land of Land Rovers” commercial?

Tonight we're going to talk about the art of telling stories, but there's no better way to do that than to show you a great example. I don't know if you've ever watched this commercial called, “The Land of Land Rovers,” but it is excellent. Three and a half minutes, and every second is used to not only tell a story about a community, but also about a product. Check it out.

Why does this commercial work?

Most car commercials suck. Can we start there? I don't mean that they don't show you how fast cars can go, but often the story component of the commercial is pretty bad.

I can't tell you how many trucks, for example, show different versions of off-roading and driving on snow covered roads, when most of us are driving on pavement.

But the biggest challenge most of these commercials have is that they position the vehicle as the hero of the story. And that's a no-no.

When you watch the Land of Land Rovers, you get a clear sense that the folks driving the Land Rovers are the main characters in this story, along with the two towns in the Himalayas. The challenge? The road.

The vehicles are part of the long history of these towns. But they've been key to facilitating everything. And when you're done watching, you want one.

I know. I bought a Range Rover this summer.

The Art of Telling Stories

Most of the founders that I connect with are also trying to tell a story. And unfortunately, their product is front and center as the hero of the story. That's not the only challenging part of their storytelling.

Founders, and I've been there, have to believe so seriously in their mission (or it would fail) that some of their stories are pretty grandiose (no, I don't think your 3 person company is going to transform an industry just yet). I get the belief, and love the hope, but as a story, it can feel pretty incredulous.

So how do you do it? How can you dig into the art of telling stories and help your product get the traction it deserves.

Four Bits of Homework

To make this really practical, I'm going to suggest that you do four different homework assignments to improve your ability to shape a story that grabs the attention you want.

My favorite pitchman passed away on Wednesday, yes I'm talking about Ron Popeil, but if he were here, he'd look at these four bits of homework and completely agree. I know it because it was part of every pitch he did.

Homework assignment #1: History

Every time you're talking about your product, you're telling a story. But most of the time we jump to the climax of the story way too quickly. We want to showcase how amazing our product is right away.

But the truth is that your product isn't a result of chance. It exists because it solves a problem. Most likely a problem that either hadn't been solved, or was solved poorly.

So here's the homework assignment.

Dig into the history of how the world existed before your product ever existed. How did people solve this problem before your product came to market?

Homework assignment #2: Competition

Most of the time I would tell you to ignore the competition. But the truth is what I really mean is that I don't want you focused on them. Focus on your own plan. But you do need to understand what's going on in the market around you. And to do that well, I always suggest checking out what your competition is doing and what messages are being put out there.

When it comes to telling the story of your product, it's always going to be a game of contrasts. Contrast is what we remember. Contrast is the way to tickle our brains. So your story will be stronger when you finish this assignment.

Look at your competitors and pull out the specific themes or features that allow you to distinguish your product from the rest of the space. Look for places where you go left when everyone else is going right.

(Note: for this exercise you cannot use anything like “ease of use” as a differentiator. I want to believe you but everyone says they're easy. There's no contrast there.)

Homework assignment #3: Reduction

When you watch Ron Popeil on YouTube with any of his infomercials where he trains his audience to “set it and forget it,” you'll see him take a hammer to his Ronco Showtime Rotisserie. Why does he do that?

Because he's showing you how high quality his product is. It's in the context of the contrast from his competitors who were pushing out similar products that were cheaply made.

But more importantly, he's demonstrating the power of “reduction.” Reduce cost, reduce risk, reduce repairs, reduce complexity, and reduct time to cook a chicken.

This is his twist on what we all know as benefits language. But his focus was always on the story of, “before and after.” And his after was always a message of reduction.

Look at the various ways your product reduces things. Does it reduce the amount of effort (in clicks or minutes)? Does it reduce the number of people that have to be involved? Does it reduce the risk of failure?

Homework assignment #4: Constraints

Ok, we're almost done with these assignments. I hope you're still here with me because as you wrap this up, you'll be telling a story that's far better than your competition. And telling a story that your prospects will love.

Now no one likes artificial constraints. Those “you only have 24 hours left before this deal goes away” offers feel artificial and forced. But not all constraints are artificial. If you've ever watched the barkers (which is how Popeil got his start) on boardwalks, you know that they only sell a limited amount of their products. It's strategic. When you watch, you'll see those last few folks who really wanted it stick around. Why? Because the barker will tell them if they stick around, he'll get them in on the next round – and they become the initial crowd for the next pitch session.

But also, think back to the commercial at the beginning of this post. The roads are challenging and dangerous. Not every vehicle could do the work. The constraints aren't artificial at all. But when we tell the story, with the constraints in place, it makes the product stand out so much more.

Your last homework assignment is to dig into the constraints around your product. Who will it help, and who will it not work for? Where does it help and where does it not apply? When is it available and when will it no longer be around?

Want to learn more about telling stories?

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Turning your homework into a powerful story

You didn't think I was simply going to have you do all that work and then wish you good luck, right?

As you have guessed by now, the art of storytelling is in the prep. Without the homework, you can surely wing it, but it won't nearly be as powerful as when you prepare. And that's why you want to do that homework.

Then, it's really about assembling a powerful story.

I'm pretty sure I can't write a post like this without referencing Jobs or Apple, so let's look at one of the most famous examples – the original iPod launch.

Do you remember the iPod introduction? First there was a connection to history (“music has been around forever” and “it's a part of everyone's life” and “it will always be”).

Then, where does Jobs go next? (“There is no market leader” and “there are large companies like Sony that haven't had a hit yet”) That's right – he pushes the competition narrative.

From there, he moves into portability. He shows you all the options out there, but you know where this is going, right? It's the “1000 songs in your pocket” move. That's the reduction narrative.

When Jobs moves into the introduction of the iPod, he first moves into the constraint narrative by talking about his competitors. He highlights how expensive (per song) they are, and the fact that you can't take your entire collection with you (like you forget your favorite CD). He adds another layer to the constraint narrative by highlighting the physical nature of an iPod (“you can put it into your pocket”), and using contrast again.

So if you've done your homework, the final part is pulling the threads together to create a powerful story that presents your product as the answer that your customers have been looking for.