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Rising Above The Noise With A Story

Imagine you lived in Paleolithic times. Your name is Blug. You live in a cave. You’ve used fire for years, to cook game that you’ve caught or to prepare the hide in order to turn it into leather. In any case, you know it’s hot. You know fire burns.

fireOne day, as you’re sitting in your cave with your friend Geg, the fire lights a dry log lying nearby. The fire spreads quickly. The pathway to the cave entry is blocked by this burning log.

Geg suggests you have three options:

  1. wait
  2. try putting it out
  3. jump over the flames

Initially, you decide to try putting it out. You throw a pelt on the flame. It looks like it dies down, until…wait…the fur on the other side of the pelt catches. The flame grows even higher.

It’s getting harder and harder to breathe because of the smoke. You’ve moved everything else away from the fire in order to prevent it from spreading. If you wait any longer, you’ll start choking because of the smoke.

You are left with one option. The only way out is over the rising flames. Having suffered 2nd degree burns as a child, Geg’s terror increases as the hypnotically dancing flames get larger.

You’ve noticed that waving your hand over a campfire feels warm, but if you move it quickly it doesn’t burn. Based on this observation, you decide to take two hops and lunge forward over the conflagration. As you fly through the air, you feel the heat all around you. You raise your knees up high, minimize contact. The jump itself lasts a split second. You land on the other side of the fire, intentionally falling forwards to avoid any contact. You get up immediately, a bit bruised but thrilled you got over the fire without getting hurt.

You yell out to Geg, “Jump over it! I’m fine! Just hold up your knees and jump as far as you can.”
Unconvinced, he counters, “What do you mean? I’ll get burned again.”
You respond, “As long as you go over it quickly, you wont get hurt.”

Geg sucks in his breath. One, two, and clears the fire lifting up his knees, just like you. He lands cleanly on the other side, grinning from ear to ear.

“You were absolutely right,” he proclaims, as you emerge from the mouth of the cave. “You saved my life.”

Afterwards, when Geg tells friends the story of how you discovered this new fact about fire, they repeat it to their friends. The story travels far and wide. Other cavepeople enjoy hearing about your tale of courage, learning about this particular aspect of fire in the process. Before long, you become well-known as the One Who Discovered Fire Jumping. It’s how you’re introduced, whenever you meet anyone new. This story of struggle, this moment when you almost lost your life, enhanced the rest of your life and that of your fellow cavemen significantly.

Fire Jumping 101, or Why Stories Matter

Storytelling, like many things which are a part of our everyday lives, has been around with us since prehistoric times. It was a key survival skill for human beings, humans as a race. The fact that we could share information in the form of stories meant that knowledge traveled among people. Thanks to stories we learned vicariously, not only from personal experience. Stories made it possible to build and spread knowledge.

Imagine that your product idea gives your customers the power to jump over fires, something they never believed they could do or knew was possible. Or probably, you have some other main benefit in mind. Packaging it into a story will make it easy to explain what it is and how it works, even if it sounds incredible at first. A good yarn helps your product find a context.

Powerful stories amplify the effectiveness of product teams more than anything else. This is true at the level of the company’s story, at the level of the product’s story, and especially at the level of the offer. Good stories build on one another. For example, the tagline makes sense when you know the company’s story. Both communicate the values of the company as well as product messaging. Most importantly, it helps the product find or create a community for which it’s appropriate.

Start at the level of the prospect’s story. There are five main benefits you get from focusing on the user or the product story.

1. Stories Drive Buyer Action

Stories help to organize all that’s very meaningful. As a result, they drive action. The type of action that both you and your customer want. At the super-early stages, in fact, the main action that we’re looking for is the prospect’s intention to buy.

The story communicates what you’re trying to do for your target audience. A good story gives you the same effect of visualizing or simulating the struggle and how the product solves the problem.

In Made To Stick, Chip and Dan Heath cite a study where this effect of simulating the event, by visualizing it or by hearing it in a story, gives you two-thirds of the benefit of doing something e.g., shooting a basketball.

The story itself is transferring is the experience of having done what the thing is without necessarily actually doing it. It shares the skills needed to overcome a problem. The story helps resolve the protagonist’s struggle, the user’s struggle. It is a way to plant the belief that this product will solve their problem. “A belief,” Elly Roselle observes, “is not an idea held by the mind. Rather it is an idea that holds the mind.” You want your prospect to believe that your product will help them.

In direct marketing circles, copywriters consider emotion to be the key reason people buy a product. Marketing copy, for example on a sales letter, is just stored emotional energy. Stories are an extremely powerful way to trigger or deliver the emotion needed to convince the reader to buy.

Essentially, we’re talking about the persuasive stories that the prospect wants to hear. They draw the prospect in, make them want to find out more, and eventually convince them to buy. The prospect wants to be certain that you understand their story of struggle. Only then will they consider how your product fits into their own story and can end their struggle. The great thing about stories is that they allow everyone to avoid the trap of just following mindless problem solving recipes.

2. Talk With Prospects In Their Language

Quite often people are looking for a quick fix, a quick way out, without really addressing the full issue. Without really understanding it. If you’re using some type of mindless format, technique or tip, or something, quite often that’s not sufficiently infused with motivation for you to do anything, or enough motivation for the buyer of these products to do things.

For the last 20 years or so, the amount of information has been doubling annually. That’s overwhelming and continues to be more so all the time. If you look at the number of emails or ads that you get now on a daily basis versus 10 years ago, you can see how much that actually affects you. In addition to email, there’s many other types of communications which didn’t even exist back then. Things basically like chat, text, messaging, Snapchat, or whatever else.

Most people don’t actually want any more information. They’re overwhelmed with information. When they’re trying to solve a problem, what they actually want is the belief that they’re capable of overcoming it.

The thing is, if rational facts and information were so convincing, there wouldn’t be any smoking, obesity, or other “diseases of Western civilization”. Most people who smoke are aware of what the implications are in terms of lung cancer. But, obviously, it doesn’t affect their actions. Whereas a powerful story’s message can be a catalyst, it can inspire them to introduce change.

People want some wisdom or insight into their problem. They want to be inspired to act, to do something with it. They want a better understanding of what’s going on around them, the context. They also want empathy. They want to sense that others understand who they are. Good stories give you all of these things, while dry information doesn’t. Stories make problems much easier to understand on a deep level.

3. Focus Your Team on Business Impact

You want to avoid the trap of executing meaningless to do list items. If you really understand the full story, you understand why you are chasing after a goal. Thanks to a clear story, your team intuitively understands what the end user’s or buyer’s context.

With stories, you can communicate the important details about a product without stating all the details. This refers to both how a user sees things and how your product team understands that user.

For example, if the user’s story is clear, then it’s easier for the supposedly socially awkward software developers to figure out the relevant details needed to address the user’s problem. Even if you are missing certain details, the team can fill in what’s missing.

Good stories operate on many levels: emotional, intellectual, visceral, social. By telling a good story, you have the flexibility to adjust what gets emphasized for particular audiences.

With clearly communicated priorities, it’s much easier for you to focus on the business impact of your work. The following are good ways to visually summarize the impact you want to achieve: Gojko Adzic’s Impact Map tool and Ash Maruya’s Lean Canvas.

4. Easy-Peasy Chasm Crossing

A story that is easy to understand helps you, even at the pre-launch stage, to “cross the chasm”. Geoffrey Moore pointed out, in his fantastic series of books on high tech marketing, that high-growth tech companies face a number of significant audience changes in a compressed time window. Unlike traditional companies which tend to stick to one large group of people and try to scale that way, tech startups often start out by serving the “early tech adopter” community. It’s dangerous to generalize from that audience to a more mainstream audience. In fact, this complete change in audience is an important aspect of the “chasm”. Promising products that don’t make it across the chasm stall when they could be experiencing exponential growth.

In this context, a simple story, which a five-year-old could understand, is one that will be easier to scale up. Because it’s understood by everyone, from early adopters to your grand aunt, it’s very memorable. A clear, memorable, and spreadable story that everyone understands is easier to adopt. The leap from the early guys to the mass market is simplified.

A great example of this is Apple’s byline when they were launching the iPod. Although mp3 players had existed for years, the iPod was “your whole music collection in your pocket”. That story that drove the design specs, manufacturing, and embedded software requirements. This byline also explained to users, even if they were completely non-technical, exactly what the thing did. Unlike most mp3 player manufacturers at the time, Apple didn’t stress how many megabytes or gigabyte of RAM the thing had, or other technical characteristics. Apple just drew people’s attention to the benefit mentioned above. It’s a benefit which summarized the whole point of having an MP3 player, and made having an mp3 player attractive to the target audience.

5. Rallying the Troops

The next reason why you want to have a very clear story, at the user level and when scaling up, is that it sets your organizational tone. If the whole organization focuses on solving the user’s problem, it motivates everyone. Not just the CEO. Ultimately, the customer is the primary source of revenue and profits in a business.

This way everyone understands exactly what needs to be solved. Everyone understands how to make tradeoffs. Decisions are easier when the CEO is not required to be there physically. The team would have a common language for discussing requirements based on the story. This would result in the sharing of essential information needed to act quickly.

Organizational culture just clicks into place, as you’re building out your product later. By helping to act, what this
essentially means is that, quite often, the audience becomes engaged with it. They become more involved because you’re talking about their story. They feel drawn to what it is you’re doing.

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