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Daily Archives: February 6, 2013

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Storytelling Violates Expectations

There’s a scene in the movie Adaptation when Nicholas Cage – playing a screenwriter struggling with telling his story – is in Robert McKee’s renowned story structure class.  He asks McKee about stories where “nothing happens”.  He wonders if telling these stories are actually more like “real life”.

It’s a wonderful setup because it’s a question so commonly asked.  What about those movies, or books or stories where “nothing happens”.   The sitcom Seinfeld was even self-aware enough to express this explicitly.  Jerry would commonly say that the show (and the fictional show he created with George) was “about nothing.  But of course that wasn’t true – because Jerry violated our expectations every time.

But back to McKee and the movie Adaptation. Watch McKee’s brilliant (NSFW-language) response here:

Okay… if you’re at work.. Or didn’t’ feel like watching the clip – basically McKee flips out and says – if you’re going to tell me a story where NOTHING happens – why are you wasting my 2 hours.

Having taken McKee’s class twice (which I can’t recommend highly enough) – I can tell you that the scene is largely based on fact.  Inevitably in the class there is always a student that asks about creating stories where “nothing happens”.  The reaction you see in the scene above – is basically the same hell that he brings on any student unlucky enough to ask that question.

What’s Happening In Your Story

What McKee is really talking about in storytelling is that you must violate expectations in order to keep an audience involved, engaged and interested in hanging around.  You must make interesting things happen.

For example – let’s look at the outline of the beginning of two stories.

Story 1 – Guy wakes up, he brushes his teeth, he gets in his car and drives to work – walks through the parking lot, drops his keys, picks them up – and walks into his office building.

Story 2 – Guy wakes up, he brushes his teeth, he gets in his car and drives to work – walks through the parking lot, drops his keys, and as he bends down to pick them up he notices his boss stuffing a bag with a human arm hanging out into his trunk.

Which story are you more likely to continue reading?

This holds true in everything we’re doing in marketing.  Let’s take B2B marketing for a moment.   If you frequently give or receive overview/sales PowerPoint presentations for  customers – let me predict how most sales presentations are ordered:

Slide 1 – Who we are – why we’re a great company.  We’re awesome.  We’ve been in business for X amount of years.  We’ve won awards.

Slide 2 – Here’s our products – and the awards they’ve won.  Did I mention that we’re awesome?

Slide 3 – Logo Slide – here’s all the customers that have bought from us – and wow aren’t we impressive that we’ve closed all these big deals.

Slide 4 – Case Study – here’s one of those customers and a quote telling you why we’re so awesome.

And so on…..

What if instead…. This company’s overview deck went a little like this.

Slide 1 – Picture of a man.  Let me tell you a story about this man.  Normally you might think I’m going to tell you a case study.  But this guy didn’t buy from us and he is NOT a customer.

Okay… I’ve already violated the audience’s expectations.   I could go on from there and tell the audience how we pitched this guy – and even though he wanted to – he wasn’t able to buy from us.  He was forced to buy a competing product from a “safe” vendor.  They had a horrible time with it.   In fact, he now works as our Director of Marketing – because he was so taken with our solution that he wanted to work for our company.

Now when we show that logo slide and we tie it into how our solution has changed the direction of all these companies –  it starts to mean something very different than simply “we’re awesome”.

Start Watching For It Everywhere

Every single movie that you love – every single scene you think is great – and every single book that you can’t put down uses the violation of expectation to keep you engaged.

A few examples:

The classic scene in Good Will Hunting when Ben Affleck is trying to woo Minnie Driver in the bar.  The arrogant Harvard student goes to embarrass Affleck’s character by talking about “the economy of pre-revolutionary America” and your expectation is that they’re going to fight.  Instead, Will (Matt Damon) comes over and mentally obliterates the arrogant student with more knowledge than he could ever know.

Or… this classic scene from Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade where Indiana and his father have managed to get into Berlin to retrieve the diary – a book that the whole German army is looking for.  As they’re trying to escape they manage to bump into Adolph Hitler… And… he signs the book like it’s an autograph.

Or maybe the best example of all – there’s this amazing scene from Casablanca; where almost every single line of dialogue violates your expectations; starting with the lines  “what’s your nationality?”  Rick says  “I’m a drunkard”.  It’s just amazing writing.

As a side note – if you take the McKee class – I guarantee you that after you experience his day-long analysis of Casablanca if it doesn’t become your absolute favorite film – it will be top five.

So…. if you’re a marketer – and you’re going to start to use content to help power your strategy – start to exercise this muscle… Watch a movie, read a book – and watch for the turns, the violations of expectations…

You may even surprise yourself where it will take you….

Oh… by the way… how many of you noticed that the picture for this post is the earth “upside down”…. Remember – there’s no rule that says North is up….

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Who Is Driving The Story?

For whatever reason, I seem to have been spending a lot of time lately reading and commenting on creative marketing strategies.  From strategic positioning, to tag lines, to business plans.   I’m struck not by the uninspired creative (although a few clearly are) but rather how “safe” they all want to be.

It all reminds me of this George Bernard Shaw quote:

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. All progress, therefore, depends upon the unreasonable man.”

I combine this with this true fatigue I have over the phrase “data-driven marketer”.  Interestingly, if you Google this phrase, you’ll get about 25 million results and most of them are links to how to become one.

There was an interesting article over on HBR that talks about how much we, as marketers, really suck at using data.  And there’s a wonderful quote (that I’ve heard attributed to Scott Stratten and I’ll paraphrase here) that says – “why would we look to the nifty new things of tomorrow, when we suck at what we have today?”

Now that the news cycle is back to normal, and we head into the planning season for 2013, I’d like to humbly suggest that Marketers just need to lose the vision of the  “data driven marketer” holding a spreadsheet triumphantly over their head, ROI emblazoned on their super-hero cape as they stand at the summit of their mountain of Google Analytics.

Now – of course this isn’t to say that data is useless. Quite the contrary – it’s an essential piece of what we do.  Insight derived from data can be powerful and spur new creativity.  But, if we are a slave to it. If we are driven by it.  We will end up with a story that is, well, just incrementally better than it was yesterday.  And, I don’t know about you – but I’m hoping for more than that.

Thankful for Mediocrity

Do you ever wonder what our world as marketers would look like if everything were creatively amazing and compelling?  Basically what would the world look like if every product were marketed as well as Apple Products?  What if it was easy to create amazing, compelling, persuasive stories?  What would we do?

Well, I think Paul Arden had about as good an answer as I’ve seen.  In his book,  It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be – he asks:

Why do we strive for excellence when mediocrity is required?

There is little demand in the commercial world for excellence.  There is much, much bigger demand for mediocrity.

Arden wonders what we would do – and suggests that we would “react against it, saying, “Isn’t this boring.  How can we be dull?  Let’s do it badly, let’s make it ugly, and let’s make it really cheaply.”

In fact, you can even see some of this happening today.  I actually wrote an article for iMedia connection back in June of last year called How ‘Ugly’ Can Boost Your Campaign.

But the key difference in all of those campaigns was that “ugly” was “remarkable”.  They weren’t trying to be safe – they were actually trying to be different.  That’s the key.  They actually said something.  As Realtor Mark Seiden relayed to me when I interviewed him for that piece:

“We took the challenge of ‘ugly’ very seriously. The designer’s first iterations really missed the mark. They were too pretty. The key was for the designer to really feel the emotion and the feeling of the frustrated seller.”

So, thank goodness the world is demanding mediocrity.  In today’s noisy, information overloaded world, it gives us a fighting chance to do something weird, out of the box, different.

No Remarkable Marketing Is Ever Data Driven

Name any remarkable creative marketing campaign you can remember,  and I’ll guarantee you that it did not come out of a spreadsheet.    Our most compelling story, our most persuasive campaign our most viral content didn’t come as the result of an A/B test.  It did not come from our Google Analytics report – and it did not come from our landing page conversion metrics.

It came because we took the time to figure our what our business REALLY does and what problem we are REALLY solving for our customers. And we creatively figured out a way to tell a story that was different from our competition.

Differentiating means “being different” not being incrementally better than our competition.  If you haven’t read “Different” by Youngme Moon – give yourself a treat.  It’s wonderful.

Data is important.  Data is helpful.  Data helps you wring efficiency out of your visitors, and target your message more capably and generally make your campaigns better.  Data helps you be incrementally better today than you were yesterday.

Data gives you the opportunity for insight.  But YOU are the one that has the insight.

You are the one that makes the exponential leap. You are the one that thinks up the B version that outperforms the A version by 2000%.   You are the one that dreams up the story of your business that you’ll tell through content marketing.

Our Content Our Unique Story

If I can butcher the Shaw quote for a moment I’d say that the reasonable marketer adapts their story to the world.  The unreasonable marketer persists in trying to adapt the world to their story.   All of our success therefore, will depend upon us – at some time  or another – being unreasonable.

Whether it’s our creative brief, our positioning statement, our content marketing story or our newest creative ad campaign.  Let’s occasionally try to be unreasonable.   As Arden says – there’s little demand for it.   And, we’ll certainly fail more than we succeed at it.   But it’s our best bet to create something remarkable.

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Blockbuster Marketing Is Not Plot

I’ve just returned from Content Marketing World New York – and boy did we ever have alot of fun. Many of the comments afterward were how much the attendees liked the exercise of getting to “story” as opposed to “plot” – so it inspired a quick blog post on my way home.

As marketers, don’t we dream of capturing the hearts of our consumers so that they become loyal?  As content marketers – our goal is to not only grab the attention of our audiences, but to engage, inform, entertain and ultimately influence them to maintain or change a behavior.   As marketing storytellers we do all this with our content.   We do it with the hope that our audiences become so engaged with our content that they ultimately “subscribe” to our brand – and will themselves actively share our story and build the success of our business.

But in order to do this – we marketers must often get out of our own way.  I know it’s true for me anyway.  We must allow our consumers an easy way into our world.   We spend so much of our time crafting amazingly well-thought out, thickly filled content.  We focus on content that informs and positions our brand as the leader in the space, and that illustrates that we really do have a big idea to share.  But we’re often so focused on WHAT we’re producing – that we often lose the WHY we are doing it in the first place.

Unless we layer in what it all *really means* – to our brand (our organization) and what the ultimate “throughline” is – our content marketing efforts are ultimately at risk of just being more meaningless data that serves our competition as well as it does us.

Difference Between Plot Vs. Story

When you read a book, watch a television show or go to a movie and you feel emotionally connected – it’s because the storyteller has given you a way into that main character’s struggles and dreams.  And this is very often quite different than the main plot.   When you walk out of a movie feeling disconnected (I’m looking at you Total Recall remake)  or close the novel feeling unfulfilled it’s usually because the writer didn’t give you that way in.   You were just an observer of the plot.  And while you may have been sympathetic at times – and maybe even rooted for the character to win – you didn’t get emotionally connected.

Let’s take one of my favorite movies – Star Wars as an example (I dare say I won’t spoil the ending for anyone).   We’re dazzled by the light saber duels, the space ships and the romantic adventure.  But that’s not what hooks us emotionally.  It’s Luke – staring out over the sand dunes…having just argued with his uncle about leaving home… Luke feels trapped by his circumstances – and family commitments… He’s wants to get out of his small world and go do something big…  and THAT’s what we engage with when this scene plays…

Now argue as we may about the strength of that emotional connection – the fact that it is still the second highest grossing film ever in the US says it resonated.…  That one minute scene tees up the rest of the entire series.  Now, when Luke goes through those adventures, we go with him – connected.  We have been given an opening into our hero and we can now ride along with him – not only just rooting for him – but now emotionally attached.

By the way… just in case you think that’s not purposely designed – The Binary Sunset Music that you hear in that scene is one of the most recognizable pieces of John Williams’ score.  Across all six movies, it is used most prominently in this 30 second scene.  And, it’s only used when Luke is “expanding his world” or when Ben Kenobi is present.  Check out this write up.

Data Vs. Content Marketing

The same holds true with our content marketing.  Take for example, a content-driven startup company I worked with recently.   They had, literally, mountains of data (hundreds of thousands of web content pages) to back up their claim to be the “owner” of information on their particular topic.  They owned the domain name that was basically the “industry.com” of their space.  Their site was beautiful and slick (rounded corners and everything).   And they owned the front page of Google for their key search terms.  And, yet there was zero engagement.  They couldn’t get conversions – and they couldn’t keep people on their site.   Why?

It’s because they were providing a plot – with dazzling special effects and set pieces – with absolutely no way in for the visitor to become emotionally engaged.  The user searched for some data, visited the page, got the answer they were looking for – and then went elsewhere to be engaged.

Build Ways Into The Throughlines Of Your Brand Heroes

I’ve written about this a bit before over on the Content Marketing Institute site – when I wrote What Your Content Marketing Is Really About.

As a content marketer, you’ve got to understand the difference between your brand plotlines and your brand’s throughlines.   Plotlines are the WHAT.  The content you’re producing; the wonderful, engaging and thought-provoking content you create and use to drive a marketing result.  The throughlines are the WHY – they drive the emotional connection to this content.

Remember this: Content developed without a “WHY” is just data – and you might as well cross-post it to your competitors’ sites as well.

Character Driven Content Marketing

We’ve got to make sure that we’re making personal connections to the WHY we are driving this content forward.

We struggle with this for sure.  It’s hard to let people into our brand mission.  We boast to our boards, our families and our investors about why we want to change the world.  But for some reason we hide it in our content.  We want to hide our foibles – our limitations – our hopes and dreams.   But this is precisely what gives our audience a reason to identify with us – to go on the journey WITH us.

Look at any content marketing success story – and you’ll see this emotional connection whether it’s actually planned or not.

Our consumers are inherently aware of when the story is broken.  And, in our case, when we don’t create it – it’s a lack of engagement, decreasing conversions and no bottom-line results that will tell that story.

In the book Managing Content Marketing (shameless plug) – Joe Pulizzi and I frame this as identifying “The Challenge”.   If we take the time to clearly identify our brand purpose – and WHY we want to “change the world” – our content will become something much more than just a plotline of data illustrating how “smart” or “entertaining” we can be.  We can infuse our content with an emotional connection – and that’s what will engage our audiences and produce the bottom-line results we all want.

Our content marketing should be unique.  It should tell OUR story.  It should be meaningful, evoke emotion and represent the big ways in which we want to change the world.

Why should we settle for less?

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Hugging The Chaos

My grandfather used to say something that’s been on my mind a lot recently.   Whenever I got frustrated about anything – school, a job, life more generally he would ask me “what have you created lately.”  Then, he’d chide me – “go create a new experience for someone.”   He wrote this to me once in a card that explained this idea which was – when you create a new experience for someone, you get to experience it – and in turn it creates new opportunity for you.

I didn’t really know what he meant by that until just recently.  I’ve rewritten my grandfather’s suggestion a bit and this is what I’ve come up with:

 – “it is in the creation of the experience that we get to experience new creation.”

It’s taken me 20 years to really understand what this means.

You’ve heard the saying before that if you want to learn something – go figure out how to teach it.   At it’s core, it’s a very similar type of suggestion.

Businesses are changing.

We’ve heard this of course.  Business is changing – marketing is changing.  But really what’s happening is that people are changing.    And, as employees, team members, managers  – basically anyone focused on making money by observing and working with influencing human behavior.  We have a choice.  We can change – or we can be changed.

I’ve been out on the road the last two months teaching content marketing workshops to companies both large and small – everything from multi-billion dollar insurance companies to technology startups and even people who want to BE a startup. And,  I’m seeing a similar pattern come up with each experience.

Employees – our team members – see “Content Marketing” and “Marketing-as-Storytelling” as this very interesting thing that will be near impossible to execute.  Why?  Because it means the organization has to change….   And well… it probably won’t so why should I even try.

Managers – our directors and VP’s see content marketing and storytelling as this fundamental change in the way they are managing teams…  They want the flexibility to try new things – but because of a focus on short-term performance and data they’ve worked themselves into a box – that quite frankly they’re not ALLOWED to think outside of….

And – the C-Suite recognizes that new marketing paradigms like Content Marketing (and digital more broadly) are changing the rules of the game for marketing… But this change will be different than anything they’ve done before…  They ask themselves how can they institute change from a top down basis without risking a big failure across one quarter.. or two… or forever…

Ultimately all of these things come down to one thing – and that’s fear of the chaos….

We’re New At This Business Storytelling Thing

See, one of the things that we are challenged with as business professionals is that we are always striving for two things: – harmony and measurability.

We have spent our careers building business systems for consistency.  We have laser focus on removing operational conflicts, and anything that will take away from consistent, predictable, harmonious processes.

We believe in measurability as a foundation for that predictability.  The old saying “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” comes out of this thinking.   This, of course has been morphed into “if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t count”.  And this last one is, of course, complete nonsense.

Think for a moment about the love you have for someone special in your life.  Maybe it’s your wife – or your mom, or your dad or your children – or even a dog.  How much love is there?  Have you measured it lately?  Well, if you can’t measure it – it doesn’t count – right?

Storytelling Is Hugging The Chaos

Great Storytelling IS a contradiction.  Engaging stories set out to deliberately draw a conflict – a comparison of morality, or of fundamental change – or of good and evil.   Of starting at a place where we DON’T KNOW how it’s going to turn out….   We Hug The Chaos!

The story of how you met your wife STARTS with you not knowing if she would eventually become your wife….  You had no idea.

As marketers today, we are inundated with reasons to do the opposite of this.

We operate from knowledge; from past experiences.  We very often only act when we have the data to support our product, our position – our package – our pricing… our promotion….  In fact we’ve historically scaled our data analysis skills in marketing and we hire outside our company for anything creative.  We keep a safe distance from the “creative genius” that can be so compelling – but also so unknown, so chaotic – so tragically wrong.  Why is that?

To become storytellers we’ve got to change that.  We’ve got to not only embrace the absence of data – we should, ourselves, make time to move ourselves occasionally into the chaos – and into the winds of change.  We need to exercise our creativity as frequently as possible to let it bloom and deliver us a contradiction, a conflict –  a story that will introduce a conflict that we can resolve with a passionate, engaging story.  

The chaos is a place that we should make space for in our marketing strategy.  It is a place where we sometimes feel panic, or where we don’t know where to go.  It’s a place where we have no idea what  should or will come next.  And it can often provide truths that you could never have believed before.

We can use this chaos to build a story around a piece of content we want to write for our content marketing – or we can use it to develop entirely new brands or even our own career paths. Use the embrace of chaos to summon your genius and move your audience into something that immediately draws a conflict – or a contradiction that MUST be resolved… that an audience will engage with you UNTIL it is resolved…

So, find the time to not only embrace the chaos… But find the time to love it….  Use the benefit of NOT KNOWING what the answer is t summon your inspiration, your wisdom…   And to tell your story…

That’s how you become different… that’s how you start to tell stories – and it’s what makes your story… remarkable…

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