Establish Yourself As An Expert With A Story That Surprises

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Storytelling positions you as an expert…when it delivers a surprise.

When you’re a service business, you’ll often want to position yourself as an expert. Your brand might differentiate your business based on what you know and how your knowledge delivers results for your clients.

One of the best ways to establish expertise is to tell a story that surprises your listeners, creating an “Aha!” moment for them. Your goal as a service professional is to provide transformation.

Transformation almost always begins with an awareness of what’s happening now and what needs to be changed. As a change agent, you often create this awareness by delivering what’s come to be known as “aha” moments.

Let’s review some examples from one of the best books I read last year: The End of Average, by Todd Rose. At first I thought the book would be more self-help, along the lines of, “These Days You Can’t Afford To Accept Yourself Average. You Have To Be Outstanding.” Instead, his message is, “The concept of ‘average’ can be dangerous to your business, education and life.”

What makes this idea shocking is the word “dangerous.” Most systems, products and institutions are designed to target the “average” person. It seems reasonable…until you realize that targeting the average person means targeting nobody. And that means you deny admission to many highly-qualified people.

Rose creates an “aha” moment with two stories.

Story #1 opens the book with a concept story. Back in the 1940s, the US Air Force took measurements of pilots across several body dimensions, such as arm span, waist, hips, neck and shoulders. They used the average of each measurement to build cockpits.

Following a series of air crashes, the Air Force went back and measured thousands of pilots on ten dimensions. Not one pilot even came close to the “average” measurement on all ten. Ultimately, they learned to create adjustable cockpits, with seats, backs and armrests that could be adjusted for each pilot.

Rose concludes this story with a stunning episode of a fighter pilot who saved a plane was nearly destroyed in combat — a small female who didn’t fit the averages.

You can read an excerpt here.

Rose uses body size as an example of what he calls”jaggedness.” Nobody will be average on all dimensions of body size. And nobody will show a personality trait through all situations and activities. I’m very comfortable speaking to groups but I avoid most parties. Some children behave well at home but not in school, or vice versa. So, Rose, suggests, it’s better to say, “I’ve got this personality style in this situation but not that one.”

This story works because

— it fits the purpose: It’s intended to show the importance of respecting jagged edges and not rejecting people who don’t fit the standard (because maybe nobody does)
— it’s relatable: Many audiences will know someone who’s been in the military and many will relate to the hero as someone they could admire. Strongly anti-war or anti-military audiences won’t respond.
— it’s undeniably true
— it’s consistent with the author’s brand as an Educator

Story #2 is an origin story with a purpose. Rose was such a poor student in high school that his options for college were extremely limited. Bored with classes, he achieved poor grades and was known as a problem to many of his teachers.

When Rose got to college, he decided to figure out how to make academic life work for him. His advisor recommended getting the basic courses out of the way freshman year. But, Rose knew, he wouldn’t do well in boring classes. He needed to build up his study skills with classes he enjoyed. He realized a certain math class would be stultifying, so he found a way to test out of the required math classes.

But Rose also considered his own temperament and quirks. He avoided classes where he’d be seeing his high school friends. He knew he’d slip into his old “class clown” role and become a problem rather than a success story.

Even more remarkably, Rose talked his way into the college honors program. He discovered these classes encouraged free-wheeling discussion — something he enjoyed. And he learned how to pass a critical thinking exam by building on his own analytical style, with diagrams and pictures.

Ultimately, he earned graduate degrees at Harvard. Not bad for a kid whose teachers had given up on him.

Once again, this story works because

— it fits the purpose: It’s intended to show that sometimes failure isn’t due to the person; it’s due to an improper matchup between person and situation.
— it’s relatable: Everyone’s been in school. Many of us were bored or couldn’t relate to the way we were being taught.
— it’s undeniably true
— it’s consistent with the author’s brand as an Educator: Rose isn’t sharing the story to help us get to know him better; he’s using his own experience to clarify a concept.

These findings can be applied to business as well. How many times have you heard someone say, “I became successful when I realized that the prescribed rules wouldn’t work for me.” And have you listened to someone telling you, “If you don’t [go networking, create a podcast, do a lot of speaking, post to Pinterest four times a day, work 60 hours a week, or … ], you will never be successful.”

Hang around long enough and you’ll find someone who never did those things. They did SOMEthing, but they made the process their own. Maybe they shifted to a new business model to accommodate the way they work. Maybe they adjusted their goals. But ultimately they honored their own uniqueness.

Similarly, saying someone is “a successful businessperson” doesn’t mean they’re successful on all dimensions. They’ve learned to compensate for their weaknesses and leverage their strengths. If you rate them on qualities such as time management, interpersonal skills, perseverance, and technical savvy, they probably won’t score high on all those dimensions. I can’t imagine someone succeeding without strong audience awareness, but I bet somebody out there has done just that.

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This article was originally published on my Story-Centered Marketing blog.

Helping entrepreneurs and independent professionals grow their businesses one story at a time.

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