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Why “What’s your story?” Is The Wrong Question (And What To Ask Instead)

In talking about storytelling for small business, it’s common to begin with the question, “What’s your story?” But that’s the wrong question.

Following a talk about her new book on loneliness, an author was taking questions. Someone asked, “What’s your own story — what motivated you to write about this topic?”

It was a long time ago and I’ve forgotten the author’s name and the book title, but I still remember the author’s answer.

“My agent thought it would be a good topic,” she said, “because there’s a lot of buzz around the topic and we could find a publisher.”

It would be hard to find a better example of a non-story.

But if more people told the truth, we’d get answers like that all the time. Often we don’t know how we chose a topic, a business, a career or even a significant other. And if we do know, the answer to the “why” question isn’t all that exciting.

I think of that story when well-meaning people — including many copywriters — offer feedback on websites, sales letters and landing pages.

“We want to hear your story,” they say. “Tell us why you decided to build this business. Give us a sense of who you are.”

Sometimes what you have is a non-story … and that’s exactly what you need.

When you’re hiring a lawyer to handle your real estate deal, you probably won’t be impressed if she says, “I’ve been fascinated by real estate since I was building houses with legos.” You want to know how long she’s been doing deals in your city, since regulations (not to mention enforcements) vary widely from one jurisdiction to the next. And you want to be sure she’s tough enough to stand up to the other party’s ridiculous demands and yet sufficiently respectful of your time to return calls promptly.

Last week I met an emergency room physician when we were both walking our dogs. When I asked why he chose this specialty, he didn’t have a story of saving lives and restoring hope. He didn’t even refer to the adrenaline rush of a fast-paced week. He said, “I like doing procedures. I like using my hands. I don’t like reminding people to take their blood pressure meds.”

Not exactly a heart-warming story, is it? But if you needed to be sewn up after an accident, wouldn’t you choose manual dexterity over idealism? I would.

So is there a place for stories throughout your marketing? Absolutely! Here are 2 examples:

(1) Does your personal journey story support your purpose?

In his book, The End of Average, author Todd Rose describes how test scores identified him as a slow learner with personality problems — someone who’d struggle to graduate from college, if he could even pass the courses. Today, with graduate degrees from Harvard, Rose studies how aggregated scores can send many smart people down the wrong path. His story does more than explain his passion for the topic: he explains the concept with a memorable story.

I once worked with a lawyer who specialized in debt collection and landlord-tenant disputes, where she usually sided with the landlord. Her personal story involved family members who’d experienced severe hardship when business partners reneged on their debts. Her story emphasized that enforcing obligations isn’t just mean: it’s a lifeline to individuals who count on that income.

(2) How have you helped your clients?

Success stories will be the most powerful for almost any business. They’re also the most useful for prospective clients.

You might have been sleeping on a bare mattress in somebody’s basement two years ago and now you’re enjoying a 4-bedroom house. But that story doesn’t show you can coach someone to make the same journey.

And these days, readers are (rightly) getting more cynical. They’ve heard too many motivational speakers. So they wonder if you conveniently left out a crucial detail, like that winning lottery ticket or the relative who died and left you a nice windfall.

Your audience relates to stories of people you helped, especially if you add specifics of your program. You do have to be careful to make disclaimers, such as, “These success stories should not be considered typical.” In some fields (such as law or finance) you face legal restrictions on what you can claim.

The truth is, you have many stories in your marketing toolkit, not just ONE one-size-fits-all story.

Storytelling is the virtual screwdriver in your marketing toolkit: you have several versions, it’s your go-too tool, you know exactly how to use it, and you know when to drop the screwdrivers and use a wrench instead.

So back to the author facing an unexpected question, “Why write a book about loneliness?”

Ideally, she’d have a repertoire of stories, so she could choose one.

But if she needs to create a story on the fly, she could spin a story by focusing on her audience, not her own motivation. Her goal is to show that she’s uniquely qualified to provide wisdom on this sensitive topic.

[Context] I was talking to my agent, planning my next book.

[Audience] We realized so many people suffer from loneliness today. Their pain isn’t recognized widely.

[Uniquely qualified] As a writer, I spend lots of time alone. Sometimes being a writer can be a lonely business.

[Conflict] But I hesitated. I’m not a licensed therapist. I realized I had developed strategies to deal with loneliness, and as a writer I have access to experts who can provide additional insight.

[Outcome] This book just might be a best-seller! I’m getting lots of attention.

Ultimately, it’s not about finding reasons to tell a story. It’s about finding a story that fits your reasons.

Want a better way to answer the question, “What’s Your Story?” Check out my FREE training video: “5 Surprising Tips To Turn The ‘What’s Your Story?’ Question Into A Rich Marketing Opportunity” http://mycopy.info/storywhy

And visit my new book: Grow Your Business One Story At A Time.

Helping entrepreneurs and independent professionals grow their businesses one story at a time. http://cathygoodwin.com

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