Storytelling Strategy

When I was just 21 years-old, I saw the most effective storytelling strategy of my life. I am still amazed by it decades later.

It was only a four word campaign. Yet, it had people crossing traffic during rush hour to respond.

You see, I was going to school and working at a local hotel downtown as a doorman. Good money for me back in the day and I had a lot of fun.

People from all over the world would come to the hotel. I helped them with their bags. Gave them directions. Got them cabs (yes there were cabs back then).They gave me money.

I owned that little corner of real estate on 7th and Marquette in downtown Minneapolis.

Until, I didn’t…

One day a man got dropped off on my corner. He stepped out of a little beat up Ford Escort. Disheveled, not much to look at, and most likely not there to check in to my hotel.

He wasn’t there to check-in though. He was there to unleash his marketing. On my corner.

Before the door shut on the Escort, he grabbed a 2’X3’ piece of cardboard.

He nodded to me. I nodded back. He unfurled his banner.

The words on it read, “Will Work For Diapers”

He was there for about a week with that simple message. That simple sign got him diapers. And cash. And food. And my admiration.

I really do not know if it was a well thought out ruse or if he was genuine in his motives. We hardly spoke.

What he did was put together a story that got him results.

You can do the same type of storytelling campaign without the need for a sign or standing on the corner. It will likely be more effective than what you’d pay some high priced marketing consultant.

Let me break down how and why this works so well.

I. Understand The Pain & Fear of Your Customer Base

People could instantly relate to the story this man’s sign was telling. Even in a downtown location, full of successful professionals, this message resonated with them.

I bet many of those people who saw the sign were once scared young parents too. Before they had made a comfortable living, they likely had to scrape by when they were younger parents.

What this sign did was remind them of that struggle. Maybe it wasn’t as bleak as this man’s, but it brought back those emotions. They too were once scared of not having enough money to provide for their families.

So, in four simple words, this man was telling not just his story, but that of thousands of others. Strategy or luck, I can’t rightly say. Effective? Yes.

Your marketing story must engage with the pain of your market. The emotions they can relate with you on.

No one would have cared if the four words were, “Give Me Money Now”.

Yet, that is the marketing message of most businesses these days. They do not care to enter into the emotions of their market. But you must get to those emotions, the fears, the pain, the struggle. That is if you really want people to stop what they are doing, worried about their own lives, to care about your offer.

Storytelling is always related to your audience’s feelings, not your needs.

He may have needed diapers, but to get them, he had to relate to their feelings. You must do the same.

II. Let People See Your Face

This man could have done other things to get diapers. I won’t dismiss him by saying he should have just got a job and use his paycheck to buy diapers. He may have already had a job that was not meeting his needs.

He could have gone to a local charity. People drop off goods in the drive-thru there all day.

He could have made signs to place on multiple corners with his address to send diapers.

But, what he was doing that was so much more effective was showing his face.

No soulless interaction, but a personal one.

The heart of your storytelling strategy should be based on showing your face, your true face to your market. People want to know who you are, so tell them. It is not enough to have mission statements, slick social media pages, and logos.

Come and meet people with your personality. Colonel Sanders made his face the key to KFC’s success. His protege, Dave Thomas, did the same when he was present in nearly every commercial for Wendy’s Hamburgers, until his death.

If you have nothing to hide, show it. Show us your face.

III. Make Taking Your Offer Reaffirm Their Belief

I saw dozens of people giving this man packs of diapers and even home baked goods. Think about that. In the downtown area, there are advertisers paying millions to get the same people to give them money, but yet, they get ignored.

Your storytelling is to make people see the natural step of responding to your offer as congruent to the story they are telling themselves.

In the diaper example, it is that:

‘If I am a caring person, I will give this man diapers (or other physical item)’

The natural step for your offers should be the same. Let’s say you are selling loan restructuring.

‘If I am to take control of my life, I need to start handling my debt better. I can consolidate everything with this offer. I am on my way.’

For distance learning to get a college degree.

‘If I am going to get a better paying job, I need to have a degree. I can do it from home with this offer. I should enroll on their website.’

In the end, it matters how your offers align with the beliefs of your market. To deny taking you up on your offer, is to deny who the story they tell themselves. The story about what kind of person they want to be.

If you try to convince people to see your point of view, you’ve lost.

Target stores failed miserably when they tried to expand to Canada from the USA. They told the story of Target and expected Canadians to come running to shop at their stores. It didn’t work.

Ray Kroc, who bought and expanded McDonalds all over the world, did some things right. But when he tried to make a no meat alternative for Catholics on Fridays, he screwed up. No, it was not the Filet-O-Fish, that sandwich succeeded because someone else, someone Catholic came up with the idea. No Kroc loved pineapple. So he rolled out the “Hula Burger” at McDonalds before the Filet-O-Fish. Haven’t heard of the Hula Burger? It was a piece of grilled pineapple between two buns. Yep…

Stop telling using your story to take to your market. Let their stories be the ones you let them reaffirm.


A storytelling strategy is simple and effective.

You must have all three aspects to get yours right though. Make it about others struggles, not your own. Come to them as a person, not a bland image. Make your solution fit their story of who they want to be.

If a guy with a crayon and piece of cardboard can get this right, I am sure you can too.


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