So incredibly powerful when she says it

“It sounds so incredibly powerful when she says it.”

Just wow.

But why is it that the same thought that you’ve thought a thousand times suddenly becomes powerful when you hear it ushered out of the celebrity’s mouth?

Because it’s immediately turned into a story. It gets filled with all the things that she’s achieved and said before. She embodies it and so you fill out all the missing pieces. When she says it, it becomes a profound truth that has enabled her path.

The crucial bit, though, is that when we experience a story it’s the hero we look at but it’s us who we see. We project ourselves onto the hero’s canvas.

Hearing the hero say out loud your thoughts brings you even closer. The incredible power of her saying out loud your thought is that it reassures you that you’re on the right track.

It’s not so much that you agree with her but that she agrees with you – which elevates you onto the hero’s podium. She’s picking up your thought. You’ve become the hero because the hero’s saying your thoughts and feelings.

That’s the power of lighting the path. Putting in words and saying out loud what your audience thinks and feels. It’s incredibly powerful.

Marketing in sync with the outcome

Great marketing is true to who you are.

Great marketing also delivers results.

The confusion occurs when our true story doesn’t deliver the results we’re looking for. It’s tempting to conclude that we must bend the truth a little bit. Because, well, we need to pay the bills, right? So, we need the results. Also, it’s just a teeny bit, so really no big deal, agreed? (Plus: others are cheating as well.)

Well, your call.

I feel a better approach is to change our perspective. It’s rather likely that the story we’re telling with our marketing is not the only story that’s true to who we are.

Quite the opposite. There are almost certainly ways to shift our story while remaining true. Maybe we just told it to the wrong people. Or we told our truth while neglecting theirs. It might also be that there’s a slight adaptation to our offer that’s still true to who we are but resonates much stronger than our current offer.

When you do work that matters, it’s almost inevitable that it finally resonates. Fix your product so that the true story is in service of your audience. Fix your story so that it’s told on behalf of your audience. To the right audience.

And the results will come.

Start with WHAAAAAT?

When developing your story, it’s a good idea to start with why. But when delivering the story, it’s even better to start with “WHAAAAAT?” – with a question mark at the end.

What would irresistibly lead your audience into a WHAAAAAT?-moment? Something that makes them think “How is that even possible?”. Or “I can’t believe we never saw this, how did you discover it?” Or – if they are more of the cooler kind – just plainly: “That’s rather surprising. Tell me more!”

The WHAAAAAT?-moment is the reason that your audience is dying to know more. Because you’ve sparked their curiosity. You’ve hit the mark. Your intro is a promise that you’ve got something that’s really worth their time.

While others struggle with keeping their audience’s attention for even 2 minutes, your audience would riot if you stopped talking after your intro.

The two kinds of suspense

There are two types of suspense: artificial and intrinsic.

Artificial suspense is what TV casting shows do to you right before an ad brake. They could tell you but don’t – because they know that as soon as they’ve told you, tension falls apart and you walk away (possibly disappointed because the reveal fell short of the promise).

Intrinsic suspense is the opposite. It’s what great stories do. They do tell you! Because that’s precisely why you want to know more.

Revealing the information opens up your curiosity as opposed to shutting it down. It’s much more the start of a new thread rather than the end of the previous one. Rather than walk away because you got what you wanted, it makes you stay because you want to know what happens next.

The same can be achieved with a great marketing story – when your story is so relevant that your audience absolutely needs to hear more about it.

It could e.g. be an eye opener … exactly what they wanted to hear … just what they’ve been looking for all along without even realising it themselves.

And so they beg you to tell them more: How does that work? What would it cost? What would we need to change? What are the requirements? Is there more to it? Can this be applied to other problems? When can we start?

If your product is that good, if it’s exactly the product your customers have been waiting for, then you can skip artificial suspense. You don’t need to hold the best part back. You can reveal it because it’s precisely the thing that makes them want to know more.

In essence, the relevant question to ask is not “How do you make your topic exciting?” but “Why is that crucially relevant for your audience?”

And if it isn’t … then, sure, you can reach for artificial suspense. But the better approach would be to work on relevance.

Inciting action

The beauty of books is that you can live other people’s lives. The beauty of dreams is that you can live a different version of your own life.

None is the life you actually live.

If you want to change that, you’ll have to take action.

This is the point where great stories deliver more than good stories.

They encourage – if not require – us to take action. Great stories don’t stop at just showing us a different life. They lead us to a point of no return. A point where we can’t unsee what the story made us see. A point where the desire to live that different life has grown tremendously – to a degree that it creates tension. Tension that can only be relieved if we take action.

I would love to hear which stories did that for you.

Let’s assume you’re having a smash hit product

Let’s assume that your communication works. You’ve made us see the brilliance of your product. People are buying from you, maybe in large numbers.

How does life look like for us? What’s different? Can you make me see that future? Can you make me see myself in that future?

Painting that picture might just be the story that you need to tell to actually convince us.

Surprisingly often, this story gets bypassed.

Surprisingly often, communicators stop at telling us about the the problems of the present. They offer us a solution and leave it to us to figure out how the solution works out for us: Here’s a problem … here’s a solution … now, please buy from us!

But what will I get? Will it be worth it? How will life look like with your solution? I might not be willing to figure it out myself if it’s too vague.

The desire for a better future is what creates the tension that’s required for action. The more tangible, the more tension.

Yet, make sure that it’s a true story. False stories destroy trust. True stories create it.

Why crime stories work

The human brain is basically a prediction machine. At any given time, it tries to figure out what happens next. Tension comes from the uncertainty about the prediction: Will the prediction match the true course of events?

That’s e.g. why criminal stories are so popular. It’s also why we love a good riddle or puzzle. We love to figure things out (and be right about it).

Tension increases when hope joins the party. When we hope for a certain outcome, it hurts even more when that outcome doesn’t come true – e.g. because we sympathised with one of the parties involved in the criminal story. Or we rooted for one side in a tennis match.

Movies make shameless use of this. Great movies let us anticipate how the story unfolds only to leave us in the uncertain about whether we’re actually right. Worse: Even if they resolve part of the story, they will leave at least one piece open so that there’s always something to anticipate and predict.

Great communicators create tension by using this principle, too. They trigger our prediction machine and then use our anticipation of the resolution to keep us hooked. They might e.g. show us a clever way to solve one of our problems and then use our desire to figure this out and make it work for us to lead us to listen to them, glued to their lips, for more than an hour.

(PS: If you want to learn how to make use of this in your own communication, you might want to consider joining my masterclass “Leaders Light the Path” which launches this fall. Get notified here.)

The World Builder’s Disease

Did you cry when Elliott had to say goodbye to E.T.?

Millions of viewers did. Steven Spielberg told E.T. so brilliantly that they were completely immersed in the story. The main characters felt so close that they feel what the characters felt. In that final scene, the viewers became part of that imagined world.

Sci-fi author Ansen Dibell describes this effect in her great author’s guide “Plot”:

Although a story is of course nothing from first to last but an author’s idea anyway, we forget that while we’re reading. We treat the story as real, the characters as people we care and are concerned about. We imagine our way into it and don’t want to be reminded it’s an elaborate lie, a made thing, a puppet show in which some author is yanking the strings.

The fantasy of an author that takes us along emotionally the way E.T. did, for example, is actually a lot of work. A good story is so good because the author has built a whole world mentally, because he has carefully developed the characters with their desires and goals. A good author is actually a world builder; first in his head, then – via the story – in our heads. The more coherently the world is built, the more convincing it seems.

But there is also a dark side to the skill of world building. It becomes visible when the author falls in love with his world a little too much and wants to explain every tiny detail.

Imagine Spielberg moving into that dark side: The movie would have started by explaining in great detail the anatomy of the alien. Maybe it would have continued with a technical description of their spaceships. Sounds boring? It almost certainly is.

Ansen Dibell calls this the World Builder’s Disease. When it infects authors, they become obsessed by their own worlds. The most visible symptom is that they annoy their readers with never-ending descriptions of their imagined world:

To the degree that we’re conscious of the puppeteer, that awareness keeps us from holding on to our conviction that words on a page can be worth our tears, our laughter, or our love.

Now, how much in love are you with the world you have created with your product? Many communicators fall prey to the World Builder’s Disease. They are stuck in describing the world as opposed to letting us immerse in the world. Letting us feel how this product will improve our lives.

Let us in into your world. But make us fall in love with it first before you tell us all the boring details. Make sure that we want to know the details because your story resonates deeply. The right time to tell us the details is when we ask for them.

Juggling with thoughts

Almost anyone can juggle two balls. Many can do three. Four is rather difficult. More is impossible for most.

Juggling thoughts by keeping several things in mind at the same time is quite similar … Two? That’s easy. Three? Still easy. Four is more difficult, and then it quickly gets really difficult. The more complex the things you have to keep in mind, the more difficult it is to keep multiple things in your mind.

Of course, that’s also true for your audience. If we juggle too many balls in a speech, it will be difficult for our audience to keep track. Sooner or later they will drop a ball … and while they’re still busy picking it up again, the next thought balls are already falling to the floor.

Unfortunately, most topics – especially those worthy of being the subject of a presentation – are rather complex. Usually, three balls just won’t get the job done.

Fortunately, though, thoughts have a property that physical balls don’t have. Thoughts can combine to form larger thoughts. Thoughts can trigger other thoughts.

Apples, pears, and bananas become fruit. Fruits, vegetables and grains become vegetarian food. Vegetarian diet has effects that you first illustrate through a story and then abstract to derive a specific dietary recommendation.

Yet, at any given time, we kept a maximum of four thoughts in the air so that everyone could follow along effortlessly.

Complex in nature, yet simple in narrative.

With a clear story and a great structure, we can get extremely complex things into the minds of the audience. We just have to make sure to build the complexity step-by-step.

12 angry men

In my keynote speeches I often ask people what’s so different about movies that we find them entertaining for 2+ hours while most presentations are boring as hell so that we start looking for an escape before reaching the 2 minute mark.

Among the top responses is music. And it’s true. Great music makes great films even greater. But it misses the point – if only because it would be an easy fix to include some music in a presentation.

The movie “12 Angry Men” creates tension from the first to the last second. We witness 12 men in a room. With no music! (And, of course, no special effects.) It’s pure story. It’s a great movie that grabs our attention (Well, mine at least).

If our story is great, we don’t need any music. Nor special effects.

Great stories are great because they resonate – not because we decorate them. They grab our attention and never release it because we can relate to the characters and their struggles. Music – and special effects in general – can make the experience even greater. But they are never the reason why it’s great in the first place.

And they never turn a lame story into a great story. They are an amplifier of greatness, not a rescue to lameness. If the story is lame, it will still be lame despite great music and great special effects.

Granted special effects can get you a short burst of excitement. They can wow your audience. But that’s about it. Most wow-effects fade quickly.

The thing is that – most likely – you don’t have the budget to produce special effects that do that trick for you. Effects that will provide that level of excitement to your audience.

(Not only) therefore, it’s much better to get the story right before we start working on the special effects.

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Dr. Michael Gerharz

Dr. Michael Gerharz

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