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How does a hero look like?

We heroize people for the wrong reasons.

For taking wild risks.
For pulling all-nighters.
For being constantly busy.
For winging it on the stage.
For constantly being on call.
For micromanaging projects.
For multitasking excessively.
For enduring extreme stress.
For attending every meeting.
For saving it single-handedly.
For hustling it in the last minute.
For pushing through despite burnout.
For neglecting their health for “success”.
For prioritizing work over personal relationships.
For making decisions on the spot without consulting the team.

I mean I get it. It’s the stuff that great stories are made of.

It’s got thrill, tension, last-minute saves, all the while being constantly on the brink of failure.

Pure adrenaline.
One person saving the whole thing.

But is it heroic?

Is it something we should applaud them for?

Is it something we would want to build an organization on?

Sometimes extraordinary efforts are necessary, but should they be the norm? Should we continue to glorify the chaos?

Or would we rather try to find a way …

For taking calculated risks.
For treating health as a priority.
For running only essential meetings.
For finding balance between work and rest.
For planning and managing time effectively.
For recognizing and addressing burnout early.
For managing stress through healthy practices.
For pacing the work to avoid last-minute rushes.
For collaborating and seeking help when needed.
For delegating tasks and empowering their teams.
For focusing on one task at a time with full attention.
For preparing thoroughly for important presentations.
For making informed decisions after consulting the team.
For valuing and nurturing personal relationships alongside work.
For maintaining clear boundaries between work and personal time.

Some of those might even be boring stories, but then again, that’s often the stuff that sustainable success is made of.

It’s got thoughtfulness, resilience, consistent efforts, all the while maintaining balance and clarity.

Drama free.

Now, isn’t that heroic?

Isn’t that something we should applaud them for?

Isn’t that something we would want to build an organization on?

Or would we rather continue glorifying the chaos?

What Rocky teaches us about business storytelling

Almost everyone has been Rocky at one point in their life.

You just knew that you have what it takes … if only the world was at bit more fair and didn’t throw all the mess at you while treating the already big fish with (even more) money, (even more) relationships, and (even more) luck.

When someday luck would call you – just like Apollo did with Rocky to give him the opportunity to fight for the world championship, you’d prove that.

Haven’t you been Rocky? You knew that if only luck would call you to give you the opportunity to show the world that you really have what it takes, you would prove them right? Just like Rocky did? (I know that many of you actually have.)

That’s why Rocky resonates with so many people – even those who would never watch a real boxing fight. It’s not the boxing why people love Rocky. It’s the journey.

Rocky, just like any good story, is a canvas, a canvas we project ourselves on. We look at the hero, but it’s us who we see. If it’s a great story, we derive lessons from what we see and implement them for our own lives.

The same principle works for business stories.

Unfortunately, most business stories work rather differently. They are not designed as a canvas but as a spotlight. A rather bright one, in fact, so that the audience can appreciate the hero and cheer for them.

The problem with that is that audiences already have a hero to root for: themselves. They don’t need you to replace that hero.

A better way to tell a business story is to think of it as a canvas so that – even while we’re speaking about ourselves – it’s the customer who recognizes themselves in the story.

Can you point to a business story that does that for you? I’d love to hear it!

The future within reach

If you’re anything like me, a good story can trigger some deep emotions. Sometimes I can feel the hero’s pain almost physically. Or their hope, their struggles, their happiness … even if I’ve never been in a situation that’s even remotely similar to the hero’s situation.

That’s one of the fascinating aspects of stories. They allow us to experience a taste of a different life. A life that’s unlike our own, maybe vastly so. Stories allow us to participate in experiences we could (or would) never make ourselves – such as being cast away.

It works because as humans, we are exceptional at empathizing with others, even if their life is different than ours. What it takes to have these feelings from a story is not that it’s a situation that we have encountered ourselves but that it’s a situation that we can relate to.

The fascinating part is that this works even if the story is not real. Even if it’s about a fictional situation.

Or about the future – something that is not real, yet.

Through powerful stories you can give people a glimpse of a possible future. A future that they can taste now – through the story – and then, based on that experience and the emotions they had during the experience, decide to go for it (or not). If you start with empathy you can trust your audience with that decision.

Does your story achieve that level of tension?

Speaking up on their behalf

When Simon Sinek or Brené Brown tweet a sentence, it gets them 1000 likes and 100 retweets in a matter of minutes.

When you (or I) tweet the same sentence, it doesn’t work that way.

So, why do people love these words when Sinek or Brown say them but not when you do?

Because you’re a stranger while Sinek and Brown are not. In fact, for many in their audience they are heroes. And as such, they speak up on behalf of their audience. They say out loud their audience’s thoughts.

The appeal of their tweets is not that their audience agrees with the celebrity but the other way around. For the audience, it feels like their hero agrees with them.

And this is why it matters whether you’re a stranger or not. Because nobody cares for when a stranger agrees with them. They don’t know you and so you haven’t earned the right to speak on their behalf.

It’s been the same for the celebrity when she wasn’t famous, yet.

The safest way to earn the right to speak on their behalf is consistency. Show up consistently, speak the truth consistently, capturing your audience’s thoughts consistently. And have a little patience.

The magic of a great story

That brilliant keynote speech that told a story about climbing the Mount Everest and inspired you to finally start your company.

That fascinating book that told the life of a pianoman and inspired you to never give up.

Or that YouTube video that showed you how to capture beautiful pictures and inspired you to capture some yourself.

It’s the magic of a great story.

We look at the hero but we see ourselves.

It’s also the source of confusion in storytelling and why many marketers get it wrong. It’s not about you.

You might be telling a story about yourself. But you’re telling it on behalf of your audience. So that they can project themselves onto the canvas of your story. Learn from it. Change their path based on what they see.

That’s why they listen to our stories.

It’s the hero we look at but it’s us who we see

Take a moment to think of a hero of yours. What is it that you admire about her? What did she do that you would love to do yourself? How would you have reacted in that same situation?

Whether it’s a movie hero or a real life hero, heroes inspire us because they provide us with a canvas to project ourselves upon. It’s the hero we look at, but it’s us who we see.

Heroes endure, overcome, and achieve things in a way we don’t. Yet, by listening to stories about our heroes, we are able to live a life that’s unlike our own. To get a sneak peek into what it would be like if we acted differently. Or sometimes even to consciously choose a life that’s different from the hero’s life.

This is what great storytellers understand. That it’s not about the hero but about the listener. It doesn’t matter so much who the hero of your story is, whether it’s fictional or real, or whether it’s a customer’s story or your own. But it matters a lot that it is themselves who our audiences see when listening to our stories.

Good and bad is still alive in marketing

When I think back to when I was a teenager, a lot of TV shows had this very clear distinction between good and bad. Today, it has become hard to find a great show that’s like that. Good is never all good, bad is never all bad. Today’s heroes are torn apart by inner conflicts and their darker sides. In fact, often it’s even hard to say whether there’s good or bad at all.

In a way, you might argue that this is what makes heroes heroic in the first place. It is by overcoming their fears and shortcomings and taking responsibility for their cause that they change the world. So, while we still do have heroes, we don’t have good and bad as we used to.

Except in marketing. Many marketers still act as if it’s us vs. them, good vs. bad. In particular, they act as if they are all good and the competition is all bad.

Which – obviously – is not true and everyone, including themselves, knows it. So they try hard to persuade us. To make us believe that they are the good ones. They will shine the brightest light upon themselves, praise their good sides and hide their dark sides.

And in doing so they overlook the fact that the world has moved on. That it’s precisely the rough edges that we admire in our heroes. We admire them because they are like us – imperfect and vulnerable.

Stories help us to convey this mixture of emotions and this is why so many brands have embraced storytelling. Stories make a brand relatable. They make a speaker one of us. We feel with her.

And because we do, we fall in love with what she stands for and what she brings into our life. It is one of the reasons why we buy from her. Because we see how her story matches ours. How our life improves because of their products.

Not because it is all good but because it matches who we are.

How do you relate to the life of your audience?

Spread the Word

Picture of Dr. Michael Gerharz

Dr. Michael Gerharz