My best friend in high school was the son of a Philadelphia cop. Like many who work in service fields, policemen don’t make a lot of money. So, Lou’s dad made a little extra moonlighting at a ball bearing factory. Often we’d drive by that ball bearing plant on our way home from basketball practices, and Lou would say to his father, “Dad, teach us something we don’t know about ball bearings.”
The running joke in the car was that NOTHING could be more boring than tiny metal balls, but Lou’s dad had a knack for storytelling, and each time we asked, he’d weave a story about the amazing world of ball bearings.
One day, he told us a story about an American bomber on a nighttime run to destroy a ball bearing factory near Berlin during WWII. Ball bearings were critical to the German war effort. Had that bomber failed, we might be speaking German instead of English.
Another day, he told a story about a time he had to fire his gun during a bank robbery, and how ball bearings enabled the flawless working of his gun at the time he needed it most. Without ball bearings, Lou’s mother might have been driving us that day instead of his father.
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After a while, we began to give him other challenges about the most boring topics we could imagine. “Teach us something we don’t know about drying paint” resulted in a story about evaporation, and how the same process hat allowed paint to turn from a liquid to a solid kept us cool during basketball practice. “Teach us something we don’t know about growing grass” resulted in a story about photosynthesis, and the fact that growing grass produced the oxygen we breathed so heavily as we ran up and down the court. “Teach us something we don’t know about empty bottles” elicited a story about the first time he played “Spin the Bottle” with Lou’s mom, which led directly to the fact that Lou was even in the car that day.
Lou’s dad was a master at making the boring interesting, and the irrelevant relevant. Scratch that. Lou’s dad was a master at uncovering the interesting story behind almost anything, and telling that story in a way that made it relevant to us. EVERYTHING had story power to him.
Zero percent of the people who wake up today hope to hear from marketers. That truth is at the core of “expert” recommendations that you not tell stories about your product. After all, if someone doesn’t care about your product, why would they listen to a story about it? Instead, you are told to weave emotional stories with broad or topical appeal to capture the attention of as many people as possible. Then, hopefully, those people will associate your barely visible logo with those stories, open their wallets, and buy your car or hybrid cloud or mutual fund or cookie.
While emotional or topical stories may be relevant to your audience, if they’re not relevant to your brand or product, they’re a waste of money. Why leave to chance what you can engineer with a little imagination? How do you make product relevance a certainty? Let’s look at the magic woven by a moonlighting off-duty cop in the 1960s.
Set your hook with emotion, but don’t stop there
The worst thing you could do to capture my attention would be to start your story with the words, “This is a story bout ball bearings.” Lou’s dad was a master of the emotional story hook: “Jim Kirby is the bravest cop I ever met. But one night in 1945, before he became a cop, something scared him so badly he actually S**T his pants.” Every one of his first sentences served as an emotional hook that forced us to give him our undivided attention. Some of today’s content marketing experts would be happy because this story doesn’t appear to be about ball bearings. But we had given Lou’s dad a mission to teach us something we didn’t know about ball bearings, and it didn’t take him long to get there.
Create a context for your product, service or brand
Once he had our attention, Lou’s dad created a context that made ball bearings relevant: “Jim flew bombers in WWII. One night he and his crew were on a mission to destroy Germany’s largest ball bearing plant.” OK, I might not normally care about ball bearings, but these ball bearings are related to some pretty messy pants, so I’m in.
Make your audience care about your product
Then, he told us why we should care about ball bearings: “You probably don’t know this, but ball bearings were the single most important component of the German war effort. If Germany had no ball bearings, they’d have no guns, no tanks, no planes, no cars, trains – anything. Jim knew that if he were successful at taking out that factory, he could save thousands of American lives.” In truth, this story is about Jim Kirby, and not specifically about ball bearings, but you can see how Lou’s dad tricked us into learning about ball bearings while telling a story about something else. That’s one of the biggest challenges of content marketing – how do you tell interesting stories that provide a context for your product or service?
Every story needs a hero, and every hero’s journey involves conflict – lots of it: “Knowing American Bombers were on their way, the Germans threw everything they had at Jim and his squadron. Jim told me that flying toward hundreds of German fighters was like running into a hornet’s nest. The anti-aircraft fire from the ground looked like silent bubbles of flame floating toward him. There were so many explosions around his bomber that it vibrated like a leaf in the wind. At one point a bullet pierced his windscreen, blowing fragments of glass into his copilot’s face. The copilot screamed that he had been blinded, and that’s when Jim lost control. Fortunately, the same thing happened to most of the guys in the plane, so nobody really knew who had done what in their pants. Still, they flew on, knowing they had to take out that ball bearing plant.”
Need story ideas? Get back to your roots. Once upon a time, your product was created to solve a need. Whether smelly underarms or thirst or pronation or enterprise security or coughs due to cold, you’re still solving that need today.
Don’t listen to those who tell you your product is not interesting enough for storytelling. If an off-duty cop could make ball bearings, drying paint, growing grass and empty bottles interesting and relevant to a bunch of teens, storytelling experts ought to be able to weave stories that are riveting to people whose problems are solved by your product.
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Photo credit: Unsplash/Taduuda