What is the story?

Posted: January 18, 2009 at 10:27 am in marketing, stories

Finding the story has been a recurring theme for me recently. It’s come up in a variety of settings, so I thought I’d explore the topic some more. Let’s start with the anecdotes.

A friend was looking for advice on sprucing up her resume. I started with the normal advice of stating accomplishments rather than responsibilities and looking for ways to quantify those accomplishments. But then I observed that it seemed to me that her current draft was more about telling her career history rather than convincing potential employers to give her an interview. A resume is a sales document, and everything on that document should contribute towards persuading the person that reads it to call you. So we went over the positions she was applying for, and looked for ways to tune the resume to match the positions, telling the story of why she would be a good fit for those positions.

At work, I was helping a coworker out with a major presentation by doing some data analysis and pulling some numbers for him. While discussing what analysis he needed, I also was interested in understanding the presentation itself. After asking a few questions, I threw out an idea for the “story” that my coworker was trying to tell with the presentation. He liked it, and went with it, and we constructed the presentation around that story. This turned out to be very useful at the presentation itself, as the meeting with the executives was running late so instead of 20 minutes to present, he only had three. Because we’d already agreed on the major story we were trying to tell, we were able to cut back to those key points and he delivered a compelling two minute summary of his work, leaving a minute for questions.

Another friend is teaching a seminar this term for the first time. I asked him what the class was about, and he started listing off some of the topics he plans to cover. It seemed scattershot to me, so I asked him what the underlying theme was, the one thing he hoped his students would take away from the class even if they didn’t remember anything else. He described in one sentence the awareness he hoped to create in his students, and I hope answering that question will help in designing his curriculum.

In each case, I felt like I contributed something by asking the question “What is the story here?” When we are communicating with others in any form, we need to think about what message we are trying to convey. For our communications to be effective, we need to stick to that message and not introduce potentially confusing or distracting elements. This is a core principle of marketing, but it has applications throughout life.

Whenever we interact with other people, we are marketing something. That may sound crass, but when we interact with another person, we are generally trying to convince them of an idea or convey an image of ourselves. This is why we care so much about what we wear (and even choosing to opt out of caring is still an image choice) – it sends a message. So it’s interesting to me to apply marketing principles to these sorts of interactions – pick a position that is consistent with your “product”, and unify your communications around that message. If you try to be all things to all people, you are sending out contradictory signals that remove any persuasive power of your communication.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t refine your message for a given audience. This is one place I believe my skills as a generalist are valuable. I can generally figure out how to present a set of given information to others in a way that makes sense to them and fits in with their goals. I can talk to specialists for an hour, learning about their issues and results, and create a useful minute-long summary without the specialists feeling like I’m misrepresenting them. It helps to do ongoing summaries throughout the conversation (“So what I think you’re saying is X”) so that you can get feedback (“Actually, I didn’t mean X, I meant Y”). I really enjoy this skill and find it valuable – now I just have to figure out the career path it enables. In some sense, I aspire to be an intra-organization marketer, figuring out how to most effectively present different parts of the organization to each other.

It’s ironic that this post about finding the core story and sticking to it is a bit disjointed. I’ve tried writing this post a few times over the past week, and it’s still not quite coming together. But I’m going to post it anyway, because it’s ludicrous that I haven’t posted anything in weeks. Hopefully, this first pass will spark discussion that gets me pointed towards the story I am really trying to tell.

3 Responses to “What is the story?”

  1. What is the story, what is your story? | brain health hacks Says:

    […] For more about the importance of story see Eric Nehrlich piece here. […]

  2. Turil Says:

    Stories do indeed inspire far more than a list of facts! :-)

    Having been a preschool teacher and read countless stories to extraordinarily discerning children (read: easily distracted, when something seems boring), I’ve noticed that in telling the most successful and satisfying stories, there seem to be four basic components that a storyteller offers:

    1. Who I am.
    2. What I can do.
    3. Who I think you are.
    4. What I think we can do together.

    Of course, getting 3 and 4 reasonably close to what “you” think is the biggest key to selling the story to you, and that takes some behind the scenes investigation. This is where keen observation and being a bit of a generalist certainly does come in handy!

    Of course the storyteller can always start the story with 1 and 2, and make the rest of the story a collaborative effort, which can be pretty fun, if you’ve got some time and a few curious props…

  3. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || Who is your audience? || February || 2011 Says:

    […] It’s interesting to note how my thinking on this has evolved slightly from my post in 2009 asking what is the story, as I now realize that getting the story right involves understanding the audience. Stories are not […]

Leave a Reply

RSS feed

LinkedIn profile


People who grow up secular may be more moral than those who grow up religious. Who'da thunk? latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/…

Recent Posts

  • 2014 Year in Review
  • The challenge of humanity
  • The Generalist Is In
  • Challenging oneself
  • Instigating unhappiness
  • Random Posts

  • Henry Rollins and Cornell (March 24-28)
  • Staying in shape
  • Change of view
  • Conscientious Objections, by Neil Postman
  • The future of television

  • Archives

  • Categories