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Taking a Responsible & Respectful Approach to Storytelling

By Maggie Patterson

All opinions in this post are my opinions and mine alone.

You can view our full disclaimer here.

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You may know I’m an avid reader, but what you may not know is that a big reason I read so much is that I’ve always been fascinated by stories. As a writer and communications pro, storytelling has always been a big part of my work. In fact, my very first signature service back in 2014 was called the Story Distillery where I’d work through my client’s message and story with them.

All of that to say, while it’s been a while since I’ve talked about storytelling, it’s a topic near and dear to my heart. And it’s about time I dusted it off and revisited some of my fave storytelling concepts, as it seems like the online business world continues to be besieged by an approach to storytelling that’s a weird combination or super basic and ultra toxic.

I’m sure you know exactly what I’m talking about as a lot of what we see on a day-to-day basis is pretty formulaic. Somewhere along the line a couple cheezy coaches taught some basic BS about storytelling and it’s now become the way things are “done” in online business.

Where Storytelling Goes Wrong

Cue the eyerolls, as you know exactly the types of stories I’m talking about. They’re dramatic, they often share trauma with no regard for the audience and they’re designed to get your attention.

There are two stories in particular that I find to be particularly harmful: the rags to riches story, and the overcoming the odds story. These stories are based on sharing some dramatic turn of events and showing you how if they did it, you too can do it.

These stories don’t just get your attention, but they play on all your wants, desires and most of all your insecurities. When we hear a story, our brains are hard wired to automatically associate what we’re hearing with our own experiences.

This is called neuro coupling where the storyteller and the listener have similar brain patterns. Neuroscientist Dr. Uri Hasson researches the neurological basis of human communication and storytelling and in his TED Talk he shares how neuro coupling gives “can make people with a platform disproportionately powerful.”

As the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility.

We need to think differently about how we use storytelling in our business and focus on an approach that’s based on being respectful and responsible.

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Tell Me If You’ve Heard This One Before

For us to be truly respectful and responsible in our storytelling, we need to understand why and how the common storytelling tactics are doing a disservice to our audience.

First and foremost, much of the way stories are shared in the online world have little regard for the state of mind or the impact of the person listening or watching to them.

Triggering Stories

I recently had an experience where I was happily cruising around Instagram looking at my daily dose of cute cat videos and I was confronted with someone talking about narcissism and abuse.

The way this person was tackling the topic was extremely triggering and factually incorrect. It set me on edge for several hours and that could have been avoided by taking more care for me as a consumer of that content.

Part of being a responsible content creator and storyteller is considering how your content may impact someone consuming it. We need to think critically about what may be sensitive for our audience so we’re not unintentionally doing harm.

This may mean not telling a story at all, or using a content or trigger warning in certain situations.

The University of Michigan has guidelines in place for their faculty which are helpful to understanding when and how to use these warnings:

  • A content warning is designed to help a reader, viewer or listener prepare themselves for sensitive materials, and to possibly disengage.
  • A trigger warning is for instances that may cause a psychological or physiological response for some members of your audience.

The bottom line is that if we’re going to share stories that are sensitive we need to approach them with care and inform our readers or listeners. That way they can decide if it’s safe for them to engage further.

This is a way of showing respect to our audience and asking consent from them before we share the raw and vulnerable parts of our life in a forum where they may not be expecting it.

Curated Vulnerability

Speaking of vulnerability, much of what’s being shared as a story in an effort to make a connection is complete BS. This vulnerability is curated or even manufactured as a way to humanize the person behind the brand.

Much of this is the result of the cross over between influencers and online business. People now believe they need to perform their lives to build a brand.

If you want to be vulnerable, that’s fine, but you damn well make sure what you’re sharing is true, and not a Rachel Hollis level smoke and mirrors show where you’re running marriage conferences while your marriage is falling apart.

The truth is, that when it comes to storytelling and your brand, you get to choose what you do and don’t share in public.  Your entire life doesn’t need to be up for consumption and you don’t have to curate vulnerability.

In my own brand, I’ve made a series of strategic choices about what I do and don’t share. I can tell stories, but I don’t chip away little pieces of myself in an effort to sell my stuff or get attention. It’s not necessary and if I want to share anything vulnerable, it’s because it’s real, not because I’m grandstanding for the Gram.

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Picking and Poking at Pain Points

Conventional marketing wisdom is that people make a purchase based on wanting to solve a problem. The idea being that your potential client or customer is in pain and our offer is the potential solution to eliminating or lessening that pain.

I’ve seen some discussion in my online circles about how pain point marketing is outdated and wrong, but my take on that is that we’re trying to tackle the wrong problem.

Pain points are very real, and when we take the time to truly understand our customers as humans, we get a better understanding of what they need from us. In my mind, listening to my potential clients and where they’re struggling provides me with an opportunity to provide a solution that’s going to solve an actual problem.

Ignoring pain points doesn’t serve anyone, as pretending our clients or customers aren’t looking for help for a specific problem isn’t at all helpful.

The real issue is how pain points are consistently picked and poked at in order to make the sale. We can acknowledge people’s pain, and have empathy for them, without exploiting their pain in order to suit our own needs.

Typically, pain points are used in storytelling as the villain, as every story needs conflict. The question we need to ask is what degree of conflict we really need.

Sure, we need some tension, but does suffering and pain need to be involved? Do we need to expose the rawest parts of people through our stories? Do we really want to tell stories that create a negative emotional response?

My answer is no. Part of being respectful and responsible in our storytelling is drawing a line where we don’t pick at pain points. We can acknowledge, address and empathize with their pain without tapping into negative emotional responses as a way to get people into action.

Afterall, do you really think that someone that buys from you because you tapped into their anger or anxiety is going to be an ideal client? It’s a horrible way to start a business relationship and trust is definitely going to be harder to earn.

Hero’s Journey or Monomyth

Next, let’s talk about the hero’s journey, as it’s the dominant approach to storytelling I see in business.

If you’ve never heard of it, you’re probably familiar with it as it’s the basis of the original Star Wars trilogy. (Also: Lord of the Rings, the Matrix and my first date ever movie, the Goonies.)

The Hero’s Journey, or the monomyth, was developed by Joseph Campbell and is a basic pattern of storytelling that is found in narratives from around the world. It’s essentially the universal story or myth, as it shows up across eras, cultures and geographies.

Just because this is the prevalent approach to storytelling doesn’t mean we need to embrace it. I’ve long been a critic of this approach as it makes the story all about you, when in your brand, the story should be shifted to be that of your client or customer.

The hero’s journey reinforces a culture of individualism as it’s all about the development of the self. The last thing we need here in 2021 is to focus more on anything that prioritizes the individual above the collective.

In the online business world, the hero’s journey is the reason we have so many rags to riches and epic “I did this and you can too” stories that are based on the individual’s triumph over adversity.

Plus, the monomyth is rooted in western thinking and was created based on the idea that all myths tell a single story, and that heroes were primarily male. It’s based on outdated, misogynistic and colonalist thinking.

When we tell our stories, we can do so much better than the hero’s journey, and be respectful and responsible to our audiences.

Before You Share that Story: Key Questions to Ask Yourself

Before we dive into talking about some of my favorite alternatives to the way storytelling is typically done, I want to touch on a few key questions to ask yourself when it comes to sharing a story.

First, a big part of the challenge with stories is that both the person telling the story and the person reading or hearing it is that we come with our own unique experiences.

And those experiences result in assumptions being made. We need to consider what assumptions may be made when we tell a story, otherwise they fill-in-the-blanks with what they believe to be true.

I believe that as storytellers we have a responsibility to understand that those assumptions may happen and find ways to tell the best possible version of the story. A version that provides a complete and true picture so there’s less room for the story to be turned into something it’s not. Because when that happens, it lessens the effect of the story.

The other key consideration is both the intention of the story and the impact it will make. With any story you choose to share, look at why you’re telling the story and what you’re hoping to get by sharing it. Analyze your motives to figure out if it’s actually helpful or adding value to your audience.

In terms of impact, our words, our stories have a far greater impact than we ever realize.

A story is a tool, but in the wrong hands it’s a weapon. If we’ve learned anything from the age of misinformation and alternative facts, it’s that when something is repeated enough times, we start to believe it’s true.

Think about it in the context of these types of stories. We hear them hundreds of times and slowly we start to think differently. We’re convinced that we can be an overnight success if we just follow the seven easy steps to building our businesses.

If we’re going to run businesses based on trust, values and ethics, we need to
be respectful of our audience and not wield our stories as weapons.

No Drama is Required

One of the biggest objections I’ve heard over the years from my clients is that they don’t have an interesting story.

It’s total bullshit. We’ve been swimming in a sea of broken storytelling that’s all about the trauma and drama for so long that we’ve lost sight of what the point of stories are.

Stories are about connection. And that means we don’t need to have these epic, Oscar or Emmy-worthy stories.

Great storytelling isn’t about the big moments. It’s about making your message and brand more engaging. It’s about forming an emotional connection with your audience.

And those emotions? They don’t have to be aspirational or inspirational. They can connect with the full range of human emotions. What if your story made someone laugh out loud, or feel joy, or excited, or something else entirely?

What kind of stories should you tell? That’s up to you.

Your approach to storytelling can be whatever you want it to be. Maybe it’s a mix of quirky and plain comical, or it’s sweet and salty as you share the good, bad and ugly sides of building your business.

The real secret is to make it yours and not to worry about what your “competitor” or the “big name” in your industry is doing.  After all, you’re so much better than a sad knockoff, recycled, rags to riches story that doesn’t quite land.

Remember, the reason that storytelling works is that it’s a pattern we’re trained to recognize from birth. And because it’s a pattern, we can also become so common that we don’t even register it anymore.

That’s the point we’ve reached with these typical, tired stories in the online business world. So, if you really want to use stories, you need to interrupt the pattern with something different.

As Sally Hogshead, the creator of the Fascination Advantage says, “Different is better than better.” So don’t be better with your storytelling. Be different.

You can be the service provider with yet another tired “how I quit my job story”, or the one with a knack for short, hilarious, and completely out-there stories about your real life and how that relates to business.

If you’re still here, you probably want to be a better storyteller, and you want to share stories in a way that’s both respectful and responsible.

Here are a few of my favorite ways to tell stories.

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Know What Your Audience Needs

The purpose of storytelling isn’t just to put things out there, but to create an audience, so you need to figure out what your audience wants from you.

Think of this as a filter for your stories and figuring out the best possible stories to share. Start by nailing down what your audience is thinking, feeling and sensing when they interact with your brand. Listen to the words they use, the way they explain their problems and the questions they ask.

The closer you can get to the customer, the more you can learn about what they really need, helping you create a clearer container for the types of stories you want to tell.

With Small Business Boss, I always want people to feel like I give a shit about them, and that I’m their mouthy, opinionated big sister who says the things they want to say. And who shows up with the right support when they need it.

That’s taken years to refine, but it’s a filter for everything I do. I ask myself, is this helpful? Do I have a clear point of view?

Most of all, do I have a specific solution in mind for people? (Otherwise I’m probably going to turn SBB into an online business version of DeuxMoi that shares celebrity entrepreneur blind items.)

A Little Personal Color Goes a Long Way

When you share personal stories, the audience filter comes in handy. You need to think about what’s a good fit for your audience and what may be completely over the top.

Personal stories are an ideal way for your people to learn more about you as a human and not just as a brand. But do yourself a favor and be choosy about the stories you share.

With Small Business Boss, I’m more willing than ever to put myself out there, but I’m very careful to not make it all about me. I share stories from a very specific slice of my life related to running a business.

As a mom, I’ve been very mindful of the fact that my kid can literally read anything I say, and his stories and image are his to manage. As for my husband, he works in a fairly conservative environment and he’s not down with me splashing our lives all over the place.

When it comes to my friends, I’ve got so many stories to tell, but I don’t think they want me serving up the sordid details of our escapades or some of the things I’ve experienced alongside them. Many of these moments have shaped who I am in a profound way, but they’re not mine to share.

I’ve figured out where my line is, and I’m respectful of it. Because really, no one needs to hear about that one time in Vegas. (Okay, maybe you do, but I promise you the story about my first trip to New Orleans is probably even funnier.)

In many ways, I think that makes me more trustworthy with my clients as they know I’m not sharing every last detail of all the things online. Plus, they know I have discernment and a strong set of boundaries.

Be Credible,
But Don’t Oversell It

Part of storytelling in a business context is about stories that help you position your experience and how you’ve gotten to where you are today.

When you’re telling stories that back up your experience and authority, there’s a careful balance between being someone that can be trusted and verging on being untouchable.

Using myself as an example, I share stories from working in an agency and ones about lessons I’ve learned, and my professional background. Those accumulate over time to signal that you can trust me and I know what I’m doing without you immediately being exhausted by my neverending list of accomplishments.

In a world that’s full of exaggeration and invented authority, you don't want to be another person that sounds like they’re full of BS. Or worse yet, become so intimidating that people are scared to engage with you.

This isn’t about shrinking yourself. It’s about working to share your greatest hits. Because let’s be real, people have limited attention spans and if you’re blathering on and making it all about you, you’re going to quickly lose people.

For example, on your about page or anywhere you talk about credibility, you skip the year-by-year rundown and share the greatest hits. Think about what people really need to know to start to know, like, and trust you, and recognize that people can learn more about you over time. You don’t have to reveal every little thing on the first date.

Make Your Client the Superstar

When you think of sharing stories in your business, it’s easy to think you’re the star. Because these stories are about you, right?

Not so fast! As you’re telling stories, you want to leave room to turn your clients and customers into the star of the show.

What people really want to know from you is “how can they help me?” so showcasing your customers as the superstar lets you prove that you can deliver.

A quick word on this. Stories should be shared with permission and context. I’m so tired of these screenshotted social media posts standing in as testimonials as they’re so incomplete.

Someone saying “I booked $5k in business today,” tells me nothing about the coach or service provider’s contribution to that result and if this was the biggest deal they’ve ever booked or something they do once a week.

Context matters. So when shaping these types of stories, share the complete picture and do it in a way that shows a fair and accurate range of experiences from your clients. When you’re only showing the top 1% or 10% of your clients, you’re setting unrealistic expectations.

As a kid, I used to watch this TV makeover show called The New You with my mom, and I became pretty obsessed with the idea of the before and after. And I’m not alone.

Transformation stories are incredibly powerful. That’s precisely why magazines and media are full of them, and I’ve probably spent more hours of my life than I care to admit watching makeover shows.

Think about what the before and after is for your clients. Start there and find ways to weave those stories into your marketing, and look for ways to go beyond just talking about making more money. Remember, you don’t want the “results, not typical” story. You want to share the real story of your clients and do it in a way that’s responsible and not overpromising what you can really do.

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Be Bold, Not Boring

Not all of you are as full of opinions as I am, and you’re probably not all Enneagram 8s who can’t stop themselves from being bold about all the things.

The idea of being bold and having an opinion or a clear point of view can be scary. Especially if you’re a people pleaser and the idea of someone not liking you is unthinkable.

Guess what? There’s always going to be someone who doesn’t like you, so it’s time to stop being so wishy-washy.

To succeed, you’re going to need to embrace that you can’t work with everyone, you can’t serve everyone, and you’re actually doing yourself a disservice if everyone likes you.

The sooner you embrace that fact, the whole lot easier being in business and telling stories is going to be.

What do I mean by being bold?

Have a clear point of view. Don’t say the same thing as everyone else. Be polarizing and willing to be unpopular.

This doesn’t mean you need to be all jazz hands and extroversion. I mean, I’m definitely not an extrovert and I’m clearly bold enough.

In your business, it means you take ownership of key issues and have an opinion. This is what successful leaders do, and if you want to cut through the same old, same old, then it’s compulsory.

Especially now when things are louder and shinier than ever and people are clamoring for attention in a way that’s downright exhausting. And the amount of sameness is making me bored just thinking about it. (Seriously, you should see the eye rolls as I scroll social media.)

Find a way to state what you believe and do it in a way that works for you. Take careful note of the “for you” part, as we’re all going to do this differently, and for it to work it must be aligned with how you actually are as a person.

If you need a hint, look at your Fascination Advantage report. My primary advantage is innovation and I lean on it a lot as I speak the language of ideas.

When I’m expressing my point of view, I tap into my ideas and creativity to share not just the problem, but the solution. (Which is kind of why I’m doing this episode as I was tired of just talking about the problems with these stories.)

Choose your stories wisely because the biggest threat to your business is never the competition. It’s you not doing what it takes to escape obscurity.

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Tell Different Stories

The time has come for us to expect better storytelling. The tired stories used every single day in online business aren't serving us, and they're definitely not serving our communities and customers.

Focusing on being respectful and responsible in your storytelling isn't only the right thing to do as a human, but the right thing to do for your business. Times are changing, and it's going to be harder and harder to connect, let alone be memorable, using dramatic and traumatic stories. We can, and should do better.

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