So, do you ever think about magic?

Storytelling for Success

Oh, man. Only all the time. And you should, too. Especially about this French cat named Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin. If his last name looks familiar, that’s because an American escape artist and magician by the name of Ehrich Weiss paid homage to Robert-Houdin in his stage name, Harry Houdini.

Yeah. Dude’s kind of a big deal.

Why? Oh, I love it when you ask the perfect questions.

Before Robert-Houdin, most magicians performed at fairs and carnivals and markets dressed in wizard’s robes. If they were really lucky, they might get tapped to do entertainment at a private party for someone with money and position. But Robert-Houdin changed the whole game. With backing from venture-capitalist-before-the-term-existed the Count de l’Escalopier, he bought a place once owned by Three Musketeers baddie Cardinal Richelieu and turned the assembly room into an elegant theater.

Y’all, he bombed.

But he didn’t quit. He kept performing, kept refining his craft, and now nearly everything we associate with stage magicians has its roots in his work. Formal tailcoat? His idea. Beautifully ornamented theater? His idea. Second sight illusions? Floating people? Pulling stuff out of a container far too small to hold it? All Robert-Houdin.

If you remember the 2006 movie The Illusionist, you might even recognize one of his most astonishing clockwork illusions, the Orange Tree, demonstrated without cinematic assistance here by the charming Paul Daniels.

What does all of this have to do with storytelling and marketing? Robert-Houdin was a master of both. Not only did he construct his show so that marvel built upon marvel, creating a strong narrative arc of mounting intensity, he was such a success that he managed to keep bringing in crowds even after his illusions were stolen by other performers.

Here’s what Robert-Houdin did. He didn’t give up. He kept working. He used storytelling to build intensity. He pushed himself, constantly developing new illusions and automata. He took advantage of advances in technology, such as electromagnetism. He didn’t fear the new. And that’s how he changed the whole profession.

Pretty good role model for marketers, mm?

So, what does storytelling require, anyway? Part 3

Storytelling for Success

We’re back again. Together. You and me, ol’ buddy ol’ pal. Here to check out those classical Western storytelling tropes and how they can make your marketing awesome. We’ve already covered the protagonist vs. society and the protagonist vs. antagonist, so today, we’re going to take a look at…

Protagonist vs. Self, ie: Crippling Self-Doubt, Tony Stark’s Default State, Gregor Samsa’s Bad Day, Me Trying Not To Eat A Whole Tin Of Smoked Oysters On Crackers With Hot Sauce Don’t Judge Me They Are Delicious.

This is the sort of tale in which our main character is pitted against herself. Possibly a narrative about mental health — and hey, just don’t, we have a really unhealthy ongoing conversation about mental illness in this country and to be handled well it requires a lot of nuance — or about self-control, or about resisting our baser instincts. Which makes it perfect for dual use.

Use #1? Be your best self! This is perfect for gyms, or healthy restaurants, or even schools. Those computer and culinary college ads that ask, hey, why haven’t you called yet? Textbook example. Overcome your self-doubt! Rise above! Do those pushups!

Yeah, I agree. Not so sexy. You know what is sexy?

Giving in.

Aww, yeah. Use #2. Just go ahead and surrender to those nasty urges. Buy that gorgeous car and revel in your wickedness. This is the fun way to play.

But how might it play out on social media? Images of decadence. Chocolate. Champagne. High-end watches. A picture is worth a thousand insinuations. The Jag campaign above even had a sexy little slither of a hashtag: #goodtobebad

Giving you some naughty ideas? Excellent. Then I’d say we’re done here for today.

So, what’s up with Yo?

Storytelling for Success

Have you heard about Yo? It’s an app. That lets you say “yo.”

No, really. It got seven figures worth of backing, and that’s all it does. That’s it. Or rather, that was it. Yo has been given an overhaul (a yo-verhaul?) that makes it less single-purpose. Users can now send hashtags and include URLs in their messages, expanding the app’s functionality by several orders of magnitude.

Which, to be honest, wasn’t hard.

But here’s the meaty goodness: the Yo Index. (No, I can’t believe I typed that any more than you can believe you read it.) This part of the app lets the user get notifications from various services that use the Yo API. Want to get notified when Beyoncé posts a new video? When FedEx delivers a package? When your favorite blog other than mine posts an update? Yo can help.

So, why the expansion?

Several reasons. In fact, I surmise this has been the plan all along. But I do know one thing for certain. It’s hard to tell a story in two letters.

Everything is storytelling. Everything. And this app just made it possible to tell a lot more of any given story. Keep an eye on Yo, yo.

So, here’s Thought Experiment #5

One of the great and abiding tragedies of the modern world is the cancellation of a show called Firefly. This brilliant study in character and world building, helmed by Avengers director Joss Whedon, lasted a paltry eleven episodes, though fourteen were filmed.

Y’all, it was good. So good. “Best BBQ you’ve ever had washed down with an icy cold beer” kind of good.

One of the best things about the show was how it took genre expectations and tweaked them. Sure, there were spaceships and far-flung worlds and a galactic empire. But it wasn’t Science Fiction. At its heart, it was a Western.

Which brings me to my thought experiment: What genre is your business? And should you subvert it?

To return to the imaginary flower shop we’ve discussed, it would be easy to define them as a Romance (in the modern, not classical sense). But could they twist that around, set themselves apart from the competition? What about a Science Fiction approach? Easy enough to establish with imagery. Beakers. Clipboards. Very Serious People in Very Serious Lab Coats. All of that would stand out against a background of pastels and petals.

Why would I ask this?

Because you, buddy, should start thinking about intelligently subverting expectations.

Give it a think. See what occurs to you.

So, what does storytelling require, anyway? Part 2

Storytelling for Success

When we last left our intrepid hero on the road to narrative success, I was breaking down the four classic narrative tropes. Not just out of the goodness of my heart, though. Nope. Out of a desire to help make marketing that doesn’t suck. And as luck would have it, there is an incredible of excellent marketing that concentrates on the next trope. So let’s take a look at…

Protagonist vs. Society, ie: The Man Can’t Keep Me Down (Unless We’re Talkin’ Orwell Because In That Case Yikes), Fighting the Good Fight, Plucky Hero Battling Overwhelming Odds, Me vs. An Entire Culture Set Up For Folks Who Are Morning People Where Is My Coffee

And wow, for those of you who don’t remember, Mac did this better’n anyone. It’s no accident I mentioned George Orwell above.

In 1984, during the third quarter of the Super Bowl, Apple decided to introduce the Macintosh personal computer with a big budget boom. Directed by no less than Ridley Scott, the commercial never aired again due to a lawsuit from the Orwell estate.

It didn’t need to air again. It blew the roof off with just one national broadcast. And it was so startling that Apple got loads of free repetition — news programs showed the whole thing over and over again.


This thing is so well constructed. With minimal time, the ad uses drab colors to create a dystopian nightmare shattered by the brightness of both the one person who tears it all down, athlete Anya Major, and the exploding screen. This is how you do it. Maximum storytelling power packed into a single punch. A concentrated dose of awesome.

The great thing about this narrative trope is that you don’t have to have a budget capable of luring in the director of Blade Runner. How could you use this trope in your own social media marketing as a small- or medium-sized business?

Positioning yourself as the scrappy underdog isn’t hard when you actually are the scrappy underdog — and if you’re an SMB, that’s pretty much the case. So what about a campaign featuring a clever hashtag? #mightytiny doesn’t take up too many characters in case you need to use it on Twitter, and doesn’t make you sound ineffectual.

Or how about an infographic? There are multiple free or very low cost services to help you create one if you’re small enough not to have in-house graphic design. Concentric circles like a target, each labeled with statistics about the reality of your industry. X number of, say, realtors in the country. Y dollars of big ad budgets for the biggest names in the field. Z number of pros in the area. Then there’s you in the center, the only one like you, concentrated awesome just like Macintosh.

Finally, a sidenote: Be careful about overtly demonizing your competitors. It can backfire by making you look creepy. And we have a very strict anti-creepy policy around these parts, mm?

Tune in next time, when we take a gander at the next trope ripe for the plucking.


So, here’s Thought Experiment #4

Storytelling is my obsession and my life, sure, but not all stories need to be on the list of the longest novels in the English language. Ernest Hemingway famously was issued a challenge to tell a story in just six words. Here’s his reply:

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Heartbreaking, mm? All that pathos crammed into six words. Extraordinary economy.

And that’s exactly what you need in social media storytelling. Can you do it for your brand? Let’s say, for example, you have flower shop.

“You’re in trouble. We can help.”

That’s a little too easy, isn’t it? Plays to negative stereotypes about how men and women interact. Can we do better?

“Rainy days need color. Send flowers.”

That’s a little better. Reminds folks to use your service for Just Because, not just Special Events. But maybe we can do better than that.

“She’s wondering. Answer her with flowers.”

There we go. Nice. Concise. Worth the price.

Why would I ask this?

Because you, buddy, should start thinking about making your message fit the medium.

Give it a shot. See what you get.


So, can you tell me more about this brand-as-character idea?

Storytelling for Success

I got an email from one of you lovelies asking for a little detour. He wanted me to circle back around to an earlier concept and flesh it out. So let’s get crackin’.

Storytelling is fundamental to how the human brain understands the world — especially fundamental to how we remember information. And why would you spend money and time on marketing material, traditional or social, that’s hard to remember? There’s a reason we teach kids the alphabet with a little song that has a narrative. This happens then this happens then that. Monty Python got in on the action with their Oliver Cromwell song, which rumor has it John Cleese wrote to help one of his kiddos study for history class.

But it doesn’t take musical genius (or silly walks) to make something stick. Narrative will do the trick on its own. Think about fairy tales and folk tales. Those critters have stuck around forever. Why? Lots of little narrative tricks. For example: Think about how many folk tales have things happen in threes. How many billy goats gruff are there? Three. How many little pigs, in how many houses? Three. How many things does home invader Goldilocks mess up for the bears? Three. Why? Because three is the smallest number than can indicate a pattern. A thing happens once, well, it’s just a thing that happened. Twice could be a coincidence. But three times? You got yourself a pattern there, y’all. And that means narrative. And that means it sticks.

So, if we grant that storytelling makes stuff memorable, what does a story need? You need people (or goats, or pigs, or bears) doing stuff.

Character and plot.

And your brand is your character. Your main character. Your name-that-goes-above-the-title-on-the-movie-poster character.

As you may have surmised from the y’alls that pepper this blog, I live in Texas. And while I don’t want to stereotype, Texans take trucks very seriously. I am not joking when I tell you I have seen an actual bar fight over truck brands. If I’m clever enough to figure that out, then you know the folks at Chrysler are. Guess who they chose to narrate their commercials for Dodge trucks here in Texas?

Sam “My Voice is So Western and Sonorous I Can Spontaneously Generate Whiskey and Jukeboxes” Elliott.

Boom. Character. That’s what I’m talking about.

Now obviously, we can’t all afford Sam Elliot to remind folks that the brand abides.  But every medium, small, and even tiny business can still take the time to define their brand. And should. Think about what you want people to associate with your businesses, then create a character that speaks to those associations.

Of course, you still have to back it up. But that’s what integrity is for, right?