This is the second part of a ten-part course on storytelling for bloggers.
You can get the other nine parts for free, by clicking on the banner below and signing up by e-mail…
Hi! I’m Mike, and this blog post is going to fix all your problems – forever.
Welcome to the Life Awesomizer course, where I teach YOU how to be me.
Picture this, dear reader: I’m sat here in my hammock, the azure water playing affectionately
You could be me. You should be me.
And by the end of this course, you will be.
I’m going to teach you how to run a successful 9-figure business, all without spending more than 18 seconds a month building it. I’ve spent the last year literally doing less than 4 minutes of work – all freakin’ year – and I get to reap the rewards. I reap and reap and the reaping is never done. I literally cannot reap fast enough.
Let’s cut the crap. My life is perfect and yours isn’t. And it’s time you pulled yourself together.
Keep reading – if you dare!!!
Disclaimer: My system has a 617.4% success rate (yes, really!) amongst the many billions of people who have gone through it, and comes with a lifetime guarantee that I will always and at any time seriously consider* refunding the full amount if you’re not happy. That’s my promise, on the table, today.
* Subject to my assessment of your ability to commit to something that’s ultimately in your best interests. Remember: don’t shoot the messenger. He deserved to be paid.
OK, come back! That Mike is gone! He’s gone now, I promise.
This blog post is about honesty. And from that intro, I’m hoping you’re questioning mine right now.
You’ve seen stuff like this before (maybe attractively video-advertised
Next time that happens, stop and analyze the situation. What precisely put you off? Was it an insincere glint in their eye? Was their pitch just too smooth? What triggered your icked-out response?
Fact is, bad salesmanship misunderstands the level of bullshit that most modern consumers can see through. Bad marketing assumes readers can be hoodwinked into caring about dull, lifeless things. And bad blogging thinks that readers are just too stupid to see through a pack of lies designed to make that blogger look good, and assumes it’s easy to get those readers to promote, cheerlead and financially support that blogger.
This almost never works. Readers are smart. Their insincerity radar is turned up to 11. They’ve been around too long, they’ve seen too much, and if you’re going to fool them, you’re going to have to work incredibly hard. You may die of exhaustion in the attempt. That hard.
Here’s a lazier and more reliable strategy. It works when you’re telling stories, it works when you’re selling things, and it works amazingly well when you’re writing a blog.
It’s a growth strategy – and it’s called Not Hiding The Truth.
Author and entrepreneur James Altucher made a list of things that happen to you if you’re unflinchingly honest.
- People Will Stop Speaking To You. “I can’t believe you said that. I mean, it’s true, but that’s not the point.”
- People Will Think You Are Going To Kill Yourself. “I read your blog post about how being self-employed is actually hard work. Are…are you ok? Do you want to talk?”
- People Will Think You Are Crazy. Obviously.
- People Will Get Frightened.
- People Will Find You Entertaining. See, now it’s getting interesting.
Trust is one of the keys to making a blog everyone loves – and it’s how bloggers become powerful, with the ability to influence people with their ideas and recommendations. Trust is the most powerful human-to-human engagement tool there is – and in the words of legendary marketer Seth Godin, “being trusted is the single most urgent way to build a business.”
I bet there are people you trust online. In my case, I have a bunch of them. I trust Mallory Ortberg and the rest of the team at The Toast to skewer the truth with humour. I trust Pat Flynn to generously tell me the truth about how he makes money online, and to learn from his successes and mistakes. I trust Jodi Ettenberg to point me towards a good meal when I’m travelling. Paul Salopek is making me a better writer just by reading him, and Maria Popova is making me realise I need to read more books, way more books.
I trust these people to skip the BS, cut to the chase and deliver things I can rely on.
So – the big question for anyone telling stories online: how can you look honest and build trust? Here are two foolproof methods:
1) You Don’t Lie. Pretty straightforward really. Don’t twist the truth at your reader’s expense. Don’t lie by omission. Disclose your biases, commercial or otherwise. All that stuff.
2) You Tell Horror Stories.
Move closer to the fire. It’s time to talk about the nasty things in life.
There’s a story in the first edition of Grimms’ Fairy Tales (1812), as recounted in Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal – and it goes a little like this:
Once upon a time, there was a butcher. His children liked to play out in the yard, and one day, they started played a game called Butcher And Pig, complete with props they’d filched from their father’s shop. Meanwhile, inside and upstairs, the butcher’s wife was giving the baby a bath. Suddenly, a shriek: the “butcher” had plunged a knife into the “pig”. The mother rushed downstairs to find the child dead, stabbed through the heart. Fury overwhelmed her, and she grabbed the knife and stuck it into her other son, killing him instantly. Meanwhile, upstairs, the baby slipped under the water and drowned. Seeing this, the mother hanged herself – and when the butcher came home to find his entire family dead, he went into a slow decline and died of a broken heart a few months later.
I hope you’re feeling really great about life after reading that.
Now, here’s the thing: Grimms’ Fairy Tales appear to be true “children’s stories.” Not the safe, happy-ending-driven stories that adults feed their children. They’re very different from the very first stories children tell themselves, without prompting. Real children’s stories usually run something like this:
I was playing with my brother. My sister walked up and was annoying, so we threw bombs at her and blew her up.
I was walking through the jungle and a tiger fell on me. The End.
I was lost and alone in a supermarket. Nobody ever came for me.
Children may be brave and fearless and filled with wonder and excitement, but they’re powered by nightmare scenarios, constantly playing out inside their heads, at an age when they’re supremely impressionable to the power of storytelling. And those children are us. We’re those kids, grown up, but still enthralled by the horrible things that could befall us (or fall on us). Deep down, past all the feel-good narratives and positivity that makes life worth living, we’re tiny pink mewling creatures, curled up in a ball and shrieking in fear.
(Still feeling great about everything? YAY. You’re welcome.)
This doesn’t happen because children are manic depressives. They’re the opposite, right? Children are unstoppably upbeat.
So what’s going on here?
Gottschall’s research suggests it’s because stories are battle simulations. That’s why we’re wet-wired to be so susceptible to the stories we tell ourselves. They’re not just fun distractions – they’re survival guides. If I climb down from this tree, that sabre-toothed tiger will have me for breakfast. I think I’ll stay up here a while longer. Feels best. Yup.
Now, as adults, we’re addicted to these endless battle simulations playing out inside of us, trying to prevent the worst from happening, trying to keep us alive. Of course they’re not keeping us alive in most cases – we’re a hell of a lot safer than prehistoric humans. Our technological advancement has outpaced our instincts, but our brains haven’t heard the news. They think we’re still fighting for our lives, every single day.
So much for theory. What does this mean for modern storytellers?
Simple. If you keep the nasty stuff back from your readers, the struggles you’re enduring, the failures and disasters, the things that were hell to live through – well, they’ll know. On some level, they’ll see that you’re glossing over the truth, and they’ll start to question your honesty.
Conversely, if you open up about what they already know about life – that it’s rewarding but hard, that anything worth having doesn’t come easy, that following your passion involves massive amounts of pragmatism, uncertainty and hard work, that success is always the product of a string of educational failures, and that you’re just as human as they are – then you built trust. You built it in record time, and it sticks.
This isn’t a recipe for being morbid and pessimistic. There’s a line, and if you cross it, you turn into the very worst of European cinema. No hope? No fans. People get behind stories of struggle because they believe in what that struggle leads to. That primal survival instinct is alive and well. They want to know that they’ll get out of this alive.
We know the Starks of Winterfell aren’t all doomed, even though some really, really horrible things have happened to them. The torch is still being carried by Arya and Sansa. The Lannisters haven’t won yet, and the Game of Thrones is still being played…which is why we’re all so gripped, and will be for the next few years.
Here’s what all this means online.
If you’re writing a blog and you have a reputation for honesty and unflinchingly talking about the nitty-gritty of whatever you do, you’ll build a loyal following.
If you run a business that understands the pain it’s trying to salve in the world, and communicates that pain in a clever way customers can really feel, then it’ll make a ton of money. (Bonus points: communicating your own agony as a hard-working start-up, as Groove are doing so brilliantly, above.)
And if you’re telling a story and it gets under the skin of a reader, gets down into their bones where all their deepest fears are, then that reader will stick with it to the end.
So – be honest. Show the cracks in your life. And let a little horror in…
Just enough to make your audience shiver.
Images: Darron Birgenheler and Mike Sowden.
That link on “The Storytelling Animal” is an Amazon affiliate link. I’ll just use any money I make from it to buy more books. And I’ve already got loads. So you’re probably doing me a favour if you don’t click it. Hey, I’m just being honest here.