Stop Breaking Your Stories With This Simple Mistake

MikeachimThe EverydayLeave a Comment


Picture this for a second.

You’re on Mars – and you’re almost certainly going to die.

In the middle of a huge sandstorm, you were knocked unconscious, and woke up to find that your team of planet-exploring astronauts, thinking you were dead, have left without you.

You managed to fix your temporary shelter (the “hab”) and – against all the odds and through a series of increasingly risky experiments –  you used your mad skills as a biologist to turn the inside of the hab into a farm to grow potatoes.

You’ve now got just enough food to last you until the rescue mission arrives. You’re saved. Whew.

And then, during a routine transit of the airlock into the hab, a tiny piece of weakened material in the hab wall rips wide open – and the whole thing explodes. You’re flung away, and when you repair your smashed helmet and clamber your way back over the tangled wreckage, you find all the potatoes are dead, every single one of them – and with them, any chance you have of growing enough food to keep you alive.

What do you do next?

the martian

This is why Andy Weir’s The Martian works so well on us (to the tune of $630 milion dollars). What would we do next?

It’s the story of an unusually resourceful astronaut called Mark Watney – but it’s also a series of What would you do? questions aimed at the reader. Where’s your limit? When would you give up?

I suspect my giving-up point is when the hab explodes. I’m no Mark Watney.

But after turning the last page, and coming out of the theatre after seeing Ridley Scott’s adaptation, I feel like I could be.

And somewhere during my reading & viewing of that story, it became a story about me – if I was that smart, that bloody-mindedly determined to persist and endure, and that capable of listening to nothing but disco music for 4 years without losing my mind.

That’s why it’s such a brilliantly-told story.

And it illustrates an essential element in any story that aims to make other people care about it.

In a few days I’m releasing a new course, a short one, on how to tell your own story (who you are and what you do) in a way that sticks.

This is the skill you need for CVs, personal statements, TV & radio interviews, About pages, bylines at the base of your articles, About The Author sections inside the dust jackets of your books, job applications, investor pitches, job interviews, the first 30 seconds of that TED talk you’re going to do someday, and all those cringeworthy moments when someone comes up to you at a party and says, “Hey, so who are you and what do you do?”

(I bet you always think of what you should have said to them much later, when you’re home and in bed. Yeah. I hear you.)

Telling your own story effectively is an incredibly important skill – and it’s the most commonly-recurring element of all the consultancy work I’ve done with individuals and small businesses. I’ve also touched on it a little in my flagship course, Engage! A Storytelling Course For Bloggers

But that’s aimed at bloggers. And most people aren’t bloggers.

So, I pulled together everything I’ve learned, and talked to a bunch of people much smarter than I am – and now it’s a 5-day course.

More on that in a couple of days.

(Oh, and thanks to Taylor of Nuts & Bolts Speed Training for the idea for this course. I owe you one, sir.)

But there’s something really basic here that everyone needs to know, if they want a hope of capturing the attention of any audience.

Esquire journalist Tommy Tomlinson outlined it in a talk he gave to the Public Relations Chapter Of America:

“[To build a great story] you need to answer two questions:

1. What’s the story about?

2. What’s it REALLY about?

Here’s what I mean.  What the story’s about is literally what happens in the narrative — who this character is, what goal he or she is trying to reach, what obstacle is in the way. The unique set of facts.

What the story’s REALLY about is a way of saying, what’s the point? What’s the universal meaning that someone should draw from this story? What’s the lesson?

When you think about it that way, you’ll find that you end up with a second obstacle and a second goal.

Think about the first Rocky movie. What’s it about? It’s about a no-name boxer in Philly (sympathetic character) who gets a chance to fight the champ (obstacle) and goes the distance (pot of gold).

He doesn’t win the fight — they saved that for Rocky II. The goal isn’t always the ultimate prize. Sometimes the goal is completing the journey. Proving you can go the distance is a worthy goal in itself.

But what’s the movie REALLY about? In a larger sense, the obstacle is not Apollo Creed. The obstacle is Rocky’s own self-doubt. The goal is making something of himself, not just out of pride but so he can prove himself to Paulie and feel worthy of Adrian’s love.

Why is that second layer of meaning important? Because not everybody is a professional boxer. But all of us have doubted ourselves and had other people doubt us. All of us have had the universal feeling of knowing that going the distance is a victory in itself.

That’s what makes stories matter: when you read or watch or hear a story about a total stranger, in a completely different world, and you recognize that story as your own.”

– Tommy Tomlinson, Nieman Storyboard

Skip this, and your story dies, utterly unloved, residing in nobody’s heart except your own.

This is hugely important for bloggers, who try to attract audiences that share their “why” and want to follow in their footsteps in some way. It’s hugely important for brands who desperately want to cut through the marketing noise and become a “people’s brand.”

Pepsi fluffed it.

Heineken (arguably) nailed it.

Great stories ask What If That’s Us? – but by crafting a story around the question instead of asking it directly, we get pulled in. We feel that question as if it’s happening to us. It gets into our heads . . . and resonates long after the story is over.

If you master this skill – to recognise the underlying universal message of your stories, understanding that your story isn’t just about you (or even primarily about you), and to engineer that message so it really gets under someone’s skin – you’ll be heard.

You’ll be remembered.

And you’ll probably end up everywhere.


A final, slightly creepy example of this from the course.

When you go in for an important job interview or pitch for creative work of some kind, do you take the same old CV or bio you always use? Do you deliver your back-story in exactly the same way as everywhere else?

Missed opportunity.

“The way you interpret your story is tied up in the way you approach the future.”

– Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking

Your backstory can be told in a ton of ways – and each of those ways tells a story about who you are now.

Only a few of those ways will perfectly fit the job you’re applying for – and the person sitting opposite you, or the person replying to your e-mail, is deeply aware of this. They want to see you interpret your backstory in a way that speaks volumes about the kind of person you are now.

They want you to show that you don’t just have the experience – you have acquired the right attitude as well.

(A common bit of job-hunting advice: interviewers are usually more interested in what you’re doing now, instead of things you’ve done in the past, because the Now-you is who they’re interested in hiring. But if you tell your story in a way that subtly shows who you are now in the way it’s told, you tick both boxes. Bingo!)

So – maybe they want someone who’s really great at keeping calm when work gets crazy.

Where have you engineered that underlying message into your story and the way you’re calmly telling it today – and where are you making them feel it, as if it’s them that’s unflappable in the face of chaos?

Where are you accurately reflecting what their own answers would be to your What Would I Do In That Situation scenarios – without lying about the facts, of course?

Can you really get into someone’s head like this?

Sure you can. That’s how great interviewing is done. And pitching. And writing books and making films about Mars.

Unfortunately, a lot of people still get this wrong. Bloggers fail to show what their post is REALLY about. Editors delete pitches that don’t fit the audience of their publication. Kickstarters launch with utterly unrewarding “rewards”. Internet marketing pitches fail to answer the question always asked at the other end – Why should I give a damn about this?

(This last point is a pet hate of mine, so I just wrote a huge post about it.)

But that isn’t you. You really get this stuff, right?

Great. I thought so. :)

This is an excerpt from my storytelling newsletter – which starts with a free 5-part introduction to storytelling for anyone with a blog.

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Images:, Pixabay, FoxAdam Clarke, David Davies

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