“Significant objects”: How to make the usual unusual

We were talking in class about metaphor—it’s one of the toughest concepts to grasp, apparently. Not what a metaphor is—all of my writers have been through high school English class—but what a metaphor does. So I was searching for marketing pieces that use story and metaphor when I came across the Significant Objects project.

All of the best marketing uses stories, as the Heath Brothers have documented. Take toothpaste, for instance. A pretty mundane product.

You could market it with facts—People who brush their teeth regularly are X% less likely to get gum disease.

Or you could market it with a story.

An indirect story—People who use this toothpaste are X% less likely to develop gum disease.

A direct story: Use this toothpaste and you’ll have a dazzling smile.

An indirect story: People who use this toothpaste are X% more likely to die with all their original teeth.

If you’re really good, you can get consumers to tell themselves the story:

Ooh, I want a dazzling smile so I can be more attractive and get a date.

Whatever story you use, it’s still just toothpaste.

But the Significant Objects product used story in a different way. Writer Rob Walker and brand analyst Joshua Green bought inexpensive items at thrift stores and found fiction writers—some well-known and some not—to write a story about them. Then they took these knick-knacks and auctioned them on eBay.

Did the stories enhance the value of the objects? Not objectively. But they did enhance the perceived value: the average mark-up for some objects rose as high as 2700%. Yes, you read that right: 27x the original price. Retailers strive for a sale price of 3x cost.

Services as significant objects

If story can enhance the value of a souvenir ashtray, what can it do for something of real value—like the products and services we provide?

So I gave my writers an assignment: Write about your own business as if it’s a “Significant Object.”

Look, it’s never easy to write about your own business. If it were, there’d be a whole lot more marketing communications writers whipping up lattes and frappucinos. So I’m always on the lookout for ways we can write about our businesses indirectly, or at least from different angles.

So, “Write about your business as a Significant Object,” I said. A daunting assignment, but one that could yield valuable results. So I volunteered to do the assignment too.

Here’s what I came up with:

A new perspective

I was antiquing—that’s what one does on a rainy day on Cape Cod. Driving down the first “highway” in the United States—it’s little more than a country lane, but here and there you’ll find an old shack or cottage with an “Antiques” sign planted in the front yard, a strange species of native tree.

The quaintest of the shops lack sufficient parking, but those are the ones with the best finds. So I parked down a side street about a quarter mile away and hiked back.

Inside, in the only corner of the shop not covered in dust, I saw a woman sitting on a decidedly not-antique desk chair, reading a book. At first I thought she was the shop’s proprietor, but then I saw a small sticker affixed to her sweater, near her right collarbone: “$129.95.”

“Excuse me?” I hated to interrupt her reading, but I had to know what the joke was. She looked up. “You seem to have picked up a price tag by mistake.” I laughed. She didn’t.

“No mistake. One-twenty-nine-ninety-five. You’re not buying me—that’s been illegal in the U.S. for quite a while. But half an hour of my time, to talk.”

“What would we talk about?”

“Mostly people like to talk to me about writing,” she replied. “I’ve won awards for it. In fact, I teach it. But I like to come here on rainy Saturdays because you never know who you’ll run into. Would you care to buy a chat?”

“Actually, I was looking for a bargain I could resell at a profit. A hidden treasure,” I said. “Have you noticed anything like that in this shop?”

“Treasure? I assure you, young woman, that I am worth my weight in gold.”

I sized her up—yep at that rate, $129.95 would be a real bargain. So what could I do? I bought a full hour.

And we talked about things I’d never thought about before. And the things I had thought about before—well, she showed me different perspectives on them. The ideas seemed to glow, hanging between us like a crystal chandelier as we turned them this way and that.

When I left the shop, the rain had disappeared. The skies were bluer than I’d ever seen them, the air felt crisper. And so did my mind.

I turned around and bought another half-hour. For you.

What’s it worth?


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Look ahead — “old sayings” vs. clichés

“Don’t look back. (You’re not going that way.)” Or, to translate into the preferred language of the SEO gods: “look ahead.”

look ahead

Do you read that as wise counsel? As a New Age-y cliché? Or as the worst driving advice ever?

It’s undoubtedly the last. My father the insurance man always instructed us to check the rear view mirrors before turning on the ignition. To be fair, he’d be perfectly fine with “Look ahead” too. He spent his days looking at wrecked cars and deciding how little—er, how much his company ought to pay for them. He knew everything that could happen to you in a car. So look back, look forward, look to your left, to your right—he insisted on all of it.

But in a metaphorical sense, “Don’t look back”—is it wise or trite?

I think the answer is

Yes.

If all you do is toss it into your writing, then it has all the weight of a fortune cookie saying.

But if you use it to make a larger point, if you can connect it to emotion and story—then you’ve got the making of something powerful.

It’s like anything, right? You don’t just drop a quotation into the middle of your work and then never mention it again.

“No man is an island entire of itself.”—John Donne

Well, yes. And…? As your reader, why should I care about that? How does it relate to me?

Look ahead

“Don’t look back” resonates for me now because I’m packing. (Argh.) And looking back is pretty much 90% of the packing game, right?

Do I really need to keep my 1980s edition of Trivial Pursuit? What was trivial then is now, like, super-obscure and useless information now. But I remember buying it, carrying it home, being one of my first friends to own it. Nope, Goodwill that sucker.

The handmade ceramic tile with my two-week-old footprints on it—even more trivial than the Trivial Pursuit. Completely useless to every conceivable Goodwill shopper. But my baby footprints! Jury’s still out on that. Oh, I would drive Marie Kondo crazy.

“Don’t Look Back” could make a fine Story Safari for a company in the throes of change. (And when is a company not in the throes of change?) When do you honor the legacy processes? How do you implement new ones without alienating half your workforce? Well, don’t look back; you’re not going that way. So what’s next.

In that context, “Don’t look back”—or, pace, gods of SEO—”look ahead” isn’t a cliché at all. It’s a great hook for a story.

Now, excuse me. I’ve got more packing to do.


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I love podcasts — and you might too

I love podcasts — I love listening to them and I love being interviewed on them.

Regular readers have already heard me sing the praises of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History. Gladwell doesn’t just deliver a fascinating story each week, he also offers a subtle lesson in how to write well. Well? Brilliantly.

I talk a lot about the importance of reading good writing. Gladwell reminds me that it’s equally important—actually, maybe more so—to listen to good writing.

i love podcastsI should have mentioned Revisionist History when Pete Mockaitis, the host of the podcast How to Be Awesome at Your Job, asked me about good material to read. Guess I was in a literal mood that day. And while pretty much every episode of Revisionist History would make a damn fine book, it’s still a podcast.

I love Gladwell’s podcast so much that I included it in the “great writing” I analyze for the writers who subscribe to my Weekly What program. You’ll hear more about that tomorrow. But—seriously—when was the last time you heard a podcast put together with enough thought that it deserved a deep analysis? Yeah, I thought so. If you haven’t heard Revisionist History yet, start here at episode one. You’re welcome.

I love podcasts (lots of podcasts)

I also love more anarchic podcasts, like the ones from the Crooked Media stable. Actually,  Pod Save the World, Pod Save the People, and Friends Like These have too much structure to call them “anarchic.” Lovett or Leave It, Jon Lovett’s podcast, has been gradually acquiring more structure, although the lineup of guest comedians remains hit-or-miss. (This episode, however, shines.) But their flagship show, Pod Save America, feels like I’m eavesdropping on a conversation between some really smart friends.

Whatever the format, I listen because—well, because Lovett and Jon Favreau are speechwriters. Ya gotta support the tribe, right? And because I appreciate the insights of all of the “Crooked” podcast hosts in these baffling, frustrating, and scary times.

But there’s a qualitative difference between podcasts that capture free-flowing conversation and tightly scripted podcasts like Gladwell’s. It’s the difference between watching a baseball game and a baseball documentary. Both tell stories, but the stories may be a little harder to tease out from the live event. Unless a junior league outfielder falls over the fence in pursuit of a sure home run and catches the baseball. Now, that’s a story.

Anyway, you can catch up on all my podcasts here. Can you tell the difference between the ones I prepped for and the ones where I winged it? Whatever the format, I’m just happy to be contributing to this fabulous new medium. Because—I’m not sure if I mentioned this: I love podcasts.


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What’s with the Rule of Three? — Frequent Questions

Q: What’s with the Rule of Three?
A: Depends. Which one do you mean?

I know at least two Rules of Three. I’ve written about the one in comedy—jokes are funnier when you break a pattern with the third item. But a fellow participant in Seth Godin’s “The Marketing Seminar” just reminded me of a second Rule of Three. (There really ought to be a third one, don’t you think?)

Jared Dees has his own Rule of Three
Jared Dees, from “Jared Dees Teaches” Facebook page

Jared Dees—who’s branded himself as as “The Religion Teacher”—posted a video to remind his community that less is not more. (Watch it here on Facebook.) Leave aside all the religious stuff if you like; his message about great communication technique works as well for an audience of agnostics as it does for catechism teachers—and everyone in between. It’s simple, as it should be:

People retain more when you say less.

So plan your speech or presentation to deliver three ideas. Not four, not five. Just three.

I can hear you wailing: But I have so much to say! I know you do, dear. We all do. The question is, do you want your audience to remember what you have to say? If you do, you can’t stuff their heads full of facts—they need space to integrate all that content.

So Jared says you need to be “crystal clear” about what your three things are. And if you can’t state them all in one sentence, then maybe you’re not as clear about all of this as you’d like to think.

Rule of Three, with details

This is not about dumbing down a presentation; it’s about organizing it. If you’ve got lots of details you need to fill in about each of your three points, then by all means detail away. Let the Rule of Three give you a frame on which to hang those details: a Christmas tree, a coat rack, a hall chair (I don’t know about you but that’s where all my coats end up).

Make it easy for your audience to create their own story, using the details and facts you provide. Once they’ve done that, they’ll remember you—and your ideas.

By the way, Dees practices what he, um, preaches. A quick trip to his blog reveals posts like “3 Lessons I Learned from Reading Real Artists Don’t Starve and Creative Blocks: 3 ways to find great ideas (great suggestions, by the way). Yes, I’ve only listed two blog posts. Another way to play with the Rule of Three is to keep an audience waiting for the third…“How to Be a Writer: 3 Lessons I Learned from Jeff Cavins.” Enjoy.


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Anaik Alcasas: Eavesdropping to “wow” your reader

Anaik Alcasas
Anaik Alcasas

I met Anaik Alcasas through The Marketing Seminar, Seth Godin’s new vehicle for spreading his insights and provoking new ones. She describes her business as providing “brand strategies for remarkables.” Follow her juicy #100booksinayear journey on Instagram @anaik_ed.

Eavesdropping to “wow” your reader

by Anaik Alcasas

How in the world can this writer be connecting directly with me—my pain points, core desires, need for affirmation and inspiration, insight and encouragement?

These are the kinds of things you would have heard four years ago if you were eavesdropping on my inner dialogue in the bookshop down the road.

Three years of in-depth research later, using a unique color-coding approach, have revealed several recurring themes in the most engaging motivational and prescriptive non-fiction. In brief, the most engaging writers seem to connect consistently with their readers—or so the research has shown—by touching on elements of audacity, credibility, storification, vulnerability, affirmation, illumination, generosity and inclusion, among others.

So let’s take that step by step, testing this theory, eavesdropping on the inner dialogue of your reader—that reader you’re writing for and to. We’ll italicize these thoughts, to remind us that this is potentially the inner dialogue of that reader:

Audacity

If you’re saying what everyone else is saying, just with a few minor adjustments, I’m not interested. Challenging the status quo? Tell me more. Disrupting some big traditional gatekeepers with your proposition? Tell me more. Challenging the oppressive troll under the bridge (whatever that may be) who scares people away from crossing over into more freedom, more opportunity, more fruitfulness, more solutions, more vital growth, greater resources to make a positive dent in the universe? Yep, talk to me.

While you’re articulating your audacious proposition, don’t forget to articulate the opposition (my pain points) and the promised transformation (why I should keep reading). And feel free to cycle through those things all throughout our time together – proposition, opposition, promised transformation.

Credibility

You’re not just stringing together nice-sounding words that you think will “sell” people (we’ve all tasted the cream-puff positive-psychology bull-o). Your credibility involves having done the hard yards for yourself, demonstrating you’ve put in the years, garnered real-world experience, done the reading and the research. Show me your roots and show me your foundation.

Oh, and while you’re at it, make sure you answer my unspoken questions “Why you? Why this? Why now?”

Storification

I’m wired to read stories, so package your knowledge and wisdom into stories, anecdotes, metaphors and analogies. This is the great antidote to cut-and-dry advice. If I wanted the preachments I’d go talk to my outlaws or that know-it-all neighbour—you know the one—always ready to dole out insular “advice” with an overtone of judgmentalism and a side of “you should.”

Storify your wisdom and I’ll lap it up and ask for more.

Vulnerability

If you haven’t fallen far and hard, suffered loss, run head first into severe obstacles that banged you up–if you’re too perfect and you’re hiding the real parts of your journey in the hopes I’ll trust your “perfect” image more than the next guy who’s sharing about his stomach-lurching lows and dizzying highs, think again.

I, your reader, am a deeply flawed human being with a business that might fall into dire straits without some actionable solutions, and I need to know that your teaching works for deeply flawed human beings and flailing businesses.

Affirmation

My favorite word after my personal name is “you” (copywriters know this), so what’s the “you-quotient” of what you’re trying to teach me?

I know, I know, it’s hard work to distill your training, wisdom, knowledge, and solutions into insanely useful content. But I don’t really care about what you’re saying unless you can bring it back to me through your affirmations and applications. Bring it back to those pain points you already identified. Empathize with my reader’s doubt and answer it directly, point by point.

Illumination

You’ve presented your data, stories, case studies, examples, and affirmed to me that these are written for me, right now, and can move me forward into the promised transformation I long for.

Keep on going! Your illumination provides context so you’re not just giving me a data dump, but you’re stringing it all together, giving it relevance and meaning for those pain points we talked about, and helping me to get excited.

These are the “aha moments” in your content, the tweetables. If you’d said them before the credibility and storification and all the rest, they would have merely been pontifications–unproven claims. But I’m totally on your side now, and I’m nodding along. Illuminate away.

Generosity

If I’ve read this far, it means I’ve already found a sense of tribe, a sense of belonging, within your content. You’ve already joined the ranks of one of my virtual mentors. Guess what’ll tip it into the realm of lifelong loyalty, something that really wows me, something that makes me get even more engaged and possibly make the deeper changes necessary for genuine progress? Your generosity elements – the checklists, summaries, recaps, bonus downloadables, and insider goodies designed just for those who are most on board … your ideal target audience.

Inclusion

You won me over, I voluntarily enrolled, I made the significant time investment to read your book, or watch your free webinar, or work through your ten-day-email tips course. Are you content with a one-sided conversation or do you want to move this into the realm of two-sided? If so, invite me to join your tribe, to sign up for more generous tips and insights, invite me to join a Facebook group, or to email you with questions.

Inclusion can be done many ways, but this is one of the most significant opportunities, one of the biggest differentiating factors between books and content BIE and AIE (before internet era and after the start of the Internet Era).

***

What would any of us do if we could—just for one day—read the minds of our ideal target readers? Certainly, we might change the depth with which we attempt to engage, personalize, and empathize with them.

The theory is that, what the most engaging writers have done intuitively—thanks to long-time leadership experience and high emotional-IQ (EQ)—we can learn to do intentionally, by paying attention to and “hearing” those readers we most want to serve with our writing.

So now it’s your turn to let us eavesdrop … which one of those nine elements describes your inner thought processes when you pick up a nonfiction book? And which one would you most like to nail in your next piece of writing?


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Stories shape perspective — whatever you create

“We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.”—Anaïs Nin

Whenever we create—whether in paint or stone or words—we edit what we see. Our perspective unconsciously creates stories from the information we take in. And those stories shape perspective in our art. And in our lives.

It’s the creative equivalent of the old adage attributed to Henry Ford:

“Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you’re right.”

stories shape perspective
Virgil’s story: Aeneas Flees Burning Troy, painting by Federico Barocci, 1598

Or as the poet Virgil put it in The Aeneid some 1,900 years earlier,

Possunt quia posse videntur.

In the 17th century, the English poet John Dryden translated that as,

“For they can conquer who believe they can.”

Note the absence of the pessimist’s perspective. Virgil had no time for losers.

Stories shape perspective
Homer’s focus: Achilles bandages his wounded lover, Patroclus By Sosias (potter, signed), 500 BCE

The Aeneid is itself an example of perspective shaping a story. Virgil revisits the story of the Trojan War, a mythological decade-long siege of Troy by Greek forces.

It’s the same general story the Greek poet Homer told so memorably a millennium earlier in his epic The Iliad. While both poems share some characters, Homer and Virgil focus on different aspects of the war and highlight its stories from different perspectives.

Eight million stories

One of the first police procedural dramas on American television always ended with the voiceover:

“There are eight million stories in the naked city. This was one of them.”

Homer and Virgil might have said the same thing about the city they chronicled. So can you—whatever story you’re telling. Start with your own perspective, your own feelings and observations, and you’re much more likely to create something original.

Proof that stories shape perspective

In the Picture Is Worth 1,000 Words Department, I give you this video from Canon. Six photographers take pictures of the same man. Each hears a different story about him, and those stories shape the portraits they produce.

Have a look. And think about how the stories you tell yourself shape your perspective.


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Lisa Murkowski and the power of story

Stories may have saved my life. Millions of people’s lives. So if you’ll forgive one more blog about the healthcare debate—well, debate isn’t the right word since there were no hearings. But you know what I’m talking about. The power of story stiffened some Republican backbones. In this case, Senator Lisa Murkowski‘s.

Lisa Murkowski

Back in early June, Topher Spiro of the Center for American Progress tweeted this excerpt from an unidentified article about a story one constituent told Murkowski. The senator recounted it to the press:

“She just needs to focus on getting her body whole, but she’s got another series (of treatments) to come up and she was saying, I can’t focus on myself … because I’m so worried that something’s going to happen to my health care and I will be labeled with a pre-existing condition and I’m never going to be able to get healthcare again,” Murkowski said. “It’s these types of stories that remind me that, no, the importance of a timeline is not nearly as important as getting this right.”

We don’t have the actual story the cancer patient told to the senator. But look at what Lisa Murkowski retained of it:

  • I’m worried
  • I can’t focus on getting well
  • Afraid of losing my healthcare
  • Afraid of being labeled with a pre-existing condition

Clearly the senator connected emotionally with the story. She remembered the fear; she empathized with the woman’s need to focus on her recovery.

What if Lisa Murkowski had heard this instead?

What would have happened if the patient had said to the senator instead:

“Senator, I have cancer. Please don’t let them take away my healthcare.”

All we have in the first sentence is fact. A devastating fact—no one takes cancer lightly, not even (I suspect) a Republican. But still, there’s nothing there to connect with. No details. No emotion.

And I’d bet it would produce no action. Not even with the “please” in the request.

And while we’re on the second sentence, calls to action need to be positive. Tell someone what you want them to do, not what you don’t want them to do. So, “Please fight hard for Alaska’s cancer patients.” Or “Please tell the Senate we need coverage for pre-existing conditions.”

But whatever you do, tell a story—a specific, emotional story. Stories like that can change the world.


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Ssssh! Don’t tell! — the right way to convey a story

Sometimes I think instead of storytelling, maybe we should talk about storyshowing. “Tell” just sends the wrong message. It’s one-sided. I tell the story; you listen. Where’s the fun in that?

storyShowing is a much more participatory activity. I give you a narrative; you instinctively fit yourself into it, taking the pieces and manipulating them in your mind until you’ve created your own story from them. Once you’ve done that, the story is in your brain, ready to be used and repurposed as needed. And pretty much nothing is going to dislodge it. Stories stick, as the Heath Brothers demonstrate in their book Made to Stick.

And what if I tell you only part of the story? That makes it even stickier, as your brain scrambles to fill the gaps.

Showing activates a whole different sequence than telling. But don’t take my word for it. Listen to an actual neuroscientist. And think about this the next time you’re tempted to tell instead of show: Telling gives you one shot at giving the information to your audience. But showing—storyshowing—elicits a chain reaction in your listeners’ brains—and in their listeners’ as well.

It’s quite a responsibility. But I think you’re up for it.

Sagehen — who knew? A Story Safari

I discovered a new word the other day, in something one of my writers posted: sagehen. SA-geh-hen? Nope, SAGE-hen. Clearly I was on the trail of a Story Safari.

Writer Anne Lamott, in her invaluable book Bird by Bird, talks about carrying index cards wherever she goes. Folded lengthwise and stuck in her back pocket, if you really need to know. My stay-at-home version of that is browser tabs.

Story safari

Today we’re taking a journey into the tab that begins “The History,” wherein you will find the story of Cecil the Sagehen.

The first mention of a sage hen in connection with Pomona athletics occurred in the student newspaper about 100 years ago:

“The Sage Hen will fight — on the field. On the campus she is entirely amicable.”

I thought perhaps that Pomona College, home of Cecil the Sagehen, had been established as a women’s college—hence, the adoption of a hen mascot. I imagined that after the college started admitting men, the mascot got rechristened as a male.

But, no—Pomona was founded as a coeducational college, back in the 1880s. Wikipedia tells us that its founder believed in educational equity. And its commitment to diversity continues today.

Story Safari lands a sagehen

But how did the sage hen become the Pomona College mascot? And when did it lose the space between the two words? I can answer the second question: At some point it ran into an editor trained in the Chicago Manual of Style.

As for the first, one story holds that a collegiate sportswriter who meant to write about the sage (wise) Huns typed hens instead. To this day, the college website defends the honor of its early 20th century proofreaders and points out the distance an errant finger would have to travel to type E instead of U. Although the story may be apocryphal, the college offers no alternative explanation.

Still, I like the idea of sagehens as a college mascot. Apparently young sage grouse are remarkably self-sufficient. Wikipedia again:

“Chicks can walk as soon as they are hatched and are able to fly short distances within two weeks. Within five weeks they are able to fly longer distances.”

And isn’t that one of the reasons colleges exist? To equip young people to navigate the wider world, as quickly and effectively as possible.


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Golf v. Gladwell — a sly writer at play

golfMalcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast returned yesterday. Shorter than I remembered it (just over half an hour) but still packed with smarts and attitude and surprise. Season 2’s first episode takes its title from Winston Churchill’s remark that golf is a great way to spoil a good walk.

Of course, like most bons mots attributed to Churchill, this one’s not his—at least not originally. One of his predecessors as prime minister, the 19th century British politician William Gladstone, said something very much like it. But my favorite iteration comes from an early 20th century novelist, Harry Leon Wilson, who wrote:

Some of his friends have been trying to induce him to play golf, but he refused. He makes the following unique definition of golf:  “Golf has too much walking to be a good game, and just enough game to spoil a good walk.”

But I digress.

My point is that Gladwell uses this very famous description of golf as the title of the podcast. But unless I missed it, he never mentions Churchill, or Gladstone—or even the famous quote itself. That’s not exactly a “best practice” in writing. If you use a quote like that, you want to reference it.

But when I got to the end of the podcast, I realized where he’d been going with it. It’s sly commentary, so clever it made me grin. I won’t give it away, but my hat’s off to Malcolm Gladwell.

Like Gladstone and Gladwell, I hate golf. But I treasure great writing. And whether he’s writing for the page or for the podcast, Malcolm Gladwell delivers some of the best writing around. If you missed the first season of Revisionist History, catch up with it here. And enjoy.


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