Sticky stories and the poetry of business

I've been thinking a lot about what makes a story stick.

Have you ever heard a song for the first time, and it just grabbed you? I don't mean because it has a unique sound, or because you like the band, or even because it's great music. I'm talking about those rare, unpredictable times when you cross paths with a song, and you could swear it was written specifically for you, in that particular moment. The song gets you. It speaks your language (perhaps a language you didn't even know you had). Maybe not all the lyrics match up to your life or circumstances, but there are pieces — a melody that feels exactly right, or a perfect line or two — that speaks to you in a way you can’t escape. There’s something in a song like this that you recognize, and it helps give both shape and validation to your experience (here’s one of mine).

Songwriting is, of course, a form of poetry. This is the stunning power of poetry, and of story: it is both deeply connective and transformative. It helps us understand the world, and locate ourselves in it.

The poetry of business is brand storytelling.

Marketing, of course, is no longer just about spinning the right headlines, or feeding the public a carefully-crafted dose of messaging about your product. We’ve all gotten too smart for that (also, too socially networked). Today, building a smart and successful brand (and business) is largely about resonance and emotional connection. It’s the art of connecting with your audience by crafting a story they can understand and believe in — a story that intertwines with their own story in a way that they recognize. A story that helps change their lives for the better.

My favorite example of brand storytelling in action? In 1989, Robin Williams played charismatic English professor John Keating in the film Dead Poets Society. Twenty-five years later, Apple borrowed Keating’s words, elegantly repurposing them in its Super Bowl ad for the iPad Air. You’ve likely seen the ad (and if you haven’t, do yourself a favor and watch it here). It’s a sweeping tapestry of fast-moving shots, woven together with expert cinematography: people standing on the brink of a majestic waterfall, in the thrall of a live music show, marching in a sports stadium, flying in helicopters and dancing on city streets, standing atop snowcapped mountains and writing quietly at a darkened bus stop. There are kids and adults, alone and in groups; all accomplishing great things (with the help of an iPad, of course). Underscoring the scope-of-human-endeavors video reel are these words, spoken by Williams:

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion….” 

Aha! Poetry and passion? Seems like odd subject matter for a technology company, doesn’t it? Of course, Apple has always been about more than just technology. During the entire 90 seconds of this ad, no words ever appear extolling the high-tech usefulness of the iPad, its features, its portability, its versatility, or even its distinctiveness.

Instead, it’s just the voiceover of Williams, going on to speak of business and the sciences, and then circling back to poetry and art. He quotes Whitman. He philosophizes. And he ends with this: “The powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse…what will your verse be?

BAM. It gets me every time. Goosebumps.

Apple's advertising in recent years has garnered adjectives like "anthemic," and deservedly so. These 90 seconds showcase a rich visual landscape of adventure and possibility; a brand story that resonates in the context of "regular" daily life as much as in boundary-pushing feats of physical and intellectual courage. This much is true: Apple knows how to seamlessly combine words and images to tell a cohesive story that inspires, on many levels.

They also know a very, very powerful secret.

Certainly, in order to build a strong brand, you’ve got to be able to tell a great story. But here's the secret: contrary to popular opinion, the story isn’t primarily about your business — who you are, what you do, why you’re the best — it’s about the people you’re serving. It’s their story, most of all.

Let me say that again: your brand story is not about you.

It’s about your people.

Make your customer the hero, and your story will stick. This means you have to do the hard work of finding out who your people are, at ground level. Discover what they need, what they fear, what frustrates them, what they’re dreaming about. Talk to them. Imagine with them. Learn to speak their language. And then, tell great big adventurous stories that your people can be a part of — stories they can recognize themselves in.

Tell stories that will call your people to greatness.