Are Our Stories Sacred – Or Just A Sales Pitch?

Back when my next-in-age sister and I were very little, we’d hop off the school bus and careen into the house where we’d plop down at the kitchen table to inhale the after school snack that our mom set out. As we munched our Ritz crackers or ShopRite brand oreos, we’d joke around, trying to persuade our mom that yes, the fourth grade teacher brought a voodoo doll into class and  cast a spell on one of the boys that made him crow like a rooster or that no joke – the principal stuck his foot out in the hall and tripped a girl,  then laughed when she fell down.  My rather gullible mom actually believed many our tales until we couldn’t contain our giggles at which point, she would sigh and remark, “Oh, you girls — you’re just telling stories again.”

When my mom used the phrase “telling stories,” she meant it as a euphemism for lying. Today, however, the act of telling stories is regarded as a mark of authenticity. For that reason – stories are like catnip for marketers who are always looking for new ways to persuade consumers to buy.

So it’s no surprise that lawyers seeking to attract clients also regard storytelling as a powerful marketing tool to incorporate into their marketing efforts. Among other things, stories can help connect with clients , foster trust, to inspire, to communicate their “why” or persuade listeners to care. Stories are doubly powerful for lawyers because consumers, we’re told, lack the capacity to distinguish between lawyers based on the quality of work or features of the service provided. Absent objective metrics for evaluating lawyers, potential clients resort to emotion or brand affinity or gut feelings – which are all easily influenced by personal story.

And therein lies one of my problems with stories. The power of stories to captivate us emotionally can also make stories dangerous.  That’s because compelling story captures listeners’ hearts and imagination so thoroughly that it locks out logic and reason. 

Consider Elizabeth Holmes the girl-wonder founder of health tech company, Theranos who now faces trial in July for misleading investors, doctors and patients about the development status and accuracy of her company’s pin-prick blood-draw technology. When describing her “why” for starting Theranos, Holmes always referenced her uncle’s premature death from cancer as the motivation driving her to develop a simple, painless blood test for early diagnosis.  The HBO Movie, The Inventor compiles a reel of clips – dozens of them – showing Holmes delivering this story over and over again with the implication being that that it was nothing more than a hypnotic sales pitch. Even so, plenty of really smart investors gobbled it up, finding Holmes’ story compelling enough to dump hundreds of thousands of dollars into the now defunct company without ever considering for a second that the technology might not be ready for prime time.

There’s another danger to stories too — particularly those that aren’t ours to tell. Stories are shorthand. Of necessity, they reduce complicated and multi-dimensional human beings with lives and accomplishments and pain into teachable moments or promotional material or sound bites for personal gain.  As a result, the same stories that supposedly are intended to personalize us dehumanize instead. That’s why I remain uncomfortable when lawyers trot prior clients out on video to share their stories to convince others to use that lawyer.  

Even when lawyers or marketers share their own stories instead of misappropriating from others, it’s equally distasteful. Nearly daily, I receive newsletters from coaches and marketers pimping programs for lawyers by sharing stories of terrible tragedies – domestic violence, miscarriage, infertility or the death of a supposedly dear friend – and then teasing out lessons to make a sale. The story copy is always the same:  Don’t wait another minute to change your life. Life is too short not to spend $1500 on a weekend of coaching. I spent $100,000 and ruined my marriage figuring out how to build a law firm and now I’m generously sharing it for just $195.  You may have lost a baby, but you can find new purpose with a 7-figure law practice.  These stories simply don’t ring true – and the fact that a copywriter (and eventually a computer, no doubt) is spitting them out makes them even less genuine. Yet in today’s world, offering products or services or even knowledge or learning simply doesn’t cut it. Instead, we must sell the story of transformation. 

If you’ve stuck with me this long, you may have guessed that I’m not a fan of storytelling as a marketing tool. For me, stories are sacred and intimate. Stories reveal a side of a person that is always there but that we don’t often see – like a hidden scar or tattoo. I remember how my dad loved to share the story of the Elephant Baby: when my mom was in labor with me at the hospital (back in the day before fathers could go into the delivery room), my anxious dad kept asking the doctor about the status of the “Elefant Baby” — to which the doctor eventually responded – “We only handle rhino babies and giraffe babies. No Elephant Babies.” The story evoked my dad’s sense of humor but also painted a picture of a clueless, worried dad-to-be – a side of him that we rarely saw.

When we use storytelling in marketing, we treat our stories like a spotlight or a shadeless window where viewers can see everything going on in the house . But really, stories at their best are more like a magical doorway that opens for an instant, allowing for a quick glimpse of what’s inside but no more. Occasionally, I’ve shared my own personal stories of my  my girls leaving home or  my husband’s last moments on this earth – because those experiences have changed me in unimaginable ways and because they’re always part of me even when I’m pumping out diatribes about stupid ethics rules or celebrating solo and small law firms.

I often wonder about the scruples of those who overshare or misappropriate others’ stories for their benefit or simply tell stories because everyone else is doing it and frankly, it works. Yet, engaging in story-telling without consideration of the consequences makes me fear that there is nothing on this earth so precious or sacred that these lawyers or marketers will not sell. In that regard, the stories that we don’t share reveal as much about us as those we do.  And when we concoct or finesse stories to persuade or manipulate or faux-connect or evoke an emotion – well, to me, that’s no different from what my sister and I did back in the days when we tried to convince our mom that our teachers were nuts. Depending upon our motivation, telling stories may be the least authentic thing we can do.

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