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Why No One Wants to Hear Your Story (and How to Fix That)

Why No One Wants to Hear Your Story (and How to Fix That)
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Who do you think you are?

I'm not being confrontational (for a refreshing change), nor am I waxing rhetorical. It's an honest question, one that almost every business that failed should have asked every day.

We're in a renaissance of storytelling, as more and more companies have used social media, blogs and events to reach audiences and customers directly, without relying on traditonal media. The evolution has been fascinating to watch, as marketing went from finding a way to directly sell a product to actually creating communities where brands can still peddle their products, but also create real engagement among fans. 

It's why content marketing has become so popular. It's why more and more, major brands are adding positions like "chief content officer" or "chief storyteller." There's so much storytelling nowadays that even Scheherezade would call it a night.

Trouble is, most people are doing it wrong. Disastrously so. They're spending a ton of time, money and effort producing videos, blogs and events that no one wants to watch, read or attent. Not only are brands failing to get their messages across, they're being outright ignored. In a Tinder world, most companies are getting swiped left.

Here's the good news: Nearly all of the folks failing are screwing up for the same reasons. It's actually not that difficult to figure out why no one is listening, though admittedly, it does take some work -- and both institutional and intestinal fortitude -- to fix it so people listen.

What's the fix?

Be yourself, authentically so.

In the television business, we used to quip to anchors that the trick to a successful broadcast was authenticity, and once you learned to fake that, you were in. Nowadays, too many people are trying to fake authenticity. Let me take that back: They're not trying to fake authenticity, like a Frank Abagnale. Rather, they have Cher Horowitz's cluelessness of what authenticity really is. In short, they don't know either who they are or, even less open to shrift, who they want to be.

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The goal -- a good marketing message -- is also the culprit. Many companies, startups and large enterprises alike, start out with the greatest of intentions. They want to create a product or service that solves a problem for a customer. They see a market need, innovate around a solution, build it and sell it. Pretty damn simple, and pretty damn noble, if you ask me.

But "selling" a product often gets in the way of selling a product, and nowhere is that more evident than in modern content marketing. Storytelling should be simple. Find something compelling -- the backstory of your product's creation, interesting backgrounds of your team, a customer you've saved -- and just write down or shoot a video of precisely that story. If the selection of the story is indeed compelling, the execution should be simple and the result should be wide audience consumption. It's worked for the news business for years.

But compelling ideas often don't survive companies' own brand gauntlet. A friend of mine in the advertising world told a horror story of how this can happen. She was creating a native storytelling program for a major automaker trying to sell a type of utility vehicle. The automaker solicited stories of how the car had made people's lives better. The agency found a great story, from a returning veteran who lost a limb but had found the ease-of-use and accessiblity of the car such that he could start a business and run it so successfully that he started hiring a few other veterans.

It's the kind of story a Today Show producer would love. Tear-jerking. Inspiring. Patriotic. The ad exec thought she had a winner on her hands.

Then the automaker's internal branding and marketing teams got involved. Since this was about selling a certain kind of car to consumers, the fact that he was a businessman might compete internally with the company's fleet-sales business. The veteran status didn't work because the automaker already had a different brand campaign built around patriotism. Handicapped accessibility wasn't a messaging point. In the end, this great story was scrapped.

Brand, marketing and messaging professionals often let myopia conquer mission. A great story was killed, ostensibly for all the right internal reasons. But no one stopped to ask about whether this great, authentic, honest customer experience was exactly what the car company's audience wanted to hear. Fuel-efficiency and cupholders can only sell you so many cars. When was the last time an automaker inspired you? Didn't think so. The reason certainly isn't because of a lack of stories to tell. It's simply a lack of internal, institutional will to find them and tell them.

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It takes a certain journalistic skill to find the best stories about your business and your customers. You often need a dispassionate eye to come in, listen to your employees and customers, and ferret out the best of what you have to offer. The closer you are to your own business, the less likely you are to know the value of what you offer. It's the entrepreneurial version of opening the refrigerator and not seeing the milk carton right in front of you.

Once you have the story, it takes remarkable leadership skills to let it get out to your audience. You often have to resist internal objections and put the needs of your end audience -- you know, potential customers -- over those of the experts who tell you that a different approach is better. 

And, if you run a company, you know there are plenty of experts out there telling you they have the secret formula. I often laugh at the web-traffic experts I meet who tell me how keyword and traffic analytics are the best way to judge audiences. I once toyed with the idea of writing a story called, "The 7 Sleep Habits of Introverted, Self-Made Millennial Billionaires" because, at the time, that encompassed a lot of what was being consumed by Entrepreneur readers. In theory, the only thing that would have made it better would have been making it into an infographic.

What that story lacked, though, was a more holistic -- and a more honest -- understanding of needs of the audience. Audiences want information. They want to learn. They want to win. And they want the people with whom they engage to be authentic and trustworthy. They don't mind buying a product and service, by any means. But they don't want to be sold to.

That's the value of authentic storytelling. It's also why so much content gets ignored today. So, ask yourself, who are you? Then don't be afraid to be that story. Your audience will thank you.