Case study: Dissecting an everyday story

On the surface, this is a story about a 3 year old. But like all good stories, it’s also about the reader.

Source: Screenshot from Nathan Ng’s Facebook; Image annotations by Wes Kao

Getting someone to change their worldview is hard.

When it happens, that’s a big deal. If you can change people’s worldviews regularly, or even once in a while, you will always be in demand.

My friend Nathan posted a quick story about him and his daughter going to the car wash. He could have gotten on a soapbox to lecture, but he didn’t.

His writing made me pause.

Whenever something makes you pause, think about why. Try to dissect what the person did so you can learn from it. It’s been one of the best ways to stay sharp as a marketer.

Here’s the text from Nathan’s Facebook post:

1. All good stories are about the reader.

Terrified of car washes… Okay, my heart just melted a bit. All of us can relate to being terrified. Maybe not of car washes but of plenty of other things.

On the surface, this is about a 3 year old. But like all good stories, it’s also about the reader.

You see yourself in the story.

Note: When you read the rest of the post, you’ll see yourself in Nathan AND his daughter. You’re empathizing with both of them. It’s brilliant.

At this point, I’m hooked. I want to keep reading.

2. Build trust with the reader.

This section continues to build trust. Without saying it directly, he’s saying “you and I might be similar.” For example, I hate surprises too, so I’m thinking “Yes, you understand me.”

This is what getting in your customers’ head looks like when it’s well executed. You want your readers to feel understood.

When it’s not well-executed, it looks like Facebook ads that are assumptive in the most annoying ways:

  • “If you’re reading this, I know a few things about you. I know you are an ambitious professional who wants to succeed…”
  • “Do you want to get to the next level in your business, but aren’t sure what to do?”
  • “Ever wonder how some entrepreneurs get to the top, but others struggle?”

The best messaging shows restraint. It’s not always direct. It leads you to a conclusion without pushing it in your face.

3. Use words that make your reader feel something — anything.

The fact that they had been talking about car washes for two weeks shows how afraid his daughter was. Great example of “show, not tell.”

The word brave is an emotion-laden word.

There are some words — like nice — that don’t give you an emotional reaction when you read it. On the other hand, words like brave, gentle, fast

These words create a visceral feeling. Whenever possible, pick words that get your reader to feel.

4. Great marketers create space for their reader to fill in the blanks with their own story.

When Nathan admits that the way he was raised might not have been the best, he creates space. He creates space for the reader to admit there might be a better way.

The use of “I think” softens his message because it invites you to reflect.

Notice the subtle difference in the way these two sentences are written:

Option A: “This way is different than the way I knew, but that way wasn’t healthy.”

Option B [Nathan’s actual sentence]: “This way is different than the way I knew, but I don’t think that way was healthy.”

The only difference in the sentence is a well-placed “I think.” It’s like all this was happening, and it dawned on Nathan that this might not have been the best way.

He could have been even more prescriptive. He could have said, “This way is different than the way I knew, but that way wasn’t healthy. We’re all adults now. We get to choose how we want to be and the environment we want to create for others.”

But that would have sounded like every other soapbox post. We’re used to seeing those… and used to ignoring them.

The unexpected tenderness is what made his post so effective.

5. Great stories create a visual so you can see the scene.

You imagine a kid puffing their chest and holding their breath and holding in all that fear.

Some grammar sticklers might say “internalizing it all in” is technically incorrect. But that doesn’t matter.

Always optimize for helping your audience feel. That overrides perfect grammar any day.

Marketing | Product | Strategy | Prev: altMBA, Seth Godin HQ, Flite (acq by Snapchat), Gap Inc. @wes_kao |