Want to get people to care about your story? Think leg traps, not lipstick

A vast swath of boringness could be swept from the face of the earth if people understood a simple rule about how stories work.

I grew up in the Chicago suburbs in the ’80s, which also means I grew up on two kinds of cheese: the yellow, single-slice kind I could chew with my lips, and the white kind that fell in dry tufts from shimmery, green cardboard cans onto my spaghetti. I was happy.

After I graduated college and was buying cheese all on my own, I had a conversation with a well-meaning friend at a dinner party. He told me a story about some happy, hardworking Italians who handcraft Parmesan cheese the way their ancestors had since way back, and some greedy Americans who were passing off their filler-stuffed, factory cheese under the same name.

When he got to the part about a certain shimmery, green cardboard can, I swallowed hard. I was part of this story. And it wasn’t a good part. One of those cans was rubbing shoulders with the 1% milk in my fridge as we spoke. I was unwittingly in cahoots with slick, corner-office profiteers making easy money off the backs of humble family farmers and craftsmen. Uh-oh.

With a simple story, this lanky guy in corduroy cutoffs changed my behavior as quickly and surely as any pipe-chomping, tweed-coated psychiatrist.

I was a 26-year-old freelance writer making less than dirt with no business supping on cheese that, pound for pound, cost more than a base-model Maserati. Yet there I was in the imported cheese aisle staring down at my earthy, straw–hued, plastic-wrapped future. I didn’t want to care about this hunk of aged cow’s milk. But if I still wanted to believe I was a person who put creativity and craft above quick profit — lush, green farms above sprawling, gray factories — I had to care.

I was trapped in my cheese’s story.

Most marketers think of a story as a shiny verbal fishing lure that tempts listeners over to their way of thinking. Or a hot new shade of oratorical lipstick designed to sex up their latest product launch. But back in the early ’80s, Aaron T. Beck, the bow-tied and bespectacled founder of cognitive therapy, discovered that stories act a whole lot more like leg traps than lipstick or fishing lures.


In researching how to help patients change their behavior, he came across a simple idea that turned the world of therapy upside down. The reasons we overeat, smoke or run up our credit cards aren’t buried deep in our id or superego. And they don’t stem from some repressed desire to make out with our mom or strangle our dad.
We all trap ourselves in the little unconscious stories we tell ourselves every day.
He discovered that we all trap ourselves in the little unconscious stories we tell ourselves every day: “I deserve to be overweight”; “A good wife always listens to her husband”; “I just have no self-control.” The job of a therapist is to show us the way out of all these painful little stories and into healthier stories. Change a person’s story and their behavior will follow.

People who have a knack for weaving an interesting story at the dinner table do exactly the same thing. We don’t usually realize it’s happening, because it’s disguised as good old-fashioned small talk. But their stories spring you from those rusty little traps in your head.

Considering how easy it was for my friend across the dinner table to change the type of cheese I buy, I find it crazy how often companies whose business depends on changing my buying behavior get it wrong. Microsoft is a perfect example. Do a Google image search for “Zune advertising” and you’ll see what I mean. Bigger, brighter screen. More GBs. A social network to boot. All lipstick and lures.

There might have been other reasons why Microsoft’s “iPod killer” turned out to be one of the largest product flops of our generation, but a failed story was definitely at its core. What kind of world would I be voting for if I bought a Zune? What rusty little trap was Zune springing me from? Why, aside from making a bunch of money, did they foist Zune on the world? Who knows? Who cares?

I have a good idea, let's show hipsters using our products. That'll lure kids on over.

Based on the lack of story behind the launch of its new Surface, Microsoft clearly still doesn’t understand what keeps me buying Apple. Here’s a hint, Redmond: I don’t buy Apple products because I love them. I don’t buy them because cool people buy them. Nor do I buy them for the resolution of their screens or size of their hard drives. I buy Apple because I’m trapped in a story they told a long time ago about simplicity, and you still haven’t found a way to spring me from it.
Most companies still think and talk like Microsoft. Bigger, brighter. Faster, shinier. All them, no me.


Fortunately, most companies still think and talk like Microsoft. Bigger, brighter. Faster, shinier. All them, no me. Which is great, because then I don’t have to care about them, and caring is exhausting. If they got me to care, then I’d have to spend time, energy and money thinking about their company and products, when I’d rather be sitting in my driveway, sipping beer and staring up at the stars.

Clever companies know how to tap into the stories in my head and make me care. They can make me plunk down $450 for an iPhone when #TheNextBigThing is just a shelf away for a lot less money. They can make me buy a $9 six-pack of New Belgium ale when I could pick up the MillerCoors equivalent and save a few bucks. They know I’ll drive past six Taco Bells to pick up my foil-wrapped, handcrafted, local farm–supporting, food culture–changing cylinder of deliciousness at Chipotle for three times the price.

If you want someone to care about your stories, your stories have to show them you care about theirs.