Finding Story

I’m thinking about story. The topic has come up a couple of times in recent client conversations. One question in particular had me noodling: Does the story find the audience, or does the audience find the story?

I know that sounds like a tautology. Let me explain. As I was working with a client this week, we  discussed the idea of their larger editorial mission – basically how their brand would be represented as content. We had decided on a core value – a story – that we could use as a foundation. Then she asked me, “What about different audiences? Shouldn’t we speak in a different way to different audiences?” She wanted to know if that same core story would speak to all their audiences, from influencers who help drive the need for their product to the end users who use the product.

The answer is yes. You speak differently to different audiences. The critical factor is point of view.

Take, for example, the story of how you asked (or were asked) on your first date. The facts and the core story are the same; it’s all in how you tell it. Where do you start? What do you emphasize? It all depends on your audience. What you tell your best friend is different from what you tell your parents. And that’s different from what you tell his or her parents. Every version of that story is true. You just adapt it to suit different audiences.

It’s a great exercise to go through. My client and I did it to see how well the story we had come up with held up. We wrote abstracts for different pieces – blog posts, white papers, e-books, even customer instructions – in ways that would suit different audiences. We used different words and different tones.

It was the same story. We just told it differently.

This was my client’s biggest aha moment. She had been trying to come up with complementary yet different stories for a variety of personas, and she had been finding it difficult to keep all the stories straight. Grounding herself in a core story made the variations easier.    

Back to our question: Does the story find the audience, or does the audience find the story? I would say, a story has to find its audience before any audience will find the story.

One of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman, said this:

“Stories you read when you’re the right age never quite leave you. You may forget who wrote them or what the story was called. Sometimes you’ll forget precisely what happened, but if a story touches you it will stay with you, haunting the places in your mind that you rarely ever visit.”

How do we create those kinds of stories? That’s the place we’re trying to find with the stories we tell – our core stories and the way we tell them.