Do you make this mistake in your storytelling?

Douglass and Lisa-Marie Hatcher
4 min readJul 14, 2022
Man at food truck window

When the writer approaches the rough materials of his story, he must always determine the focus of character…he asks, whose story is it?

— Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren

When these two giants of American literature posed this rhetorical question, they were talking about characters in works of fiction.

As business storytellers, we ask the same question. But instead of referring to a character in a novel, we’re referring to the most important character in a business: the customer.

So, what companies are getting this right?

A couple come to mind immediately. We’re sure several come to mind for you as well.

The ones that pop in our heads are: Amazon, Zappos, and Apple.

And their answer to whose story is this?, as you might imagine, is the customer.

But most companies ask a different rhetorical question, which is this: “what story are we telling?” or “what’s our message?”

What’s the Tip?

We think you’ll agree that when you change “what” to “whose,” your perspective changes. As a result, you have an opportunity to reorient your thinking from yourself and your brand to your customer.

And when this shift in focus happens, it’s not an overstatement to say that everything changes.

How Do You Use It?

You’ll look at social media posts that you’re writing and sharing differently.

You’ll look at statements (whether in a press release or external remarks at a conference) differently.

You’ll operate differently, too.

What are Some Examples?

At every Amazon meeting, there is an empty chair…and it stays empty. That empty chair represents the customer, so that when new products, services, or initiatives are being discussed, they aren’t being discussed in a bubble or a vacuum.

The empty chair is a reminder to remember the question: whose story is it? and to remember the answer as well.

Another example comes from Zappos. They like to say that they’re not a shoe company that provides excellent customer service, but a customer service company that sells shoes.

A few years ago, the Zappos call center received a call from a person wanting, not shoes, but (wait for it!)…a pizza.

Most companies would say, “we don’t sell pizza…why don’t you try Domino’s?” and hang up.

But the Zappos operator did something incredible. They took the order, got the address, called the appropriate pizza place, and had the pizza delivered.

(For other examples of companies who are brilliantly customer-focused, check out our book, Win With Decency: How to Use Your Better Angels for Better Business, here.)

The pizza example from Zappos is extraordinary to be sure. But it affirms in stark terms the business that Zappos is really in.

Asking whose story is it? applies to product development as well. Years ago, Tony Fadell from Apple (later the founder of Nest), was working with Steve Jobs on the iPhone.

Tony was always irked when he would order some gadget and the box would say, “charge before use.” So, Fadell decided to use his own customer experience as a way to better products going forward. He and Jobs agreed that they would go the extra step and make sure Apple devices were delivered already charged.

The main character in the iPhone story wasn’t Apple. It wasn’t even the iPhone.

It was the customer.

What’s the Benefit to You?

How can asking the question “whose story is it?” help you?

If you’re preparing talking points for a client meeting on Zoom, write what you want to say from your perspective, then replace all the “I”s with “You”s.

In some cases, the change will fit.

Here’s an example: instead of starting with, “I’m so glad to be with you this morning,” you could start with: “Some of you are in other time zones and you’ve gotten up early to join us today…you deserve a big thank you.”

The key is to flip the script from yourself to your audience or customer.

Replacing “I”s with “You”s won’t work every time. But what will work every time is having your customer front and center in your thinking.

This shift is especially important if you’re a solopreneur. This exercise gets you out of yourself and allows critical perspective which can be harder to have when you’re on your own without colleagues down the hall to brainstorm with.

This exercise will force you to turn the camera from yourself to your audience or customer.

You then move from “what story do I want to tell” to “whose story is it?

And that…changes everything.

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TL:DR

  1. Your story should always be about your customer.
  2. Successful companies get this.
  3. You can adopt this mindset as well.
  4. Move from “what story do I want to tell” to “whose story is it?”
  5. Change “I” to “You” and see what happens!

More Reading You May Like

14 Effective Ways To Put the Customer First | Indeed.com

Putting People First in Your Business (entrepreneur.com)

How to write effectively for a business audience — it’s in the planning — Company Bug

Douglass and Lisa-Marie | co-founders, communicate4IMPACT

P.S. Whenever you’re ready, here are 3 ways we can help you:

  1. Stress-Free Storytelling for Solopreneurs | Private VIP Workshop. Click here for more.
  2. Stress-Free Storytelling for Solopreneurs | On-Demand Course. Click here for more.
  3. Private 1:1 Virtual Storytelling Coaching. Click here for more.

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Douglass and Lisa-Marie Hatcher

We help busy solopreneurs create better content faster, so they can spend less time marketing and more time monetizing what they love.