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Know Your Audience When Telling Stories

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Marketers inherently know it’s easier to tell a story than sell someone on the key features and benefits of a product or service. As Seth Godin points out in All Marketers Are Liars, good stories “engage the consumer” and “appeal to our senses.” Yet the best story in the world may fall on deaf ears if it doesn’t fit cultural dispositions or lacks authenticity.

Seth Godin reminds us that marketers tell stories to best sell products and services. “No one buys facts,” he says. “They buy a story---they’re here for the story and the way believing it makes us feel.” Anyone who has seen a marketing brochure or advertisement for Volvo can see how the use of storytelling brings forth the “safety” value proposition much better than detailed specifications of its whiplash protection system or roll stability control.

However, a carefully crafted story that works well for one market may fall flat in another. Godin says that’s because “different people have different worldviews. People can see the same data and come to different conclusions.”

Author Peter Hessler highlights this idea in a New Yorker article titled “Go West.” Born and raised in the United States, Hessler has spent the past 10 years traveling from farm to factory in greater China, so he knows a thing or two about Chinese and American culture. It was no surprise to Hessler how the two cultures uniquely use narrative in daily communication.

For example, Hessler writes that one night he decided to visit a local bar somewhere in Colorado. Hessler relates that within a few moments, a stranger had sat down next to him, ordered a drink, and proceeded to tell Hessler his life story, including the fact that he had just been released from prison.

Hessler contrasts this openness with his experiences in China. “People in China never talked like that,” he writes. “They didn’t like to be the center of attention, and they took little pleasure in narrative. They rarely lingered on interesting details.” It wasn’t necessarily that Chinese citizens didn’t tell stories, just that they told stories about much different topics. “Most Chinese could talk your ear off about things like food, money and weather,” Hessler says. “But they avoided personal topics, and I learned that it could take months before an interview subject opened up.”

Hessler observed that Chinese seemed less willing to talk about themselves. Contrast this with the average U.S. citizen who is likely more than willing to tell you his or her life story and probably has it well-rehearsed.

One narrative technique that seems to work well in Western cultures is the personal testimonial. However, from Hessler’s observations on the uneasiness of Chinese to talk about personal issues, it’s easy to see why a marketing campaign of customer testimonials for a product or service might fall on deaf ears in China.

In addition to cultural nuance, a university professor friend of mine—who is Chinese—says there’s something deeper here on why personal testimonials might not work in China. The larger issue is trust and believability.

In Communist China, billboards with propaganda are the norm, the Internet is tightly controlled, and the government does its very best to control both media and message.  The professor says, “Many believe that stories and testimonials are made up, especially because there isn’t an unbiased monitoring mechanism to convince consumers that testimonials are from real people.”

Storytelling works in marketing. But the most real and believable narrative may fall victim to cultural nuances that predispose your customers to not listen in the first place.


• One person interviewed by Hessler says, “An individual with a story is on a higher ground than an individual with an argument.” Do you agree or disagree?
•  Hessler also observed, “Many Americans were great talkers, but they didn’t like to listen.” Is this consistent with your observations?

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Paul Barsch directs services marketing programs for Teradata, the world's largest data warehousing and analytics company. Previously, Paul was marketing director for HP Enterprise Services $1.3 billion healthcare industry and a senior marketing manager at global consultancy, BearingPoint. Paul is a senior contributor to MarketingProfs, a frequent columnist for MarketingProfs DailyFix, and has published over fifteen articles in marketing, management, technology and healthcare publications. Paul earned his Bachelors of Science in Business Administration from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. He and his family reside in San Diego, CA.

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  • by Justin Breitfelder Tue Sep 14, 2010 via blog

    Well said Paul. Agree on both points in your questions. Well crafted narrative speaks directly to human yearnings and pains -- the most critical factor that often gets overlooked in so many discussions of social, interactive media. Especially in B2B interactive marketing and more considered consumer sales where sales cycles are more complex and your aim is to build solid relationships.

    Your post highlights reasons why buyer/client personas are so important. If we don't listen carefully to and understand the unique, varied needs of our clients we can easily fall into the trap of - to use one of your examples - taking a Chinese client on a narrative journey they aren't so ready to take.

    I also love that you highlighted the importance of the marketing stories we tell being true. While Chinese propaganda makes this an especially acute issue there, the rest of the world has also been pretty beaten down by their fair share of dishonest marketing trickery. Great brands use authentic leadership and narrative to earn long-term relationships.

  • by Ted Mininni Tue Sep 14, 2010 via blog

    Hi Paul,

    Being an American, but having lived in China for a time, I can attest to the cultural differences marketers must be aware of when it comes to using storytelling as a tool. In the West, we tend to become emotionally connected to an authentic, meaningful story around a brand. In the East, a totally different mindset pervades the culture and as you point out, a closed Communist society doesn't engender sharing on a personal level. Nor does it breed trust. Marketers need to be aware that their messaging and stories are not going to be interpreted as they intended due to cultural differences, as well. It takes time to study the markets where companies would like to do business. It's worth it in the long run. Patiently listening and learning make a great deal of difference.

  • by Alexandra Reid Tue Sep 14, 2010 via blog

    I mostly agree with the first statement, however, it really depends on what story is being told and how it is being told. Some stories simply lack meaning or influence and therefore fall flat where an argument, no matter how unethical or disagreeable, is always backed up by concrete fact and analysis, and can therefore be convincing. But a strong story, told well, that expresses multiple values will defeat an argument because it is relatable and people remember, and will fight for, what they can relate to. I couldn’t agree more with the second statement. In my experience, many Americans engage in a conversation by saying something about themselves first and wait for the other person to respond. However, it seems many are just waiting for their chance to jump in and say their next point.

  • by Paul Barsch Tue Sep 14, 2010 via blog

    Hi Ted, thanks for your additions to this column, esp because of your knowledge of both Chinese and American cultures. Today's FT had an article describing a new communication vehicle where Chinese citizens can email Beijing leadership about their daily concerns and challenges. Will this engender more communication and trust or be rendered ineffective because of "trust issues"?,dwp_uuid=9c3...

  • by Paul Barsch Tue Sep 14, 2010 via blog

    Justin, thank you for commenting and adding your thoughts! The need to tell authentic stories was one of the main premises of Godin's "All Marketers are Liars". Indeed, like you, I believe there is much for marketers to improve upon in telling believable stories.

    A question back to you - with a high level of mistrust for most marketing messages, what specific steps can marketers take to make their stories more authentic? Curious as to your thoughts...

  • by Paul Barsch Tue Sep 14, 2010 via blog

    Alexandra, I appreciate your additions to the conversation. I found Hessler's statement; "Many Americans were great talkers, but they didn’t like to listen” comical in that--probably like you -- I deal with it on a daily basis. Why is it that we often like to think about our next point instead of really listening and absorbing what the other person is saying? How much better and richer could our communication be if we truly listened?

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