“I was a child prodigy and I only got better with age” is a really lousy way to start an origin story.
It may feel great to say it. I mean, who wouldn’t like to be a genius, smarter than the average bear, and up above the hoi palloi, you know, where people say things like “hoi palloi.”
Trouble is, that’s not what people are looking for in your story.
They don’t want you to tell them you’re better than they are.
They want to relate to you, to know that you believe the same things and have maybe even shared the same experiences.
That’s what a good story does. it builds empathy between you and the people that matter most to you and your brand. That builds trust and buys you the right to communicate with them, to be part of their lives.
So what are the traits of a good origin story? I’m not talking about hallmarks or plot point but the characteristics most good ones share.
You are not telling your story for your benefit. You are telling it for someone else.
Yes, your objective might be to get them to do something in your best interest (like do business with you) but in order for them to really hear what you’re saying, you have to filter what you’re saying through what it is they need to hear.
That takes a lot of humility.
Because it forces you to really think about a world in which you are not the centre.
With humility comes great thought into the very specific needs of the audience given the journey they are on and your role as their guide.
Your origin story needs to immediately signal that you value them, their time, and everything they’re bringing to the table.
It also needs to engage them in meaningful ways. Your mom may love to hear you brag about your accomplishments or talents.
Everyone else, not so much.
It needs to be a good enough story that you’d want to listen to it even if it weren’t about you. And it needs to add insight into the human condition, or something common and troubling to those you serve.
It takes courage to go through this life. True, there’s not much of an alternative but that doesn’t make it any less scary.
For all of our planning and the hard work, underneath it all, no matter who you are or what you have accomplished, we are all afraid. We take strength from our own experiences, the times when we triumphed, and the experiences of others, who show or remind us that this too shall pass and the sun will rise again.
Our failures are visceral reminders of All the Great Fears: That we are not good enough. That we just can’t. That everything we have could just slip away.
Sometimes our fears are based on reality. Mostly (about 95 per cent of the time) they are just cunning little liars.
Either way, we have to get up anyway. We go on. We may hurt like hell, but we do it.
This is the world we know. Imperfect — but too perfect for the likes of us.
Our hearts go out to someone willing to share her own failure. It hurts less than remembering our own but still gives us the upside of all the feels.
When you can tap into a failure and share it with people, you immediately gain their trust.
We may gather in joy but we unite in failure. And we revel in overcoming that which seemed insurmountable.
We long to stand in the company of those who we believe are telling us the truth. We have all been lied to and dealt with duplicitous people who couldn’t care less about us.
We crave honesty. We want to believe that the person we are talking to is who they say they are.
A good story gives us a glimpse into the soul of the person telling it, not an airbrushed version of who they are. Something real.
We smell deceit a mile away, from the very small (like a fake backstory) to the large (the over the top story that emerged around the liberation of captured soldier Jessica Lynch during the Iraq War.)
We have learned that inauthentic stories come from inauthentic storytellers. And no, authenticity can’t be faked, though some try. Some get away with it for a little bit. But inauthenticity and a lack of humility tend to go together. And one or the other is usually their undoing.
People may not know why they don’t trust someone. But they will know they don’t trust her. And that’s terrible for business.
Dante’s vision of hell includes a sign over the entrance saying “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.”
It is hope that keeps us moving forward, which is why hell is the absence of hope.
We rally to people with vision, who show us a new way, a better way, who embrace hope and see how far they can see by looking through its lens.
Great stories give us a vision of a better world, a better us or both. In great stories, we see possibilities we cannot imagine without them.
A great story leaves us changed. It stays with us and becomes a frame of reference and a part of our truths. Once we have heard a great story, we can never go back to our previous understanding of the world.
Good or bad, it will leave us altered in some way. It will float back up from time to time and remind us both of what was and what became because of our shift in thinking.
There you have it:
Anyone has the potential to tell a great story. Most people don’t, however, because it requires more of them than they are prepared to give.
But for anyone willing to lead with generosity and honesty, the rewards are more than worth it.