What’s Your Story?

image of storyselling

Back in early 2009, Naomi Dunford of Ittybiz announced that she’d taken on a guinea pig. And, because it was Naomi’s guinea pig, it had a fair amount of attitude and tended to swear a lot.

This guinea pig explained its presence in the IttyBiz big picture by telling a story about what online marketing looked like from the average customer’s perspective:

For those of you who haven’t checked it out, IttyBiz’s “Online Business School” course teaches you how to make money online. Let me repeat that phrase, and then we can all go take a shower: “Make money online.” Ugh. The phrase stinks like a Teletubbies reunion. Why? Because nobody thinks that a real person can do it. Not really. They think it’s a scam. Or, they think that gurus can do it, maybe, but not real people…

So I says to Naomi, I says, “Why don’t I use your stuff and your advice to make money online. Publicly. And show everyone that an average guy who’s never done this before can actually do it. And you can coach me through it. Make course-corrections. Turn me into a millionaire. And together, we can make this whole ‘make money online’ thing a reality for everyone”…

Interesting hook, right? Unknown guy who’s never made a cent online before uses blogger/marketer’s product to see if he can make a career out of nothing. It’s the ultimate case study because everyone gets to see that it wasn’t a handpicked, standout success highlighted only after it worked.

And of course, let’s not forget the very real possibility that it may not work — suspense on top of hope!

For anyone who doesn’t know the story above, I was that guinea pig. What I think of as “The Johnny Experiment” on IttyBiz did, in fact, work rather nicely.

In the intervening year and a half, I’ve given some serious thought to why exactly it worked. I decided that while there were a lot of reasons, the magic ingredient was giving people a great story to follow.

What I learned as a guinea pig

Let’s acknowledge and set aside the mechanical, nose-to-the-grindstone factors that went into building my business. I had to work hard, and I had to have skills people wanted (at the time, setting up blogs and websites), and I had to make and then keep my commitments. All very important, but similarly all very known. Is anyone surprised that you need to work hard to build a business, or that you need to know what you’re doing?

But here’s another rhetorical question: Is anyone out there doing all of the above stuff correctly and still getting nowhere? Any talented, hard-working, professional fledgling businesspeople out there who can’t seem to get anything going?

Knowing the skills isn’t enough. If I learned anything outside of the OBS course material and Naomi’s colorful tutelage, it was that in order to succeed in this space, you need for people to like you and to be interested in you. It sounds trivial, but it is absolutely essential.

You don’t just want customers. You want customers who are fans first and foremost. You want a small army of people who love you, who will stick with you and want to know what’s going on with you and tell their friends about you.

The way you do that is through story.

Why your story matters

A lot of details had to fall into place in order for me to turn the story of the average-guy-turned-experiment into an actual business, but the story itself was the hook that made any of it possible. I was a regular guy. The people who read my IttyBiz posts were regular people. Logic said that if I was successful, then they could be too.

But the story thing goes further. It had to. I started my fledgling business by giving things away (first a free report and then free blog setups), but none of that mattered without engaged people to take advantage of that free stuff. I had to keep people coming back, and back, and back.

I wanted to be like a good TV show or a good book. I needed my story to be interesting enough that people wanted to keep following it.

I could beat this to death, but here are a few elements of my story that kept readers tuning back in. Check out how they mirror fiction:

  • I laid out an upcoming journey that was intriguing — not all that different in concept from a long walk to Mordor to destroy a magic ring.
  • I became an underdog — a little fish in a big pond that people wanted to root for.
  • Thanks in part to my public discussion of some really bad financial mojo caused by failing real estate investments, I had established an interesting backstory that readers could see shaped my ethics, morals, and motivation.

Get the idea? Your business needs fans, and even though you’re in the world of nonfiction, you get those fans the way any great serial work of fiction gains fans — by crafting an interesting character and spinning a compelling yarn.

How to craft your story

What I’ve done in creating the story of Johnny B. Truant (which is totally true, but shaped by fictional influences) wasn’t really strategic. I fell into it because I’ve always written short stories and even a “closet novel,” and I’ve read innumerable books written by other talented folks.

But once I realized that stories work and why they worked, I started coaching people in the telling of their own stories. And I’m not alone.

Take the Reinvention Summit. When Michael Margolis asked me to participate in his virtual summit on storytelling (which is going on right now), I thought it sounded interesting. He told me about all of the great people — like 25 of them — that he’d gathered to discuss the importance and the future of narrative and story.

Very cool, but there are dozens of various summit-style products in our sphere every year. I didn’t figure it’d be making any waves or anything, especially given that translating “storytelling” to “business and moneymaking” isn’t easy for some to get.

But I was wrong. I’ve been following this thing and WOW is it a packed and amazing production. Check out the lineup (and check out the price while you’re over there … it’s kind of ridiculously low.)

Every one of the speakers is talking about the use of story in the way I talk about it. Copyblogger has been talking stories as marketing vehicles for a long time, so I should mention now that Copyblogger is a proud media and marketing partner for Reinvention Summit, and, like I said, I’m a presenter.

Why is a conference on story called the “Reinvention” Summit anyway?

  • Because the changes in the world are forcing people to reinvent the stories they tell about themselves or perish.
  • Because the internet is changing as we all reinvent this space.
  • Because careers and lives and styles are being reinvented every day … or they fall apart, as the old paradigms weaken.

My IttyBiz story was also a story of reinvention. I was a real estate investor who was circling the drain, and I had to rethink my entire existence and adjust to avoid being sucked down.

Story is important. Reinvention is important. If you’re stuck, it may be time to reinvent yourself, and tell a better story.

Luckily, you can still join the Reinvention Summit. It’s a huge event, and runs until the 22nd, but you get all of the sessions that have already been conducted (including mine) as recordings.

As for the live events, I’ve never seen something quite so interactive and organized. Chat live, follow and meet and interact on social media, bonus materials and webinars, you name it. A lot of events borrow the name “Summit,” but this actually feels like you’ve attended a live event and are going to individual sessions.

Make the time to craft and start telling your story. It’s important.

About the Author: Johnny B. Truant took his business from nothing to six figures in a year thanks mainly to storytelling as marketing. He’s one of 25+ speakers at the Reinvention Summit, running right now. He also plays the musical blender with his bandmate, Marty the Rabbit Boy.

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Comments

  1. Johnny your stories is the story of most people who have been through the struggles, but we live and we learn…at least I have..

    “TrafficColeman “Signing Off”

  2. Johnny:

    I really like this post today. Perhaps because it’s a bit deeper than the usual Copyblogger post.

    Getting the little guy hooked is what clever marketers and copywriters attempt to do. A classic line runs something like this: “Everyone laughed at me, until I sat down to play the piano.” It’s a classic ad and make much money.

    I like the fact you write short stories and a novel. Stories are integrated into good marketing materials. If you learn and perfect the art of fictional or non-fictional story telling, it helps you to better craft marketing material. I learned this from being a COD creative writing student, before I started writing marketing materials.

    The story matters, as you correctly point out.

    I liked the fact you were also a guinea pig. And you had to do the work. Reminds me of me learning internet marketing, via the free 30 day challenge.

    I’m going to have to visit these summit links you mentioned. It’s probably very good, with all great speakers.

    If I was to grade your presentation today, I would give you an A+.

    Randy

  3. My story? I read this article thinking that just some minutes later, Apple will come with a new announcement.

    There was a blind beggar, holding a paper on which something was written, “Blind since birth”. He wasn’t attracting a lot, so somebody took he’s paper, and gave him another one on which this good man wrote, “It’s spring time, but I can’t see it…”. Finally, the beggar started to draw more attention, which resulted in more money.

    Something as simple as this can make you successful. Don’t worry, play with the colors of storytelling and you will understand which is the best way to tell your stories.

  4. Today’s story is really great. I think most people who have had some success in making money online will find some similarities between your story and theirs, especially the part about working hard.

  5. Hi Johnny,
    Lately I’ve been thinking of gettiing myself a guinea pig to show exactly what I do, how it it works and how well it works. I’m hesitating though, what if my guinea pig doesn’t cooperate? What if he just cowers in the back of the cage and refuses to come out? How did Naomi find you?

    I get a lot of requests from wannabe writers or proofreaders wanting help for free and I’m sure the very fact that they are looking for help for nothing makes them poor guinea pig candidates. I’d want one that would let me develop my own story alongside theirs, as yours has for Naomi, and so they’d really have to put the effort in.

    Is Naomi just lucky that you’ve done so well? Or did she know when you started that you’d invest everything in making your story worth reading?

    Great post,
    Jax

    • I think you’ll know it when you see it. Not to pat myself on the back, but there’s more to this story. I brought her a proposition, not just a request for mentorship. I positioned it in such a way that she’d win as much as I would: This would provide social proof for her course, it’d generally make her look awesome, it’d be one less post each week that she’d have to write herself. And while I didn’t “know” her in any sense two years ago, she had read my stuff and followed my tweets for a while before I made this pitch. So she knew she liked my style, my thinking, and my general work ethic.

      There’s no guarantee it’ll work, obviously. You take a gamble!

      • Cheers much, that helps :-)

      • Johnny and Jax,

        There is the other side of the coin too. Speaking from experience, I have been in a position of being mentored. I sought out someone as the proverbial “Guinea pig” only to have them “get too busy.” You see, while Jax has fear that someone is just going to take advantage of his time, energy and mastermind, there is the rodent sitting in the cage wondering what will happen next – if anything.

        Johnny, your story is fantastic. Almost everyone will say “Yea, I want to do that; I want to be a Guinea pig.” The fact of the matter is, they don’t want to put in the time and effort it takes to translate the mentor-ship into a worth-while outcome. It is more like “Yea, I like the thought of that.” It was just as much you doing the work as it was Naomi pouring her passion and soul into you (which many people don’t see)

        Jax, I think Johnny had it right, you will know it when you see it. The biggest challenge is going to be sticking with it through the times where you are busy and when you are slow. Just keep looking and you will find the right one – but don’t be afraid to approach people yourself, they are not always going to come looking for you…

        Great post Johnny! Very inspirational.

        • All very true. And yes, you absolutely have to put in the work! I hope nobody got the impression that it was a “you are deigned and hence will prosper situation.” I actually wrote about that: http://johnnybtruant.com/how-to-make-your-own-luck/

        • Hi Sal,
          I’m sorry your mentor ‘got too busy’. I think my own particular brand of mentoring would involve driving my guinea pig crazy with constant check ups and targets. I think I’ll do as you both suggest and just keep my eyes open for the right person.
          Btw I’m a girl, that always happens when I comment, are there a lot of boys called Jax in America?

          • My sincerest apologizes. I guess that is what I get for being unobservant. Either that or my netbook doesn’t render small pictures well.

            Anyway, just keep plugging away and it will happen as it needs to. BTW, I am checking out your blog now and it looks great. A wealth of information – going to take a while to get through it all :)

  6. Hey Johnny, your story illustrates the important difference between educating and engaging a reader. Both are important, but each has a very different effect on your business. People buy emotionally, and they support their decisions with rationality. I’ve always been good at educating and asking for the order, but you’ve taught me how essential it is to convey your story and get people involved on a personal level. I suck at that. You’ve also taught me that saying “fuck” is cool, so thanks for that also ;)

  7. That’s cool Johnny,

    I have currently changed my branding on my blog because I want to bring the “mission” aspect to it – showcasing my life and business experience in storytelling – form.

    Thanx to your numerous posts on storytelling, I will even completely revamp my about page.
    It’s true that people – especially online nowadays – truly relate to a well told story, IF you include some value in it.
    It’s still the oldest form of communication, and it always be the major player in our social life.

    I have yet to find a way to mix the story with the business aspect – looks like I have to read more of your stuff :)

  8. Short stories that tug at the heart and ‘ping!’ on emotional buttons – almost always a win!

    I’ve recently started adding a huge amount of storytelling to my blog posts, and the reactions are most gratifying indeed. You’re 120% correct – it’s not enough to know the material and deliver on the material…people need to like you enough to tell their friends about you to boot.

    Sharing this post with my network, thanks!

  9. Johnny:

    You’re real, relatable, and you write how you’d speak. All that combined with your knack for storytelling, for me, adds to your transparency (even though you use a pen name hehe). Now more than ever transparency is key.

    I think I first “discovered” you through a workout article ages ago. You were also griping about your real estate endeavors and you were feeling like you were at the end of your rope. You made your readers “feel” your desperation. Your writing is powerful.

    At our company we’re working on weaving our story into future articles and an ebook this week.

    Your (yours and that of Copyblogger) writing influence and the concept of sharing the story of how we got to where we are will be incorporated into our articles and books.

    Fyi I’m a Third Tribe Member and took the amazing Teaching Sells course. Thank you ,Copyblogger, for your inspiration!

    • Workout article? Now I’m really curious.

      • @Johnny: Yep. It was maybe the summer of ’09 (right around the time I joined Teaching Sells and started reading CB). I was considering starting a blog about natural bodybuilding/weightlifting but didn’t know if I really had a unique angle.

        Your article stood out to me because, if I remember correctly, you have (or had) diabetes. You were also inspiring because blogging was new to me and you were already fairly steady (and entertainingly random) with your writing AND I was working on my first flip (home remodel and sale) and you were in real estate as well. Neat stuff.

        Truth be told I don’t recall if you were blogging under the same name?!? I just remember seeing you resurrected through the JBT site and on IttyBiz; then here.

        • Ah, that was my “Diabetic Weightlifter” site, because I’m type 1 diabetic and like powerlifting. That was the original Johnny experiment on IttyBiz… I was going to build that as my niche, but so many people were curious about how I set up the blog that I went that way instead.

  10. Johnny,

    My story’s still being written.

    Taking the “Road Less Traveled By” approach though.

    I appreciate your narrative.

  11. Johnny, I have enjoyed reading your past posts on CB, but this post is my favorite (and my favorite of the week)MI also appreciate the fact that you tell it like it is (and so does Naomi Dunford – am a big fan). I am so tired of supposed marketing gurus touting their holy “six figures” formula which usually doesn’t work and pisses off people and leaves them feeling they wasted time on money on usually an outdated formula. It is hopeful to see the underdog (you) come out on top – and I know this did not happen for you by rubbing the genie lamp! I love the way you write and you definitely are a great storyteller. Thanks for sharing with us!

  12. I tell stories to my lacrosse team while they are in their static stretch. From athletes to musicians to ordinary people with real talent, the common denominator is FINDING A WAY TO GET IT DONE.
    visit: http://www.trainandtrust.com/ for more stories.

  13. This POST is missing vital key words such as “conflict,” “struggle,” “obstacles,” “hardship.” Story is about the character overcoming these things. If there’s nothing at stake, there’s no reason to be interested — unless you LIKE staring at water lilies. :P

    Daniel Bartel
    CopyStratic

  14. I’m really starting to think about this story aspect of marketing a little more. One interesting use of stories is ebay.

    A lot of times when people sell stuff on ebay, they tell a story about the product.

    “I’m selling these shoes because they are too small, and I’ve never been able to wear.”

    Why do people care about stories like this? The reason is that it makes your product/service more believable. Without knowing why you are selling them, it’s hard to know if you are selling a fake pair of shoes made in China.

    There are a lot more examples of this, but I think ebay is a great example of how stories can be used in marketing.

  15. I remember buying a marketing info product years back when I struggled to learn Internet marketing and sales.

    I couldn’t believe how LUCKY I was to have found it on the last day of the sale! I returned a day later and noticed the last day of the sale changed to the current day. I should have known better. I looked at the code and realized that bleepity-bleep had a javascript date function changing the last day of the sale each day.

    To say I was bitter was an understatement, and I vowed to learn every trick these people used to get even skeptical people such as myself to buying crappy products.

    This marketer has an untimely death in his 30s, and I honestly believe karma moved his own last date of sale up sooner because of his actions.

    It wasn’t until I stumbling onto copyblogger and their third-tribe approach that the bitterness faded, replaced with a sense of belonging and community…and trust. I consider it a lucky blessing to have found this place.

  16. Johnny the world is in need of a major re-invent so maybe you can scale up a one guy experiment and create a new story about the planet? And it got me thinking – if you had to re-invent one thing about life, or how we do business with each other, or just how we can connect, what would it be?

  17. Great hook there Johnny. Well done sir. Social proof in action.

  18. Thank you for a very interesting post. I love the storytelling concept and think the Reinvention Summit seems like a very worthwhile venture. I’ll be signing up for the course – thanks for the tip!

  19. Most people probably have an interesting story, but they don’t know how to tell it, or maybe what aspects to focus on. Or maybe they don’t consider their story interesting enough to tell.

    Having the story itself is probably the easy part.

    You were able to zero in on the story you wanted to tell, then you worked to find a compelling way to tell it.

    Roger Ailes wrote a great book called, “You are the Message.” You’re right, although a product can have fans, the person behind the product, in many ways, is the REAL product.

    I visit your website, Johnny, because you are an interesting product.

    Rick

  20. Reinventing myself by telling a short story that pulls readers in and to get people to like me now that is a really good idea. Will start focusing on that concept.

  21. Well worth building a background story!…

    Or make something that people want to buy and you’ll end up with a story on wikipedia!…

    David Edwards

  22. Johnny,

    I love stories like this, I have heard of Naomi, now I have a great reason to check out her blog and her offering. I am surely intrigued, just would any one suspect with a great story.

    It is hard to imagine you as a guina pig though!

  23. Johnny you mentioned this, almost in passing, and it is KEY…

    “I had to work hard, and I had to have skills people wanted (at the time, setting up blogs and websites), and I had to make and then keep my commitments”

    These 3 things are so important-especially the part about the hungry market wanting what you had to sell them.

  24. Tell a story, cause a commotion, intrigue a reader.

    Great plan.

    Stories are great, they draw you into the persons life where you can find common ground.
    Common ground leads to building of trust (essential online).
    Trust leads to whatever you want it to lead to.

    Dwayne

  25. Great Post Johnny!

    It made me think of how important it is to share your story. My case is not a lack of story to tell, but a case of not telling it at all or not telling it enough, didn’t know it makes a huge difference. Always felt it would come across to readers as boring, boastful or to selfish ..know what I mean?

    I guess that is about to change now!

    But a quick question; do one ever get to a point of over telling their story? Is there a line one should never cross or just flow with your imaginations?

    • You need to be humble. Great characters in fiction have their story told for them, but we have to tell our own. So it’d be easy to sound boastful… whereas most great characters (with notable exceptions) are not braggarts. I think the trick is to always aspire. If you don’t sound like you think you’ve made it, humility is baked in.

      I don’t think you can overtell, but be sure your story has a point. If what you tell doesn’t evoke something in the reader, it’s wasted. Telling your story should be instructional rather than like a page out of your journal.

  26. I agree with your theory on live events. I really want to be a part of one of those at some point.

  27. Johnny, THANK YOU for this. Not only does it inspire me, it reassures me that I’m on the right track. I just did a whole reinvention a couple months ago, and I’m going in a new direction that’s utterly story driven. I’ve gotten off to a bit of a slow start, but it’s a start, and reading your post, put more steam in my engine (or something like that). :) Thanks!

  28. Thank you very much for sharing your story. I am inspired to think more of writing stories that matter to my audience than selling goods which matter only to me.

  29. You’re welcome, and good luck!

  30. Thanks for sharing, it’s always helpful to learn about how others started and how they’Ve build a business.

    Vaclav Gregor

  31. A+ and a gold star Johnny! Does it get any better than that?

  32. I really like this post, and it tempts me to get a little more personal on my blog with my own narrative – recent college grad, former editor in chief of a college paper with no job prospects (like everyone else my age) and a crazy idea of creating my own career online. But two problems here, and maybe someone has a thought:
    1) Not that interesting a story
    2) The only post I’ve written that was even semi-personal got like zero hits.
    This worries me. I would love to build a readership that actually knows who I am, but nobody seems to want to! Is this normal, or am I just doing a crappy job of narrative?

    • It has to relate. You won’t get great results if you just tell your story — literally — but you may get action if you use your story to convey a point. What was the main lesson you took out of that story? Was there an epiphany that led to you doing what you did that others could learn from? You don’t want to say, “This is what happened to me.” You want to make a point that others can relate to, and do it through a story. Your readers have to recognize themselves in your tale.

      And as to it not being interesting? It is to the right people. Few people feel they’re interesting, but I once heard Dan Kennedy say that what seems simple to you is amazing to many people.

  33. Great post! Very helpful information. Love the Phineas and Ferb reference–big fan.

    Thanks!

  34. Everyone has a story to tell – even big businesses. There is just something about seeing a logo or a slogan and watching how it unfolds as you learn about the story of the company. The best designers and copywriters can weave a 50-year story into a simple picture or set of words.

    Thanks for sharing your story Johnny.

  35. Johnny,

    Thanks for writing this post. You inspire me. You are a darned good writer. It’s the story of your life too.

    Yes, story-telling is important, which is why students need to pay attention while they are in school.
    Don’t doze off or try to get the attention of the OMG PYT sitting next to you. Don’t go to Cancun, get stoned and thrown into the slammer by the Mexican police who think you were trying to hit on a one-legged salsa dancer.

    Instead, pay attention to your artsy-fartsy classes: english literature, creative writing, public relations, advertising, american studies, comparative literature, etc. You can hone and sharpen your writing skills if you take such classes seriously instead of just getting by and fulfilling requirements because you want to graduate and “it looks good on my resume.” Story-telling is an art, so pay attention to the arts, puh-lease. And read voraciously and widen your horizons.

    Your post served to remind me of this fact. I’m the guy who was cursed with a short attention span and never paid attention in school. So, don’t be like me. Instead, be like Mike or, better yet, like the guy who plays truant. Cheers.

  36. Stories get to the heart of the matter. Only talking about features and facts can be a bit dry and routine. I’ve come to realize that connection comes not only as people get to know you through your story it also comes when you can convey your information through anecdotes and stories as well. Having a mental image surely increases insight. Having experienced my own reinvention going from eye surgeon and medical business owner to showing others how to eliminate “blind spots” that bock their true potential by bringing new brain science information via stories has really helped me to share my expertise and makes it more interesting.