Why pain works in business storytelling

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Hurt flies off the shelves. People can’t get enough of failure. We know this. It’s not exactly news. It’s a solid fact of storytelling, be it about business origins or anything else. You aren’t anywhere without a good amount of misery and strife.

Walt Disney was fired for being uncreative, Bill Gates was the co-owner of a failed business,   Steve Jobs was kicked out of his own company,  Henry Ford racked up the failures before the Model T and Richard Branson’s scatter-gun approach to entrepreneurship has seen as many of his businesses fail as fly. After a tough and painful childhood, Oprah Winfrey worked her way up to a job as a news anchor and then got fired, Arianna Huffington was rejected by 36 publishers , Zoella- er, actually Zoella as far as I know has experienced only success. Well done Zoella.

We may be on to something here …

Yes we may. In fact, when it comes to our own business storytelling, we would do well to have a hard luck, triumph-over-adversity tale of our own. If we don’t, it might not be the worst idea in the world to take the dull story of uphill slog and attrition that marks the beginnings of many an enterprise and spice it up here and there, making the lows lower, the obstacles tougher and bigger, the eventual triumph all the more glorious.

And we all know why.

Because it makes for a great and memorable story which will stick around and resonate. It defines our personal and business brand, connects us to our audience,  helping them to identify with our resilience, determination and fortitude. When told well, an inspirational story makes everyone feel better.

Okay, so we can take the pain in an origin story. We’re happy to swallow the pill because we know there’s a happy ending. Things turned out pretty well for old Walt, Bill, Steve,  Henry, Richard, Oprah and Arianna and  they may well have turned out well for us, too.

But that was then, this is now.

When it comes to the future, to next year’s story, to the story of a new product or service launch, to the world of tomorrow and all of its challenges, are we still happy to pile on the pain?

Not so much.

Some brands are spooked by the idea of reminding their customers that things might not be so great, that results do NOT always meet expectations, even if it denies them the opportunity of positioning themselves as the solution to the problem.  They take the safer option, bathing them in the sunny uplands of relentless optimism and feel-good factoring,  happy to promote their features and benefits, but  stopping short of telling it how it really is. Which means they fall short of where they could get to. This is a tired and dated way of talking to your customers, especially if they are Millennials.

It’s a brave business who tells its customers the truth. But it’s an unwise business that doesn’t.

Similarly, if a brand is perceived as old, tired and irrelevant, how far will it go to align itself with a new customer base? Probably very far indeed. Especially if that base is young and sexy. But what are the chances it will take the leap and also admit it has been getting it wrong with its existing base, that a whacking great big problem exists? How great the odds on that?

Probably not great.

Above all things, we want to reassure. We want our customers and clients and our people to believe it will be okay in the end and we will tell them stories that will help them do that. Which is understandable and sound. But it misses out one thing, a thing we know well enough. Without pain there is no effective story. If we edit it out or turn away from it, we are going to be called out on that.

People know that life is pain.

They understand well that triumph is no kind of currency unless it comes hard on the heels of strife. And how do they know that? Because it is what life teaches us and always has. It is what the past has taught us. Cue the old adage about those not learning the lessons of history …

So while it is understandable that businesses have a problem with  negative stories and tales of loss and woe, the fact remains that when they are spun right, they’re pure gold. You shy away from them to your cost.

No matter the circumstances, a story with no downside, no hurt and no struggle is a story without conflict and has no business referring to itself as a story.  This is as much the case in the stories you tell your customers about themselves as it is in your inspiring origin story.

Where does the pain tend to occur in a  story? Where the ordinary world meets an inciting incident, where everything is thrown out of balance and nothing will be well again until that balance is restored. When R2D2 plays Luke Skywalker the message from Princess Leia, it sets him off on a journey full of conflict and danger, the same thing happens when Harry Potter learns he is a wizard. In a rom-com we know that initial meet-cute is going to take our couple on a journey of precipitous highs and crushing lows,  in a thriller when the first body turns up, we know there will be more before the story is out. It’s the moment everything changes. Because change is pain. In a business story it is where intention hits obstacle, where the customer suddenly has a problem.  

No one is expecting you to depress the hell out of them, or scare them witless. Just make an effort to at least meet us halfway and tell it like it is. Today’s customers expect no less. They want a story that makes sense, that reflects the world they live in. If your story aligns with that, they will share it and re-tell it for you, again and again and again.

Here’s a quick example.

Sainsbury versus Sainsbury.

Two campaigns which went out within months of each other, earlier this year. One works a lot better than the other, because it’s rooted in a recognisable reality. Take a look.



See what I mean? One is all very well but actually pretty irritating. The ad tries to hit you with a big happy stick.  Nobody dances and sings like that in their kitchen. Not sober, anyway.

The other just works, because anyone who has worked a day from hell has looked forward to it ending. It’s rooted in a truth that we all recognise. It treats us with intelligence and respect.

It’s not rocket-science. It’s life. It’s story.