I was born and grew up in the suburbs of Western Sydney. From when I was very little – six, to be precise – I knew that I wanted to create worlds and stories and reach out and communicate with people about the world the way I saw it. When I look at pictures of me as a child there’s usually a big grin on my face.
I had a particularly unenjoyable adolescence. You could pin the “why” on a lot of things, if you’re into reasons, but overall it was a combination of a whole bunch of things that a lot of people go through – a messy cocktail of nature and nurture and hormones reacting to the world around me and causing trouble.
Going to uni was wonderful. I found student theatre and wrote, directed and acted in a bunch of plays. I made friendships which will last the rest of my life. I even fell in love a couple of times – mostly these things started well and ended badly, as they do.
Sadly I still couldn’t find a way past the inner darkness from my teenage years. It had travelled with me.
After graduating I did what all good Arts students do, which is work in hospitality – I ended up the manager for corporate catering at the Hockey Centre during the Sydney Olympics and was the assistant manager in a couple of bars in Central London. When I got sick of that I retrained as an English language teacher, worked in a hostel in the east of the Czech Republic for a year (because it was fun, mainly), then returned to Australia, taught English as a foreign language, and completed a Masters in Creative Writing.
I met many wonderful people, made more friends for life, and I even fell in love again a couple of times – again, these usually started off really well, but then not so good by the end. I lived an interesting and varied life, by most accounts. But I sadly still wasn’t happy or comfortable with who I was. I think you could say I didn’t really like myself very much.
I’ll come back to that part of my story later, because it was when I was studying creative writing that I got really interested in and excited about the structure of stories, and narratives, and how they all hang together and that’s really what I want to talk about (as interesting and exciting as talking about myself is).
Stories are at the heart of all our cultures. They inspire us. We tell our children stories to teach them how to behave – think about the strong moral lessons in the books of C.S. Lewis or Dr Seuss or Roald Dahl – like that young boy Charlie, who inherits the chocolate factory and lifts his family out of poverty, because he is honest and pure of heart. It’s entertaining, it’s funny, yes, but it’s also a powerful moral tale which values strength of character. The Bible – whether you what’s in it is true or not – you can’t deny it’s full of stories which have powerful moral lessons which have inspired people for generations.
At the heart of storytelling is conflict. Not in terms of a fight – though sometimes there’s a fight – instead, I mean conflict in terms of barriers between our main character and what she wants. The journey of the archetypal “hero” to achieve her desires, in the face of the barriers to achieving them, is the story.
So, for example:
- Pinocchio wants to be a real boy, but he’s a puppet, and there’s a big whale, and he just can’t stop lying;
- Jesus wants to save us all from our sins, but there’s a Roman Empire, and people calling for his death, and even his own courage stopping him;
- Cinderella wants to fall in love, but she has two evil step-sisters, and nothing to wear to the ball.
You get the picture, I think.
Now I could go on about the intricacies of story-structure for hours, but I want to focus on what I think is the aspect of storytelling which is the most important to people in the care sector, when you’re thinking about marketing and promotions and communications, and really when you’re positioning the sector generally. And that’s the role of the archetypal “mentor” in stories.
In each of the stories we’ve just talked about, our hero gets what he or she wants at the end of the story:
- Pinocchio stops lying and becomes a real boy;
- Jesus saves us, by dying and then rising from death; and
- Cinderella gets pretty, goes to the ball and falls in love.
(There are real problems with some of the female role models our children have…)
Importantly, on their way to achieving their goal, our heroes have a little help:
- A blue fairy tells Pinnochio he can be a real boy if he proves himself “brave, truthful and unselfish.”
- When Jesus’ apostles have abandoned him in the Garden of Gethsemane and he is about to give up, asking his father “to take this cup” from him, an angel appears and gives him comfort and strength.
- Cinderella’s fairy godmother shows up with a magic wand to give Cinderella a fancy outfit and a means of transport to the ball.
Eventually our heroes get their on their own – in the end they all have to be brave enough to conquer the barriers standing in the way of what they want to achieve – but none of them could have done it without a little help. The mentors in each of these stories, and all great stories in my opinion, empower the heroes with “gifts” which help them achieve their destiny.
So we have heroes who have goals and seemingly insurmountable barriers between them and what they want, and mentors who empower the heroes, one way or the other, to achieve what they have set out to achieve and become the hero of their story.
As Christopher Vogler writes, in a book charting the mono-myth of the hero’s journey through epic cinema (such as Star Wars): “Mentors in stories act mainly on the mind of the hero, changing her consciousness or redirecting her will. Mentors also strengthen the hero’s mind to face an ordeal with confidence. Menos also means courage.”
So bearing all that in mind, let’s turn to marketing now for a few minutes.
Marketing is a term I usually shy away from. Marketers, like advertisers, have a bad name, and rightly so in a lot of ways. While to a large degree I probably think a lot like a marketer, I don’t ever want to be called one.
Part of why can be summarised by taking a look as the views of notable 1920s adman Stanley Resor – a dominant adman of the time – who brought a few concepts of psychology to the advertising industry. As Jonah Sachs notes in his book, Winning the Story Wars, Resor though that “it was a mistake to think that human beings were individuals full of potential and purpose. Instead, he believed, people were undifferentiated parts of a writing mass, driven by vanity, hunger, fear and lust.”
The type of marketing that evolves from this kind of thinking can be what Sachs calls “inadequacy marketing,” where the “Dark Art” is to convince people to purchase things that they didn’t want before (and arguably didn’t ever need). In its simplest form it works like this:
- Create anxiety
- Introduce the magic solution
A classic example of anxiety marketing is a past campaign of the mouthwash Listerine. The breakthrough campaign which catapulted Listerine beyond all other mouthwashes focused on halitosis, or bad breath.
The magic of the campaign wasn’t convincing people that Listerine helps cure bad breath. This is a fact, which people could have been told directly. What happens is that the campaign creates fears – in this case that halitosis makes you unpopular – and then tells people that Listerine will help them conquer these fears.
In storytelling terms, the ad has created a desire for our hero, which is to be popular. The product, as mentor, helps this goal to be achieved by removing the hero’s bad breath.
For a price, of course.
Another example of this type of marketing are those ads which have women (and sometimes men, but more often women) in various stages of undress in sexually suggestive and completely ludicrous poses.
Ads like this work on two levels – on women the ad is creating anxiety about their appearance, creating an aspirational shape that can be achieved through, for example, drinking Coke. For men, the ad is appealing to lust – if you drink Coke guys, you can have a woman like this.
Of course, not all women or men fall for such base tricks. But enough do. If it didn’t work, companies wouldn’t do it.
In these examples, both the Listerine and Coke campaigns play on anxieties – I am unpopular, I don’t look like this, I don’t have a girlfriend who looks like this. The difference between these Listerine and Coke campaigns is that Listerine, even though it won’t make you popular, actually cures bad breath. But drinking a lot of Coke – with ten teaspoons of sugar per can – is surely not going to go anyway towards improving your physique or your luck in love. Believe me, I tried, and all I ended up with was a beanbag for a waistline.
Marketers don’t always rely on negative or base emotions to sell products, even when they are using the same mentor archetype to create aspirations in people and sell their product. The classic Marlboro Man campaign appeals to the pioneer spirit, the rugged outdoors man, the adventurer.
Similarly, Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan was “Yes we can”, and was all about hope. In this scenario the American people are positioned as wanting a better future, of wanting real change in their lives. By working with Barack Obama (at a minimum by voting for him), people can achieve that goal.
Of course, both of the Marlboro and Obama campaigns suffer from an authenticity problem. Smoking cigarettes, for example, obviously does not make someone adventurous or a pioneer. The authenticity gap with Obama is more subtle. After the great success in 2008, he found himself having to balance the high expectations which had been generated during the campaign with the actual practicalities of creating change in a democracy, which can be painfully slow even without a hostile congress.
What I’m trying to convey, hopefully successfully, is the way in which marketers position their products, or candidate, in relation to their customers. And regardless of the lack of authenticity, or the creation of false anxieties, these methods work. If they didn’t, advertisers wouldn’t use them.
But where this really gets interesting for me is when we think about these aspects of storytelling and marketing and relate them to the care sector, and what you do, and who you work with and your relationship with them.
Arguably, each one of us is the hero in our own lives. In our own story we have goals, and often there are barriers in-between where we are and where we want to be or how we’d like to be living. In these terms framing what we’re talking about in terms of people living with a disability, or who are aging, or socially disadvantaged in some way, should not be too much of a stretch for our imaginations.
People living with disabilities, for example, at least most of those that I’ve met, basically want to be able to live life as freely as possible and, as much as feasibly possible, to be able to live the same life that someone without that disability does.
For me, as a storyteller, the disability itself is not really the source of conflict in the story of someone’s life. A disability is part of who a person is at each point of their life – just like everything about all of us is part of who we are. Like the darkness I felt in my adolescence and young adulthood was a part of me.
The conflict in a person’s life is actually caused by the barriers that are between that person and how they want to live.
In the example of a young guy I heard about recently, his conflict came first in the form of his family – his brother and brother’s girlfriend used to beat him and steal his money; his father would sometimes leave him sitting in his own shit. They were the barriers to this young guy living his life to the fullest of his ability, not his disability.
But with the help – the mentoring, we should say – of a carer, this young man was able to transform his life. He was able to move out of home, he was able to start making decisions for himself, and he basically started to do things he’d never been able to do before.
Other barriers have presented themselves, of course, like the young man’s limited knowledge and experience, and the grinding wheels of the bureaucracy. But empowered by the support from his mentor and the other mentors he has now built into his life, he has been able to overcome them.
For me, crucially, his carer doesn’t make decisions for the young man. She never has. Instead, she asks him what his goals are, then she gives him options and ideas to achieve them and empowers him to enact change in his own life.
Just like, for all the bad gender politics in the story of Cinderella, while the Fairy Godmother enables Cinderella – with a pretty dress, shoes and a large pumpkin pulled by mice – Cinderella goes into the ball alone. She meets and charms and wins the handsome prince on her own, and when they are finally together and reunited (and about to live happily ever after) Cinderella is without the Fairy Godmother’s magical gifts. It’s Pinocchio who stops lying and finds courage inside himself. Jesus dies alone.
I stopped telling my story earlier at a certain point. I was back in Australia, I’d travelled the word, done a whole lot of interesting things – fallen in love a few times – but I was still basically in great conflict with myself.
What made all the difference for me, to be honest, was finding a wonderful psychologist. Working with her over twelve or so months changed my life completely. Quite simply, she just listened.
When I found it difficult to talk about something she encouraged me to keep going, if I could, or if I couldn’t to try and describe something else, like how I was feeling physically. She gave me the time and space to discover words for things I’d never been able to say before. And every now and then, based on something I’d said I wanted, but didn’t really know how to get or do it, she’d suggest a thing or two that I could try.
She played the role in my life of the Fairy Godmother to Cinderella, the Angel to Jesus at Gethsemane, the Obi Wan Kenobi (or Yoda) to Luke Skywalker. Yes, there was a commercial transaction involved, but this doesn’t change the role she played in helping me turn my life around and start heading towards where I wanted to be.
I truly believe in the new funding environment in the community sector – where individuals needing care will have much greater control and decision-making capability over the care they’ll receive – it is crucial for carers to understand the role that they can play in people’s lives as mentors.
Carers can be fairy godmothers. They can be wizards and angels and Jedi knights. Carers can change people’s lives by empowering them with skills, or giving them just enough assistance to live their lives more fully than they could have before.
Large corporate players are already looking at the care sector and seeing the opportunity to make money. With the implementation of a market driven system, these profit-driven machines will be pulling out all their marketing tricks to ensure that people with money to spend on care spend it with them.
This is why it is vitally important that the people and organisations who care – about the people they care for, not about the profits that can be generated from them – start developing the tools to talk about what they do, and the direct-human one-on-one relationships they have with the people that they work with.
Because when people with needs are looking for care options, what they’ll really be looking for are people who can empower them with small gifts, and maybe a bit of magic, to be the heroes in their own lives.
This post is an edited transcript and adapted images of a presentation I delivered at the Community Options 2013 Conference: Fearless, Inspired, Creative… anything is possible on Tuesday 17 September 2013 (sometime in the afternoon). At time of writing I am employed by Community Options part-time as their Communications & Membership Development Officer.
Also, if you’re interested in this kind of thing, you really should read Jonah Sachs’ book and get on board “winning the story wars”.