Stuck? Tell Yourself A Story

Good marketing works by telling a compelling story and allowing the reader to place themselves inside the narrative as the hero so that they internalize — and remember! — what you’re promoting.

You can flip this around into a great productivity hack the next time you get stuck by using the power of story to effectively sell yourself on what you have to do next. By narrating your own fate in advance, you force yourself to get back to work to make that fairy-tale come true.

This has a wide range of uses. For example, if I’m diving into a new project and I’m unsure where to start I’ll write what the ideal media coverage for the product would be, even though the product doesn’t exist yet. I’ll use cliches and cheesy analogies, feign interest and skepticism as an unbiased writer, and then I’ll quote myself exclaiming grandiose platitudes about how product X will democratize the way people do Y, and so on.

The story swoons, providing a gripping apologue to convince me — and the people I work with — that this project matters.

Underlying that puff piece is, in fact, the core thesis of what makes this product special, because nestled in amongst all the brouhaha and quick-witted charm is a set of tangible, actionable descriptions of what we’re building. While half the text may be fluff to carry the narrative, the other half represents hard-hitting facts about the product, including who it’s for, how it’s different, what makes it newsworthy, the backstory for why it’s being built, and most importantly: where it’s going to be in a week, in a month, and in a year.

The result is a story you’re repeating in your head without even realizing it when you get out of bed and when you’re taking a shower. It covers the details that unite you and your team on what you’re working toward and how you’re going to get there, and it acts as a rallying point from which to make magic happen.

This technique isn’t confined to high-level thinking either. I use the same process when I’m programming: I almost always pre-write my commit messages in the past-tense before I start writing any code. As with the broader technique this forces me to provide myself with the depth and context that I would need in order to convey to others the details and scope of what I did, even though I haven’t done anything yet.

In this scenario, the story usually cuts straight to the point, such as: “I made the input field auto-save if the user hasn’t saved in more than 30 seconds so they can’t ever lose their data; it stores the draft, but doesn’t actually publish it, instead prompting the user with a modal when they return to the page that a newer version may be available and lets them go back to it if a draft exists.”

It seems innocuous, but that single sentence encompasses a nuanced description of what’s to come – a lot more than just saying “I added auto-saved drafts.” It covers all the details: how often it saves, what it does to save, where it’ll restore, and why drafts are important. Although short, this story gets stuck in my head and before you know it I’ve gone from dragging my feet to furiously working on the new feature.

Often times, the hardest part of getting things done is simply getting started. Next time you’re stuck try telling yourself a story. Not only will you have a place to start, you’ll have a memorable rallying point that eats at your subconscious until you, the hero, turn fiction into reality. TC mark

featured image – Mad Men

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