Change Your Life with Storytelling


The most powerful tool that marketers use to sell you things is one that you can snatch from their grasp and turn to your own use: Telling stories.

I first discovered this tool back in the 1980s in the catalogs of Banana Republic and J. Peterman. Those catalogs, instead of describing the products they sold, described the sort of person who bought the item. As a marketing strategy, it was a great success: The catalogs would describe each item as the sort of thing that exciting, sophisticated people used in their thrilling adventures — and people bought it.

The same technique is available to you. Tell your own stories.

Flip the Technique

At the most basic level, you can use stories as a magic shield against this sort of marketing: Spot the story in the advertising and tell yourself a more accurate story. There was a time when I wanted the sleek, powerful sports cars I saw in ads, but I learned to counter their appeal by telling myself the true story — the story of the hopelessly debt-ridden wage-slave who took out a six-year loan to buy a car that burns fuel faster than he can earn the money to pay for it.

All the story-telling tools that the marketers use are available for your own use.

One in particular that I've seized upon is the technique of suggesting that some item is multi-purpose. A catalog might claim that its blazer could go from the boardroom to a private jet to the writer's bar at the Raffles hotel, or that a dress is just as perfect for an embassy party as it was for one in an off-campus house. Now I put all my potential purchases to the same test: If I can't use it everywhere, maybe I should keep looking until I find one that's a bit more versatile. I've avoided spending a lot of money by just waiting for something a little more perfect to come along. (And I've also bought very useful items when I've stumbled upon things that met my very high standards.)

But these basic techniques — telling counter-stories and repurposing the marketer's stories — are just the beginning. The real power comes from crafting a larger story.

Understanding the Power of Storytelling

Everyone knows the power of the transient want — the allure of the thing that's so shiny you must have it, even if you know perfectly well that you don't need it or that there'll be a better, cheaper one next year.

It's possible to control such wants with sheer willpower — most frugal people do. But telling stories is far more powerful. Telling stories lets you change what you want.

After all, that's exactly what those catalog companies were doing. When they sold a messenger bag by telling a story about how it was designed for military couriers and then had been discovered by war correspondents, they weren't marketing to people who had already decided that they wanted a new messenger bag. They were marketing to people who wanted to be more adventurous, and somehow created in them the sense that this bag would make them more the person they wanted to be.

That's the power of telling a story. But marketers have no monopoly on stories. Think what you can do if you tell your own.

Craft Your Own Story

Does your life differ from the life you want? Part of the work of getting from where you are to where you want to be is making real changes. But that's not the place to start.

Start by imagining the life you want. Imagine it in some detail. (Some might call this daydreaming.)

Don't get off course by imagining someone else's life — the life you'd want if your parents were billionaires, or the life you'd want if you won the lottery. Imagine your life if you were the sort of person you want to be.

Now tell the story. How would that person get from where you are now to where that person would want to be?

In my case, I wanted to be a writer. I put aside imagined lives in which I lived in a big house, drove a fast car, and owned all the latest fancy tech gadgets — which would have been possible, if I'd wanted to go on being a software engineer — and instead imagined a life where I did exactly what I wanted to do: Jump out of bed every day so I could spend a few hours writing.

Telling myself that story was a key step in making it happen. It didn't just give me a reason to save money instead of buying something; it changed me from the sort of person who bought those things into the sort of person who didn't buy those things — because he was a writer.

Tell yourself the story of who you want to be; that's how you become that person. Don't leave that power in the hands of the marketers.

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Guest's picture

Philip, I think this is one of your better articles, and it is another way of viewing your previous post, "What I've Been Trying to Say". Thanks for posting and giving me thoughts about changing my story. Well said.

Guest's picture

Thoughtful article, and well done! Another way storytelling has been used throughout history is to tell parables and teach with life lessons. But this personal spin on storytelling can change the internal dialogue.

Guest's picture

Very nice piece of writing. I like the part about dissecting the stories advertisers are creating to sell stuff. Once people learn to do that and can see advertising as the big flim-flam baloney it is, they'll be a lot happier and a lot less in debt.

Guest's picture

And play those storytelling games with your children! When you watch television together or see a huge display at the mall - begin by telling the story out loud that the marketers are telling. Insult their intelligence by giving the version that adult marketing professionals believe is true about all children. Let the kids add in their exaggerations until you can all laugh. But the game is real and it's not only money that is being taken from them and their families when they buy into these stories. Many families are in financial trouble because of these schemes focused on children. Ask them to tell their real story about a similar purchase and where that item might be now (the landfill, the bottom of their closet, lost, given away, etc.). Ask them what other things they do to make themselves feel happy and content (exercise, cooking together at home, calling grandma or a friend, checking out a library book, sewing or crafting something). My "children" are now in their 20's and we still play the game sometimes just because the ads are so outrageous! And I think they feel good knowing that any financial trouble we have had has not been because of them. We have worked through things together.

Philip Brewer's picture

Absolutely. Games like this are a big part of how we learn who we are, and how we contribute to making our children who they are.