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Everyone Wants to Be a Hero

August 31, 2010

(Thaler Pekar, a consultant specializing in persuasive communication, helps smart leaders and their organizations find, develop, and share the stories and organizational narratives that rally critical support. You can find other posts by Thaler here, here, and here.)

Hero_journey2 Much of my work is focused on helping smart leaders and organizations find and develop stories to share with their audiences. To that end, I'd like to share two anecdotes that may help you achieve greater clarity in your communications.

Everybody wants to be a hero. Smart leaders and organizations know that. You also know it's natural for people to align themselves with solutions rather than to associate themselves with problems. You want the audiences for your stories to relate as much as possible to the protagonists in the stories you choose to share and to empathize with the protagonist’s heroic journey.

Here's an example from the private sector, in which the target audience -- the potential customer -- was cast as the hero. Recently, I helped North America's largest provider of emergency response software share the story of a county emergency services director. Wanting to provide more value to the residents of her community -- and convinced the software would save lives -- the director took a risk by going before her budget-constrained county supervisors and advocating for a state-of-the-art emergency response system. In preparing to share this story, the inclination of my client, the company that designed the software, was to focus on the battered woman whose life was saved because she was able to text emergency services from the closet in which she was hiding from her abusive husband. Certainly, a compelling story. My client's customers, however, are public-sector employees in a position to purchase my client's software. And because these public sector customers wish to see themselves as making smart and effective decisions, I urged my client to focus the story on the emergency services director who fought for and secured the purchase of the life-saving software. Again, this story is not simply about one saved life, but is instead about one person who fought to save many lives -- a protagonist to whom the customers can relate.

Here's another example of what I'm talking about, this time from the nonprofit sector. America's largest creator of affordable housing has been sharing stories of formerly homeless men and battered women who are now living safely and happily in homes the organization helped build. These are heartfelt stories that showcase men and women whose lives have been transformed. The wealthy bankers and real estate moguls from whom the organization receives financial support, however, are more likely to relate to stories about the community developer who built the housing with support from the organization and thereby helped reclaim a neighborhood from despair. The story of the developer shares his or her journey from original idea through challenges overcome and frames the developer as a hero who made a key contribution to the organization's proffered solution. It ends with not just an individual but an entire community transformed.

Stories about systemic solutions are crucial to persuasive communication. That's because people can more easily imagine themselves as the hero of a solution story than they can picture themselves in a near-hopeless situation. In "Wanted: Master Storytellers," an engaging 2009 article in The Nonprofit Quarterly, Susan Nall Bales wrote:

When the narrative is all about problems, and no solutions, people have little recourse to ideas of prevention and intervention. If what is asked of us are tears and charity, it is unlikely we will find our way to pragmatic action....

Or, as screenwriter and best-selling author Robert McKee teaches, "Empathy is necessary. Sympathy is optional."

So focus on solutions when sharing your stories. Solutions invariably inspire optimism and engagement. If the solution is still a work in progress, focus on the aspirations behind the solution. The idea is to present your organization as offering a solution in which the listener has a heroic role to play. If you do that on a consistent basis, you'll be pleasantly surprised by the results.

-- Thaler Pekar

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This article hits the bulls-eye by focusing on empathy rather than sympathy.I like the way Thaler Pekar presents the concept of Hero as a key to make things happen. Bravo!

Glenda, thank you so much!

This is excellent advice. If the story doesn't resonate with its audience, it doesn't matter how compelling it is in general. If you want to get people fired up to act, they have to be able to place themselves in the story. Great post Thaler!

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