story trumps strategy

If you’re marketing or fundraising for an organization and have to choose between a great strategy and a great story, choose the story every time. It’s easy to become infatuated with the siren call of strategy and technique. Hey, I’m sympathetic. I love cool tools, engaging strategies and clever techniques. I can get sucked into thinking about CRM versions and social media marketing. But story is the secret sauce.

Story over strategy, any day!Before I go any further let me tell you about a guy I know. I’ve come to love him. But I have to be candid with you he’s lived a tough life.

I hate to put it this way but he grew up in a terrible situation (“family” isn’t the right word). The first words my friend’s father said when he saw my buddy–his newborn son–were: “he ain’t my kid.” That’s a self-esteem builder isn’t it? What a way to start out life.

It won’t surprise you that his father preferred pimping and dealing drugs to father-son campouts. My friend ended up with 4 step-fathers, 14 schools and 17 houses before he got out of high school. It was about as messy as it gets. Every kind of abuse you can imagine and in every category (and some, trust me, you don’t want to imagine). Violence. Poverty. Abuse….. Ongoing. Repeated. Unrelenting. Spirit-destroying.

What my friend lived through is breathtaking. Breathtaking to understand the depraved and sick things people will do to children. And breathtaking for… well give me a minute before I give you the second breathtaking item…

No reason to go into all the gory details, but it was bad in the polite-people-don’t-talk-about-this-stuff kind of bad. My buddy was just a kid. A kid who was horribly damaged by the people who should have been the very ones he could depend on to keep him safe. That kind of stuff changes a person in bad ways.

My friend did a lot of the things that you’d imagine kids do to cope with a nightmare like that. He numbed the pain. He acted out. He was violent. He got into trouble. He did bad stuff.

But it is sad to contemplate the horrible result of evil brought to bear on an innocent child. It’s tough when it’s a statistic. It is very different when it is someone you know, like my friend.

Ready for the second breathtaking thing about what my friend lived through?

Here you go… It won’t surprise you that my friend has spent a lot of time in juvenile lock-ups and prisons. He’s been in and out of a bunch of the places where we as a society warehouse the kids who kill and rape and steal and abuse. BUT, he’s there not as a juvenile but as someone who has a story they need to hear. He lives his life helping kids in trouble. In fact, he’s given his life to that. All of those juvenile lock-ups and prisons he’s going in and out of, he’s there as a speaker. He stands up in front of the roughest kids you can imagine (and some you can’t imagine) and he tells them his story. He never softsoaps their crimes. But he does tell them that they don’t have to live that way…

It stuns me how these hardened, bitter, lost teenagers respond because they can relate to what he grew up with. They see him standing up there and realize that he understands. And then, they want to be like him. They want to believe they can live a life that is whole and right. It’s part of a person’s wiring, even if they’re terribly damaged. Here’s the sad part… they want to know they can be loved. What seems to be so powerful is that my friend tells them the truth about his life.

He’s even written a book telling about his story (it’s quite a story). He wrote the book very intentionally. He wrote it at a very low literacy level so that kids in prisons and lock-ups could read it if they wanted. He wrote it to tell them that they can be different. They don’t have to act in all those horrible ways. And how do kids respond?

A really bad kid, an offender locked up in Texas wrote him: “After reading your book, God showed me that I no longer have the right to hurt people because I was hurt as a kid.”

Nice huh?

So, back to my point about story and strategy.

If my friend needed funding to help him put his book into the hands of kids locked up in prisons around the US… and he was waiving any royalties and had even made a deal with the publisher to get a special deal for kids who were locked up… which would be more important: his story or the strategy to raise the money?

So, how about it: story or strategy? What works for you?

Oh yeah, if you want to know more about my buddy, you can find out about him here. I’m proud he’s my friend. You’ll like him, too (but watch out for that sword thing).

Don’t forget it’s “Good job Monday.” Thank someone today for how they helped you do your job better last week.

Steve Thomas
Partner, Oneicity

(photo credits: mhanson)

Picture of Steve Thomas

Steve Thomas

4 thoughts on “story trumps strategy”

  1. I like how you think (tell). As a professional strategist, story is my most powerful tool. I do believe the story frames, engages and empowers the strategy,the listener, the mission, the philanthropist, the enterprise…

  2. @Peter. Hey man, great to hear from you and thanks for your thoughts. Often, the tricky part is connecting strategy and story. So what do you think, can strategy precede story or does story always have to be the beginning point?

  3. I believe it can go either way. Depends on one’s goal. But the primary vehicle for engagement is story over strategy – I couldn’t agree more (and this, again, as a strategist). Much to talk about, here, re: bringing strategies to life. Stories already have it, methinks.

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