Business storytelling blunders to avoid at all costs, part II

A version of this article was originally published by ColoradoBiz here.

When marketing is alienating or boring, overdog protagonists are a common culprit.

marketing conversation

Last month I opened a three-part discussion on how to avoid common business storytelling blunders. I usually keep my writing aspirational, but sometimes the most effective way of teaching business storytelling techniques is to highlight common missteps. After all, a love of stories (which is almost universal in our species) doesn’t always translate to being able to tell them well.

The good news is that this second lesson has some entertainment value.

Fatal error #2: You’re using overdog protagonists

Nobody relates to overdogs—not even other overdogs. As authors Robert McKee and Thomas Gerace state with characteristic elegance in Storynomics: Story-Driven Marketing in the Post-Advertising World, “When human beings survey their place in the world, they instinctively feel that they’re up against overwhelming forces that stretch from the unpredictability of love to the inevitability of death.”

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People want to appear competent and reliable so they tend to emphasize their creds. But aside from being potentially alienating, that does little to distinguish you. On the other hand, if people see you as someone who shares their frustrations and values, it will inoculate you against lower-cost competitors.


Tidal: A case study in bad marketing

“The world spares no empathy for an overdog; market with a graceful humility.”

– Robert McKee and Thomas Gerace, Storynomics

Jay Z invested $56 million and recruited 16 high-profile musicians to acquire and promote Tidal, a musician-owned music streaming platform. With a mission to “get everyone to respect music again,” Tidal would allow musicians to pocket a greater share of music royalties.

Ensuring that artists get a “fair” share of royalties is worthy, if vague. But the narrative seemed to be about ultra-rich musicians rather than music lovers or even aspiring artists. It garnered no sympathy, but worse: it garnered no empathy.

While Tidal has stopped reporting (and may have overrepresented) it’s subscriber numbers, it appears to be treading water, at best.


Nobody gets excited about overdogs, so avoid using them or being one.

Elevate your brand with stories, not bories

What's your story

Revisit your company’s story and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I leading with credentials or empathy?
  • Are we trying to cajole people into hiring us by lording experience and expertise over them? Or are we seeking to educate them so they can make informed choices?
  • Do customers see themselves in the stories we tell?

Once you’ve considered these questions earnestly and acted on these insights, you will begin to elevate

 your story-based marketing.

I help purpose-driven entrepreneurs elevate their marketing through storytelling, humor, and clear strategic messaging.

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Posted on: January 25, 2021