Copyblogger Book Club: Winning the Story Wars

We love books at Copyblogger! Today, we’re digging into Jonah Sachs’ Winning the Story Wars.

Stepping into the world of meaning-making means stepping onto a high-stakes battlefield where important stories compete.”
– Jonah Sachs, Winning the Story Wars

When Sachs wrote his book in 2012, the phrase “Story Wars” seemed like it might be putting things a bit strongly. Today, we see how apt the choice was. We live in an era of passionately competing stories. If we want our messages to be heard, we need to be able to step confidently onto that battlefield.

In this episode, I drill into Sachs’ excellent book, pulling out ideas and strategies that will make your content more compelling.

Note: If you’d like to see more Copyblogger Book Club podcast episodes, drop a comment and let us know your suggestions for what should come next!

In this 21-minute episode, I talk about:

  • The difference between taking a strong position with your content and just being a troll
  • The formula for “Inadequacy Marketing,” and why it’s so corrosive
  • How Sigmund Freud’s nephew tried to save the world by appealing to our worst natures
  • Three “Commandments” from a powerful voice for ethical (and effective) marketing
  • How to use Sachs’ “freaks, cheats, and familiars” to make your content more interesting

The Show Notes

Copyblogger Book Club: Winning the Story Wars

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Sonia Simone: Copyblogger FM is brought to you by StudioPress, the industry standard for premium WordPress themes and plugins. Built on the Genesis Framework, StudioPress delivers state of the art SEO tools, beautiful and fully responsive design, airtight security, instant updates, and much more. If you’re ready to take your WordPress site to the next level, see for yourself why more than 190,000 website owners trust StudioPress. Go to Rainmaker.FM/StudioPress. That’s Rainmaker.FM/StudioPress.

Hello there, it’s great to see you again. Welcome back to Copyblogger FM, the content marketing podcast. Copyblogger FM is about emerging content marketing trends, interesting disasters, and enduring best practices, along with the occasional rant. My name is Sonia Simone. I’m the Chief Content Officer for Rainmaker Digital and I like to hang out with the folks who do the heavy lifting over on the Copyblogger blog. You could always find more resources, extra links, and just general good stuff by going to the show notes at Copyblogger.FM. You’ll also get the complete archive for the show.

Today we’re going to do something slightly different. We’re going to do a segment I call ‘Book Club.’ We’ll try these out, see how they go. I am going to talk to you guys about a book I found really significant or meaningful or important or useful, crack open some of the ideas in the book, and explain why I think they’re relevant, how I think they might be useful, and then encourage you to pick the book up and let us know your thoughts on it, let us know how it’s striking you.

The Beginnings of the “Book Club”

I’m going to start with one that Brian Clark recommended to me a month or two back. We were on the phone and he was saying, “You gotta read this book. If you read it, it’s going to give you post ideas for the next five years.” I pick it up on Amazon, and I click to pick it up on Kindle, and Kindle says, “You bought this three years ago.” I look and lo and behold, not only did I read it, I took extensive highlight notes in it.

So I re-read it and realized, yeah, actually I thought this was a great book. I really do think that Brian’s right. I think these ideas are actually very core to the way that we work at Copyblogger, to the way that we write, to the way that we try and structure how we communicate, how we structure content. I thought it would be a great introduction to this book club idea of thinking kind of deeply about a book and then getting together. I would love to know if you’ve read it, what you think, or pick it up and let me know how it’s striking you.

The title, again, of this one is Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell (and Live) the Best Stories Will Rule the Future. It’s by Jonah Sachs. I have five quotes that I pulled out of the book from, again, my extensive notes. I’ll also share with you how those ideas struck me and how I think they’re applicable. One of the reasons I like this one, in addition to the kind of ridiculous story of how I came to re-read it, is it’s very much the kind of thing that speaks to me because it’s very idealistic on one hand.

He has a very strong sense of the innate goodness of human beings and how that can be turned away from our best natures, and then how it can be turned back again toward our better natures. But he’s also just super practical. It’s not a manifesto full of high ideas. It’s really about practical, concrete things that we can do to make better messages that are more effective, and also messages that just make humanity better, to call on the better angels of our nature, which was a phrase used by Abraham Lincoln that I’ve always found really powerful.

I’m going to read you the first quote: “Stepping into the world of meaning-making means stepping onto a high-stakes battlefield where important stories compete. To thrive in the digitoral era, we must be prepared to understand and then join the story wars. After all, great stories and great conflict have always been inseparable.” End quote. I’ll start by just referencing that word he uses, ‘digitoral’ era, which is a word he made up to talk about the way the digital era is kind of reinventing the oral tradition. It’s kind of an ugly word, but maybe it’s useful.

This quote, I thought, was valuable because you may have noticed, if you are a denizen of the internet, that the level of discourse right now is intense. The level of emotion, the level of passion spilling over into absolutely, you could say great conflict, is all around us. In my observation, a lot of us think that when there’s a strong negative reaction to something that we publish, that we’re doing it wrong, that we’ve made a misstep. We’ve said something wrong. You’ve said something incorrect or insensitive, and there’s a counter to that that I think can be useful.

The Difference Between Taking a Strong Position with Your Content and Just Being a Troll

We have talked a lot on Copyblogger, and we will continue to talk a lot about speaking to the right people. If you’re not speaking to people who share your values and they have a real issue with what you said, that’s sort of going to happen because you don’t share the same values. You may get a very negative reaction from somebody who just really is coming from a very different place of values than you are. This is what I do to just keep myself sane, just so I feel like, I want to make sure that I’m doing the right thing by publishing, that I’m trying to publish something that is fair and true and beneficial.

My first recommendation is just check your position. In other words, make sure you have real facts, like the kind of facts other people can see and hear and verify, not internet facts. Make sure that your evidence is strong and that it’s coming from something that someone without skin in the game would be able to look at and say, “No, that seems like good evidence.” Every one of us has to really think about checking our egos. If we care more about winning than we do about what the evidence actually shows, then that’s kind of a red flag. You can get into a lot of trouble with it, and I’m going to talk a little bit more about that in a few minutes.

Real stories serve your audience, and the ones that are based on things that are simply not true, they’re just not true, they do a lot of damage. I’m old-fashioned, but I really believe that the truth is actually a thing, not some kind of ‘capital T’ truth that necessarily beats up everybody else’s ‘little t’ truth, but just more that we can look at the evidence and we can say, “You know, this seems a lot more likely than that.” I think that’s a thing, and I think that’s kind of a common sense thing that we can all agree on. Gravity is real. We breathe oxygen. These kind of things, verifiable facts.

That first idea from Winning the Story Wars is really about him calling it ‘Story Wars,’ using that kind of intense language. I think when the book came out, that seemed pretty strong. I think now in 2017 I think everybody gets it. It’s like “Yep, nope, that’s probably right.” I would just add those sanity-preserving measures to make sure that you don’t embroil yourself staying up until three in the morning arguing with somebody who is wrong on the internet. You may … your facts may be a little wobbly too.

The Formula for “Inadequacy Marketing,” and Why it’s so Corrosive

His second point, I think it’s so powerful and so, really beautifully-put in the book, is about empowering your audience and not turning them into permanent children. He talks about a great divide in the history of advertising. If you ever watch the show Mad Men, or if you ever watched advertising, now but especially 20th century advertising, it was really marked by what is called the ‘inadequacy approach.’ Here’s another quote: “Inadequacy stories encourage immature emotions like greed, vanity, and insecurity, by telling us that we are somehow incomplete. These stories then offer to remove the discomfort of those emotions with the simple purchase or association with a brand.”

The great proponent and practitioner of this in the early days was Sigmund Freud’s nephew, interestingly, a gentleman named Edward Bernays. He wrote a book called Propaganda. He was a war propagandist. He was actually a popularizer of Freud’s ideas in the United States, so he marketed those ideas in the U.S. He’s credited with inventing PR. He’s credited with inventing product placement. He was profoundly influential, and he created some really influential campaigns, advertising campaigns. Jonah Sachs’ book points out that this inadequacy approach to advertising always has two steps.

Step one is you create anxiety. Again, another quote: “In inadequacy stories, the moral always begins with the words, ‘You are not.'” End quote. It starts with, “You are not,” and then there’s some statement that stirs up a negative emotion. So, “You are not loved, you are not safe, you are not good enough, you are not successful,” this kind of thing. Then step two is to introduce a magic solution, so a solution that bypasses the real lessons of myths, the real lessons of maturity, which is that we can work meaningfully with negative emotions and get over them and not be like permanent, sullen children. Now, it’s important that the magic solution does not indicate any kind of real work or hard work. It has to be something that’s effortless, “Just go out, by this product, get a little more in debt, and this bad feeling will go away by magic.”

This kind of approach, this kind of structure, really comes out of Edward Bernays’ belief, which comes in turn from Freud’s belief that people are basically driven by anger and hate, that that’s what drives humanity, so humanity has to be controlled. They have to be calmed down, placated, and kept kind of pleasantly drunk with consumerism so that they don’t do anything dangerous, because basically human beings are fundamentally messed up. This is the worldview that informs that kind of advertising, that kind of marketing.

While we are talking about legendary, old ad guys, and if you like stories of the early days of advertising, this is a wonderful book, because not only does he present interesting ad campaigns, but he really looks at why they work and what they’re really saying. It’s so fascinating. Along with Edward Bernays, he introduces another gentleman by the name of John Powers.

Three “Commandments” from a Powerful Voice for Ethical (and Effective) Marketing

John Powers is sometimes credited with being the first copywriter as distinct from an advertising man. John Powers wrote ad copy that looked a lot like ad copy you might recognize today. It was content. It was interesting. It was truthful. It educated the customer about the product. It didn’t really do all this trickery or stimulating fear, things like this. I’ll read you John Powers, what he called his three commandments, because they’re very instructive. I think you’ll find they’re very resonant with good advice today about content marketing.

Quote: “The first thing one must do to succeed in advertising is to have the attention of the reader. That means to be interesting. The next thing is to stick to the truth, and that means rectifying whatever is wrong in the merchant’s business. If the truth isn’t tellable, fix it so it is. That’s about all there is to it.” So, that could be paraphrased as, “Be interesting, tell the truth, and if the truth sucks, then fix reality so that you can tell the truth.” This leads to what Sachs is calling ‘empowerment marketing,’ as the other side of inadequacy marketing. Empowerment stories are really, first of all, they’re behind some of the most effective marketing and advertising in content that we see, businesses like Nike and Apple.

Here’s another quote from Sachs. Empowerment stories, quote, “…inspire action by painting a picture of an imperfect world that can be repaired through heroic action.” End quote. This idea of empowering stories resonates so closely and tightly with what we’ve been doing on Copyblogger, especially the series that we’re doing from the first of the year, where we’re really trying to get very structural about the kinds of stories that work for content about who you’re speaking to, about speaking from values, all of these things really, really resonate with that John Powers, those three commandments.

A lot of it is about getting to a deeper truth. The analogy that Sachs uses is it’s that core of cork in the middle of a baseball. That’s what makes a baseball springy and lively, is that it’s got cork in the middle. That same idea that there’s a core of real, sincere human values at the core of the message, and it really is about helping people be better versions of themselves and helping people help one another, that that’s the kind of message that creates this empowerment kind of context. It can be very, very powerful.

How the ‘Empowerment Model’ is the answer to the ‘Inadequacy Model’

So Sigmund Freud is kind of the precursor to the Edward Bernays inadequacy model. Abraham Maslow with his hierarchy of needs is really kind of the grandfather of the empowerment model. It’s not necessarily really a new model. I mean, we’ve had empowering myths for as long as people have been people. So it’s not a new model. It’s really more of a return to an ancient model, and Jonah Sachs is making the case that it’s an inherently healthier model, which I found convincing.

Those are some of the biggest ideas in the book. I’ll touch on a couple more, just because I found them so interesting, but I really would strongly recommend, don’t leave it with this podcast. Do pick the book up if this kind of work is at all interesting to you, or if you think it might be able to inform what you’re doing, because any kind of persuasion, marketing, content, journalism at this point, certainly editorial, political work, anything like that, this kind of empowering story is an amazingly powerful tool for helping people see things, helping people see things differently, and making the case for what you think is going to make the world better. I think it’s just a really, it’s a lovely piece of writing.

How to Use Sachs’ “Freaks, Cheats, and Familiars” to Make Your Content More Interesting

A couple of quick strategies you can go at and use right away, because I like to be very pragmatic, and what we’ve been talking about is a little abstract. One of his identifications in terms of that ‘how to be interesting’ part … you might remember that John Powers, the first thing that he recommends is you have to be interesting. That was true when he was doing newspaper ads back in the day, and of course it’s much more true now because we’ve so many more distractions. Jonas Sachs has kind of three tips. He calls them ‘freaks, cheats, and familiars.’ These are what he calls primal brain structures. They’re storytelling devices or hooks, if you will, that help stories become more interesting and help capture that attention of your reader, your listener, what have you.

The first one is ‘freaks,’ and Sachs identifies this as a character who’s recognizable but really, really different. It’s a recognizable person. We know it’s a person, it’s not like a talking trash can or the space station or something like that. It’s a human character, but it’s a human character that’s really, markedly different and unusual. That kind of gets us to stop in our tracks and pay attention to who this is, who’s speaking.

The person could be unusual in appearance. The person could be unusual in … they could even be unusually great-looking. He has an example from the Old Spice ads of how that works. But somebody who’s so distinct-looking that it’s striking, and it captures our attention. I would make the point that in content, sometimes you do this not necessarily with something visual, but with a particular writing voice or a speaking voice, or a video style. It’s not always visual in my experience. It sometimes has to do with word choice, with really, really interesting language, or it can be a combination of those things.

The next word he uses for ways to make your content more interesting, kind of a trick to make your content more interesting, is ‘cheats.’ A cheat challenges social norms. A person who cheats is a rule breaker. It’s somebody who’s not accepting the traditional ways that we’ve always done things. This is always interesting. It creates tension. Now, cheats can be used in stories two ways. One, you can have the lone wolf, the one who’s breaking the rules to make the world better and is willing to defy the powers that be in order to do the right thing. That’s a cheat.

The other way that this could be used is to identify someone who is cheating in a negative way, who’s being dishonest, who’s being hypocritical. There are cheats who break the rules we think should get broken, and there are the cheats who break the rules we don’t think should get broken. Both of those are inherently really interesting. Those are stories that, they will pull people in. If you can identify that element, that cheat element somewhere for a piece of content, it can really pull the story in.

Then his final element was ‘familiars.’ ‘If you rely too much on freaks and cheats, you’re going to create content that becomes off putting at a certain point. It’s going to become distancing. It becomes grotesque. We don’t want grotesque, right? We want a sense of belonging. Familiar is about balancing that out, balancing that tension, speaking a common language. This is closely tied, if not identical, to the Robert Cialdini principle of ‘unity’ where we are the same. You and I are the same because we share a core, deep value or belief.

Arming the Choir, and a Few Requests

Jonah Sachs has a great, a great turn of phrase, which is ‘arming the choir.’ We all say, “Well, you know, you’re preaching to the choir,” like that’s a negative thing. He talks about arming the choir, giving the choir evidence to go out and do your work because the choir is, by its nature, the people who believe most intensely in what you do. Again, that goes back to empowerment. You’re taking your choir of people who believe as you believe, and you are helping them craft the stories and the arguments and everything that they might need to go out and spread the gospel, right? Spread the word about what it is that you believe is going to make things better.

If you look for ways to use that ‘freaks, cheats, and familiars,’ if you’ve ever used something like that in your content, or if you have some thoughts on anything in this podcast, please do leave a comment. I love your comments. You can leave one by going to Copyblogger.FM and just finding the post. A couple of asks from you. One, if you do pick the book up, please let me know how it struck you. Did you find it boring? Did you find it compelling? Did you get something useful out of it? I would really like to know how it struck you.

Two, I would love to hear your thoughts on books we might cover in a book club segment in the future. Is there something you think is just groundbreaking, you think everybody, kind of Copyblogger kind of person should read this book and benefit from it? I would really, really love to hear about it because I have some thoughts for the next edition, but I’d also like to hear what you have to say.

The third ask, and you’re never supposed to ask more than one thing, but I’m going to ask you three things, and you can pick whichever one, or two, or three you want. I’m thinking about writing about this freaks, cheats, and familiars idea. If you’d like to know more about it, if you feel like it wasn’t completely covered in what I talked about today, will you let me know? Just drop me a note. You can drop me a note on Twitter also
. Just let me know if this is something you’d like to hear more about or you feel like, “Nah, I really feel like this was covered.” Thank you so much. I appreciate you so much. I’ll catch you next time. Take care.