The Voice and The Power of the Origin Story

Tonight is the final night that contestants on the reality TV show, The Voice, get to strut their stuff on stage and have America vote for the winner. I’m not going to lie to you. I’m a little addicted to this show.

As the weeks have progressed the audience has gotten to know each contestant. It struck me last night how much storytelling has played a role in this show. It’s interesting to learn the back story around why certain songs to sing are chosen by the contestants (or their coaches). We also have learned quite a bit more about the origins of the contestants, particularly the final four — Javier, Dia, Vicci and Beverly.

We learned where they came from, some of their trials and tribulations, failures and successes and what they’ve had to overcome to get this far. Their personal stories have added to the show’s appeal.

We have learned that Javier Colon is a “really great guy” and has “been to the rodeo” as judge Adam Levine put it. (Javier once had a record deal with Capitol Records.) In fact, that fact had Levine vote a certain way so that Javier would be more likely to continue on. His talent made him a final contestant, but his personal story sold.

Dia Frampton, the shy and youngest contestant, has been singing much of her life. She and her sister, Meg, had their own band (aptly titled Meg and Dia) since she was 17 before she landed on The Voice. Her past also includes a failed record deal and time on the road. Dia also writes novels and children’s books according to her bio. Her talent is obvious and her rendition of Kanye West’s song, Heartless, was a top download on iTunes the day after she sang it live on the show. It sort of makes you want to know more about her, right? Her past coupled with her obvious current talent causes that.

Then, there is Beverly McLellan, the rocker chick who may be one of the few artists who can hold her own on a stage with Christina Aguilera (also a judge). More failed deals and lots of touring (20 years worth) mark her musical origins. What kept her going? How did she get started? We all want to know.

Finally, contestant number four, Vicci Martinez (all 5 feet of her) has already had one heck of a career by the age of 26. She has opened for or shared the stage with Sting, Annie Lennox, B.B. King, the Doobie Brothers, Etta James, and Jonny Lang. How did that happen?

Every organization and company is made up of people. They are at the heart of every endeavor. Letting your people add their personal origin story to how and why they do what they do can be a powerful tool of any enterprise seeking to be relevant.

Having talented people — your rock stars —  is good. Having rock stars who can share their journey with others is great. People want to know about other people — how they got to where they are today, what their journey has been like, what motivates them. It’s how we connect. Help your customers and clients connect better to you by letting your people be human. Let them tell their story.

Your 3 Most Important Stories to Master

Not every story works for every audience. Everyone should have a library of narratives that speak to different groups. If asked, I would answer that all organizations, whether non profit or for profit, should have the following types of stories in their arsenal:

1. Origin story – Why are you here? Very specifically, what happened? What was the “a-ha” moment for your organization’s founding? This kind of story grounds people. Besides, it’s interesting.

President Roosevelt’s story of how he launched the national park program comes to mind.  Specifically, the most powerful part of his conservation origins is the story around when he refused to shoot a bear that rather misguided organizers tied to a tree for the President to shoot so he was guaranteed a trophy. The President’s refusal to do so, and subsequent epiphany that everyone should be able to enjoy nature, launched the greatest period of national park development and conservation that we have seen in the 20th century. This story also was the origin of the teddy bear craze as he became known as “Teddy Roosevelt.” What ephipany did your founders or executive leadership have that put you on your current path?

2. Signature story – What is one anecdote that illustrates your mission? What is the story that is unique to your organization? This helps people remember you, not to mention put them on the right path of understanding about who you are and what you stand for.

A story that has stuck with me is one that Ed Clark, founder and head of the Wildlife Center of Virginia, tells around how the Center has educated and impacted people’s everyday behaviors around wildlife. A man met Ed at an event where the conversation turned to how it is “okay” to throw bio-degradable food stuffs out the car window while driving. Ed gently corrected him saying that even an apple core thrown onto the side of the road can entice (and train) wildlife to the come to the roadside, where they are too-often hit by a vehicle. Years later Ed ran into that gentleman again and he said “you know, I haven’t thrown an apple core out the window since I met you.” What is a story that you can claim that may be simple but shows the impact you are making?

3. Participant story – What story can you tell that shows how people interact with you, use your products or services or gained something from being involved with you? What stories could your staff share that show they are “called” to this work? This story helps people see the relevance you have to them.

The Southern Environmental Law Center does this beautifully. Several of their attorneys have been videotaped explaining “why they do what they do.” They also are terrific at capturing testimonial stories from their donors, who talk very specifically about why they contribute to the organization. In particular, they are very good at capturing the childhood memories both SELC’s employees and donors had around some of the special, natural places in the southeast from fishing with their father in the rivers to walking down to the docks to meet the fishermen. It is these memories that not only spur them on to act but also connect them in a very human and real way to their audiences. What story do you have that shows the people you help and the people who work in your organization are “just like me?”


Do You Know What Your Audience Wants From Your Story?

I have sat around many conference tables in my 26 year career. Much of that time was spent talking about how the proverbial “we” were going to get some idea across to some people we were hoping would spend time and money with us. Over the years I’ve noticed an alarming trend. “We” tend to spend 95% of the time talking about what we want to say, and just 5 percent of the time talking about who was going to hear it.

Step one for anyone seeking to build a business narrative, organizational story or even a simple message is this: Answer how well you know your audience.

In the book Transformational Speaking, author Gail Larsen brilliantly offers one way to categorize an audience, if your goal is to move them into action (versus just entertain or educate).

The four buckets:

  1. Is your audience seeking information? Is your audience moved by data? Do they just not know much about your topic and they want to know more?
  2. Is your audience seeking insight? Are they just looking for what to do? Are they looking for someone to lead the way?
  3. Is your audience seeking to expand their imagination? Are they seeking to make something new happen?
  4. Is your audience seeking to be illuminated?  Are they seeking to be changed at a deep level? Do they want to be moved?

By knowing where you audience falls in the above four categories. you may now set the tone that gives them exactly what they want. And, when they get what they way you probably will, too.