Hot summer afternoons in a nineteenth century library on Cape Cod with a circle of small children sitting with eyes wide, as I start with “Once upon a time…” I can still remember the dusty smell of old, well-thumbed children’s books, and the fear I felt as a young teenager striving to capture their attention during Story Hour. How is that time many years ago really different than what marketers do today?
In those days you couldn’t get a job until you were fourteen, other than babysitting. I went one spring vacation to see the librarian in the small Cape Cod town where we summered every year and asked about working the three summer afternoons a week the small library was open. I explained that I’d always loved books and reading, and worked in my junior high school as a library aide after school, so I knew the Dewey Decimal System and would be careful about checking out books and reshelving returned ones. I remember I had to provide three references, including one from my school librarian.
For the princely sum of 95 cents an hour, I had my first real job. Twelve hours a week during July and August with responsibility for the children’s room sounded easy until told I also had to conduct Story Hour. You could read stories for part of that time, but the rest you had to tell stories that would keep your young audience engaged. For a shy teenager that was truly daunting. I’m smiling as I remember telling my family I couldn’t go to the beach the mornings before my library job because I had to plot out what stories I’d prepare that would appeal to both little boys and little girls.
Here are four things I learned those long ago summers that are still relevant to marketers:
- Know your audience – children have short attention spans and no hesitation about interrupting. They can suspend belief, but they’re not gullible and can be harsh critics.
- Tailor your material – content has to be relevant to the experience of your audience. My attempts at science fiction stories (my favorite at that time) were a stretch for many children.
- Involve your audience – plan the points when you ask for their participation, for example “what do you suppose the dragon did next?”
- Keep it short – you want your audience to say “tell me more”.
My colleague Richard Fouts, who is an outstanding storyteller, has a wonderful research note “How to Tell Memorable Marketing Stories” [available to Gartner for Marketing Leaders clients]. He advocates using the S.I.R. model – situation, impact, resolution – and using rich media. You can read Richard’s free research note “How to Integrate Social Media into Your Marketing Communications” .
Did my experience as a children’s storyteller have something to do with my later career in marketing? Could be.