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.

  1. 3 July 2013 at 2:53 pm
    Todd Berkowitz says:

    As marketers, there are a lot of things we can learn from kids. Their storytelling and narratives are often very direct and targeted to a specific audience. While parents might have the patience to put up with long-winded stroies, their peers don’t. I think of those AT&T “Faster is better” commercials with the kids focus group. It works because he knows and involves his audience and keeps it short, which goes to your key points above.

    Good lessons for all of us.

  2. 4 July 2013 at 8:41 am
    Simon Levin says:

    When helping our clients put together their stories we lean heavily on the insights from Chip and Dan Heath’s book “Made to Stick”. Funnily enough the book includes examples of how great children’s tales from down the years conform to their simple SUCCESS formula of simple, unexpected, credible, concrete, emotional stories.

  3. 9 July 2013 at 11:55 am
    Kiersten says:

    I was waiting to hear the one about the big bad marketing wolf in sheeps clothing …..ya know where the kindly unassuming CIO come to find his herd is dwindling and says what the flock?!
    Based on SPA that by 2017 the CMO will spend more on IT than the CIO

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