FOUR WAYS TO TELL BETTER STORIES

Advertising

This article originally appeared on MMI Agency’s blog. Read more here.

In the ad world, it seems we are all about storytelling these days. Everyone is talking about it—and for good reasons. Stories are entertaining, engaging, and valuable. When told well, they create meaningful connections between brands and consumers that move consumers emotionally, and generate conversations that can boost a brand’s visibility, cache and credibility.

Brands do this all the time. Think about Dove’s stories about women discovering their true beauty, or Nike’s compelling narratives about driven athletes who wear its apparel. Chipotle hit a home run with its short film that told the story of a scarecrow as dedicated to healthy, fresh ingredients as the restaurant brand.

Good storytelling takes skill, no question. However, not everyone in our industry has an English degree, studied psychology, or has been the beneficiary (or victim) of a storytelling workshop. But you don’t need those—or a Pulitzer Prize in literature—to be a compelling storyteller (although, it wouldn’t hurt).

So how do we hone our storytelling craft? With training and practice. Before you start telling yourself, “not for me,” consider these four easy ways to become a better storyteller…

New year. Same goals. Different tactics.

Everyday

For the past three years, I’ve challenged myself with daily creative challenges. For two of the three, I drew a doodle a day for a year. I also spent a year writing a 365-sentence story. [Links to these projects are in my navigation bar.] While I learned a lot from those challenges, what I learned the most was that spending three years doing a daily creative challenge is a major time suck. And often left me feeling way less free to be creative in my own ways. So this year I’m trying something different. I’m not doing a daily challenge. Instead, I’m giving my creative brain time to breathe and room to thrive. I’m still going to challenge myself creatively, but my goals are going to be way more flexible. So what are they?

Finish my children’s book. Last year I started seriously writing a children’s book. By seriously, I mean that I’m actually going to make myself finish it. And I’m actually really excited about it. More on what and why and how later…

Write more letters. I’m challenging myself to write at least one hand-written letter (not a card, a letter) every month to someone new. Want to be on the list? Send me an email and I’ll add you to the list! (haleygate@gmail.com)

Take more photographs. I’m a writer, so my brain often thinks in words more than in pictures. I want to change that. By taking more photographs, I hope to challenge myself to see the world in a more creative way.

Blog more often. I want to be more intentional about this blog by writing more often. I also plan on writing two posts a month on our family blog, especially as we try to accomplish The List.

How do I measure a year? In books.

Everyday

2015 was the third year I challenged myself to read at least one book a month. I dedicated this year to reading more classic science fiction, but I also joined a book club so I got to enjoy genres different from what I usually pick. Time for the end-of-year roundup! Are you ready? Let’s go.

Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis

While Lewis has been a part of my life forever (Narnia, y’all), I didn’t know he wrote a science fiction series until recently. I have to admit, I’m not a fan of Lewis’ writing style, but I love the worlds he creates. So I was pleased by the themes and analogies in his book about a man who somehow finds himself on Mars. Through his journey he discovers that he should be far more scared of the humans who took him to the silent planet than the strange creatures he encounters.

Listening is an Act of Love by StoryCorps

Another great find in the $1 section at Half Priced Books. This was recommended by my coworker/friend. It’s a collection of personal anecdotes collected through the StoryCorp project some people might know from NPR. It’s funny, somber, joyful, and sad, painting a beautiful image of the people of our country and the history that has built us.

7 Men and the Secret to Their Greatness by Eric Metaxas

If you remember, I’ve already read a few Metaxas biographies (One word: Bonhoeffer), so I figured I’d dive into his recounting of seven great men in history. What makes them great? Aside from the fact they all accomplished amazing things, they were also great men of God. It was an inspiring read and I learned a lot I hadn’t known before.

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

I was really excited about this one. It’s number one on many people’s lists of the best science fiction books of all time. After reading it, I can definitely see why it was so novel for a science fiction novel of its time. It’s about a man born on Mars who, since both his astronaut parents are dead, becomes a phenomenon when he is brought back to earth. It is an interesting and theoretical look at culture, politics, love, and what it means to be human. It also introduced the word “grok” to the nerd world. So if you meet a nerd, throw it in your conversation and see what happens. The story had too many orgies in it for my liking, but I took away an appreciation for the overall concepts and themes.

Interrupted: When Jesus Wrecks Your Comfortable Christianity by Jen Hatmaker

Not typically something I would read, this was part of the book club I joined through my church. Hatmaker is kind of famous in the Christian world and is the wife of a pastor of a progressive church in Austin, TX. By progressive, I mean that they immerse themselves and their congregation in the lives of the poor and disenfranchised of their community. Her book is filled with lots of stats about the state of the world and the overwhelming issues and struggles facing people every day. From depression to hunger to poverty, she challenges us to live out our faith in an “uncomfortable” way, because that’s what Jesus did. It often stung a little, but I was surprised how much I enjoyed it.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Another book from the club, this was something that most of us finished in 2-3 days. It’s a thriller about girl who becomes part of a possible murder investigation because of something she witnesses while riding the train. And by witnesses, I mean she’s kind of an IRL Facebook stalker. So we can all relate a little. They’re turning into a movie, so if you decide not to read the book you can always see it on the silver screen.

Maze Runner by James Dashner

I wanted to see the movie, but in my fashion I wanted to read the book first. I thoroughly enjoyed both. About a boy put into a maze with a bunch of other boys who have had their memories wiped, this is another great dystopian young adult series. What I liked about it was that there really wasn’t much in the romance department – refreshing, eh?

The Scorch Trials (Maze Runner 2) & The Death Cure (Maze Runner 3)

I’m just gonna lump the rest of the series together. While I didn’t enjoy these nearly as much as I did the first book, they were still fun reads with (again) very little in the romance department. It’s basically a dude-centric version of The Hunger Games/Divergent series. WARNING: If you watch the movie version of The Scorch Trials there is almost no similarity between the book and its film adaptation. Which I found disappointing, because Scorch was my favorite of the sequels.

The Martian by Andy Weir

Again. I wanted to see the movie so I read the book first. About a man stranded on Mars whens his crew is forced to abandon him in a storm, this book is chock-full of math and science and Mac-Guyvering, all in an effort to get him home. I would recommend reading the book first because the movie misses out on a lot of really cool and nerdy details (and some great storm dodging), but judging from box office numbers and award nominations, I’m sure you’ve already seen the film.

Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut

The last book read in my summer book club, this book led to all but two of us dropping out. Seriously. Me and one other girl were the only ones who read the whole book. A classic novel written by a classic author, it’s a futuristic look at what would happen if everything in our culture were automized and run by machines. Tackling questions like “what is the worth of work?”, “where do men get their value?”, and “how far is too far?” it was a fascinating and cautionary look at engineering as god. It was super good from a literary perspective, but it was also very, very, hard to get through.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.

Part of our family “Booksgiving” challenge, Neil picked this one out for me. Each section sees the same monastic community at different time intervals after a nuclear world war. It follows the remnants of the monastary as they try to preserve knowledge lost in the fallout. Full of hilarious misinterpretations of history long gone, a look at how Christianity could survive global devastation, a new Dark Age and a new Rebirth, it’s a fascinating read and one I recommend. [I technically didn’t finish this one in 2015. I’m actually still reading it (only 50 pages to go!). But hey, I got married last year and things got busy, so I’m still counting it toward my 12 books a year.]

Well, there you have it! My 12 books of 2015. I’m excited about the stories that will fill 2016 and I already have a stack of books growing by my bed. This year my husband has decided to read six books of his own for the year, so we’ll have more reading dates ahead of us. Here’s to another year of books!

 

Merry consumerism to you!

christianity, Everyday, Rant

Yesterday I went to the post office to buy stamps with a coworker of mine and we ended up having a conversation with a young guy in line ahead of us about the craziness that is the holiday season in America. He pointed out the amazing difference between celebrating what we are thankful for on a Thursday, then fighting over televisions and cheap toys on a Friday. And then shopping all day online on a Monday. Then maybe giving back on Giving Tuesday if you have spare change. That’s crazy, people!

Now, I’m not gonna lie. I definitely took advantage of the awesome deals I found at my favorite online retailers. But getting a deal is not the point. Getting a new TV is not the point. Those things are not inherently bad. It’s the attitude with which we procure those items that leads to a very dark road full of angry mobs and unmet expectations. It’s the fact that we often feel entitled to 40% off and free shipping. The fact that instead of spending time with family and friends on Thanksgiving, we line up at stores so we don’t miss out on products we can always buy later. The idea that we can actually get disappointed if we don’t get our favorite pie at Thanksgiving or the Christmas gifts we wanted or the right color or the right size, when we shouldn’t expect to get anything at all. Because frankly, we don’t deserve any.

For those who celebrate the religious holiday of Christmas like I do, they know that it is a time to remember Jesus’s birth and the fact that when He entered the world he paved the way for us to have a personal relationship with God by giving Himself up for us and dying on a cross for our sins. So no, we don’t deserve any gifts. That’s a pretty big gift right there.

For those who don’t celebrate the religious holiday of Christmas, that’s understandable. To be honest, the secular holiday has far surpassed the religious one and (let’s be real here) most scholars agree that Jesus was probably not born on December 25. So I get the love of all things Christmas without the Christ. There’s no War on Christmas, no hard feelings on my behalf that you don’t recognize the immense importance of the holiday (although, I would highly recommend you reading the full biblical account). But I also believe God’s gift applies to you as well. We don’t deserve anything, so we should be thankful and grateful for what we are given and take joy in giving to others.

Now to conclude this rather messy rant…I’m not asking for people to stop buying things. Honestly, it’s great for the economy. I’m not asking people to stop giving gifts to each other, because it’s often a great way to show someone you care. All I’m asking is for us to stop and think about our attitudes this holiday season. To really think about our expectations, our perceptions, and our preparation for a season full of temptations and indulgence and opportunities for selfishness. To find joy this season in the gifts we’ve already been given. And that is how you have a Merry Christmas.

This poem is carb-free.

Everyday, Poetry

No carbs. No sugar. No bread. No cheese.
Hold the salad dressing, please.
No cake. No fruit. Sugar-free gum,
I can’t eat that, it’s after one.
No thank you, I brought my own,
I only eat what I’ve homegrown.
Want to split dessert with me?
I only drink unsweetened tea.
Jenny, Watchers, Thirty Whole.
Another diet, one more goal.
Stripping out the extra snacks,
Only hundred calorie packs.
Skipping yet another meal,
It doesn’t matter how I feel.
Missing out on lunch with friends,
Dieting that never ends.
Counting inches one by one,
Never happy, never done.
Avoiding aisles at the store,
Pacing ‘cross kitchen the floor.
Always checking on the scale,
Feeling hungry, looking frail.
Breathing out and sucking in.
Barely living, but I’m thin.


Some of you know that I had an eating disorder in college. Others know that I still struggle with an unhealthy relationship with food today. Now you know both. Everyday I have to remind myself that I am not what I eat, what I weigh, or what I wear. I have to choose every day to see myself as Christ sees me: as a “beautifully and wonderfully made” child of God. But the struggle is real, y’all. And that is why my heart aches for my fellow humans who are bound by food, enslaved by society’s warped beauty standards, and battling against poor self image. So many women and men make their appearance the biggest priority in their lives, when in reality, our bodies will inevitably fail us. That’s a fact. I hope this post serves as a reminder that food is not everything, weight is just a number, diets shouldn’t control you, and your life is worth far more than food restrictions. And you are, too.

The Awkward Files #5

Everyday

I haven’t done one of these in a while, but not because of any lack in my awkwardness. So, let’s get started.

I was visiting home one weekend and decided to get to know my middle stepsister a bit more (she’s 15 and I live in Houston). She had a friend over and they were both being very friendly and hanging out in the kitchen while the rest of the family busied themselves making dinner. My stepsister’s friend (who we will call Natalie) was an eclectic girl, with dreadlocks and a very earthy, granola vibe. I was listening to their conversation, trying to find my “in” and I heard Natalie say she had Tourette’s. I saw my chance and took it.

“Wow, you have Tourette’s? That’s very cool that you are so open about it.” She looked a little confused, and I instantly tried to cover myself in case I embarrassed her by talking about her syndrome in public. So in classic Haley style, I talked about it some more. “I minored in psychology in college and I find Tourette’s really interesting. How long have you had it?” The poor girl, still struggling, said “oh just a little over a year.” My response: “Oh wow, has it been hard?” “Uh, not really,” she said, “You just kinda get used to it.” Me: “How courageous! I had a friend in high school with Tourette’s whose tic was barking. What’s your tic?”

Then, bless her heart, my stepsister looked at me and said “Haley, STOP. We weren’t talking about Natalie having  TOURETTE’S. We were talking about her DREADS.” Apparently it takes a year to grow dreads of her length. And I am very poor of hearing. So, now my stepsister and poor Natalie know a lot more about Tourette’s than they probably thought they would.

Am I relevant? And does it matter?

Everyday

In the advertising industry, the word “relevant” is right up there with buzzwords like “content” and “engagement”. It’s important to brands that they are relevant to their consumers and their target audience, otherwise they fail to grab the attention they need to get their point across. Relevancy is increasingly becoming the golden egg when writing content or developing strategies. What’s relevant to athletic teenage boys? How about households with an annual income of $125K+? 30-year-old stay-at-home moms of kids ages 2-4?

It’s easy to roll your eyes at things like this, but these are serious conversations people in my industry have on a regular basis – and I’ve been the initiator of many of them. And it’s happening outside of advertising, too. Is your resume relevant to the job you’re applying for? Is your hashtag relevant to the tweet you just posted? Are your clothes relevant in light of today’s fashion trends? Is your anecdote relevant to this conversation? Are you relevant? Am I? Does it matter?

Yes. And no. I think it only matters if you’re willing to move past relevance and into a relationship – in the loosest form of the word. Being relevant is a way we make connections with people and places and things. It’s a way we relate with each other. But if you don’t take that connection further, then the whole effort is lost. If you don’t commit to a relationship with that person or audience or target market, then it’s just a one-sided conversation where you are just showing off, a decorative mask with a mannequin behind it.

And I fall into that a lot. Sometimes I want to be relevant for the sake of being noticed – Look at me! I’m relevant! – but unless I’m using it as a tool to connect with someone, it’s really just a waste of time and kind of narcissistic, to be honest. Brands do this, too. They think if they use a certain color that tested well or show a certain scene because millennials will like it, that the campaign will be a success. But unless they offer to go deeper than that, to truly connect with the consumer on a deeper level, then they will always lose. And risk looking incredibly stupid.

So what’s the answer? Authenticity. Just because your audience likes chocolate ice cream doesn’t mean you have to like chocolate ice cream. Find something else to talk about, something you actually have in common. Stop trying to be something you’re not. And people will like you more for it.

Bulk up.

Lists

I like to think I’m a generous person, but the honest truth is that I’m a cheapskate. From couponing for my wedding to having a strict resale-only wardrobe, I’m THAT person who is always looking for a way to get something for a lower price – quality be darned. Thus, buying in bulk has become my thing. But recently I have become frustrated by the fact that there are some things in life that just aren’t cheaper when you get them in large quantities. And that’s just plain wrong. To address this grave disservice to the human race, I will revive my ever-entertaining “lists” with this…

Things That Should Be Cheaper in Bulk But Aren’t

1. Stamps – Snail mail may seem something of the past, but my mailman knows better. Aside from spam mail and the obscure magazine subscriptions of my apartment’s former tenant, I enjoy it. It’s nice to get a physical letter at your door instead of a digital file in your inbox. Recently, I’ve wanted to up my letter-writing game to spread the joy around, but MAN. Stamps be expensive. Why is there no discount for bulk stamps?

2. Prescription Medication – No. I’m not a junky. But I grew up with chronic strep throat and year-round allergies, and my poor parents had to buy me loads of pills to make sure I could run around the playground with the other kids. What if they could have bought a load of penicillin for the pantry? That way hayfever season could come for a fraction of the cost of going to the doctor once a year.

3. Gasoline – I’ll make this brief because I know you get it. Let’s just say that if I could get a discount at the pump if I filled up some spare gas cans, I’d do it.

4. Babies – I’m a twin, so I have been made very much aware of how much children cost families. The little bundles of joy can get expensive depending on your preference for diapers and whether or not you want your child to look like a mini J Crew model. While most of the cost just comes with the territory of family expansion, my heart goes out to the families of multiples. But let’s start small…I propose the “have two-or-more-babies-at-once-get-one-hospital-stay-free” rule.

5. Textbooks – Although I’ve been out of school for three years, I’m still feeling the pain of being a student – specifically in my bank account. One of the more frustrating costs of college is the always fluctuating price of textbooks. Semester to semester my classes could cost me anywhere from $400-$800 for textbooks (and I was just a liberal arts major). Why punish students for buying the proper material? Instead, I say the more textbooks you buy for school, the cheaper they should be.

6. Starbucks – Obviously, I saved the most important for last. This one goes out to all the interns and sub-level employees who offer to get their teammates coffee. Let’s say you get one drink free for every six you buy for your coworkers. Oh, and the free one is for you.

What about you? What do you think should be cheaper in bulk?

Doubt.

Poetry

Do.
Do it.
It will, so do it.
It will work, so do it.
It might not work, so maybe do it.
It will not, so don’t do it.
Don’t do it.
Don’t do.
Don’t.

The Freedom of Structure

Everyday, Ponderings

I’m a structure person. Always have been. But recently I’ve noticed that most of my peers are most definitely not. They hate the idea of having structure because it seems more like “restrictions”. They don’t want to adhere to a certain set of rules or a specific schedule. They hate the idea of being tied down, having limited options, being “forced” to do something. Spontaneity is seen as freeing, open-minded, non-commital. You’re more “chill” if you just go with the flow, while structured people are just uptight and rigid.

I agree that too much “structure” can be, well, too much. When I was younger I had crippling anxiety in part because I wanted complete control over the structure of my life. Turns out that just can’t happen. I let my love of structure limit me. Later, during a performance review in college, I was told that I needed to learn to “plan to be spontaneous.” At first this irritated me, but in classic Haley fashion I decided to try. I started training myself to be flexible, to work within a frame that allowed for more movement.

Today, I see freedom in structure. Now that I’ve begun to give up my need for control, I have recognized that spontaneity isn’t always stifled by schedule, but can actually benefit from it. Just as an artist is free to create after mastering the set standards of line, color, and space, or an actor can improvise within the set rules of a particular scene, I find that structure provides a foundation from which to be spontaneous.

In the end, I think we all need to find a balance between the two, which might look different for different people. The main thing is to give yourself a sturdy foundation, something you can tether yourself to, and then trust it enough to take a leap. So that’s what I’m trying to do.