Focus on the Person, Not the Product

From the Archives, via Sept. 23, 2014.

Flannery O’Connor hooked my interest through a school-assigned reading of A Good Man is Hard to Find and her personal story kept me reading more. I was certain that a bit of that geranium she wrote about—“with its roots in the air”—was her, a transplant to New York City, from Georgia, where the geraniums weren’t put on apartment windowsills for sun, but thrived just fine on their own at home.

While her body was long gone when I arrived on the scene, her stories and articles about her have kept me re-reading her work, always finding something new each time I visit.

With a few exceptions, it’s the individual’s story, not the story itself, that hooks me. There are millions of books and films and paintings and albums and plays and concerts and…  When they are pitched as products – “one of the best films of the summer” or “an instant classic”—I keep walking.

These days, everything seems to be a bestseller, the next best thing, the best film of the year, the best of the best of the best.

When everything is the best…  None of it grabs my attention.

I stop for the personal stories.

It’s what got me reading Say You’re One of Them by Uwen Akpan, a book that still makes me shiver as I type this line. It was Akpan’s personal story—and a story about him that was shared by a friend of a friend of Akpan’s—that hooked me.

So how do you share your work via personal stories instead of product pitches?

When Zach Braff’s film Wish I Was Here was released over the summer, it caught my interest—but not in a way that had me wanting to see it. I’d read about his Kickstarter campaign and the press that followed, and was interested in how the film did, but … I don’t get to the movie theater that often and when I do, it’s mainly for films with my kids. Wish I Was Here would require carving out additional time and a babysitter and, well… It didn’t make the cut. Then I caught Braff on Sirius, hosting a program featuring the music from the film—and found myself pulling over to the side of the road, jotting down artists’ names and mentally thanking Braff for his introduction to Hozier.

Sharing the music of the film—rather than the film itself—made me want to make time for it. It also sent me down a Google rabbithole, learning more about Braff and his work. Count me a fan. Looking forward to what he does next.

Steve’s shared his work in a similar way, via Writing Wednesdays. His stories are often personal—and down-to-earth in a way that readers connect to them. This connection has turned into increased word-of-mouth sharing of his work.

Back in July, I hosted a few members of The Shadowboxers in my home, when they were in town for a performance. I took my college friend’s word for it when she said the band she was working with was good—and wouldn’t trash my home—when she asked if they could crash with us. I listened to a few songs online and found myself grinning ear-to-ear through their performance, but it was the personal side that really sold me. They knew the Lego characters residing all over our home and seemed just as excited as my 10 year old, talking about the wonderfulness that is the Lego DeathStar. I learned that one is always an early riser and another a runner. There’s a baseball fan in there and a native New Yorker turned Georgia transplant, too. I learned how they won a contest in college, after first being told they didn’t make the cut—and how the money they won allowed them to buy equipment to tour. Oh, and there’s a Kickstarter campaign and something about Phat Beets, too. By sharing their personal side, they had me buying copies of their album.

I’ve been watching Chris Brogan’s fitness transformation of late and now view him—and his work—through a different lens. Same thing happened when I started checking out Joanna Penn’s travel-related posts and podcasts. Scott Oden got me with his love of Orcs and Kamran Popkin caught me with what I think of as “Pop talk” (which is often over my head, but I still tune in for). Kamran’s neighbor Olivier Blanchard caught me with pics of Spartan gear (I think it was a hat that first got my attention) and his love of steampunk. Jeremy Brown’s love of all things Elmore Leonard and his diversity as a writer (he can do YA and some serious Leonard himself) got me into his books.

Genuine, personal stories are the best way to expand your audience. Hook their heads and hearts and you’ll find that you’ve hooked their long-term interest (and wallets), too.

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  1. Alex Cespedes on September 12, 2014 at 5:20 am

    Completely agree. “Best product”, “best movie”, “best widget” are impersonal things. They come across as too perfect, and we know we’re not perfect. We prefer some rough edges, because at the end of the day it’s about us, the reader/consumer, and we need to see a bit of ourselves in what we spend time on.

    • Beth Barany on September 24, 2014 at 7:22 am

      Alex, Love this: “we need to see a bit of ourselves in what we spend time on.” So true… You have me thinking on what specifically is it that I need and want to see in the books I buy and in the TV and movies I want to watch. No answers yet. All I know is that I like heroic stories and watching/reading about heroes, men and women, being tested to the max… You got me thinking!

  2. Pheralyn on September 12, 2014 at 6:21 am

    I love to hear the stories too, Callie. Somehow the vulnerable human element that comes across in the telling of a personal story is the hook that renders the larger experience universal. Thanks for offering this great point of view.

  3. Maryanne Nicholls on September 12, 2014 at 6:24 am

    Steve I loved what you said about the people behind the art. That’s what keeps me going to film festivals. I live in Toronto so it’s easy for me. When I choose the films I want to participate in (Yes! that’s how it feels), I never choose the ones that will be sold out anyway. What I look for are films who’s director interest me, or films from a particular area (Israeli and Palestinian films are almost always worth watching).

    It’s rare that it isn’t something that moves me, and even if it’s not as entertaining as a big ticket film. the director and actors are there to tell me how it came to be, and what they struggled with in making it.

    Can’t make it to the festival this year .. perhaps you or some of your followers can and let the rest of us know what moved them.


  4. Mary Doyle on September 12, 2014 at 6:27 am

    I so agree with you about this Callie. I won’t break stride for the “latest, greatest, best thing ever” but that personal story will pull me in every time. Now I’ve got to go check out the links you shared with us today – as always, thanks!

  5. stephen q shannon on September 12, 2014 at 6:34 am

    Getting #jobseekers to tell their personal story especially on LinkedIn profile or their own one page personal profile trumps a resume every time. Thanks for the inadvertent support of this premise. As Seth Godin says, “You are your resume!’ Verdad?

  6. Dana Myles on September 12, 2014 at 6:40 am

    Not sure I’m doing it right then, lol. Not finding folks to be hooked by my personal story unless I’m face to face and then, I seem to shine and get people interested in reading my work.

    • Callie Oettinger on September 13, 2014 at 3:38 am

      Thanks for sharing this, Dana. It’s hard, but keep at it.

      I always ask authors I’ve worked with to pay attention to what resonates with interviewers when they are doing press. Are there things that seem to come up all the time? Certain themes that always seem to be of interest? Find those and focus on them. This is the same thing that you’ll find great stand-up comedians doing. They test their material, find what works, and then gradually tighten it. I’m not suggesting you put on an act every time you share something, but… Pay attention to what is of interest to others and then find a way to share it that is genuine, has value. Callie

      • Beth Barany on September 24, 2014 at 7:48 am

        Callie, I agree with you on this! Since we have a hard time seeing ourselves, at least I do, then it helps so much to pay attention to what perk up other people about our story. I’m working on that!

  7. David Y.B. Kaufmann on September 12, 2014 at 6:44 am

    It’s about the Characters, the people. Always has been, always will be. And characters, like people, are individuals, with quirks, with pains, with triumphs – all individuals. We are all idiosyncratic, gravitationally bound by a common core, yet each of us has a unique landscape, personality, and her own, sometimes erratic, orbit. Seeing another’s, dancing, gives us joy, understanding, insight were own.

    Hence the power of stories which are the stories of character – and characters.

    • Pheralyn on September 12, 2014 at 7:58 am

      Hi David,
      Great that you pointed out it’s the characters who make up all those compelling stories…..

      • Beth Barany on September 24, 2014 at 7:51 am

        Hi David and Pheralyn, I agree! It’s all the characters! 🙂

  8. Blake Atwood on September 12, 2014 at 6:52 am

    I found myself fascinated by the fact that you’re fascinated with so many different facets of the people you meet or hear about. It’s inspiring and proves your ultimate point.

  9. Andrea Brundage on September 12, 2014 at 7:27 am

    This story resonated with me immediately, Callie. The fastest way to lose my attention is to start with an amped up, over inflated boastful statement. Instead, I want to know who you are and what makes you tick. What’s your story? We all have one. Share your passions, your talents, your travels. Perhaps that is one reason I love candid photos over stale and staged portraits. The face, the expressions, the far away look, the twinkle in the eye; that’s where my interest lies and leaves me saying, “Tell me more. I want to know YOU.”

    • Beth Barany on September 24, 2014 at 7:53 am

      Andrea, Love this: ” I want to know who you are and what makes you tick.” Since you shared what kind of photos you like, now I’d love to see some! I want to see the world through your eyes… 🙂

  10. Faith Watson on September 12, 2014 at 7:38 am

    Callie–I wondered if this was true from a marketing perspective, because a chunk of my audience are entrepreneurs and small business people who are not necessarily writers or even creatives. Then something funny started happening. And kept happening. My audience insisted on growing itself as creatives who wanted to be writers and needed to market themselves. Huh. That happens every time I tell a story instead of just give advice. Now even my tutorials have stories in them. It’s perfect for me. I’m not sure it’s perfect for every audience, but I gotta stick with what works for my people. Thank you for this post, I loved your story about stories.

    • Callie Oettinger on September 13, 2014 at 3:03 am

      Thanks for sharing what you experienced, Faith. There IS something to the personal story. So often, I buy into a product not because of commercials, but because of a story – whether it is from a friend who used/watched/read the product or from the creator of it. Callie

    • Beth Barany on September 24, 2014 at 7:58 am

      Faith, Love your site! I’ve found that the more I share about me the more my authors seem to like it. I was embarrassed to do so at first. I”m so used to being in the “teacher role.” But it’s true that I can coach novelists because of my lived experience as a novelist. BTW, I signed up for your fun newsletter. Your upbeat personality really shines through on your site.

  11. Dorothea Shefer-Vanson on September 12, 2014 at 8:12 am

    Unfortunat Eli, the personal story is just what publishers DON’t go for. That’s why I’ve had to publish my two novels based on personal experiences (The Balancing Game; A Child Betweenj Two Worlds, A Society Approaching War) and on pre-war family documents and correspondence (Time Out of Joint, The Fate of a Family) myself on Amazon. I wish I could reach a wider audience, but marketing isn’t my strong point.

  12. Len Wilson on September 12, 2014 at 1:08 pm

    Love this concept. Don’t make the product the hero. That becomes programmatic. And boring. A promo. Instead, make a person the hero. Compelling stories focus on a character’s transformation, not an event, program or service. Every good story is about a changed life. The catch is, if you do it right, the product gets promoted anyway.

    • Callie Oettinger on September 13, 2014 at 2:47 am

      Thanks for your comment, Len. One example of this is authors who develop Facebook pages for their books – or web sites for their books. I won’t follow a book, but I will follow an author. For such authors, they’re faced with recreating the wheel for the next project – another page or site, another effort to build the audience for the page or site…. Doesn’t make sense… Callie

    • Joe Jansen on September 13, 2014 at 5:02 am


      “Every good story is about a changed life.” You are the distillery. Nice.

    • Beth Barany on September 24, 2014 at 8:00 am

      Len, I love that: “Compelling stories focus on a character’s transformation, not an event, program or service. Every good story is about a changed life.” I can do that! I’m a novelist, after all. Thanks for the insight!

  13. Brian on September 14, 2014 at 9:00 am

    Great observations. I read the post Friday, and thought it nearly intuitive, but had never said it outloud to myself–or had the clear thought that I want to know about the person behind the art.

    On our dog walk last night, my wife told me about one of our friends that volunteers for a DV women’s shelter. Her project is to get home stuff (cooking stuff, TP, silverware, etc) for ladies moving into another home.

    She made this comment, “I don’t want to know anything about them, I just want to do my part…”

    It sent me on this other train of thought about the difference in wanting distraction versus connection.

    I’m afraid that many people are like our friend above. They don’t want the ‘hassle’ of knowing the rest of the story, they only want to be titillated, distracted, a moment’s reprieve from their own ‘tortured, desperate lives’.

    I do love a ‘bubble-gum for the mind’ distraction novel that simply absorbs my full awareness. Stephen King, Tom Clancy, David Baldacci, Dan Brown are the top of mind examples for me, the stories are fantastic and I disappear into them.

    I have no relationship with them, do not know anything about any of those authors.

    However, I did read Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’, and he does open the robe and share his own struggles in that book. It completely changed my opinion of him, I had much deeper respect for him.

    My thoughts kind of come back to who do you want as your customer? If you want your customer to be the ‘Wallmart America’, then the personal story isn’t probably as important. This is not an economic observation, but a crude generalization. Maybe asleep versus fighting to stay awake is a better description.

    Even in my neighborhood it seems that many of my neighbors prefer to stay asleep, and bubble-gum distraction is all they want. They do not want the ‘hassle’ of knowing another’s story. Their bandwidth is absorbed too much by their own drama, and they simply want to escape.

    However, if you want to build a relationship with your customer long term–that maybe another type of customer all together. Sadly, I think it may be a much smaller crowd. It is however, the crowd that is meaningful.

    You know better than us readers how large this community is, but I imagine it pretty small percentage wise.

    To be more honest, I love the distraction myself, but I must limit myself to it. I’m re-reading all the dystopian literature I read in high school and college right now. It is freaking depressing as hell, dark and foreboding. I can only handle so much of this before I sink into some dark place that the entire world is on the brink of destruction. The prescience of Huxley, Orwell, Rand, et al is frightening. Once I’m done with 1984 again, it will likely be back to something light, airy, Bubblicsousy…

    Long thread. Maybe this is the best way to say it. I only recommend Steven Pressfield as a writer to those that I sense are struggling to stay awake.

    • Beth Barany on September 24, 2014 at 8:05 am

      Brian, It’s interesting how you put it: “Their bandwidth is absorbed too much by their own drama, and they simply want to escape.” I am definitely in this camp who wants an escape, but I’m actually looking to escape into heroic stories so that i can find my own heroism to face my daily life, full of small and large things that often feel unsurmountable — the paying of bills, a challenging work project, a sense of uselessness… What you call a ‘bubble-gum for the mind’ distraction novel can actually give people a moment’s peace in an otherwise busy life. Maybe it’s because I”m so sensitive… I don’t want to read a novel or watch a film that resembles the news. I can turn on the news for that. Anyway, that’s my take because I like these type of stories and write them too.

  14. Sonja on September 14, 2014 at 11:26 am


    I feel like this too, but have not put it into words. I love the personal side—it’s what usually hooks me. I clicked through your recommendations. Great stuff there. I can’t wait to check these guys out.

    However, Steven is still my favorite. He keeps it real, and is constantly making me see myself in a new light….every Wednesday. : )

    Thanks for a great post.

  15. Beth Barany on September 24, 2014 at 8:12 am

    Callie, You super inspired me! I wrote a post: and commented a lot on this thread. I really enjoy reading what others have said on this topic! I have to say what draws me into stories are the characters in them, not so much anything about the creators. I’m actually often disappointed by who the creators are. Maybe that’s because I like these heroic, larger-than-life stories, with people often extraordinary in some way, called to face impossible odds, and an author always falls short. We are only human after all… But maybe also what I’m reaching for as a reader/viewer, is to find myself in these stories. I’m perhaps reaching for the ways in which I’m extraordinary in challenging circumstances, and if they can do it, dig deep for resources they may not know they had, then so can I. I believe stories help us find ourselves, but sometimes we have to go away into a story — yes, escapist fiction — to come home again. It’s what I write and what I like to read and view.

  16. James Michael Starr on November 16, 2018 at 9:53 am

    I struggle with this. I’m 67, and my first novel, in progress, is all about how my mother’s promising life and tragic death left an indelible impression on me (though for the better).

    In fact, the entire, 3-part series will recount in fictional terms how her inability to “follow her bliss” and live in her gift as a singer shocked me into understanding the critical nature of my choices as a creative person.

    And yet I’ve hesitated to talk about that with others. Somewhere along the line, I got the impression that connecting my novels with the reality of my life would somehow “take readers out of the story.” So I’ve avoided it so far.

    I’m planning blog and social media posts that stem from the research I’ve done in writing these books, but maybe I should spill the beans, come out of the closet and admit to why I’m so motivated to write them?

  17. Robert Bloom on November 16, 2018 at 10:19 pm

    Callie, I read this post today and it inspired me while rewriting a blog post before posting it. I don’t want to spam, but I am curious to know if I hit the mark (focusing on the person): Thank you!

  18. Ken Robertson on November 20, 2018 at 4:02 am

    Thanks Callie!

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