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How to Tell Meaningful Stories to Your Customers – Tamsen Webster
The Agents of Change

How to Tell Meaningful Stories to Your Customers – Tamsen Webster

It’s been said that storytelling is the key to sales because it hits that certain part of the buyer’s brain that resonates with them on a deeper level. It can warm up your audience by giving them real-life reasons and examples that they can relate to, as to why they need your products or services.

But although storytelling itself can be difficult for some people, story structuring is something that anyone can learn, as explained by Tamsen Webster, who breaks down the art of structuring your story using 5 core elements.

Rich: My guest today has spent the last 20 years helping experts drive action from their ideas. Part message strategist, part storyteller, part English to English translator, her work focuses on how to find and build the stories partners, investors, clients, and customers tell themselves and others.

She honed her expertise through working for major companies and organizations like Johnson & Johnson, Harvard Medical School, and Intel, as well as with startups that represent the next wave of innovation in life science, biotech, climate tech, thintech, and pharma.

She’s a professional advisor at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, and a mentor for the Harvard Innovation Labs. She’s also served for over eight years as executive producer and idea strategist for one of the oldest locally organized Ted Talk events in the world, TEDx Cambridge. She was also the closing keynote at the Agents of Change Digital Marketing Conference, where she inspired the audience to new heights.

She was a reluctant marathoner, twice. Is a champion ballroom dancer, in her mind. And learned everything she knows about messages, people, and change as a Weight Watchers leader. True story.

Today we’re going to be diving into her new book, Find Your Red Thread, so please welcome Tamsen Webster. Tamsen, a pleasure as always.

Tamsen: Oh, what a delight. Rich, I’m excited to catch up and chat with you and your audience.

Rich: I know it’s only in your mind, but what’s your favorite dance, as a champion ballroom dancer?

Tamsen: I would have to say that it’s probably a real strong tie between the Foxtrot and the Rumba.

Rich: Excellent. The Foxtrot is an underrated dance.

Tamsen: It is underrated. It’s just very smooth and like 1937. 

Rich: It sounds like something you wouldn’t do, but it’s actually, it’s a great step. I promise you I wasn’t going to throw you a curve ball, but I did.

Tamsen: Yeah. But that one was easy? The Foxtrot to me is just very ‘Fred and Ginger’ and I love it.

Rich: All right. Awesome. So what’s the story behind The Red Thread?

Tamsen: So there’s any number of ways to answer that.

Rich: Why don’t you start with what the red thread is? Why don’t we start there?

Tamsen: The red thread is, I talk about it, is the main idea of something, that’s the thing that makes things make sense. Some storytellers refer to as the theme, I say specifically it’s the story that our brains build to explain a question and an answer and how things are connected.

It is an idiom, a phrase that generally Northern Europeans tend to use, and it was one that I was introduced to by one of my clients from Sweden. And I was just like, this is a great phrase. It’s very visceral and you can imagine it. And you also understand, even if you haven’t heard it before, you oftentimes can understand quite contextually what it is.

So if someone says, “What’s the red thread here?” after being presented a bunch of information, you just understand that they’re saying, ‘what’s the big idea’. And given that’s what I tended to traffic in, big ideas, it seemed like a perfect match for a process to help people find and articulate those ideas. And there’s that story.

Rich: So why do you think it’s so difficult for us to communicate these big ideas to others in a meaningful way?

Tamsen: Because it’s like trying to squeeze, you know what, it’s like the camel through the eye of the needle kind of thing. In our heads, these big, beautiful, complex, sophisticated ideas that got there over time, that we’ve added depth and understanding, there’s infinite shades of gray, infinite dimensions to them. And then we have to squeeze them through little, tiny words in order to get them into somebody else’s mind. And not only that, kind of the entry point into somebody else’s mind isn’t nearly as big as our idea is in the first place. We can’t get it in there just right away. We actually have to keep it narrow for a little while, just so their brains can process each of the pieces of the information so they can understand it.

It’s like one of the ways I describe it is that you live in Maine, you live right outside of Portland or right in for it.

Rich: Actually these days I live in Portland. Yeah.

Tamsen: You’re right in Portland. You know Portland like the back of your hand. You know the shortcuts, you know the ins and outs, which corners to avoid, which corners are fine. You know all of this. But imagine that somebody came in from out of town. Actually isn’t there a very famous story of a man who landed in Portland and thought it was San Francisco.

Rich: Bangor, but yes.

Tamsen: Bangor, dang it. Okay. Sorry. But that’s kind of what happens is that we try to explain her idea as a local. Like we try to give local directions to say to a foreign tourist of our idea. And the thing is, that a foreign tourist in Portland needs really big, basic descriptions. Not because they’re not capable of understanding more eventually, but when they first get there, they just need to go waterfront, downtown, like just big areas. Once they’ve been there for a while and they start to see how those things connect and they start to feel more comfortable, that’s when you can be more and more sophisticated.

And so what happens is, yeah, essentially, we’re giving local directions to foreign tourists. And I think since we’ve all been in that situation either on the local side or the foreign tourists side, I think that gets at what is so difficult about it and where we often go wrong.

Rich: I also wonder if you know the words in our head may have different meanings to other people as well, and so things are just lost in translation.

Tamsen: A hundred percent. And that’s part of the reason why I call myself an English to English translator. And the worst offenders are the ones that we probably think are the most core to our ideas. Because either they’re words that we have put a very unique definition on, like the leadership or innovation or partnership, but have very broad definitions for other people.

So for instance, one of the things that I do when I’m working with clients on this is that I don’t let them get away with like, “Well, we’re all about partnership.” And I’m like, okay define it. But then I’m like, define it the way you would define it. And for instance one of my clients, we recently defined ‘partnership’ as the mutual exchange of mastery. Okay, now that means a very specific thing, and you get an understanding of their definition of partnership, which is different. But you’re a hundred percent right, Rich. That not only do we have to squeeze our big idea through these words, we have to squeeze them through words that potentially could mean something very different than what we think we’re saying when we use them.

Rich: I may be getting ahead of myself, but once we’ve gotten using these words, once we’ve gotten the camel through the eye of the needle – or the acorn through whatever it may be – how do we ultimately expand that? How do we have it take root and in the person’s mind, or get them to start considering it?

Tamsen: The best way, the richest soil for all human endeavor, is desire. You could talk about the Buddhists that say it’s the source of all human suffering, but it’s comics who will tell you that desire is at the root of all comedy. The pursuit of things that we want is one of the most powerful pursuits motivations of all.

And so there’s a couple of things though. It’s very difficult to get someone to want a thing they don’t currently want, particularly if they don’t see if it’s relevant to them. But really importantly to us as idea creators and message makers, businesspeople, whatever our rules might be, is that it’s very difficult to get somebody to unwant a thing that they want. And that’s very good news. Because the most fertile ground into which you can plant that acorn of an idea, is to anchor it in something that person already actively wants but doesn’t yet have. Because they’re already in pursuit of it. They’re already naturally curious about it. And if you can offer and suggest that you can offer an answer to the last question that they’ve not yet been able to answer for themselves, they are going to be engaged with it until you do something else to send them off and to turn them off into and to end that hook. But the hook of everything is what people want.

And I see what you were asking earlier about what makes us hard. And what goes wrong is that a lot of times we try to start by getting people to want our idea rather than getting them to understand that our idea gets them something that they want. So as long as we can connect it and say, hey… when I’m speaking with other business people like you, for instance, they often have this question, and I have the answer to that question then they’re like, ooh, tell me more because I don’t yet have that answer for myself yet.

Rich: Yeah. So I’m thinking about this and I’m just wondering, how can you give us an example maybe from the book, or maybe from a client you’ve worked with, that shows us how we can use something that we want as a big idea and find something, some fertile ground, in what they’re dealing with so that we can show them how what we want is actually what they want in the first place?

Tamsen: Oh, absolutely. And that’s important because this question that people are asking, the thing that they want, is something that I refer to in the book and in my work as the goal statement. It’s the audience’s goal. It’s the thing that they want and don’t yet have. This should be a shared goal. In other words, it should be something that they want, but it should also be a thing that you want. And that together you can answer this question, together you can achieve this thing.

So let me give you an example from a client I’m working with right now. They’ve given me permission to use it. It’s a good example because, particularly when you’ve got folks listening that may have particularly innovative or creative or of new industry like green and clean energy sustainability kind of stuff, that the conversations about those products and services can sometimes break down with folks that have a much more traditional approach to things.

So the company is a company called Charger Help. And what they do is that they are a service, on the surface to their clients what they do is service electric car recharging. They make sure that the charger reports are working and all of that. But the larger service that they provide is that they provide training to workers, certification to workers that normally wouldn’t be able, based on their qualifications, to have jobs that pay that much, that have those kinds of benefits, et cetera. Because it’s a high-tech industry, but there’s also a lot of demand for those folks that aren’t there yet. Okay. So that’s the background on it.

The people that Charger Help needs to talk to in order to get these workers are what is known as work force development people. So they’re the people that are helping to place workers like this. And where Charger Help used to start the conversation was on, “the future of employment is in green energy and in sustainability, and you should put your clients with us because we have that.” And when she was talking to me, she was like, “This is not working and I don’t know why, and they feel really overwhelmed by it. These workforce development people don’t feel comfortable explaining clean energy to their other people.”

And so when we talked through it, I said, what is it really that these folks want, what do the job seekers want? And therefore, what do the workforce development people want for them? She said what they really want to figure out is what’s the best job I can get with the qualifications I have. And that’s where we start the message. There’s where we say, you know what, when you start that conversation, it’s not at ‘the future is green energy’ and working for Charger Help but, “I’m going to help give you an answer to give this person the best job they can get. Even one that exceeds their expectation, given the qualifications they have.” Now we’re in a point where they’re like, “Yeah, I absolutely want that. Tell me more.”

And then when you advance the conversation you say a lot of times when we’re trying to find the best job we end up having to focus much more on what that job requires, college degree, et cetera, et cetera, then actually, what are the desired skills that those requirements represent when we’re looking for things like, ‘independently driven’ and ‘great sense of customer service’ and those kinds of things. And yet, as we went out to build this out, we could all agree that the best jobs are the ones that develop those desired skills regardless of requirements, and that’s what we at Charger Help do. We take the folks that already have great soft skills and teach them the technical skills to succeed in an industry where demand for these folks exceeds the supply. So there you go.

And then now we’ve gotten to the point where we’ve got them talking to these job seekers about Charger Help without ever having to talk about what actually green energy is to start with. You’ve got them engaged, and that’s really the power of it.

Rich: Yeah, it definitely sounds like a lot of this is about meeting people where they are, rather than where you’d like them to be. in the book. You talk about the five core elements in telling a story. Can you just break those down for us a little bit now?

Tamsen: Sure, absolutely. So the first is what we’ve already talked about. So the action of a story really starts when you know, as the reader or the viewer or the listener, what somebody wants. So this is an element that all stories have. It sometimes doesn’t happen right at the beginning, but it certainly happens before any of the other pieces that I’m going to tell you, that there’s a point at which we understand, ooh, there’s a mystery to solve, or there’s a problem, there’s a need to be met, there’s a goal to be achieved, and they haven’t done it yet. So that’s the goal.

The second piece that’s in all stories and therefore in all stories of ideas and messages is a problem that people didn’t know they had. And this introduces contrast. And introduces this contrast with the current situation, and it opens the door to potential conflict. And that’s important because that’s really where the third piece that’s in all stories come into play.

So we have a goal. That’s something somebody wants but doesn’t yet have. We’ve got a problem, an unknown problem, in this case of perspective, that’s getting in the way. And the third element is what I shortened to the truth, but it’s the moment of truth. So all stories have this. Sometimes it’s called the ‘point of no return’, sometimes it’s called the climax. My favorite word for it is the Greek word, the ακεισθησία, such a good word. Which is the moment where the character recognizes the true nature of their circumstances. And in that moment, they must make a choice. It happens in every story ,that there’s a moment where something’s got to give.

And that’s important in business messaging because, a lot of times we skip this part, but you need to create something where there must mentally be a shift in order for them to commit or not to your idea. So, goal, problem, truth.

Fourth one is, all right, if the truth forces a choice, then what is the change? There’s going to be a change. What is the thing that gave, what is the shift in thinking or behavior. And then the final, real core element of stories and messages are the actions, the things that make that change concrete.

And then there’s a hidden six, which is really back to the first, which is essentially like a story ends when you go back to the beginning, and you see did that character get what they wanted. And if they didn’t, did they get what they needed instead?

Rich: Okay. Now, so storytelling is obviously a big part. It’s almost the soul of this whole thing. Storytelling is something that a lot of people in businesses have heard that they need to be able to tell stories. I’m sure you’ve run into people, clients of yours, who say, “I can’t tell a story. I don’t know how to tell a story. People zone out when I start telling a story.” What do you say to these people?

Tamsen: This is part of the reason why I came up with this whole approach in the first place. Because it’s less about storytelling and more about story structuring. Stories are powerful because of the information they convey, and they convey information using these five core elements.

So what that means is that you’ve got any information you need to convey. If you put them into the structure of a story, they will have the clarity, the compelling nature, and a lot of times the power and the impact of a story, even if you don’t tell it as a once upon a time story. The brain recognizes these elements in anything.

And these are the elements, you remember what I said that the red thread is a story that your brain builds. We’re essentially providing them the structure of that explanation that their head is going to create anyway. I originally created this when I was in my early days at TEDx Cambridge, and I had a lot of academics and scholars that were really good at writing papers and books and teaching classes, but they hadn’t had to give information like this in a short format to a lay audience. And a lot of them were like, “I’m an engineer. I’m not comfortable with stories.” And what I discovered is the power can be just the same. That you don’t have to tell a story to be able to harness the power of one.

Rich: Okay. I hope that calms some people down.

Tamsen: It should. It’s just, the engineers and the technical minded folks that have engaged with it love it because it feels like it takes what previously seemed the realm of the more artistically creative and gives them a process to follow. And it does. And it does. Can you use it to structure a story? Absolutely. I have a client who was in one of my masterminds and she used this structure to outline a book that she’s writing on Clara Barton and how she was able to figure out where all the soldiers were buried. And so you can tell a story using it, but more importantly, it really comes to how good of a story structurer you are rather than a storyteller. And story structuring is a skill that anybody can learn.

Rich: Yeah, it’s like following directions or following instructions or a recipe.

Tamsen: Yeah, it is. A recipe, you got it.

Rich: So you talk about the ability to craft a crisp, concise, compelling statement. I find this to be very intriguing because we live in a time where people just go through their newsfeeds so quickly. So how do we do this? This feels like it’s tied into the whole camel through the eye of the needle thing. How can we craft something that’s so concise that as people are scrolling through their newsfeed, they’re actually going to stop and be like, wait, that actually is of interest to me?

Tamsen: Yes. The one thing I can tell you not to do is to try to start from the statement itself, which is I think what a lot of people do. They try to craft the tagline first. And sometimes that’s… many times if you’re really well versed in all this, sometimes you can go straight to it. I don’t recommend it, because more often than not, you’re running the high-risk of the message equivalent of what happens when you try to blow up the thumbnail low res image. When you blow up a thumbnail low-rise image large, like it looks like crap because there’s literally not enough data for it to survive at scale.

A very similar thing can happen, and I’m sure we’ve all read articles like that, too, where there was a really intriguing headline, and then we got into the article and we’re like, there’s nothing here. And to me, there’s nothing more disappointing than that. So the real answer to that is to flip it all on its head. And actually the key is, a lot of ways that crisp statement is the product of reduction, it’s the product of concentration, it’s the product of once you’ve found all the ingredients of the eye of your idea of boiling it down until you can get it down to the two most critical ones.

One of them we’ve already talked about. So that crisp statement should always have some version of the goal, something that people want. And then that crisp statement should also have a means to get that thing that’s unexpected, unfamiliar, or unconventional. So yeah, the irresistible idea formula, if there is one, is a minimum viable message as I like to call it. It’s something people want, the goal, via a means they don’t expect. Which is going to come from one of those other elements that I talked to you already about. That how what you see as the real problem being, what as the core truth that makes that problem impossible to ignore, and/or the unusual way that you’re putting that solution into place.

And so when you do that, you can end up with a crisp statement. And I actually, just because the book is very meta, the book opens with its own version of that. Which is, “The best way to make your ideas irresistible is to build the stories people will tell themselves about it.” I did not write that sentence first. Yes, I wrote the book first, and in a lot of ways I created this entire approach first. And it’s only after I created the entire approach that I could get it back down to that single sentence.

Rich: So actually, that sentence is really interesting. And I spent a bunch of time thinking about it, the one that you just mentioned. I’m trying to, so I can read it exactly right. But the idea that people will tell themselves stories about what you want to talk about, what does it look like to you? Have we already discussed that, or is that kind of a new concept? Because just to me, I wrap my brain around 80% of it, but I need help getting the other 20% there so I can, yeah.

Tamsen: So the thing is, when we decide to do anything as humans, when you decide to hire a new person or take out a new client or not take on a new client or something like that, your brain has crafted an explanation. And so whether or not you questioned yourself or somebody else questioned you, you have an explanation in your head about why that thing made sense. You are going to build the story anyway.

The biggest thing is that people will always build a story anyway about why your idea, why your product or service, you, does or does not make sense for them to adopt. And so the whole philosophy of this is that where we so often we go wrong is that when we try to explain an idea, not only are we trying to give them the entire camel when they’ve only got a needle space to put it through, but the other thing is that almost always we’re telling them our explanation, our case, for why that idea makes sense. And what we really need to be building is in order for them to act on it, they need to have a ready case that they would tell. We need to build their case for the idea. We need to build this store.

So essentially what we’re doing is we’re supplying that story. We’re supplying that explanation with the elements that their brain is going to look for anyway. We’re going to align it with the things they already want, the way they already see the world, and the things they already believe. In a lot of cases, the more that I talked to people, the more that I realize just how counter cultural and counterintuitive each one of those things actually is. But if we give them an explanation for something new that is completely rooted in what they already want, how they already see the world, and what they already believe to be true, then the probability of them accepting and acting on that idea shoots way up. Does it always work? No. But is it much more likely to work?

It’s a heck of a lot more likely to work than telling them they’re wrong. It’s much more likely to work than just giving them a whole bunch of features and benefits that we know are important, but they don’t know yet. It’s a lot more effective than saying, “I know you want this thing, but you actually want what we’ve got instead.” It’s just, I’m all about efficiency, it’s a much more efficient and ultimately, I think elegant way to get what you want to have happen. Which is to have people understand and act on your ideas in whatever form they take.

Rich: There’s a lot less friction in the policy that you’re talking about. There’s a lot of friction trying to get somebody to change their mind. But if you can plant that seed in a way that they already understand it and they can find the benefits themselves, then it’s going to go a lot more smoothly and you’re both get what you want.

Tamsen: It’s about removing those friction points. That’s a fantastic observation. It’s about removing those friction points at every place where they tend to happen. And they tend to happen because these elements are the things your brain is looking for. Is this relevant to me? That is the first place that most things die is that somebody goes either, “I don’t understand it”, or “I don’t know why I should care”. And if you don’t establish right out of the gate why someone should care, then you lost them.

Rich: I think of all the comments I get via email and LinkedIn, and how many of them I don’t even pay attention to because either they’re not relevant or I don’t understand them in the first few seconds.

Tamsen: That’s right.  And that’s why I so often say that even if you do nothing else, root what you do in what somebody else wants. Because at the very least, if you were to get an email like that Rich, where it was like, “Hey, are you trying to solve this problem?” And you’re like, “Yes, actually I am.” You’re interested to go more forward rather than, “Hey, buy this product”, because you’re like, “Hey, I don’t know what that product is, and I don’t know what it does for me.”

So you have to start there, and you have to start with whatever they want now. And if you do nothing else, that’s one of the first best ways to improve your messaging and how you talk about your ideas, is to go back and make sure that it is clearly rooted in something your audience already knows that they want ,not something that you know deep down in their heart of hearts they want to know. It’s the thing that they’re actively looking for right now.

Rich: So building on this, I want to ask you a question, and the answer may be more of a mechanical thing. But you want us to use our audience’s language, not our own. So how do we do that?

Tamsen: Yes, correct. So a lot of times that means… well we talked about one of the ways already, which is to define in very clear terms any word that could be interpreted some other way; leadership, innovation, partnership, customer oriented. What does it actually mean to you? Because a lot of times we just as humans operate on a lot of assumptions. We’ve come to understand a concept very loosely in our brains. And then when pressed, we’ll put a name on it, but we really haven’t been made in a lot of cases to actually define those assumptions in a way that other people can understand it. So that’s one of the first things is that if you’re going to use words that are common and you want to do that, plain English is really where you want to go with this. Make sure you define those terms.

The second thing is, not that you can’t ever use your own language for things, but make sure you back it up with a plain English explanation. And the best way to know whether or not you’ve gotten there is – oh my gosh, I’ve forgotten the name of the technique already – but it’s essentially to imagine that you need to explain whatever this is to a 10 to 12 year old child. An intelligent one, but obviously a 10 to 12 year old child doesn’t have quite the vocabulary and they don’t have the conceptual sophistication of somebody who’s older. So being able to think through that, or in the absence of 10 to 12 year old child, speak to your newest employee who isn’t fully inculcated in the language yet. Sometimes anybody who’s outside of your industry is a useful test. You really are trying to talk to people about making sure that you can really speak “any language” to talk about your idea.

And one of the reasons why I’m serious when I say I’m an English to English translator, because what ends up happening is that the longer we live in our own idea town, like as long as we live in our own Portland of an idea, we start to speak the language of Portland, and we forget our native tongue of wherever else we may have been. And that’s incredibly limiting to us. Because if you can only talk about your idea and the language of somebody who already understands it, you are by definition limiting who can hear about it, who can find it interesting, and who can act on it. So it’s really about finding those people in your circle, who can help make sure that you’re explaining in both words and in concepts something that is as universal as possible.

Rich: Yeah, this is why I love metaphors, because I think they break down some stuff. But it’s also, I think you referenced the curse of knowledge, which is like you’re so in your own industry that you sometimes forget.

I remember about halfway through doing a presentation on SEO once, a very brave woman raised her hand and said, “What is SEO?” And I’m like literally explaining the letters. And then she’s like, “Oh”, and then the rest of it fell into place. But you forget that not everybody knows what SEO is.

So ‘action’ is the last of these items. And you talk about the fact that there’s reasons why your audience might not take action. What can we do to help them overcome that inaction and actually move forward so that they accomplish what they want to set out to do?

Tamsen: One of the things I talk about in the book are the three beliefs that I have come to learn that are necessary before anyone will take action. And they are first that the idea that this change that you’re talking about, the product or service whatever it is, that it’s possible, that it actually will do the thing that you say it will do that. That it’s possible that it is the answer to the question.

The second, if they believe that it’s possible, theoretically. And this is part of the way that The Red Thread is constructed is to get people to agree with each of the individual elements, so that when you present the complete idea, they agree with the complete idea.

They need to believe that it’s possible for them or their company specifically. Meaning, “Oh, that’s great that’s working over there, but for us, I’m not so sure.”

And then the third is whether or not this is worth it for them. Meaning, okay, I understand that they believe it’s possible for them, but that the barrier to trying it is too high, the risk is too high, the cost is too high, whether intangible or intangible costs And so what we’re trying to do is make sure that by the end, by the time that we’ve come up with a way to explain our ideas and crafted our messages, that we can use those as a final test where you say, “Okay, if someone were to read this and understand it, or if I were to say this to someone, would I get a ‘yes’, do they believe it’s possible for them and it’s worth it?”

And the actions play a particularly large role in the last two, that it’s possible for them and that it’s worth it. The possible for them piece, the actions come in place because the actions are where you make this big shift in thinking your behavior really concrete. And you say, here’s how to do it. Or here’s what it looks like. Or here’s how you’ll know you’ll be successful. Or here’s the process we’re going to walk you through. Here are the elements that it’s going to have. Here are the different places you can apply it.

So each of those opportunities that you have to add details to what you’re talking about, to make that change concrete, you’re building up their ability to say, “Yep, this is possible”. Because now I can really see it. I can start to take what you’re telling me ,and I can apply it to my own situation and say, “Yep, that’s going to work. That’s not.” And of those places where they’re not, now that you’ve been specific enough that if you’re having a conversation with them, they can stop and ask you those questions.

So one of the things that I will tell you, whether it’s salespeople or speakers, that you know you’ve done well when the questions you get afterwards or when they are trying to apply what you’ve said to their specific situation, that’s when you know you’ve gotten it. Because they’re in agreement and now they’re trying to try it on for themselves. And they’re like, “What does this look like for me?” So when they ask a question of “Okay, but how would this particular piece work over here?” There you know that is a really good sign that you’ve been successful.

Rich: They’ve made most of the journey already at that point.

Tamsen: That’s right. And now they’re just trying to get them home. You’re in the red zone at that point, and you’re like, can you get them across the goal line?

The last piece of it is, if it’s worth it, that’s one of those places where they really can, it’s a combination of assessment. A lot of times when we try to show that something’s worth it, we do it all and painting the big picture of, “But you’re going to get X and Y, and it’s going to slice and it’s going to dice, and it’s going to cure cancer.” And a lot of times that would be lovely, but when the steps that are required to get there aren’t worth it.

And so that’s why actions are so important there because they help them weigh out, “Okay. I know this gets me what I want, but how what does it actually look like to get there?” And that’s one of those places where if I’m working specifically with somebody on their let’s say sales message… I do this even if I’m working with somebody on their keynote or their Ted Talk, we make sure that there’s a first action that feels really doable. Because that at least gets someone to go, “Okay I might as well try. The next step is just to have another meeting, or the next step is to try this technique that you told me about. That sounds easy enough, especially since I know what the rest of the process is going to look like.” It just makes it so that all of those things are more frictionless than they otherwise would be, just to your point.

Rich: Tamsen, since this is a digital marketing podcast, is there anything – as we start to wrap up – is there anything that can help us take the ideas in The Red Thread and apply them to digital marketing, to the online world, or specific tips that you might want to give us, so if somebody is, “Oh yeah, I am listening to The Agents of Change podcast”?

Tamsen: Well so much of my background is in digital marketing, because starting 12 years ago, some of what became this approach was rooted in my frustrations of trying to take, for instance, brand strategies and make them work and day-to-day content. Or when I was in an advertising agency and I was the head of digital and social and community management, same thing. How do you find something that’s big enough to sustain the day to day? How do you make a piece of content convert? Like how do you do all of this? And so everything that is in the book and everything that I’ve talked to applies to digital marketing. But there are some specific ways.

So the first is that back to that goal question, think about how many crap headlines you go through, but what are the ones that you stop on? You stop on the ones that have something in them that is about something that you’re already curious about or that you already want. So again, it goes back. Your headline should always have some element of that goal question in it, in my mind. Or it needs to speak to that unexpected aspect. But again, that through line that I talk about, that one sentence irresistible idea formula, is a beauty for coming up with headlines.

The second thing is that I use The Red Thread to structure every piece of content that I write and produce. So since the book has come out, I’ve made that more and more transparent. So for instance, pretty much every video that I produce, I do this ‘message in a minute’ series. I’ve already written out the red thread for it in order to record it. Because if I don’t know what that is ahead of time, I have no way to give substantive information in a minute. And that’s the charge that I’ve given myself.

But then I often will reveal the red thread of the post in each of my newsletters. I was like, okay, here’s the too long didn’t read version. And I give them the red thread version, and then if you want to go deeper ,and then I write which a lot of people would consider it to be a standalone post. Like I could’ve just excised the goal, the red thread piece, out of the top and what would be left would be a normal post that most people would write. So I do that too, because back to what I was just talking about, that people need to believe it’s possible for them. It’s really important for me, even in my digital marketing, for folks to see how to do it. Because that’s what I’m doing. I’m like, “Look, this is the red thread of this video, and I’ve used that same red thread or write this post. So you can see how they show up in either way.” And if you’re trying to figure out how to figure out like how to craft the red thread in the first question, that’s what the book is all about.

I just find that I discovered over the course of my life, there’s two kinds of people in the world. And yes, this is an oversimplification. But there’s the people who love a blank page and the freedom and the blank canvas. And then there’s people who hate it. I am the hate camp. Like I hate a blank page. I hate not knowing where to start. It feels really inefficient to me. And so for me, the red thread is a great place to never have to wonder what I’m going to write or how. It gives me a starting point always. And I think that just is so often a challenge when you’re trying to create content day in and day out. You’re like, what the heck am I going to write about this time and how.

For those people who love a blank page, and I’ve got plenty of clients who are like this, what they tell me is that the red thread ends up being a wonderful check on making sure that what they’ve written is as strong as it can be. It can be a tool afterwards to make sure that they haven’t skipped some kind of really important element in their argument, or that things aren’t out of order.

And I’ll also tell you that once you get facile in this, once you’ve practiced it a lot, then you can start to play around with where things go and how you treat them. But to me it really is either a starting point or a diagnostic tool for pretty much any piece of content, and any campaign, that you want to put out there. Because that’s usually what I do, too. I figure out what’s the whole level of campaign I’m trying to get with the big arc that I’m trying to get across. And then that allows me to enter and craft the individual elements that would, over time, add up into that larger narrative.

Rich: Excellent. As you said, the bit about the two types of people and some like the blank page and sometimes don’t, I was brought back to my winter sports and thinking about I’m the guy when I do cross country skiing who always gets in the carved lanes. But then there’s always those guys near me or the women near me who just take the big, broad space and just go. So I guess there’s room in the red thread for both types of audiences.

Tamsen: Absolutely.

Rich: Where can we find the book and where can we learn more about you online?

Tamsen: Absolutely. Redthreadbook.com. I tried to make that as easy as possible for folks. That will take them to any number of all the different places they can buy it online. That also takes them to, it’s basically a redirect to the page on my site. So from there they can explore the rest of what I do, what I offer, sign up for the newsletter that I mentioned. Because that’s often where I test out new concepts, new worksheet, new ideas, and occasionally throw in a fun offer that’s just for that group earlier than everybody else.

Rich: Awesome. Tamsen, this has been great. It was so much fun catching up with you and thanks so much for coming by today.

Tamsen: Oh my pleasure. It’s always great to catch up, Rich. Thanks so much for having me on.

 Show Notes:

Tamsen Webster specializes in building big ideas through messaging, by changing how peoples see, and how they act as a result. You’ll definitely want to grab a copy of her new book, and check out all the great content on her website!

Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine, and founder of the Agents of Change. He’s passionate about helping small businesses grow online and has put his 20+ years of experience into the book, The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing.