Answer the One Question Everyone Has: How Can You Help Me?

The bottom line for good marketing is to understand the customer’s story and weave yourself into it as a guide to meeting their needs.

A picture is worth 1000 words.

Except when it isn’t—which is more often than you would think.

Donald Miller is the CEO of StoryBrand, my guest on the Disrupt Yourself podcast, and he’s here to tell us that our storytelling pendulum has swung too far in the direction of images.

He believes that most companies are wasting the biggest part of their marketing budget. They may pay a lot to get their message out there, usually via glossy and costly visuals, but the message is muddled—and muddled doesn’t sell much. 

“The web site they spent a lot of money on, the billboard they spent a lot of money on, even the commercial they spent a lot of money on…they’re all beautiful and very creative. But because the message isn’t clear, because they’re not clearly identifying and defining a problem they can solve for their customers, customers aren’t hearing those ads. They’re not seeing those billboards; they’re bouncing off those web sites.

“Most people buy things because they read words or hear words that make them want to buy things.”

‘Words’ is still the operative word.

If you’ve ever assembled a complex object following pictures-only instructions, you already know this. Humans developed language for a reason. It really helps improve communication. Images can convey deep emotion, beauty, skill, but meaning is not necessarily self-evident.

Miller is an advocate for well-crafted sales copy. Pictures are good too, but because marketers don’t refine the message, don’t articulate it with actual words, they usually don’t get the pictures right either. After all, how do you decide what images will augment your message if you haven’t identified what that message is?

“When we’re so close to our products and services,” explains Miller, “It’s very hard for us to understand how much we’re confusing our audience because we’re not confused ourselves….Sometimes you have to look from the outside and say, ‘I think what you’re saying is not what people are hearing.’ Remember when people read or hear words that make them want to buy things those are the triggers that actually cause them to part with their money. So the words have to be correct. We cannot confuse people.”

Miller’s book, Building a StoryBrand, is a brilliant model of his ideas: clear, concise, with the message shining through some of the most un-muddled prose I’ve read lately.

One of the main points is counterintuitive. Most of us believe that our goal is to get our story out to our target audience. Miller says ‘no’ to this approach.

“If you tell your story you’re going to lose. Your customers aren’t interested in your story, they’re only interested in their own….Never position yourself as the hero; never make the story about yourself. Your customers aren’t interested in you. They’re interested in how you can help them.”


I don’t want to be a spoiler for Miller’s fine book and the storytelling template he provides. But the main takeaways for me are that telling the story clearly is key, my potential customers are the hero of the story, not me, and the story needs to show them how I empathize and can help solve their problem. Really understanding the needs I exist to meet is essential to crafting my message.

“When…a car company sells a car—they really don’t sell cars. I mean, they sell cars as a business strategy, but in their commercials, they’re selling an identity. You can be a powerful person, a sexy person, a person of great status, an adventurous person.” Why do car manufacturers and dealers market this way?

“Because people want an identity even more than they want a car….In fact if you just take Uber you’d save a lot of money. They’ve got to convince you that you need this [car] in order to survive and thrive as a human being and that increases the perceived value of their product.”


The bottom line for good marketing is to understand the customer’s story and weave yourself into it as a guide to meeting their needs. Write this story well, embed it in all your branding platforms, and watch your marketing costs decline and your sales increase.

Miller concludes, “Each of our companies has an enemy and we call that enemy the narrative void.”

Too many of us are lost in the narrative void.

“I think there’s a myth that so many business leaders believe, that if you build it they will come. I think we all remember the movie Field of Dreams where if I just build it people will come. It’s not true. You have to build it, and then you have to invite people. You have to build it, and then you have to tell people – especially in this day and age, where the average consumer encounters 3000 commercial messages a day.”


A diamond is just a rock, easy to miss among all the other rocks. It needs to be faceted, polished and encased in a setting to really sparkle and show to advantage. It can be ruined by inept cutting. In much the same way, a sales message needs to be excised from the raw material that obscures it, distinguished from the competitors that surround it, and situated in a context of well-chosen words—a story—to really sparkle.

Learn more from Donald Miller on the Disrupt Yourself podcast, and if you want to get a quick start on some of the concepts I discuss with Donald, there is a special content upgrade in the show notes to help you create or refine a One-Liner (or elevator pitch) to talk about your business or brand. I’d love to hear what you come up with!



Whitney Johnson is one of the world’s leading management thinkers (Thinkers50), author of the critically acclaimed Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work and host of the Disrupt Yourself Podcast.