A bison, a duck, and a drowning man. Learning from other people’s stories about us.

This Thanksgiving was also my dad’s 80th birthday. In between turkey and two kinds of pie we marked the occasion with a game-show style quiz about key moments of his life with questions gathered from extended family members.

My brothers and I knew what animal once shat on the rug in his office (bison), what unusual pet he had as a child (duck), and which presidents he met as a newspaper editor (Reagan, Bush 41, and Clinton).

His brother submitted the last question, and it stumped all of us.

What did my dad pull up from the bottom of Long Lake that brought him local fame?

When my brothers and I were kids sharing key moments of our lives was an evening ritual. Seated at the dinner table with my dad as moderator, we would answer the question: “What is your headline of the day?”

I credit this quotidian exercise with being one of the reasons I became a creative director.

I had seconds to pull my headline together before my dad called on me. I wanted it to be buzz worthy but not boastful and relatable yet exceptional to stand out against my two brothers’ answers. Sometimes if the headline was compelling we were asked for details. So I also wanted the substance of a good story to back it up.

Decent prep for concept development, headline writing, and pitching.

When my brothers and I were kids sharing key moments of our lives was an evening ritual. Seated at the dinner table with my dad as moderator, we would answer the question: “What is your headline of the day?”

So what was at the bottom of the lake? A drowning man.

Stunned silence followed.

Somehow this headline and the story behind it had never come up at dinner or anytime else.

This is what we learned:

In the 1950s my dad, a gangly teenager, and his father were sitting with the rest of the family on the patio of their summer home overlooking Long Lake in northern Illinois. It was early evening.

My grandfather, an alert outdoorsman, heard a splash. He looked out at a swimming raft and saw ripples on the surface of the water. He told my dad they should see if someone needed help.

They ran down to the dock, jumped into their speed boat, and zoomed toward the spot where my grandfather had seen the ripples.

As they approached the raft, he slowed down and told my dad to jump in the murky water. Near the raft was a small boat. No one was in it.

My dad leaped in and shot down to the bottom. His feet landed on something big and soft. He reached down and grabbed it. Struggling with the weight, he pulled it up to the surface. It was a man, much bigger than my dad. He was unconscious or maybe dead.

They got the man up on the raft and stretched him out on his stomach. With a steady rhythm, my dad pressed down on the man’s back and lifted his arms by the elbows.

The man coughed and sputtered and started to breathe again.

Amazingly, he lived.

After he was released from the hospital, the man came to thank my dad. He said that he had gone fishing by himself, jumped from his boat to the raft, fell, and hit his head on the raft. He told my dad that he remembered crawling around on the muddy bottom before losing consciousness. And then he started crying.

Struggling with the weight, he pulled it up to the surface. It was a man, much bigger than my dad. He was unconscious or maybe dead.

Hearing this tale of saving a drowning man got me thinking about brands and their unknown, untold stories.

It’s all the rage to connect with new customers, new trends, introduce new product lines and new logos, and disrupt the marketplace. And there is a lot that’s good about all of that, at least when done well. It certainly keeps us all on our toes.

There’s also increasing buzz around telling brand stories. There are many knowledgeable experts writing how tos, which also are often great. And it’s critical to tell compelling stories about who you are and what you believe.

But the stories people tell about us when we don’t even know it are our brand stories too.

Brands, like people, also should look outward to the people who know and love us the most to hear what we may have been missing about ourselves. Hopefully, it’s good stuff that’s waiting to be discovered and shared. But, if not, you want to know that too.

But the stories people tell about us when we don’t even know it are our brand stories too.

When I was at Mount Sinai we tried our best to gather as many patient stories as possible both as research and as content to share.

It is a ton of work and requires an army of people to find the storytellers, gather their stories, write, vet, and publish them. And sometimes those stories don’t neatly fit the broader brand narrative. But they’re priceless nonetheless. All of them help you learn more about who you are as a brand and how you could or should evolve into the future.

For example, to promote a new children’s heart center, we gathered happy stories of infants who had life-saving pediatric cardiology surgery and were now thriving toddlers with ideal outcomes. But we also heard a more nuanced story about the gratitude a teenage patient and her parents felt for the continuing kindness of the physicians and staff in spite of their inability to reverse her deteriorating health.

From adult heart patients we heard stories about how much they valued the expertise and compassion of our doctors. But we also heard how even minor annoyances with the front desk or billing clouded their overall perception of their experience. And, importantly, we heard non-patients repeat similar stories they had heard second hand.

So, the question for all of us shouldn’t only be what’s your headline of the day, or the week, or even the year.

We should also ask what headlines the people we care about would write about us. And what stories are behind them.

It could be that untold story may tell more about us one, two, or even sixty years later than the ones we regularly tell about ourselves.

_________________________

Thank you to my father, Paul Janensch, for allowing me to share his story and editing my copy. You can read about Paul’s encounter with Bush 41 in his recent column.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s