Building a Story Brand – Donald Miller

Building a Story Brand – by Donald Miller
Date read: 4/25/19. Recommendation: 8/10.

I avoided this book for a long time, despite numerous recommendations, out of an aversion to marketing and branding. But I’m glad I finally read it. The heart of the book is about clarifying and simplifying your message. Miller presents his strategy in a seven-point framework which forms that foundation of all great stories. Whether an artist or entrepreneur, it’s a great resource to help you improve your communication. I’ve already used the framework to overhaul my own website and improve my messaging in the products I’m building at work. You’ll get the most value out of this book if you follow (and actually complete) the exercises, chapter by chapter.

See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews.

My Notes:

Two biggest mistakes in marketing:
-Failure to focus on aspects of product that help people survive/thrive.
-Requires too much energy from customer to understand what’s in it for them. 

“Story is the greatest weapon we have to combat noise, because it organizes information in such a way that people are compelled to listen.”

The best products don’t always win. The best communicators do.

Say less and communicate clearly, otherwise customers will give up trying to organize and make sense of all the data.

Steve Jobs learned this through his experience with Pixar. In 1983, Apple launched their computer Lisa and took out a nine-page ad in the New York Times. When he returned to the company, took two words and put them on a billboard: “Think Different.”

Seven major elements, make up the SB7 framework:
Character, Problem, Guide, Plan, Call to Action, Avoid Failure, Success.

Three questions you need to answer to drive engagement:

-What do you offer? How will it make my life better? What do I need to do to buy it?

Above the fold: Promise an aspirational identity, promise to solve a problem, state exactly what you do.

Similar to: What is this? What’s in it for me? What do I do next?

1) A Character:
The customer is the hero, not you. What do they want?

Define something they want and open up a gap. 

Make it about survival. 

Make it a single focus.

2) Has a Problem:
Villain should be root source, relatable, singular, and real.

Three dimensions: external problems, internal problems, philosophical problems.

6) And Calls Them to Action
Major life decisions aren’t made until you’re challenged to do so. Must be challenged by outside forces.

Be bolder in calls to action. If they’re soft, they’ll be ignored.

If you don’t clearly invite customers to take a journey with you, they won’t. 

People are drawn to clarity. Have clear calls to action so they know what they need to do next. 

Transitional calls to action are different. Instead of “buy now” they allow you to establish credibility, create reciprocity, and position yourself as the guide (think free information, testimonial video, free trial period). 

7) That Helps Them Avoid Failure
If we don’t bring up the negative stakes early and often, story will fall flat.

What are you helping your customer avoid? What does failure look like?

8) And Ends in Success
Be specific – JFK didn’t say he wanted to build a “highly competitive and productive space program,” he said “we’re going to put a man on the moon.”

Identity transformation: From, To (anxious, glum to carefree, radiant).

Everybody Writes – Ann Handley

Everybody Writes – by Ann Handley
Date read: 9/3/18. Recommendation: 8/10.

Handley’s background in marketing differentiates this from other ‘how to write’ books. She remains focused on how to write better and the rules of writing, but there’s an emphasis on measurable results. It’s a solid resource for any writer or content creator. It’s a great reminder (and guide) to cut the unnecessary, be more direct, and improve readability. All of which are important because they help you not only capture initial attention, but also preserve/build that momentum between sentences and paragraphs. The end goal is creating something that resonates with your audience and enriches their lives.

See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews.

My Notes:

Writing is a habit, not an art.

"If you want to be a writer you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot." -Stephen King

Many brilliant writers emphasized routines and schedules for writing: Maya Angelou, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Dickens, Oliver Sacks, Benjamin Franklin. All kept regular hours to cultivate creative rhythms.

"Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life." -Gretchen Rubin

Place the most important words and ideas at the beginning of a sentence.
-Good first impression, builds momentum, encourages the reader to continue.
-Avoid starting sentences with: "According to," "There is a," "It is important/critical/advised," "In my opinion," "The purpose of," "In 2018," "I think..."

Use a customer-centric POV:
-Replace I or we with you to shift focus
-Company-centric: "We offer accelerated application development." "A better way to learn how to cook."
-Customer-centric: "Deploy an app to the cloud at lunch hour. And still have time to eat." "Become a cook in 30 days."

Misplaced modifiers:
Wrong: Only publish good content
Right: Publish only good content.

Use familiar, yet surprising analogies:
-Instead of: "The leaves of the giant pumpkin plant are huge."
-Try: "The pumpkin leaves are the size of trash-can lids, covering pumpkins the size of beer kegs."

-White space makes your work readable (readers won't get through massive blocks of text).
-Shorter paragraphs (no more than three sentences or six lines).
-No more than 25 words/sentence.

Use real words:
-Avoid buzzwords and jargon at all costs (e.g. revolutionary, value-added, impactful, cutting-edge, leverage, incentivize, synergize)
-Be real, in all communication. Not: "You're my top resource." But: "I don't know what I'd do without you."
-Use natural sounding language

Active vs. Passive:
-Usual indicator of passive = "was" and "is"
-Passive: "The video was edited by a guy named Joe." Active: "A guy named Joe edited the video."
-Passive: "Duduk theme music is rarely featured on podcasts." "Podcasts rarely feature duduk theme music."

Rules to break:
-You can start sentences with and, but, or because.

Limit moralizing and prescriptive phrases at the beginning of sentences:
-Don't forget...Never...Avoid...Don't...Remember to...

Focus on how your product/service touches peoples lives.

"Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there'll always be better writers than you and there'll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that–but you are the only you." Neil Gaiman

"Your unique voice comes from knowing who you are, and who you are not." Ahava Leibtag

Seek out primary, not secondary sources.

Proper lengths:
Blog post - 1500 words
Email subject lines - 50 characters or less or 6-10 words
Line of text - 12 words
Paragraph - 4 lines or less
Headline - 70 characters or less

Shift mindset from 'always be closing' to 'always be helping.'
-"Focus relentlessly on how you can help your audience by enriching their lives.."

Headlines (less than 70 characters):
-What would make your reader turn and say, "Listen to this..."
-Spend as much time on the headline as you do on the writing itself.
-Use lively words (ultimate, brilliant, awesome, intense)
-Keep it benefit driven.
-"Create successful social media campaigns" headline on landing page, 26% better than "Join today and get access to SmartTools: Social Media Marketing."

Rules to live by:
-Try it again with fewer words
-Trust your own voice
-Use humor, whenever possible

Perennial Seller – Ryan Holiday

Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work that Lasts – by Ryan Holiday.
Date read: 8/6/17. Recommendation: 9/10.

You can't go wrong with any of Holiday's work. His latest is a great read for anyone who considers themselves a creative, and particularly insightful for writers and entrepreneurs. If you're thinking of writing a book or bringing an idea to life, start here and save yourself a few headaches. He outlines best practices for the creative process, along with the importance of positioning, marketing, and building a platform. The most important advice can be summed up as playing the long game. If you want to create something of lasting value, there are no shortcuts or paths to immediate gratification. Put in the work.

See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews.


My Notes:

People claim to want to do something that matters, yet they measure themselves against things that don't, and they track their progress not in years but in microseconds. They want to make something timeless, but they focus instead on immediate payoffs and instant gratification.

Part I: The Creative Process
The better your product is, the better your marketing will be.

"People who are thinking about things other than making the best product never make the best product." -Phil Libin [Evernote]

"The best way to increase a startup's growth rate is to make the product so good people recommend it to their friends." -Paul Graham [Y Combinator]

"Lots of people want to be the noun without doing the verb." -Austin Kleon

The hard part is not the dream or the ideas; it's the doing. It is the driving need that determines one's chances. You must have a reason–a purpose–for why you want the outcome and why you're willing to do the work to get it.

To create something is a daring, beautiful act. The architect, the author, the artist–are all building something where nothing was before.

Creating something that lives requires not just a reverence for the craft and a respect for the medium, but a real patience for the process itself.

The risk for any creator is over-accounting for what's happening right in front of them...must think bigger and more long term than that.

"If you listen to the greatest music ever made, that would be a better way to find your own voice to matter today than listening to what's on the radio and thinking: 'I want to compete with this.'" -Rick Rubin

How within seemingly ordinary people there can exist depths of wisdom, beauty, and insight–and that if they put in the work to plumb those depths, they might reap incredible rewards.

To wrestle with all these conflicting, difficult ideas that go into creating, you often need real silence. Meditative isolation, where you sit and wrestle with your project.

The brilliant military strategist John Boyd utilized what he called "drawdown periods." After a one a.m. breakthrough, he'd spend weeks just looking at an idea, testing whether others had already come up with it, identifying possible problems with it. Only after this period ended would he begin the real work on the project.

For one of my books I gave myself a January 1 start date for the writing. Two months before, in November, I entered by drawdown period. No more reading or rereading. Just thinking. Long walks. Resting. Preparing.

A book should be an article before it's a book, and a dinner conversation before it's an article.

Successfully finding and "scratching" a niche requires asking and answering a question that very few creators seem to do: Who is this thing for? Instead many creators want to be for everyone...and as a result end up being for no one.

Picking a lane isn't limiting. It's the first act of empowerment.

"Having no specific user in mind" one of the eighteen major mistakes that kills startups. -Paul Graham

Stephen King believes that "every novelist has a single ideal reader" so that at various points in the process he can ask, "What will ____ think about this?"

Just as we should ask "Who is this for?" we must also ask "What does this do?" A critical test of any product: Does it have purpose? Does it add value to the world? How will it improve the lives of the people who buy it?

Yet far too many people set out to produce something that, if they were really honest with themselves, is only marginally better or different from what already exists. Instead of being bold, brash, or brave, they are derivative, complementary, imitative, banal, or trivial. The problem with this is not only that it's boring, but that it subjects them to endless amounts of competition.

"People want things that are really passionate. Often the best version is not for everybody. The best art divides the audience. If you put out a record and half the people who hear it absolutely love it and half the people who hear it absolutely hate it, you've done well. Because it is pushing that boundary." -Rick Rubin
*Think of the technology that is subject to protests and legislation (Airbnb, Uber)

"The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death." -Steven Pressfield

Part II: Positioning
So much in the history of art and culture hinges on moments like this. Faced with soul-crushing feedback or rejection, how does the creator respond? With petulance and anger? With open-mindedness and interest? With obsequiousness and desperation? Or careful consideration that parses the signal from noise?

As infuriating as it may be, we must be rational and fair about our own work. This is difficult considering our conflict of interest–which is to say, the ultimate conflict of interest. We made it.

"When people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong." -Neil Gaiman

Do I feel like overriding this feedback because it's wrong, I ask myself, or is it because I don't want to hit pause and do more work?

The fact is, most people are so terrified of what an outside voice might say that they forgo opportunities to improve what they are making. Remember: Getting feedback requires humility. It demands that you subordinate your thoughts about your project and your love for it and entertain the idea that someone else might have a valuable thing or two to add.

You must be able to explicitly say who you are building your thing for. You must know what you are aiming for–you'll miss otherwise. You need to know this so you can make the decisions that go into properly positioning the project for them...Marketing then becomes a matter of finding where those people are and figuring out the best way to reach them.

For creators, it's typically easier to reach the smaller, better-defined group. If you reach the smaller group and wow them, there will be many opportunities to spread outward and upward.

Who is buying the first one thousand copies of this thing? Who is coming in on the first day? Who is going to claim our first block of available dates? Who is buying our first production run?

The same article with a slightly different headline can have a tenfold spread in readership. One stands out; the other doesn't.

Creators will often spend years making something but then rush through their descriptive copy in an hour.

A great package on a great product is what creates an explosive reaction.

Imagine if your product were for one group–say, successful adults with disposable income–but your branding violated what they expected in terms of style and appearance? Wealthfront changed its name from KaChing.

My "book about Stoic philosophy," for example, had to become "a book that uses the ancient formula of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius to teach people how to not only overcome obstacles but thrive because of them."

There are many different missions. Whatever yours is, it must be defined and articulated. Once that has occurred, there is one last thing you must do. You must deliberately forsake all other missions.

If you've committed to doing something incredibly difficult that countless others have failed at before, you probably also shouldn't be juggling five other projects at the same time. You'll need to put 100 percent of your resources toward this one.

Nothing has sunk more creators and caused more unhappiness than this: our inherently human tendency to pursue a strategy aimed at accomplishing one goal while simultaneously expecting to achieve other goals entirely unrelated.

Only crazy people would compare themselves to people on totally different tracks.

Jeff Goins makes the distinction between starving artists and thriving artists. One adopts all the tropes and cliches of the bohemians and supposed purity. The other is resilient, ambitious, open-minded and audience-driven. Who do you want to be? Which will propel your work the furthest?

Part III: Marketing
"Customers will not come just because you build it. You have to make that happen and it's harder than it looks." -Peter Thiel

Don't delegate the marketing...You can cut back on a lot of things as a leader, but the last thing you can ever skimp on is marketing. Your product needs a champion.

Not everyone has the dedication to make it and to make it work. Marketing is an opportunity for you to distinguish yourself, to beat out the other talented folks whose entitlement or laziness holds them back.

I gave away more than a thousand copies of one of my books to marketing students...In the first month, sold 21 hard copies, 37 ebook. Took 5 months before the book sold 500 copies in a single month. Within 5 years, book had sold roughly 60,000 copies.

Think about a favorite album, restaurant, or pair of shoes. How did you first get turned on to these? How do you find most of the things you like or consume on a regular basis? How did you find your favorite book of all time?

"The problem for most artists isn't piracy, it's obscurity." In other words, we spend a lot of time insisting that nobody steal our work or get it for free...but we forget that being unknown is a far worse fate for an artist than being underpaid.

"Although it's hard to turn fame into money in the arts, it's impossible to turn obscurity into money in the arts." -Cory Doctorow

70% of book sales come from Amazon.

What we've created is a central fact of existence to us–after all, we made it. But to most other people, it's optional. They can easily do without our work. A savvy creator embraces this reality and makes taking a chance on it as easy and frictionless as possible for the audience.

I've watched an Instagram post from an influential person take a book to the top of Amazon; meanwhile, a New York Times profile about the same project had next to no impact. When a real person, a real human being whom others trust, says. "This is good," it has an effect that no brand, no ad, no faceless institution can match.

If you want to reach influential people, make something that will make them look good....Make your audiences look good.

Identifying influencers...if you're living and breathing what you do the answer should come naturally...who are the people who influence you too? Don't have to be famous, but they should matter a great deal to the audience you are trying to appeal to.

Best way to ask someone to endorse or share your work...The best way is not to ask.

Think relationship first, transaction second.

I've always found that a critical part of attracting influencers is to look for the people who aren't besieged by requests. Authors are inundated with requests for blurbs from other authors; meanwhile, generals, academics, and CEOs are asked much more rarely...Try to find the people least likely to get a request from someone like you, and approach them first, instead of going where everyone else is going. Be bold and brash and counterintuitive not only in how you create your work but also in who you use to market it.

In my experience, almost everyone–from brands to artists–overestimates the value of traditional PR. Much of the press that people chase is ephemeral and ineffectual, yet expensive and time-consuming to get.

Media outlets have trouble getting people to pay for their own product–what makes you so sure they're going to be able to convince their readers and viewers to buy yours?

Only areas where traditional press is underrated? Credibility and status.

Newsjacking–James Altucher book launch at same time Bitcoin was blowing up. Announced he was accepting Bitcoin and got tons of bonus media attention.

Advertising can add fuel to a fire, but rarely is it sufficient to start one.

We are better off taking the money set aside for advertising and putting it into every other marketing bucket instead.

Part IV: Platform
Kevin Kelly: "1000 true fans"

Building an email list is a move toward self-sufficiency for any creator. By forming a direct and regular line of communication with your supporters, you avoid ever being disintermediated.

I wasn't important or interesting enough for people to just sign up based on my name alone. So I came up with an idea: What if I gave monthly book recommendations? (The thinking being that one day I might recommend one of my own books to this list). Once a month for four years I sent this list out, and as a result it grew from ninety original sign-ups to the five thousand people to whom I announced my first book. By the time my next book came out two years later, the list was at more than thirty thousand, and today it's at eighty thousand.

Building your list is not someone else's job. People will not beg you for the opportunity to join it. You can't buy subscribers. No list is built entirely through advertising. It will take work–sometimes years of work–for it to pay off. But it will be worth it.

"I urge authors to consider how long it took them to write their books and see them published and to devote at least that much time to pushing them." -Barbara Hendricks

It is far better to measure your campaign over a period of years, not months.

Most think they're too good for it, or they are to sensitive to push hard enough..."Success almost always requires an unstoppable authors.." -Stephen Hanselman

As Goethe's maxim goes, "The greatest respect an author can have for his public is never to produce what is expected but what he himself considers right and useful for whatever stage of intellectual development has been reached by himself and others."

Most of the real money isn't in the royalties or the sales. For authors, the real money comes from speaking, teaching, or consulting.

"Hard work will get you a professorship or a BMW. You need both work and luck for a Booker, a Nobel or a private jet." -Nassim Taleb

Bill Walsh (legendary 49ers coach) explained that his goal was to "establish a near-permanent 'base camp' near the summit, consistently close to the top, within striking distance." The actual probability of winning in a given year depended on a lot of external factors–injuries, schedule, drive, weather–just as it does for any mountain climber, for any author, for any filmmaker or entrepreneur or creative. We do know with certainty, however, that without the right preparation, there is zero chance of successfully making a run at the summit. Walsh made three such summits in eight years.

Growth Hacker Marketing – Ryan Holiday

Growth Hacker Marketing: A Primer on the Future of PR, Marketing, and Advertising – by Ryan Holiday
Date read: 7/2/17. Recommendation: 9/10.

Flips traditional marketing (and ad agencies) on its head in favor of the growth hacker mindset. Growth hacking still requires pulling customers in but it favors a more innovative, effective, and cheaper method of reaching the target audience. Holiday emphasizes the importance of Product Market Fit and building a product that generates explosive, contagious reactions from those who first see it. Great foundation to have in place before building any product, service or following. Digs into real examples of some of the most successful startups in Silicon Valley (Airbnb, Twitter, Dropbox, etc.) and how they were able to adapt, optimize, and make themselves indispensable in the process. 

See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews.


My Notes:

"Marketing has always been about the same thing–who your customers are and where they are." -Noah Kagan

Growth hackers believe that products–even whole businesses and business models–can and should be changed until they are primed to generate explosive reactions from the first people who see them.

Airbnb went from a good but fairly impractical idea to an explosive and practical idea.
-Orginally founders put air mattresses on their floor and offered free homemade breakfast to guests.
-Repositioned as a networking alternative for conferences when hotels were booked up.
-Pivoted to the type of traveler who didn't want to crash on couches or in hostels but was looking to avoid hotels.

Instagram started as a location-based social network called Burbn (which had an optional photo feature). Core group of users flocked to one part of the app–photos and filters.

Some companies like Airbnb and Instagram spend a long time trying new iterations until they achieve what growth hackers call Product Market Fit (PMF); others find it right away. The end goal is the same, however, and it's to have the product and its customers in perfect sync with each other.

The books that tend to flop upon release are those where the author goes into a cave for a year to write it, then hands it off to the publisher for release.

On the other hand, I have clients who blog extensively before publishing. They develop their book ideas based on the themes that they naturally gravitate toward but that also get the greatest response from readers...They test the ideas they're writing about in the book on their blog.

The race has changed. The prize and spoils no longer go to the person who make it to market first. They go to the person who makes it to Product Market Fit first.

Use the Socratic method: We must simply and repeatedly question every assumption. Who is this product for? Why would they use it? Why do I use it?

"To be successful and grow your business and revenues, you must match the way you market your products with the way your prospects learn about and shop for your products." -Brian Halligan

Growth hacking still requires pulling your customers in. Except you seek to do it in a cheap, effective, and usually unique and new way.

Knowing the outlets where they [Dropbox] intended to post the video (Digg, Slashdot, and reddit), they filled it with all sorts of jokes, allusions, and references that those communities would eat up.

PR efforts are needed simply to reach out and capture, at the beginning, a group of highly interested, loyal, and fanatical users.

If they are geeks, they are at TechCrunch or Hacker News or reddit or attending a handful of conferences every year. If they are fashionistas, they are regularly checking a handful of fashion blogs like or Hypebeast. If they are ____, like you and your founders are, they are reading and doing the same things you do every day.

The best way to get people to do this enormous favor for you? Make it seem like it isn't a favor. Make it the kind of thing that is worth spreading and, of course, conducive to spreading.

You can't just expect your users to become evangelists of your product–you've got to provide the incentives and the platform for them to do so.

Dedicated and happy users are marketing tools in and of themselves.

-Twitter: Found that users who followed 5-10 accounts on first day, much more likely to stick around.
-Pinterest: Automatically follows a selection of high-quality Pinterest users so they don't have to hope users figure it out on their own.
-Dropbox: Dragging at least one file into your dropbox, not just creating the account.

When your product is actually relevant and designed for a specific audience, bloggers love to write about you.

Lesson: Cheaply test your concept, improve it based on feedback, then launch.

Lesson: Reduce barriers to entry; use targeted media and platforms to bring your first users on board.

Lesson: Build your email list!

Ask yourself: why would anyone sign up for a beta list for a new product or sign up the week it launches? The value proposition has to be overwhelming.

If your product does not do that–even on a small scale for a much smaller audience–you need to go back to the drawing board until it does.

As far as ad agencies go, I don't like their model. Why do you have to pay someone else to make/produce the content that you use to speak directly to your potential customers? It makes no sense to me.

The growth hacker mindset still applies no matter what kind of business you're in: make your service indispensable, find some loophole or underexploited niche, encourage word of mouth, and finally, ruthlessly optimize based on data and feedback.