Breaking Out of Boring: Tell Unexpected Stories

vinyl album

What does a brand known as buttoned up and boring do to broaden its appeal? I get this question a lot. One great model for inspiration is LinkedIn, which has become the poster child for a staid brand evolving its brand by telling unexpected stories.

In the early 2000s, UK musician Matt Henshaw was living the dream as the lead guitarist for Censored, a British rock band he had established with a few friends.

Censored became an integral part of the music scene of the East Midlands (a region located roughly between London and Liverpool), releasing some independent singles, opening for some of their music heroes, and at one point being named one of the top five unsigned bands in the UK by the music news site NME.com.

Then the band fell apart—“burned out,” Matt now says. And so in 2008 he abandoned his music career and took a humdrum job working at a local university as a computer science program research assistant.

Matt Henshaw

Matt Henshaw

Then, two years ago, he started going to a few music shows again, and it struck him, in a kind of this-is-not-my-beautiful-wife moment: “It hit me—I’m one of these people, I’m a musician, that’s MY dream! I had to get back in,” he wrote.

The problem was that the music business had changed since 2008. And it hadn’t exactly gone well last time, Matt told me in a recent email exchange. One big change from 2008 is that social media is now more a factor for musicians; it’s now more than MySpace.

So he turned to an unlikely place to start reconnecting: LinkedIn.

Why LinkedIn and not, say, Facebook? Because wanted folks to take him seriously this time around—not see him as just another “lad with a guitar.”

“Essentially it’s just like Facebook but more professional,” Matt told me. “I only found myself on there by accident really, but it’s a great way of expanding your online network beyond your friends and finding people who work specifically in your area. And it was nice to see all my recommendations and endorsements coming in when I first posted ‘Professional Singer/Songwriter & Musician’ on there.”

A few weeks ago, LinkedIn told Matt’s story as a bit of content marketing of its own, via SlideShare:

Telling a Broader Story

A few weeks ago, I also interviewed LinkedIn’s Jason Miller for my new book coming this fall, Everybody Writes. I wanted to ask him about how marketers can use the platform more effectively.

I just paused for a second as I wrote “platform” in that last sentence—because this thought occurs to me: What is LinkedIn these days, anyway? A professional network? A place to publish new content? Somewhere you can get the pulse (literally!) on what’s new in your industry? Somewhere you can subscribe to columns from so-called influencers, including me?

I suppose the easiest answer is “yes.”

Here’s how LinkedIn sees it: LinkedIn is for anyone with ambition. 

In the past few years, LinkedIn has been developing its broader story—away from its relatively soulless roots as a digital Rolodex, and into something inherently more useful, immediate, and relevant. And in doing so, it holds broader lessons for any brand looking to either grow an existing customer base or to uncover the human stories within a staid business-t0-business brand.

And, in its latest example, LinkedIn introduces something unexpected—the story of how an atypical LinkedIn user rediscovers his passion to launch a comeback. Thanks, in no small part, through the connections he made on LinkedIn.

Here are three more takeaways for content marketers, about why it works:

1. It taps into a broad, universal theme. The story is about Matt Henshaw. But the bigger story invites us all to imagine better versions of ourselves. A gem from my journalism school days is this: Be specific enough to be believable, but universal enough to be relevant.

Matt Henshaw Instagram

via Matt Henshaw

It’s brilliant for LinkedIn to focus on Matt rather than, say, an accountant or a sales rep or a marketer. Because Matt underscores the evolution of LinkedIn from a platform centered on “professional” to one centered on the more universal idea of “ambition.”

“Ambition” isn’t just bigger—it’s aspirational. And with this content program and others, LinkedIn drives home its effort to help us realize better version of ourselves.

And, of course, it also challenges what we think of when we think about LinkedIn. It alters our conception of it. It does what Don Draper suggested in Mad Men’s Season 3: “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.”

One suggestion to LinkedIn marketing: I might’ve included a hashtag like #LiveYourDream or #MyDream, to inspire others to share their own stories.

2. It puts the customer at the story’s center. The best content tells a bigger story, as relates to actual people—rather than, say, myopically focusing on a company’s own products or services. Paradoxically, your “story” is not about you—it’s about what you do for others.

That’s a subtle shift, but an important one, because it installs your customer at the very heart of your marketing. It’s customer-centric versus corporate-centric.

3. It has a kick-ass call to action. Notice the call to action on that last slide? It asks a question as a kind of personal challenge, “What’s your dream?” and then immediately invites you to realize it with the CTA: Update your profile.

In other words: Don’t just dream it, do it. Here and now.

Smart.

3 1/2. It evolves SlideShare beyond a place where old decks go to die. Many of us simply use SlideShare as a slide graveyard — a kind of storage plot to host them after a talk. But here LinkedIn uses SlideShare as a storytelling platform in its own right.

LinkedIn owns SlideShare, of course, so it nicely highlights the tool’s effectively as a narrative platform by creating what my friend Nancy Duarte calls a Slidedoc, or a mix of visuals and brief text that together tell a richer story.

Anyway, back to Matt…

About a year ago, Matt leaned into his music career full-time. He left his job at the university—“and things have gone from strength to strength for me doing what I want to do and being in control of my own life again,” he told me. Here’s one of his recent videos, via his website:

Good story. At least I think so. You?

Photo credit: Matt Henshaw on Instagram

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20 Responses to Breaking Out of Boring: Tell Unexpected Stories

  1. I think so, too, Ann. This is a great story about discovering our passion, then driving head-on into this world by using the vehicles, the tools, that are just sitting there, waiting to take us where we need and want to go.

  2. Tinu says:

    Mm. Not only is it a great story, it’s great rebranding for LinkedIn, and they made a customer the star of the story. I *loved* that slide and coupled with your post it has inspired a lot of creativity in me.

    Not an easy task these days LOL.

  3. Brilliant story, for sure. I think the best call to action is for people to improve their profiles. That’s where they can really work on telling their stories. This story is a great way to inspire LinkedIn users to help them help themselves. :-)

  4. Hunter Boyle says:

    Love this post, Ann.

    I have several musician/artist friends who haven’t really picked up on LinkedIn because of that white-collar business perception. But this is a great case for how the site is evolving and why more creatives should care, because the social side is amazing for relationships and opportunities. I’ll be sharing this with them ASAP.

    This line also rocked: “Be specific enough to be believable, but universal enough to be relevant.”

    Looking forward to the new book!

    Cheers — Hunter

    • Ann Handley says:

      Thanks, my friend. I’ve noticed more artists on there recently, so I guess that perception is starting to change. Clearly LinkedIn itself is a driving force behind that, too.

  5. Heya i’m for the primary time here. I came across this board and I find It truly useful & it helped me out much. I’m hoping to provide one thing again and aid others like you helped me.

  6. Brian Blake says:

    LinkedIn is, by far, the most useful platform for business right now… especially for the B2B marketer. We recently deleted our Facebook profile in order to give ourselves the time to fully focus on LinkedIn… and it couldn’t have been a better move. We’re getting phenomenal exposure to the ‘right’ audience. Our efforts have sparked some great conversations and a few very promising leads.

    Thanks for sharing this, Ann. I can’t wait to read your new book!

  7. BDC says:

    If it wasn’t for boring then you wouldn’t have to come up with exciting and motivating stories to create a brand name!

  8. Very nice post. Many organizations still have very strict rules related to online profile management and promotion. Customer experience leaders speak about personalization, but how to manage it all is a big challenge.

  9. Ann, Thanks for writing this post. It’s very inspiring and gets at exactly how we should be thinking. So many takeaways that I can’t wait to get started at updating my profile and rethinking how I can present my information.

  10. Tom Bentley says:

    Ann, solid stuff, thanks. I’ve been slowly tinkering with my LI profile, and spending a sprinkling more time there—I’ll continue to do both, with renewed vigor. And I’ve been messing (technical term) with a SlideShare concept for a bit in the cloud—the cloud of my brain that is. Hope to bring that baby to term.

    thanks!

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  13. Matt Henshaw says:

    Many thank you for taking the time out to interview me Ann following the LinkedIn feature, and thank you to all your readers, especially those who have posted a comment.

    I hope you’ll all take a little more time to have a listen to my music and follow me on this journey and see where it takes me !

    Peace, Love & Tea, MHx

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