My focus is on what it’s like to live and work in a story economy. I like to write about how stories feed us, connect us, challenge us, and persuade us. And today I want to write about the magic—and frustration—of stories getting retold, over and over again.
The thing is, the notion of retelling is built into the nature of what a story is. Stories are meant to be spread and shared. The story economy relies on that. Story-based marketing works because of that. You hear a great story, and you you connect with it and get excited, because it means that you have a cool thing to share. You’re in the know. You take some ownership of the story, and by passing it on, you are revealing something about what’s important to you.
But this is just the happy face of story spreading. It’s what marketers hope for and try to nurture. But what happens when your stories don’t quite get retold the right way? Whether it’s a negative consumer review, bad Twitter chatter, office gossip, or a scandal story in US Weekly, your story gets screwed up all of the time (and by “screwed up”—I mean, it’s not your version of truth).
With all of the ways we communicate and share, it’s getting harder and harder to know when to step in and try to re-establish your version of the story.¬†
Did You Hear the One About The Person With Thick Skin?
When should you bother setting the record straight, and when are you better served by releasing the chatter to the ether and just going to yoga class? When do you need to be responsive, and when is it best to just disengage? I wish I could definitively answer this. But all I can do is share some of my own struggles.
For example, last week, I had an email exchange with someone who didn’t like my Idea Thievery at the Flea Market post. She emailed me to tell me that she was unsubscribing and that she thought my take on ideas as inspiration rather than as things to steal was utterly wrong. I expect disagreement, especially on this issue, because it’s crazy complicated. And I expect people to unsubscribe when I hit on certain hot button issues (I’ve done the same thing myself). I’m really quite fine with it. Free market, free speech, free to believe what you want. Still, I felt like it was important to respond. So I very politely acknowledged that she had a point, but told her that I simply disagreed. I basically said: I understand why you are unsubscribing and all best to you.
But then, I got a nasty, sarcastic, immature response back from her. Which I promptly deleted. Time to disengage.
This balance of response and disengagement is so difficult, both for solopreneurs and big companies. (And just people in life in general.) In the age of Amazon reviews, it’s become even more complicated. Anyone can post anything about your book. I mean anyone, even people who probably didn’t even really read your book, but just took offense at one word you used in your introduction. And it’s just out there, you know, forever. That is excruciating for authors (I speak from experience on this).
But in the realm of opinions, my opinion is you sort of just have to take it. When you create and share, you can’t control how it will be received. This has plagued artists since cave people criticized each other’s cave drawings. But I don’t think it weakens your story. It just becomes part of your story as a creative person or as a business that makes things and puts them into the world.
So, you have to deal with criticism and opinions. Fine. But what about . . . actual misinformation? As in rumors. As in, ouch, did someone really just say that about me? There is something thrilling about passing on a story with a little scandal. It’s that same feeling of being in the know, having the floor for a minute. Oooh, did you hear about so-and-so? From what I heard, she [fill in completely wrong details here]. It gets passed on at the watercooler (when it’s small scale and personal), and on Twitter, in the news, and in conversations everywhere (when it’s bigger and juicier).
When it gets back to you, do you correct it, or do you disengage? It’s equally as murky as a bad Amazon review or an email exchange with a disgruntled reader.
If it’s your brand or your livelihood, it’s pretty hard to let go. So maybe you use it as a chance to educate—as in, “no, we don’t use lead in our jewelry. There are about a half-a-million children in the U.S. with too much lead in their blood, and here is what you need to know about it . . .”
Or you deflect through humor. You make light of it, and try to shape a new story about your response to it. I’ve definitely seen that work for brands and people.
Or, you just ignore and ride it out. Depending on the thickness of your skin—and how personal it is—this is easy or this is agonizing.
The reality is, we lose control of our stories all of the time. This is really scary. It’s also really cool and amazing. Because it speaks to the power of stories: they take on lives of their own, and they sweep and connect and elevate. Thank goodness—because our lives need that. The problem is, they also break your heart sometimes, especially when a piece that is not what you intended works its way in.
So my best answer is this: keep doing the thing that’s at the root of your story—the story you want to spread. There’s great power in that, too.