The Messy Middle in our Client Stories

I wanted to talk a bit about collecting client stories.

Partly because I’ll be sharing some stories from my brilliant clients with you over the coming weeks, so it’s on my mind.

And because clients often ask me about how they can best collect their own stories.

Some of the confusion I think is because of what we see out there in the world.

We see testimonials that basically say “Person-I-worked-with was great, amazing, wonderful.” Which is nice, but doesn’t say an awful lot.

Or we see the magical makeover kind of story/testimonial, stories that are so dramatic they can inspire a kind of queasiness: “I was a pathetic disastrous mess, and now I am confident, beautiful, and making tons of money!” Or “No one was signing up for my teleclass, and now, I made $50,000 on my last teleclass offer.”

For me, as a reader, these kinds of rags-to-riches stories make me feel a little unsettled.  The change too great to feel real, even if it is.

And it stirs in me a kind of shame.  I feel guilty, or anxious, or embarrassed that in my own life, I haven’t seen that kind of miraculous transformation. That I’ve plugged away, or gotten smaller results, and I want to learn the secrets, but I don’t want to spend the money, take another class or program, and I’m not sure I really believe in the promise. It awakens a kind of rootless wanting that isn’t easily filled.

And my body knows that something is missing from these stories. A level of complexity. An acknowledgment of the hurdles,  the ups and downs, the setbacks —  really, the messy middle. The messy middle where things were confusing, or didn’t make sense, or something big had to be let go of.

To me, the messy middle is where the magic in the story lies. It’s in the struggle, the ups and downs that the wisdom comes forward, not in the sexy, simplied before-and-after. The messy middle is the substance, the meat of the story. It’s why we read memoir, and autobiography, or fairy tales. Because the details and specifics of the journey matter.

Writing your own client stories to include the messy middle, to be more gritty and less fantastical, requires a few things.

It requires believing that your audience is smart and can handle complexity.

It requires believing that people aren’t just buying an outcome, a result, a solution, they want to understand your process and decide if it’s for them.

It requires believing that more subtle changes and growth are as worthy of celebrating as the knock-it-out-of-the-ballpark outcomes. That intangible outcomes are as worthy as bottom line ones.

It requires believing that you deserve to take up more time and space to tell the story you want to tell.

When we write these kinds of stories, we do a lot better by our audience. We honor their intelligence. We tell them a story that is about more than just how great we are. We focus less on proving the value of our work, than we do on revealing the method behind our madness.

If it’s useful, here’s how I develop my client stories:

  1. When I know a client has had a positive experience with me, I ask if they are open to my sharing their story. And if so, if they’d take some time on the phone with me to talk about it.
  2. If they say yes, I interview them, maybe 20-30 minutes. I take notes and I also record the call so I can go back if needed to check the details.
  3. On the call, I look at three basic questions: where were they before we started working together, what happened during our work that was an aha or game-changer for them, and what is happening now that they attribute to our work together. I may ask what else they tried before working with me, or ask for more concrete details. I’ll mention my own recollection of what happened in key moments and ask them to confirm their experience and put it in their own words.
  4. Using the notes I took during the call, I write up the story, the long version of the story. For clients in my communication training, I often include samples of the language we developed in our work together.
  5. I send the story to the client to review and correct. Sometimes I get details wrong, or there’s a nuance to what they said that I didn’t capture.
  6. Once we have a version we are both happy with, I ask for permission to use the story in full, or excerpted form.
  7. Not always, but often, I’ll share a link in the story to my client and their web site, so that their work gets more exposure.

Potential and eventual clients have told me how useful it’s been for them to read these longer stories. That is gives a clearer, more detailed picture of what it’s like to work with me. That it has conveyed the depth of the work I do with people, and how it’s different from the typical business/marketing approaches out there.

Doing it this way also takes the burden of the client of having to craft the story, which isn’t their job any way. It’s gets you out of waiting and hoping that they’ll pull something together.

There’s so much joy for me in this process of collecting stories. I love celebrating with the client  the journey we took together. It reminds me on rough days of the power of the work I am doing. It guides and shapes how I continue to message what I do.

Is there some of this approach that might apply to you?

Is there a way you can better celebrate your client’s successes?

New ways you can harvest those stories to express in the world the magic that you create?