Ep. #12: Raise the Stakes

When things aren’t happening—when we moving forward on a great idea, or our customers aren’t buying—what’s the problem? Low stakes. Our message isn’t compelling enough. How do we fix this? We raise the stakes by agitating the pain. This is something we need to do, but often we are reluctant. Listen to this episode to find out why.


Welcome to Rich & Thin™ Radio, the only podcast that helps you get more bank with less bulk. Today’s episode is for every listener who is suffering from a ho-hum marketing message that doesn’t inspire customers to take action. I’m Kelly Hollingsworth and I’m super happy you’re here because this is a really common problem, but it doesn’t have to be a problem for you anymore.

The first thing to discuss today is what makes a marketing message ho-hum, and the answer is two words: low stakes.

To illustrate what low stakes feel like, I’d like to ask you to think about a movie that I saw recently. It’s called Paterson. Adam Driver plays a poetry-writing New Jersey bus driver. What happens in the movie? Not a lot. Here’s how Metacritic.com describes it: Every day, our bus driver “adheres to a simple routine: he drives his daily route, observing the city as it drifts across his windshield and overhearing fragments of conversation swirling around him; he writes poetry into a notebook; he walks his dog; he stops in a bar and drinks exactly one beer; he goes home to his wife, Laura. By contrast, Laura’s world is ever changing. New dreams come to her almost daily. Paterson loves Laura and she loves him. He supports her newfound ambitions; she champions his gift for poetry.”

That sounds very peaceful and lovely, doesn’t it? Cinematically it’s a beautiful film, so why did people walk out of the theatre as it was playing?

The answer? Low stakes. Those who stayed to the end reported online that they had planned to walk out several times, but kept hoping that something would finally happen. Which it never did.

When we talk about “wanting something to happen” in a movie” what exactly are we looking for? What’s missing? Things happened on the screen in Paterson, but most of the viewers were bored out of their minds. So we’re looking for more than just “something” to happen. We’re looking for something important to happen, and now let’s consider what makes an event important. The answer is high stakes. When the stakes are high, something is at risk. There is something valuable that we might lose, or never achieve, that is in jeopardy, and it’s not certain about how things are going to go. Will the hero save the day and achieve the important thing, or will failure take over and the important thing will be lost?

In stories that we’re willing to pay for with our time and our money and our attention, the important thing that’s at stake is our lives. Every movie, every great story, and every great marketing message, by the way, has at its heart a life-or-death issue.

In some movies the life-or-death issue is obvious. In thrillers where the hero is being chased by a deranged criminal, the hero’s life is obviously at stake. But the life-or-death issue is also present in lighter movies. In a movie like When Harry Met Sally, the life-or-death issue is the relationship between Harry and Sally. Will the relationship die, or will they somehow overcome their challenges and get it together in the end? Sometimes what is at stake is a way of life, maybe it’s a family, maybe it’s a business, it can be an idea, but there is always a life-or-death issue, and we are willing to purchase these stories and invest our time and attention, because we want to see how that life-or-death issue plays out.

The movie Paterson wasn’t appealing to many of us because the narrative wasn’t constructed in a way that made the life-or-death stakes obvious at all. They were there if you looked hard. The wife, for example, wants to learn to play the guitar and become a famous singer and that very subtly hints at the idea that the peaceful life that they enjoyed in New Jersey could come to an end. There’s also the issue of the notebook. Paterson writes his poetry into a notebook and their dog destroys the notebook, and for a brief second there’s a question: will Paterson continue writing the poetry that he enjoys so much, or will his artistry be lost to frustration and futility of it all?

The critics and the viewers who loved this movie, there were some, discerned those very subtle hinted-at stakes and loved how delicately it was all presented, but for most of us, that kind of subtlety is lost. We don’t have the patience for it.  We want our storytellers to do their jobs. We want them to bring the important elements to the forefront, to raise the stakes within the narrative arc, and not leave that word for us to do. We don’t like to do that work, and we especially don’t want to do this work when we are on the receiving end of a marketing message. After all, we’re not the ones trying to sell the product or service. The other guy is, and if we have to do the work to figure out why we even need this thing, why on earth would we buy it? We wouldn’t.

So what can we glean from this idea about stakes to boost the efficacy of our marketing messages? What we can glean is that we need to be explicit about the stakes. We need to come right out and talk about the pain of not solving the problem, and we can’t back away from this, but so many of us do, and when we do, we suffer from humdrum marketing.

Here’s an example. The main thing that I do for my clients is to help them to increase their profitability, and by this, I mean that they earn more and they work less, and of course this sounds very pleasant, but getting to a more pleasant place is often not a big motivator. What really motivates us is getting out of pain.

So if I’m going help my clients, if I’m going to be effective in helping them avail themselves of my services so they can get to a more profitable business, I can’t just talk about the fun of having a profitable business. I have to also talk about the pain of having a business that is struggling, and how they can avoid that.

Pain is the thing that causes most of us to act, but pain is not something that we like to think about a lot, so an effective marketing message must agitate pain. It’s a little bit like digging into a gunshot wound to extract the bullet and suture the tissues to stop the bleeding. This is something that nice people in polite society hesitate to do, but it’s absolutely necessary for us to do this if we’re going to save the patient. And it’s the same thing with our marketing if we’re going to help our clients we have to do this.

So I can’t just say, “your business could fail” it’s far more effective to talk about what a failed business looks like for them, and al the pain that it would cause for them, or even just what a struggling business would look like. With many clients, there’s the pain that they experience when they see their long-suffering spouse who’s working too hard, and maybe working an extra job, because the business isn’t going well. There’s the pain of their children who don’t get to go to the university of their choice. This happened to my sister. She was accepted to several prestigious pre-med programs, and she couldn’t go. My dad promised to send her to whatever college she got into, and then when the time came to go, the money wasn’t there.

When I help my clients to their attention to the spectrum of pain that is caused for them by a struggling business, by a business that’s not as profitable as it could be, that’s when they’re willing to invest in a solution to move their business to profitability.

And this is true whatever you’re selling if you want to sell effectively, whatever it is you do, helping your clients see the pain of not availing themselves of your solution is key. If your divorce lawyer, you should talk about the pain of a bad or suboptimal divorce. If you’re an app designer you should talk about the pain of a poorly designed app. An effective marketing message has to really dig in and agitate the pain so the customers can see why they should avail themselves of your solution.

This is something we all resist. We don’t like to put people in pain, whenever you see a novelist are struggling to write good fiction, a novel that will sell, a huge part of the problem is often that they don’t want to put their characters in jeopardy. They want everything to be fine, they want everyone to be happy, even the characters in their novels. We don’t want to read about characters who are happy, we want to read about characters who have real problems, who are really suffering. We have to do the same thing with their marketing.

So if you’re resisting the idea of agitating the pain in your marketing message, try this on for a second. Think about weight and debt. If we tell ourselves, well, you know this weight is no big deal, everyone carries an extra 10 or 20 pounds, or if we tell ourselves, that this credit card debt, this car payment is really no big deal, when we craft the narrative in in that low stakes way, what happens? Nothing. When the stakes are low we don’t really see a pressing need to get out from under things like wait for debt. And now let’s look at what happens in our own minds when we raise the stakes in the marketing messages that we have with ourselves. If we really dig into the pain, what is that extra 10 or 20 pounds really costing us? That’s when things become a lot more pressing. That’s when we were more likely to take action. If we craft the narrative in this way, this weight was costing me intimacy with my spouse. It’s costing me a lifelong romance. It could potentially cost me my marriage. It’s costing me a summertime of enjoyment. I have to forego that and instead suffer a summertime of embarrassment. Maybe it’s costing my confidence in myself-respect. Maybe it’s costing my success, because I’m hiding at home in my stretchy pants. Maybe it’s costing us our lives because excess weight and the things we need to perpetuate excess weight bring on health problems. It could be costing us are very cognition. New studies are showing that insulin resistance and diabetes and high blood sugar don’t just cause inflammation and heart disease and nerve damage and obesity. They also cause dementia. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like my sugar fix enough to donate my brain to the cause.

How about that. Let’s raise the stakes with debt and see what happens. What is the real pain behind all those monthly payments? And here is like to clarify that I’m not adverse to debt in all circumstances. If you use debt to make more money than the cost of servicing the debt, that can make sense. But that is like a chainsaw. If you cut down a tree, or it can cut up her leg. Though I have a hard and fast rule about that, and it’s this. Never use debt for fun. Just as a reasonable person would never run around the yard wielding a chainsaw for entertainment, that should never be used for entertainment. And this means no consumer purchases on credit. In my mind debt should only cover investments that will earn more than the interest rate on the debt.

That’s how you use debt to create wealth rather than to destroy wealth. So when we’re talking about consumer debt, here’s the narrative that I find very effective. It doesn’t seem that bad on the surface, because nearly everyone has it, but if you dig in deep to the real pain of it, what do you find? What I see in consumer debt is lost hope and lost opportunity. I see freedom squandered. Every penny that we spend in interest on consumer debt is one penny that contributes to someone else’s future, and chips away at the quality of our own future.

So I hope you see from these examples how different we can feel about taking action depending on how we craft the narrative. Depending on whether our story has low stakes are high stakes. The way we write the story in our own minds matters when we’re trying to get ourselves to take action, and I hope this illustrates for you how much and why it also matters when we’re trying to help others to take actions to buy our goods or services.

Once you embrace the idea of raising the stakes in your marketing message, you understand intellectually how important it is, and you really want to do it, then what can happen? For many entrepreneurs what comes up is, yes they want to do it but I’m not going to do it, and when this happens it’s because they’re struggling from weight, so now let’s talk about that.

Whenever an entrepreneur is reluctant to get in and talk about what’s really going to happen if their customer’s problem isn’t solved, weight is a huge culprit. And this weight problem comes in various flavors but today I want to talk to about two of them. The first is emotional weight. Here it’s usually fear or lack of confidence. When our marketing messages lackluster, when it’s ho-hum, and it doesn’t really get in there and agitate the pain or talk about the problem, when the message is low stakes, often it’s because were not confident that we can actually solve that problem.

So here’s what I like you to notice. If you have this problem going on, you will think it’s a copy problem. You’ll think, if I just knew how to write better copy, my marketing materials Woodland letter and I would have more customers, but what I see is that copy by itself is almost never the problem. When I’m working with my clients on their copy, when we craft a clear and compelling message for their marketing materials, this is often the first time that they realize that the lack of confidence or fear is actually the issue that striving everything. This is when they say, “I can’t say that in my marketing message. I can’t talk about my clients’ problems and all of the pain associated with living in those problems, because I’m not even sure I can solve those problems?”

So To get to a more effective marketing message, often we have to deal with this confidence problem first. The best copy in the world can’t help an entrepreneur who won’t deliver the copy due to an emotional sticking point.

Logistical weight is another big factor that drives marketing problems. When we’re too busy, we’re too busy servicing the clients we already have, or too busy with other aspects of our lives, whatever is keeping us too busy and running us ragged, we may know we want more clients with that going on, that our income streams are vulnerable to losing the clients we have and we need to get out there and find more, but we don’t want to take on more clients, or do anything that would attract more clients, because what if we get them? Then we’re going to be even busier and more overwhelmed, and the idea of that is intolerable.

When we have logistical weight going on in our lives, too much of it, that’s another problem that the best coffee in the world can’t fix. The marketing problem, the lack of new customers coming into the business, is the tip of the iceberg. To solve this “marketing” problem we have to go below the surface, look way past the marketing message, and deal with logistical weight. How is the business servicing its customers? Is the delivery mechanism efficient or horribly inefficient? We have to deal with clunky operations–a lack of systems, delegation, and a lack of automation. We have to look at the scaling issues that are preventing the business from reaching the next level.  Once we do this, the copy problem clears up pretty easily.

So one thing that I’d really like you to take from today’s episode is that a watered-down marketing message might not be the issue in and of itself. Just as excess physical weight and wealth-choking consumer debt are signs of other problems such as emotional, mental and logistical weight, ho-hum marketing is a sign of an underlying business issue that should be addressed, and once it’s taken care of, the marketing message generally becomes a lot more powerful.

So that’s what I have for you this week: If we want our messages to land, if we want to inspire others, or ourselves, to take action, the narrative must include pain. We have to talk about the pain of the problems that we solve, and to do that we have to have confidence that we can solve those problems–that our solution works, and that we’re not too busy to execute the solution for our customers.

This is my wheelhouse, and it’s something I would love to help you with that if you would like some help. If you think this might be you, here’s how to get started. Email me your current marketing message. Whatever script you’re using, or a link to your website, and I will take a look at it and let you know what I see. We can discuss what’s going on with you and your business and whether I can help. My email address is kelly@richandthin.com and I hope to hear from you because doing this kind of work is a game-changer and I would love to help you with it. I would love to see you boost your profitability.

And with that I’m going to close for the today. Thank you so much for joining me in this episode and I look forward to talking with you next week.

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