The Setting for Your Story

Playing Super Heroes with Daddy

As creators (or marketers), our role is to tell a story. Quite often, we make the “hero” of the story the focus of our time and our attention. If our customer is the hero, we talk about him or her. If we make our company the hero, we try to personify that experience that makes it worth it. If we write about ourselves, that’s probably the easiest kind of hero to write about.

What we miss, most times, is the importance of setting.

The Setting For Your Story

Spider-man swings from building to building in New York City. Can you imagine what it would be like to fire those web shooters and try to swing around in Billings, Montana? Hint: there aren’t enough skyscrapers to make it easy for Spidey to chase after the bad guys. Tarzan either gets to hang out in the jungle or the big city, depending on the telling of the story. He rarely hangs out in Pittsfield, Maine. Settings, as it turns out, are every bit as important to what we feel about characters and the plot as anything else in the story.

What does this have to do with marketing and business? Everything. If you think for a moment that your business exists without some kind of setting, even if it’s an online-only virtual business, then you’re missing a very important element to how you tell the story of your business to buyers and other important people. When we listen to a story (or watch it, or retell it), the setting is just as communicated as the characters in the transmission.

What is AJ Bombers if it’s not the local area place to gather and have fun with a side of burgers? Owner Joe Sorge just proved that you can have more than one AJ Bombers and still deliver that destination effect of fun, but he did it by making the setting of the restaurant be every bit as well-considered as the grass-fed beef he chooses for his burgers.

What are the Elements of Your Setting?

In a western movie, you know there will be gunfights. You know there will be wrongs that need righting. You know there will be a setting pairing off law enforcement with someone who feels they are above the law. Those are the promises of a western’s setting.

If I were restoring a classic old hotel in Tallahassee, Florida, and turning it into a destination boutique hotel, with a happening rooftop bar and an award-winning steak restaurant, I would do a few things to make this story sing. One, I would cast the guest as the hero of the story. No one comes to a hotel to meet the owner. It’s not the same as a restaurant. Two, I would tell the story from the front desk, through the lobby, into the elevator, down the halls, and all the way into the room, such that my guests understood what the “promise” of this setting would be.

Beyond the promise, there’s interaction. At AJ Bombers, I interact with their p-nut bombs: metal bomb-shaped containers that travel on rails from the bar to various tables, “bombing” guests with peanuts. The whole thing is absurd, kid-approved, and unique. Settings have interaction.

After promise and interactive elements, there’s the ways in which the setting helps or hinders the hero. In my hotel example, perhaps the setting helps me feel more metropolitan. In the western, the creek might rise and cut off Mother McCluskey’s farm, requiring me to ride out with my men to get her to safety (thus, a hinderance).

But Why Think About All This When Thinking About Business?

Because we humans build this in, whether or not you supply it. What is the iPod? It’s the opportunity to be the salvation DJ at some party, where you bring your tunes to help fix the setting of a sleepy party about to fail. That’s the story we might consider, whether or not we do it consciously. What is the setting for the car you drive? If you’re a Prius owner, you’ve set yourself as a hero who saves the planet and a few bucks at the same time, and so the setting of your vehicle travels through is a world seeking answers about making the world better. As a Camaro driver, my setting is the unintentional race course.

I’m saying that we all fill in the gaps in a setting, whether or not you’ve considered them to be part of your business. If you’re a PR company in Des Moines, how do you tell the story to your buyers such that it incorporates your locale? Maybe you do it by talking about how important community development opportunities are for your business. Maybe if you’re a business technology firm in Tallahassee, you talk about being situated deep in the heart of the growing Midtown area, which is cutting edge and trendy.

What About You?

How do you view setting? What does it mean for your business? How does it impact what you do or say about your company or yourself? And how replaceable is setting to your story? runs on the Genesis Framework

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  • Krad RTN @Google+

    Interesting , I like  your mention about the ipod / DJ .

    The first think that pops into my mind (naturally) is Caesars palace in Las Vegas. My guest , no other than Caesar himself subliminally returning from a stunning ACME screw campaign . Red carpet, an illusion of flower petals ( giant fans above fanning the flowers) Germanic looking porters slaving with your bags and campaign booty. Beautiful maidens on either side waving like Beatles fans ( sensuous , fauxed  , erratically gleeful, sounds of tempered grunts of adoration) glowing , youthful smiles. All headed towards a golden key and crown of the Palazzo  . Upon the halter / front desk, casually laid out and showing the copious feast menu and pictures of blissful customers testing the baths, saunas and red wine. In addition to an Olympic style pool , with a wide variety of exotic , Coperton, well oiled virgins from around the Empire with a few hansom tanned lads just in case or to be used as fluffers.

    All distilled into one message, all the universe is your “oyster” and it’s your for the taking like a bar of soap .

  • Butlerp

    A good feeling is the start of any good story. A good place invokes good feeling. When you feel good you are open to suggestion. Everything feels good.

    Just think about how your Mom might get you in her kitchen. Filled with smells and tastes just to open the subject of your behaviors and how she felt you should really be living your life. Mom’s can sell anything in that setting!

  • Jason Dea

    Great piece.  I always tell my colleagues that marketing is storytelling.  Working in software, there is always a tendency to jump right in to the plot without first providing the audience with a compelling setting and introduction to frame why that plot even matters.

  • Ellie

    The importance of ‘setting’ in business – especially in a global business environment – was very evident to me earlier this week. I’m just beginning to work with a new client based in the Netherlands. I had my first call with the corporate team and their first question was about my office location. I placed myself an easy commute outside of NY City and knowing that the Netherlands is adjacent to water and the importance of water to life there from my travels, I mentioned that they would probably enjoy my location on Long Island Sound and the water view from my office window. The client’s office is also located near the water and through the similarities of our settings we formed an immediate connection. We all love being near the water. Powerful!

  • Raul Colon

    I think that is where so many of us miss. We forget about the setting of the story. 

    This is very useful for a follow up conversation with a client which I could not really explain to them what was missing. This fit right into place. 

    I guess if we work on everything else and we don’t create the environment in where all the other elements exist then we can run into trouble. 

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  • Anonymous

    Sense of place is always important. Who are you is almost as important as, where are you….

  • Rick Manelius

    How fitting with Halloween coming up. If you’re seen walking on the street in a batman costume on that day, you’re a fun loving guy with spirit. Now if you’re in the same costume on a beautiful day in March… people might point fingers, or maybe even lock their doors as you walk by!

    You struck a chord with me here because I always focus on the context of the discussion, but I just realized that I sometimes don’t equate that with setting/environment when it clearly fits.

    Hmmm…. definitely something for me to think about. Thanks.

  • Dan

    Settings are what makes people want to come back. Think about which grocery store you shop at the most. I know I can get a case of soda at store #1 for a low price, but the place is dirty and it doesn’t look like anyone cares.

    On the other hand, for a few pennies more, I can go to store #2 and get the same case of soda. Store #2 is a lot cleaner, the people are friendly and as a customer, I feel appreciated.

    At the end of the day, I think most people just want to feel good about themselves and feel appreciated.

  • Mary Ulrich

    Thanks Chris, you do a great job of “showing” us how business and marketing use the same principles as writing that great novel.

    My plot has been moving my son to another county. Those 16 miles, my setting, have made all the difference. In another state, and perhaps even another two counties in the same state, the story would have been different. Even moving the 16 miles in the opposite direction would have been a different drama. Lots to think about.

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    The Importance of Setting in Your Story. Some writers make the mistake of ignoring where their stories take place.When writing scenes, it’s important to keep in mind where your characters are.  

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