In Cameron Crowe’s movie “Almost Famous”, fifteen-year-old budding rock-and-roll journalist William Miller is waiting near the back entrance of a concert venue, hoping to snag an interview with a new band, Stillwater.
A pack of groupies (a pod? A gaggle? A coven?), led by a woman named Penny Lane, arrives on the scene and they begin talking to William.
Penny Lane : How old are you?
William Miller: Eighteen.
Penny Lane: Me too! How old are we really?
William Miller : Seventeen.
Penny Lane: Me too!
William Miller: Actually, I’m sixteen.
Penny Lane: Me too. Isn’t it funny? The truth just sounds different.
William Miller: I’m fifteen.
While it wasn’t quite the truth, Penny is right – the truth just sounds different.
There’s a certain aged, lived-in quality about the true stories, isn’t there? With all their wrinkles and imperfections, true stories reach deep down into our DNA, connecting new information to old feelings. They shake our bones and stake a claim inside our brains. Without the botox and gussied-up narratives of blockbuster movies, true stories can – and do – change the world.
But despite the magic of authentic storytelling, many of our places sacrifice their true stories for narratives they can more easily control in an effort to be more persuasive. Remove the warts, smooth out the wrinkles, tone down the language. Whether it’s in marketing materials, social media, press releases and press conferences, meetings, or conversations, many of our Main Streets and City Halls seem to embrace sterile and ambiguous descriptions that could be about any city, anywhere, at any time or stage of development:
“Our downtown is growing!”
“Investment is happening!”
“Look at our perfect city!”
We want our places to look attractive and glowing and….perfect, right?
Surely perfection, even contrived perfection, is what people want?
But it’s not.
All show and no go
We’ve all met someone who, on first meeting, looked, smelled, and sounded completely and hopelessly full of bullshit. They’ve gone to the best schools, traveled to all the countries, make the most money at work. They say and do all the things that, on paper, would make it seem like this person is exactly the kind of person we should want to build a strong relationship with.
But instead, we end the conversation as soon as we can and the relationship dies a fiery and delightfully painful death.
Why? Because we don’t like being lied to, or even feeling like we’re being lied to. We don’t like people who incessantly talk about how great they are or what they can offer the world. While saying all the right things, they don’t actually say anything. They waste our time. They make us feel manipulated. They’re impossible to get to know or trust.
“Ha! People like that DO suck,” we say.
But in many cases, this is exactly how we market our cities to the world.
Sitting across from a blind date, sipping wine, you feel like the conversation is steering into “Why should we go on a second date?” territory.
“I’m handsome!” you say. “And charming! And I’m handsome. Also, charming!”
In the same way, we shower our cities with vague platitudes, hoping that if we just say the same thing over and over, people will start believing us.
We never get around to answering, “Ok, but what else you got?” and leave our date asking for the check before the drinks arrive.
Oftentimes, we default to repeating our talking points when we’re desperate for others to like us, typically while dealing with nervousness, insecurities, or inexperience. The Main Street or DDA Director is new. The city is dealing with some big and very public issues. A city’s budget requires they do their own, in-house marketing…but don’t have anyone qualified. Though challenging, these situations are forgivable – many of our places experience similar situations – but they can be overcome with a little bit of mentorship and elbow grease.
What is less forgivable is when cities use fake storytelling to conceal the fact they want their city to have a story other than the one it actually has or, perhaps even worse, they don’t actually know their own stories. The powers-that-be paint a blue-collar town as a soon-to-be-white-collar town because they want to attract people with money.
Whether it’s through ignorance, lack of effort, or intentional disregard, disengaged administration or marketing agencies waste precious airtime with ambiguous and ubiquitous words and phrases because literally, they don’t have anything else to say. They don’t know the city. They don’t know the people. They don’t know the stories. Like a fifth-grader who didn’t do the reading assignment cornered with a question, their marketing says almost nothing in a bunch of different ways, hoping to not expose that they, in fact, have no idea what is actually going on.
So, “Growing!” and a relentless stream of glasses of wine, steak dinners, and sprawling condos it is.
It might seem like I’m belaboring my point. After all, what’s wrong with scrolling through a city’s social media and seeing nice glasses of wine, nice steak dinners, and nice condos?
What’s wrong with nice?
The problem is that people don’t change their perceptions, actions, or lives for “nice”. They don’t dig their roots deeper into a community because it’s nice, companies don’t invest in a city because it’s nice, and talented people aren’t retained or attracted because well, the city is nice, I guess?
Words and stories matter only when they contain substance, when they’re real. Using real words to tell real stories takes work. It takes engagement. It takes time and effort and commitment and all the other things we write-off because we are relentlessly busy people.
But if we don’t care enough about our places to care about the words we use and the stories we tell beyond a few moments in front of a keyboard, why would we assume that anyone anywhere would care enough our place to start a business there, invest their money, take on personal risk, give their own energy and effort to make it a better place, dedicate their lives to it?
Stories that get people on the same page
In science, there’s something called “entrainment” and the best example of this involves metronomes. Take 100 or 1000 metronomes (the kind that have an arm and click back and forth) and put them all on a surface that is light or easily transmits vibrations.
When they start, all the clicks happen at different times. It’s noise. But gradually, a few metronomes will start clicking together. Then a few more, then a few more, until all the metronomes are clicking absolutely, beautifully, and perfectly synchronized together.
This also happens on a human level. When choir members sing together or when we sit on the couch to watch an emotional movie with loved ones, our heartbeats and respiration rates synchronize. We have a deep enough relationship with someone that we can finish their sentences, literally knowing what they’re thinking. When we walk next to someone, our footsteps become the same – we laugh and think it’s by chance, but it’s instinctual. It’s a biological response to interacting with other humans.
Literally, our cells align in order to say, “I’m into this.”, and the same kind of reaction happens when we hear a great story.
On a different first date, after the small talk and when you both have settled into a mutual level of openness, the person sitting across from you sips their wine and begins telling a story. Maybe it’s a story about a job they were fired from, something dumb they did in high school, or a difficult childhood.
As they begin, the energy in the air changes. Internal chatter and external noise once clicking out of unison align into a singular moment where two people are experiencing the same thing–the truth.
It might seem lofty, but imagine that level of connection happening between someone and how we market our places. It’s not manipulation, it’s leveraging the power of true, human stories and specifically, the humans and the stories that make your place different than anywhere else.
Imagine the trust built by a place that proudly and boldly believes its people are its greatest strength, and demonstrates that belief amplifying and projecting their lives, work, personality, and achievements into the world.
Imagine the engagement and support local governing or economic development bodies would have if, before saying words like “investment”, “talent”, and “development”, took the time to create an emotional investment in its people by telling citizens’ stories in a way that says, “We’re proud of you! Thank you! Keep going! We need you!”
Consider how refreshing and attractive a place comfortable in and proud of its own skin is to people looking for somewhere they can call “home”, eyes glazed over from listening to the same pitch from a thousand different places.
Knee deep in elbow grease
Telling the amazing true stories of your town takes work. It takes talking to people and asking them questions. It means taking pictures and videos. It means being connected beyond a keyboard. It means telling the stories of everyone, not just the stories we think outside investors want to hear.
Telling the true stories of your community is messy, time-consuming, and difficult work.
But we don’t care enough about our places to invest in the words we use and the stories we tell beyond a few moments in front of a keyboard, why would we expect anything different from someone else? Why would we expect that anyone anywhere would care enough about our place to start a business there, invest their money, take on personal risk, give their own energy and effort to make it a better place, dedicate their lives to it?
If we’re not proud enough of our place to believe in its stories, why should we expect anything different from someone else?
Marketing is the creation of relationships and largely, we determine which relationships we nurture or throw into the burn pile by examining the level of trust. Can I trust you will take care of me? Do I believe you have my best interests in mind? Are we working well together? Is this relationship worth investment or is it going to be a waste? Through our interactions, will my life be better or worse knowing you?
Above all, people want to live in a community they can trust. Despite the current prevalence of misinformation, people are becoming more attuned to when marketing is manipulative. We can’t see 30,000 ads each day (yes, 30 THOUSAND) without getting better at weeding out the useless from the useful. A current trend in social media content is to fake events or interactions that look real – scripted arguments between “strangers”, someone walking into a situation “they didn’t see coming”, etc. While this approach works once or twice, accounts that mostly post this kind of content aren’t successful because people don’t like feeling lied to and will disengage.
To gain people’s trust, places need to show their people doing real things by telling real stories.
True stories give us context and context creates trust. We’ll buy a watch at a shop from a guy we go to church with, but we won’t buy the same watch in a back-alley from a shady-looking guy with a gun.
True stories give proof that an amazing person doing great things lives in a place. That person lives next to another amazing person, and so on.
To start telling the story of an amazing community, start with the stories of its amazing people.
Remember, most people don’t want perfection because perfection isn’t real. It’s not interesting. We want depth and nuance and intrigue, not an impossibly high bar or a feeling that we will be neglected in favor of a new, shinier – nicer – new person.
We want a place that feels like it’s worth a second date.
The only thing better than cool is real
Later in Almost Famous, William ends up tagging along on a tour with the band so he can write a piece for Rolling Stone. But after a concert in Kansas, the band has an argument about a t-shirt design and Russell Hammond, the band’s guitarist, storms out of the green room with William close behind.
As they walk out of the venue, Russell says, “From here on out, I am only interested in what is real. Real people, real feelings, that’s it, that’s all I’m interested in.”
Russell looks at William and says, “You know all about us, and I don’t know shit about you. Tell me, what’s your family like?”
William has spent the entire movie lying to get to where he is. He’s lied about his age, he’s faked his voice on the phone with the editor of Rolling Stone to get an assignment, he lies to his mom when she calls to check in on him, he lied about how he’ll meet the deadline while not writing a single word.
“My dad died of a heart attack,” he says. “My sister believes that my mom is so intense that she had to escape our family. They can’t seem to find a way to get through it. I mean, they don’t even speak to each other anymore. Plus, she gave me all her albums and now she’s a stewardess?”
“It’s good to talk about,” he says. “Really good.”
As William and Russell are walking down the street, a VW bus full of people pulls up alongside them.
“OOOOWOOWWW! Hey, you’re Russell from Stillwater,” says the driver of the bus.
“Well, yeah, on my better days, I am Russel from Stillwater,” he says.
“Hey, you want to go to a party with me at my friend Aaron’s house?” the driver says. “I know you’re a big rockstar and all, but do you want to hang with some good people looking to have a good time?
We’re just real Topeka people, man.”
What if instead of trying to be cool, our places tried to be real? What if instead of chasing large, silver bullet economic development projects, a place championed its food trucks, arts programs, and unsung heroes? What if, instead of chasing Amazon or large manufacturers, it pursued teachers, small-time entrepreneurs, and families? What if a city showed the world that it was built by – not in spite of – the people inside it? What if the world looked at a place and saw a city that, rather than trying to be cool in all the same ways every other place tries to be cool, starts being itself?
Don’t go bankrupt
When we pursue humanity, community, and connection, we reach back through the ages and grab hold of the reasons why cities were created in the first place.
Towards the end of the movie, William is sitting in front of his typewriter trying to write, surrounded by stacks of notes and polaroids he made over the course of the tour. It’s not going well, and he picks up the phone and calls his mentor, Lester Bangs.
“They want you to get drunk on feeling like you belong,” Lester says.
“Well, it was fun,” William says.
“Because they make you feel cool, and hey, I’ve met you…and you are not cool.”
“I know,” William says. “Even when I thought I was, I knew I wasn’t.”
“We are uncool. I mean, good-looking people, they’ve got no spine. Their art never lasts. Great art is about guilt and longing, and hey, let’s face it, you got a big head start.”
“I’m glad you were home,” William says.
“I’m always home, I’m uncool.”
“You’re doing great, man,” Lester says. “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.”