The Ethics of Whoring Your Storytelling

The Ethics of Whoring Your Storytelling

Stories are powerful.

Stories have the power to break hearts and break homes. They can start wars – or stop them. They can free prisoners or free nations. They turn water to wine and rags to riches. They’ve saved lives, spared hands and started revolutions.

Oh, and stories can sell.

With a single poignant story that breaks readers’ hearts, you can make thousands overnight. You can talk about your broken washing machine, your sick child, your kitten that was hit by a car, your impending homelessness, your family death… everything becomes a story to profit from.

Go ahead. Write a painful story, tack on a pitch for your product or services, and send it out. Watch the sympathy – and the dollars – pour in.

It’s disgusting.

Now, I get that my personal beliefs, ethics and morals aren’t everyone’s law. I know other people have different sets of beliefs and no qualms about doing what I’d never, ever do. What’s immoral to one is not to another.

What’s too far for me is someone else’s just getting started.

So while I’ll never talk about my personal hardships to make money, I see people marketing through stories every day. They pitch sales wth stories of their dying kitten, their broken washing machine, their sick child, their girlfriend’s birthday game tickets, their ailing car, and more.

They call this “good marketing”, or even its new buzzword, storyselling. It isn’t a good thing. It isn’t businesslike. It certainly isn’t professional.

EDITOR’S NOTE: I highly approve of storyselling and good marketing. In fact, much of my personal career as a copywriter and blogging includes storyselling. However, this paragraph above can be confusing to some people, so allow me to rewrite it:

They call pitching personal hardships ‘good marketing’ or ‘storyselling’. But having to pitch sales with dramatic personal stories isn’t a good thing. It isn’t businesslike. It certainly isn’t professional.

And it’s not necessary, either – I’ve never had to tell a heartwrenching, personal story to sell my products or services.

I’m also seeing this storysellling getting out of hand. Nothing’s sacred anymore. There are no limits. A tragedy, a devastating event, a heartbreaking pain… it’s all good fodder. Let’s sell!

Where does it stop? I see people storyselling so hard they can’t sell any other way. They tell one moving story after another, adding a little more drama to each one until finally, they’re pulling out all the stops.

These people seem to have lost all sense of boundaries. Of privacy. They think every story is fair game. They’re homeless. They’re broke. They can’t feed themselves. Their mother just passed away.

The perfect opportunity to throw a sale and make some cash, n’est pas?

Worse, their readers buy. They pull out their wallet and give this pleading person money. They don’t buy because the product sounded valuable or because they’d been saving up for this consult.

They buy because they heard that someone’s dog died or his washer broke or his father passed away or he can’t pay rent. They buy because an emotional, personal story manipulated their feelings.

They’re being storysold by people who can’t market without having to fall back on their most painful, heart-wrenching tale to make a buck.

It’s disgusting.

I read a newsletter this week that mentioned the author’s family was homeless, he was flat broke, and his father had died three days earlier. But he felt good – excited, even. And then he pitched his products and consulting with this call to action:

“Take advantage of me right now, while I’m vulnerable!”

I’ve seen a lot in my days on the internet, but this was flat-out disturbing.

When did this type of marketing become normal, acceptable and even desirable? Where are the boundaries of privacy, dignity and integrity? Where are the ethics about making a profit? When does this casual use of highly personal stories to earn a buck cross the line?

That’s a good question. The answer? It’s all up to you.

You decide where to draw the line. You decide what’s acceptable and what its. And being mature adults, you’d think no one needs to talk about the ethics of storytelling. But when we start to stoop to these lengths to sell… Well, I think it does need to be discussed.

You see, I believe that when we have storytelling skills and the power to influence others, we have an unspoken obligation to use this power carefully. I believe we need to have respect for others and consider the potential consequences of telling our stories and using them to pitch sales.

I don’t believe every story should be told – or sold.

I know others don’t believe the same. They sit down, grab a story, and pull the ‘publish’ trigger without a care for self-respect or respect for their readers. They only care about their wallet.

And a good story makes sales. It’s a twisted use of a marvellous gift.

If you’re a storyteller, a writer, a marketer, or a businessperson, there’ll come a day when you’ll need to decide just how far you’ll go to make money. You’ll need to decide where you stand in regards to dignity, respect and decency. You’ll need to decide which stories are personal and private, and which should be shared with strangers around the world.

You decide that. You make that choice.

I made mine. And to those of you who whore personal stories for money without conscience, I guess we just stand on different sides of the line.

Post by James Chartrand

James Chartrand is an expert copywriter and the owner of Men with Pens and Damn Fine Words, the game-changing writing course for business owners. She loves the color blue, her kids, Nike sneakers and ice skating.