When I was a kid, my father was an avid reader. He breezed through Stephen King and Dean Koontz novels, and by the time I was about 10, he would pass them on to me. I’d breeze through them, too, and any other book I could get my hands on. When I wasn’t reading stories, I was watching movies or writing my own stories. And when some adult forced me to “go outside and play,” I took a book with me.
Mama wasn’t like that. Outside of children’s books and the Bible, she rarely read at all, nor did she watch much TV. She still doesn’t. Yet, when I think about the most important content marketing lessons—the ones that have helped me most throughout my career—I realize that I learned many of them long before anyone used the term “content marketing,” and I learned them from my mama.
Image attribution: Josh Willink
Turns out, I’m not alone. My fellow Content Standard contributors say their mothers imparted life lessons that turned out to be marketing lessons in disguise. So, in honor of Mother’s Day, here’s what they taught us about engaging audiences.
Writing for the Content Standard for the past three and a half years has given me a unique and valuable opportunity that most marketers don’t get: the chance to not just practice my craft, but to step back and really think about it. And when I think about the brand storytelling, I often think of my mother.
Although she isn’t a great consumer of stories, she is a great storyteller. It was a key component of her parenting strategy. Whether she was comforting, lecturing, or giving advice, she almost always included a story. She used anecdotes from her own childhood to teach us life lessons, to demonstrate empathy when we were upset, and to gain credibility as an expert, reminding us that she had been a kid/teenager once, too (even if it was way back in the Stone Age). Then a practicing nurse, she also used other people’s stories to illustrate important lessons—why we should never jump off a bridge into a lake (even if all of our friends were doing it), why we should always wear helmets on bicycles and seatbelts in cars, why we should be vigilant when entering a gas station, bank, or any other business that’s likely to be robbed. She didn’t just explain the consequences. She told us real-life stories that illustrated those consequences, and she didn’t hesitate to share the gruesome details, painting horrifying mental images I still see clearly. Some mild trauma aside, she didn’t just teach me lessons. She also taught her overly opinionated daughter that the best way to get one’s point across isn’t to tell them what to think, but to tell them a relevant and powerful story.
From Rachel Haberman, managing editor
“My mom is a New England Yankee of the old school who instilled in me a deep, deep aversion to bragging. Her attitude has always been: work hard, act humble, and if you deserve it, people will recognize you. She always taught me that people who feel compelled to brag about themselves don’t really have anything to brag about. It’s pretty ironic that two of her four kids work in marketing, which is basically bragging for a living! But while there have been times when my discomfort with tooting my own horn has been a liability in my marketing career, I think overall it has actually made me better at my job. It’s easy to tell people that your brand is the best; it’s harder, but so much more meaningful, to make your marketing about your customer and what they need.”
From Lauren McMenemy, Content Standard contributor
“My mum is nuts. Like, the good kind of nuts. She can be serious—boy, can she be serious, especially if I’ve done something wrong—but my main memory of growing up is her drive to put fun into everything. Case in point: Christmas dinner. Peeling potatoes was a race to see who got the most done, and she didn’t just put hot rolls on a plate: She threw them from the head of the table, and you had to catch one if you wanted to have one. I remember taking my then-boyfriend (now husband) and his mother home to Australia for Christmas a few years back, and they were absolutely gobsmacked at the ridiculousness of our traditions: It really is all fun and games. While my mum definitely instilled plenty of humility and education and love into my childhood, it’s the nuts stuff that I remember: singing along to show tunes in the car, water fights on hot days (most days in Australia, really), making fun of her Scottish accent and its rolling Rs, taking the dog surfing. I think that drive for seeing the fun in the everyday has had a huge impact on my work. Even when writing about the most mundane things, I look for interesting angles and ways to bring a dry subject to life for those who might not know anything about it. And my writing style is definitely tongue-in-cheek, silly, and strange. Sure, I can be serious—boy, can I be serious—but it’s in my nature to look for the fun. I blame my mother.”
Image attribution: Ketan Rajput
From Erin Ollila, Content Standard contributor
“My mom always taught me to have empathy for the people in my life, whether they were friends or someone who had hurt me. Because of this, I like to view every situation thinking about the other person’s perspective before making a decision or expressing my opinion. This leading by empathy has helped me in my marketing career, when it comes to working with strategy clients in developing multidimensional personas for their brands, and even in my own writing when trying to identify what the readers want to learn or what examples might help them better understand. It may have been frustrating as a middle schooler to have your mom tell you to consider how your current arch-nemesis might be feeling, but it’s something that has greatly benefited me both personally and professionally throughout the rest of my life.”
From Kyle Harper, Content Standard contributor
“My mom was a nurse and one of the most intuitive, observant people I know. She would often tell stories about patients who came in presenting with one issue, but after talking to them, the medical staff would discover some kind of root cause or completely different illness than what the patient was brought in for. The key, she told me, was to always give room for others to ask questions—and then ask those questions right back to them. We ask questions to become informed, but also to prompt conversations towards topics that matter to us. This helped my mom figure out what was actually wrong with her patients and has since helped me as a storyteller figure out what actually is of interest to my clients, interviewees, or readers. If you listen closely to your audience, they will tell you what sort of story they want to hear through the questions they ask of you.”
Image attribution: Jurien Huggins
What important marketing lessons did you learn from your mother? When you really stop and think about it, she probably taught you more than you think about connecting with people, engaging audiences, and getting your point across. Even if neither of you knew it then, she was getting you ready for a successful marketing career.
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Featured image attribution: Josh Willink