Everyone loves a good story. I know I do. It’s what keeps me up at night. No, I’m not scared of the dark and I don’t have insomnia. I just get caught up in a great movie at the theater or at home and can’t wait to see how it turns out, even if it means staying up until the wee hours (an advantage of being retired).

The truth is, we are all conditioned to love a good story. We simply can’t help ourselves. It’s how we learn about the world around us and how we negotiate safely while others in the story risk life and limb. We get to experience risk without being at risk ourselves.

In fact, something like 65% of everything we communicate in a day is a story – a story we tell ourselves, a story we tell others. Without stories, we’d be lost.

Yes, I’ve heard naysayers say that technology has reduced our attention spans and we no longer have the time for a good story. But I find it hard to believe that a decade of technology has totally changed thousands of years of evolution and that we can barely understand a 144 character Tweet, let alone Pride and Prejudice. The simple fact is (and I can bore you with the MRI scans if you’d like), our DNA is hard wired for good stories, although I never really understood Pride and Prejudice.

Notice, I said good stories. You know the ones, the ones with talking animals, evil witches or wicked masterminds bent on world domination, the requisite handsome prince or beautiful princess, and the hero that swoops in at the last moment and against all odds, saves the day.

So what does this have to do with economic development or vibrant communities?

Economic developers love to think that their world is filled with data, numbers, charts and graphs that tell the tale of their community. The numbers are all there: employment figures, unemployment rates, vacancy rates downtown, available workforce, etc., etc. etc.

What do these numbers really say? Nothing. Sure, they might support the story, but they aren’t the story. They don’t tell anyone what your community is like or why it is unique. Every community can quote data. Not every community has a story.

O.K., I’m making that last part up. Every community does have a story. It just may be a challenge to tell it. You may be reluctant to talk about the dark days when the community fell on hard times. You may not be able to identify a turning point. In fact, you may not have reached the turning point yet.

But you do have a hero. You have your own Spiderman or Clark Kent. Your community is Luke Skywalker bettering the Death Star against all odds.

Any credible economic development, Mainstreet strategy or revitalization project has a hero. You can show Powerpoint decks until your audience’s eyes gloss over, but you will have them on the edge of their seat if you engage them with a good story about who you really are and who you aspire to be.

You can bring that story to life using your own business people and residents who have overcome adversity, such as the business or business district that was teetering on the brink, only to be brought back to life by the owner or community leaders who wouldn’t give up. Or the community that reinvented itself after a major employer left them high and dry. Or the local entrepreneur with the idea everyone thought was crazy who is laughing all the way to the bank.

Besides keeping your audience awake, a good story does one other important thing. When it comes time to make a decision – whether it’s a government deciding on next year’s economic development budget, an entrepreneur investing in a new enterprise, or a company building a new facility – the person making that decision will remember the story you told far more than they’ll remember a data point about population, the available labor pool or available square footage.

A story well told will help your community rise above the clatter and din of sameness that seems to permeate economic development. It will help you be tutti-frutti in a vanilla world of communities who are all showing variations of the same boring Powerpoint.

More important, it will help create an emotional connection with decision makers, who, even though we are loath to admit it, are human. A great story, one with epic themes, with just a dash of data for those number nerds, will be remembered long after you’ve finished your presentation or made your pitch.

I could let you go from there. But I will give you a little prompt to get you started in crafting your own story. This is one of the tools Pixar uses to make blockbusters, so it seems to work:

  • Once upon a time, there was…
    (describe the situation to set the time period, location, the hero, etc.)
  • And every day…
    (describe what happened before there was a change)
  • Until one day…
    (describe what event or series of events that created an imbalance or problem)
  • Because of this…
    (what obstacles/challenges were encountered, what happened next) 
  • Until finally…
    (what was the result, i.e., the happy ending)

Every major movie in Hollywood uses this framework to tell a story. And it works for communities, too.

Don’t believe me? Here’s an example from my own backyard in Washington:

Once upon a time there was a small city in Washington State called Port Townsend. In addition to its natural scenery at the northeast tip of the Olympic Peninsula, the city was also known for the many Victorian buildings remaining from its late 19th century heyday, numerous annual cultural events, and as a maritime center for independent boat builders and related industries and crafts.

And every day… despite its beauty and location, Port Townsend citizens realized that its premier variety stores were moving out or shutting down.  A growing number of citizens complained, “We have no place to buy socks or underwear without driving to those big box stores an hour away.” Their hard earned dollars would be leaving the community to be used elsewhere. 

Until one day… the mayor, Michelle Sandoval and economic developer, Peter Quinn said, “A real town needs a real store”. After numerous efforts to get existing businesses to take over the store failed, the community got together and decided to restart the business on their own.

Because of this… they used a direct public offering by selling shares of $100.00 a piece and let people of all capabilities in Washington state purchase shares and become investors.

Until finallythanks to remarkable planning and organizing, Port Townsend raised over $700,000 from local resident investors and opened the Quimper Mercantile Company in 2012 in a refurbished 16,000 square foot space. They will be profitable for the fourth year in a row and projected to do $2.3 million dollars in sales in 2017. And the community lived happily ever after with warm socks and 100% cotton boxer briefs.

So, what’s your story? Let me know and I will share your story on the mauryforum.com

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