How the back story became jargon and why you need one


Content, marketing and social media are each laden heavily with terminology that, to the uninitiated or those on the periphery, can read and sound like the lexicon of another very cool, hipster planet.

I know this because on more than the odd occasion, I’ve resorted to Google for an explanation for a bunch of social media things about which I had no idea.

Maybe I’m just slow to getting what’s so ‘hot right now’ (very likely), but with over 7 billion people on the planet, I figure I’m not alone.  If I don’t get it, maybe {probably} there are one or two others in the same boat.

For me, back story was one of those terms.  Used by people in “the know”, they could simply use the term in the course of conversatione and sound, well, normal.

At some point in my content marketing / social media evolution, the progress of which has been borderline plodding, “back story” just popped up on my radar.  I realise though, back stories have been around for eons and in my life, just under a different guise.

Why jargon sucks

With the benefit of hindsight, I’m hazarding a guess, the modern concept of a back story probably had its origins in the hallowed offices and meeting rooms of marketing, communications, and PR firms.

I don’t know for sure because I’ve never worked in one, but like any industry, a certain way of being and speaking emerges among the practising professionals that defines and distinguishes them and what they do.  And it’s up to we mere mortals (the peripherals) to make sense of it all as best we can.

For me, web design is like that.

Unless you’re in the know, and a lot of us aren’t, web design {also social media + marketing} can seem like a kind of mystical black art.  Imagine you’re coming into that world cold with grand plans to set up your first website (weird, I know, there are still people who don’t have a website), and a web developer starts website jargon-ing you.  Feeling lost and confused?  Yes, me too.

Image by adobe stock

When I get to that point, let me tell you what happens.

My brain (remember the plodding?) goes into lock down.  Mention a few things like tools, forms, SEO, and plugins, and it’s not long before I start thinking about what I’m cooking for dinner because, frankly, it’s just way easier. Even though I know I need to know about it, I find it hard to delve into the detail without struggling for air.

Take any industry and the same scenario is repeated.

Engineering, law, medicine, mining, you name it, it’s the same all over.  To the outsider, an engineer talks technical, a lawyer recites precedents, a doctor quotes medical terminology, and a mining professional eulogises over drill holes and geology, with very little of it making sense to the audience.  You.

Which is why it’s no different in social media, content, and marketing circles, although ironically, it’s the very place where you’d expect to find the polar opposite, i.e. things well explained, in language and values that mean something to the folks who are reading or viewing it, and who knows, maybe even want to apply it some time.

Feeling warm and fuzzy?

Ah, no.

This points to a very obvious truth that jargon sucks, no matter where it’s used.  From the realm of all things marketing and communication, it seems to me there is a bunch of content ‘how to’ out there that just doesn’t connect or make sense.  We still haven’t learnt the basics of communicating in other people’s values or language or what’s important to them.

This leads me then to the point of providing some definition for the average layperson like me about what a back story actually is, because really, you need one.

What’s a back story?

No I didn’t Google this.

A back story is what brought you here.  It’s what you are, in many cases, it’s what defined you, and in many more cases, it guides where you’re going.  Very often it’s the why for what you do now.

A back story is more than just a bio.  It’s the meaning behind your purpose and story, that let’s your audience know you are real {and for real}.  More than that, a back story is your headline story.  It’s a pivotal piece of collateral in your business and personal arsenal.  Why?  Because inherent in it is the power to connect you with your audience – and it doesn’t matter who that audience is.

I believe everybody has a back story.  Businesses, people, organisations.  You.

Maybe you haven’t acknowledged it as such, but your back story is there and it’s a story worth finding and sharing, regardless of whether you intend using it in business, work, or life.

Image by adobe stock

So what’s the back story big deal?

A couple of years ago, I attended an awards event for entrepreneurs.

A big part of the event was hearing the back stories of the winners.  In almost every case (as though a rite of passage), the award winners shared their individual stories of setbacks and successes: their back story.  I know I’m one who’ll tear up more easily than others (I cried in every episode of Little House on the Prairie), but there were few dry eyes when the tales were told of what was overcome to get their businesses up and running and what precipitated them following their particular entrepreneurial journey.

You might be smirking cynically now and thinking, “Well, it’s alright for them.  I’m not a big shot entrepreneur.”  And if that’s the case, it’s here where we’ll differ in opinion.

Earlier I said everybody has a back story.  Now I’m throwing another line out there.  Everybody {business, organisation, person} needs to know their back story, how to share it, AND (the big one) what it means for their audience.

Let’s explore this further.

What about me?

If you’re in business – solopreneur, entrepreneur, employee at mid-sized corporate or very important person at a global behemoth, you need to know your back story.  And the people who are working with you, need to know it too.  I mean really know it.  Because if they do, they’ll pay their efforts forward in blood, sweat and tears if necessary, because your back story makes sense to them.  It resonates and connects with and inspires them.

If you’re back on the dating scene and navigating the treacherous waters of meeting new people, you need to know your back story (not in a “cry me a river” way, but in a way that shows who you are).

If you’re transitioning between industries or jobs or life experiences, you need to know your back story.  You need to know it and own it.

In his book, Start with why, Simon Sinek says this is the most powerful way by which you can bring people along.  In more ways than one, your back story is your why.  Simon says, it makes sense for businesses and individuals to be clear about this.

Park Howell from the business of story thinks so too, presenting the concept with his own unique spin.  Park has spent a career helping businesses tell their story and has even developed a 10 step process for identifying and articulating that story in ways that mean something to the people sharing it AND those with whom it’s shared.

I didn’t need to pull up a pew at a fancy entrepreneurs’ award dinner to know this truth.  You have a back story.  And you need to tell it.

Still feeling cynical?  Thinking “I’m just a <insert your excuse here>”.  Do I really need to crank up my back story?  Who cares anyway?

Let’s challenge that thinking an look at a couple of real world examples.

example #1

You’re an engineer {or any other technical professional}.  You’ve been made redundant in the downturn and you’re looking around for another opportunity.  Chances are slim you’ll land a gig doing something you’ve always done, so there’s no better time to get your back story on.

Not in a boring, bullet point resume kind of way, but in a deeper, real way that shows who you are, not just what you do.

Why? Because your back story is a wholehearted, spherical view of you.  More than a list of jobs or projects, it’s about what makes you and what made you, including that dim period from the past known as pre-work, pre-partner, pre-corporate robot.

Yes, it means digging a little deeper, but I argue, it’s a necessary action.  Now more so than ever.  Because getting work the way you’ve always done will result in the same beige uninspired outcomes.

Whoa!  Slow down.

I can literally see engineers reading this and squirming behind their screens as they scan this article.  Maybe they’re even looking around uncomfortably, hoping that nobody’s seen them read about going beneath the surface of an otherwise concrete exterior.  Maybe they (you) won’t even read on.

Without your back story as a clear part of your personal brand marketing story, you’ll always be selling your self short and leaving yourself open to ask the inevitable Shannon Noll inspired question, what about me?

example #2

You’re an entrepreneur.  Business is growing and you need people, but it can be a tricky thing, finding a person with the right fit?

If you have a clear back story that informs the why of what you’re doing, you are already ahead of the game.

Even if you don’t believe it, it’s still happening.  Vibrationally, you resonate at a higher level.  So guess what happens then?  The people drawn to the opportunity of working with you operate at a higher frequency as well.  If you believe in what you do, there’s a greater chance they will too.

And the only way you’ll know what you believe in, is if you get crystal clear and laser focused about it.

From the get go, you’ve set things up so they not only makes sense to them; it also means something to them.

You can’t get that level of commitment from people, from a team, or anyone in fact, without a well articulated and meaningful back story.  It’s just not possible.

Simon Sinek argues this is exactly why some businesses, organisations, causes and people succeed, and why others don’t.  It is not necessary to be the best at what you do, but it is necessary to believe in it.  When you are clear about your good back story, that belief becomes unshakeable.

The bottom line of truth

Even if you remain doubtful of the value of your back story in today’s communication toolbox (whether for business or personal), it does not change the truth of what is.

In the process of articulating and communicating your back story, certainty and confidence of mission emerge as natural by-products.  You cannot help but grow from the experience.

Image by adobe stock

I know because I have seen the physical posture of people change through the process of extracting what’s been buried (often) deeply and then sharing it with others.  There are few things that are as rewarding as witnessing the shift.

In a world of disconnection, would you rather apply ways of communicating that lend themselves to deeper, more honest, and inspiring ways of connecting – or not?  If taking the time to dig deeper and find the nuggets of gold meant realising the greatest opportunity for connection with your audience – regardless of whether it’s customers, co-workers, bosses, employees, partners, or kids – would you do it?

Your answer to that question is your bottom line.  Think hard before you land there.

Do you need a hand?

One of my favourite analogies is the Robinson Crusoe reference.  No man is an island, so don’t try to go it alone.

Why not download this worksheet and use it to get your back story moving?  If you’re still finding it hard, then reach out.  I’d love to help.

Have you heard any inspiring back stories?  What kind of back story gets you talking?  Share it here in the comments.