My Brush with an Old Man’s Blade
A few weeks back I set off a minor firestorm with a story about a magic stapler.
The story and stapler were both fabricated. Completely and utterly, just to illustrate my point in the piece – but that enraged some readers who were wound up for a stapler with nowhere to blow their wad of cash.
I hope to correct that today with another story and moral, also about an office supply product – but this time, it’s 100% true.
Scout’s honor. (Okay, that pledge was a lie: I was never in the scouts, never received a badge for camping in a tent. There are bears out there, you know.)
Anyway, this is a tale about a magic pencil sharpener.
When I was in 8th grade, my algebra teacher was a cranky old man named Mr. Jones. (He used to call me “Mr. McNasty”).
Actually, by the time he was my teacher, he was actually pretty mellow, since he was just a few years from retirement.
(Legend had it that just years before, he would hurl his chair across the classroom when a student said something particularly stupid. The good old days of discipline before smartphones and youtube.)
Anyway, I had terrible handwriting as a kid. Mr. Jones hated seeing my scrawls and figured I needed a sharper pencil. So he took out a 6 inch blade, sharpened it with a whetstone with a mad glint in his eye, and slowly advanced on me as I backed into the corner …
Just kidding. Actually, he did something a lot cooler:
He ushered me to a locked door that had gone unnoticed on one wall of his classroom. He slipped the key into the lock, turned it slowly, and solemnly opened the door.
… and inside it seemed to be an ordinary supply closet: test forms, extra paper, maybe a rag or two in case a kid vomited from nerves on test day.
But there was one glittering object in the center that made this little alcove very special:
A heavy duty, nickel plated (or so it seems in my memory) pencil sharpener.
Not the ordinary plastic gray and brown pieces of crap that were standard issue in public schools. (You know the ones – with all the little holes that you can adjust for different pencil sizes – who has 6 different sizes of pencils??)
No, this baby was industrial grade, and that’s why Mr. Jones kept it under lock and key. And that day, as a special lesson to me, he allowed me to partake of all its mechanical glory.
I wish I could describe it better to you, but all I see in my memory is a sunburst of gold.
I placed my pencil in its tight embrace and turned the crank. The action on the crank arm was as smooth as silk. Grind, grind, grind.
And when it would grind no more, I pulled out my yellow Dixon Ticonderoga #2 (with the tiny bands of emerald green circling the eraser holder) and lifted the pencil to my nose, inhaling deeply, savoring the scent of freshly ground cedar and graphite.
That pencil was razor sharp and it etched crisp lines of computations on my page. Suddenly, I was no longer balancing equations and solving for variables.
I was doing magic.
I felt like I had been initiated into the higher mysteries of the cult of writing implements. (And let me tell you, as a 7 year veteran sales clerk of an office supply store, there are plenty of True Believers out there.)
Mr. Jones gave me an experience that changed my math homework, if only for one day: Dull problem solving was transformed into the pleasure of wielding a powerful tool.
And that’s exactly what stories can do for marketing – work a kind of alchemical magic, elevating an ordinary experience into a legendary one.
Marketers, like the great John Carlton, have been wont to quote the American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau: “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation …”
So when we can offer an adventure, an escape — even if just briefly — to our audience, then our marketing is no longer an interruption – it’s a welcome respite from a day filled with stress and expectations and the gathering, groaning weight of a hundred tiny disappointments.
That’s why we go to the movies, right? That’s why fiction outsells nonfiction?
So anytime we place our product or service in the context of an adventure – raise it to the status of a legend – we have the opportunity to entrance and sell our customers.
The key is to find the dramatic element in what our product or service does – the “awesome sauce” that makes someone’s life glow a little brighter.
Doesn’t matter if that benefit is a thundering symphony, like a cancer cure, or a gentle sonata, like a better mousetrap — No matter the scale, if we make something that solves a need, someone’s life was changed for the better.
We find what that is and we tell that story.
Stories can work a kind of alchemy – transforming something ordinary into a legend. Take the best magic your product or service has to offer and place it inside a story.
(P.S. I did it again, didn’t I? Got you all worked up for a magic pencil sharpener and I can’t even tell you where to get it? I’m sorry. But at least this one is a true story.)
What magical experiences have you had with a product or service?
Let me know in the comments below.
Stay Tuned For Next Week …
In which an attempt at comedy ends in tears.