When I Need a Fix, My dealer is Amazon

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The Story

One winter break from college many years ago, I was a bit depressed.

I can’t remember exactly why.

I think college wasn’t measuring up to be the adventure I had been looking forward to. I felt like the kid in the Joni Mitchell song “The Circle Game” …

“And so the years go by, and now the boy is twenty. And though his dreams have lost some grandeur coming true …”

Anyway, I needed to boost my spirits. Get my flow going.

So I turned to drugs.

Not the kind found in a pill, or a syringe, or a line of a powder on a mirror.

The kind you find smuggled into the pages of a good story.

In this case, it was in a story from the Star Trek:The Next Generation episode titled “Tapestry.”

Briefly, in this episode of the best television show of all time, Captain Picard is given a chance to rewrite an “untidy” bit of his past by the omnipotent smart ass, “Q.”

Problem is, when Picard corrects the mistake (by avoiding a fight with a mean ass alien) it changes his entire life … because that act of caution set him on a lukewarm trajectory that did not lead to a life as a Captain of a starship.

Instead, it leads to a life as a low level lab flunkie, as Picard discovers when Q drops him back into his own time frame.

Picard in a blue uniform with low rank

That’s Lieutenant Junior Grade Picard. Demotion hurts.

Q explains it this way:

“That Picard never had a brush with death … Never realized how fragile life is or how important each moment must be … He drifted … never seizing the opportunities that presented themselves. He learned to play it safe.

“And he never – ever – got noticed by anyone.”

That episode wrenches me every time – and that speech by Q in particular.

It’s a reminder – sometimes you must be bold. Stand up, even when you’re afraid, or you will be passed by.

It’s basically a kick in the ass.

But instead of coming from a sharp steel-tip boot, it’s delivered in the form of a delightful tale. (Written by Ronal D. Moore, who went on to relaunch Battlestar Galactica.)

After I watch this episode, I get fired up.

And I know it’s there waiting for me when I need it. It’s in my “kit” – my go-to story resources that will trigger specific feelings.

We’re constantly told that selling is emotional.

Stories can help us stroke the right emotion we need to target.

Need your prospect to feel inspired?

Bring on the tale of the underdog … like the one about the washed-up 63 year old who finally made his fortune.

Need to generate sympathy?

How about a story of the poor kid who only wants one thing for Christmas: a new pair of shoes for his dying mother.

(Yes, I’m referencing the song “Christmas Shoes” – which is blatantly maudlin, downright manipulative if you’re feeling cynical – and yet I am defenseless when it plays on the radio at Christmas time. Play song, cue tears.)

In fact, the idea that “stories are a drug” is more than just a metaphor:

It’s a scientific fact.

Image of Jesse Pinkman from "Breaking Bad" with caption: "Yeah Science"

It’s wonderful to see young people enthusiastic about science.

Paul J Zack, a neuroeconomist, wrote a book which I have not read called The Moral Molecule, examining the way oxytocin, (also called the “love” or “trust” hormone) molds trust and social behavior.

Okay, so I haven’t read that book, but I did read this fine article where Zak discusses stories and oxytocin. (You should read it, too. But not until you’re done reading this one. Because that would be rude. And I would cry.)

Zak and his colleagues showed a tear-jerker video to human lab rats and then measured the oxytocin in their bloodstreams.

Turns out those folks had higher levels of oxytocin in their blood stream after watching the short movie.

Cool, right?

But it gets better for us money-hungry marketers …

Because those participants with the highest levels of oxytocin ended up donating the most money to a charity after they watched the video.

Brain chemistry changed by the drug of story.

But it has to be the right kind of story. Another cool point you’ll uncover in that Zak article is that only certain kinds of stories activated the oxytocin release.

Which kinds?

Stories that hewed to the traditional dramatic arc, which I wrote about last week.

(Yes, you can go back and read that first if you haven’t. It’s not rude, because I gave you permission. And this article is almost over anyway.)


Stories can trigger powerful emotions. Select the right emotions for your message and tell a good story to flip that switch. But use this power carefully.

With great story comes great responsibility.

Stay Tuned For Next Week …

In which I walk the halls of (fake) Washington DC to discover how to capture ultimate power

What stories do you use to “self medicate”?

Let me know in the comments below. And as always,

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Scott McKinstry
Scott McKinstry
Scott McKinstry is a direct response copywriter who specializes in telling stories. You can contact Scott and learn more about using the power of stories in marketing at marketingwithstory.com.
Showing 8 comments
  • Steve

    Scott and/or Kevin… First off, great article Scott. I totally believe in the power of story. My question is, how do I know what emotion I should try and target in my prospects? Is there a way to easily find out? I’m in the memory improvement space. If you have an opinion on what would emotion to test first I’d gladly hear it…

    • Reply

      Steve, Great question.

      One place to start is by talking with your customers or — if you don’t have any — visit forums that discuss memory improvement.

      Can’t go out and ask them “what feeling makes you buy?” but you can listen to their stories, their struggles for improving their memory — ask them why they want to improve their memory in the first place. (Bonus: some of these stories could be feed 60SSH’s for your promotions later on.)

      So for example, if you’re customers are “bio-hackers” or students seeking performance enhancement, they might tell you a story about getting an edge at work or school. Then you might want to target feelings of prestige and exclusivity.

  • Jackie McMillan

    Lois McMaster Bujold’s stories are my best “self-medication”. I laugh, I cry, I get fiercely involved, and I step out the other end a lot more ready to face my own challenges…

    • Reply

      That’s great, Jackie — and nice to see another speculative fiction buff here. I hear a little Bujold years ago — just can’t remember which one.

  • Bill Hamilton


    Thank you and damn you…

    Thank you for this great post. I’ve learned not to expect anything less from you.

    Damn you because now I’m jonesing and I’ve got to go on Hulu and spend the next 45:02 getting my fix in the form of Tapestry (season 6, ep. 15, for those of you who need to get right, too.)

    • Reply

      Thanks, Bill — and that’s 45 minutes well spent!

      Love this bit at the end to crystallize the theme:

      PICARD: I owe him [Q] a debt of gratitude.
      RIKER: In what sense? It sounds like he put you through hell.
      PICARD: There are my parts of my youth that I’m not proud of …. loose threads … untidy parts of me that I’d like to remove. But when I pulled on one of those threads, it unraveled the tapestry of my life.

  • Bruce Wesley Chenoweth

    Brilliant, as usual. I do have a request, however … If you are going to send us all scrambling to revisit a television show, at least save us the time of searching through all the seasons and episodes by identifying which it is. (Season 6, episode 15, BTW–it started–gotta go.)

    • Reply

      Thanks, Bruce — I just didn’t want to deprive you of chancing upon another ST:TNG gem while you searched 😉

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