In university, one of my lecturers used to scathingly refer to “evidence by anecdote”. It was the practice of using anecdotes to indicate that something was statistically significant. What she was getting at was that evidence or truth shouldn’t be confused with stories.

In marketing, we’re taught to tell stories. And while ‘digital storytelling’ may be hip and cool and on-trend, storytelling is as old as time – it’s how we humans connect, pass on information, understand and be understood.

And here’s where things get murky. Because in marketing, and particularly in sales copy writing, there’s a tendency to hold oneself up as proof that something can be done.

“I used to be poor. I had a horrid childhood. I flunked out of school. My friends abandoned me, and my dog ran off.

“Now I’m rich, with a successful business, a hot husband, a swag of kids (and a nanny to do the not-fun stuff), and I’ve just returned from the Bahamas. I’m proof that you can have this too.”

Yeah, no. Here’s why “I’m proof” is not only lazy marketing, but it’s insensitively simplistic and obnoxious.

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Walk the talk

If you are selling a way to help people better manage stress, we assume you’re someone who is good at reducing their own stress. If you’re a business coach, we assume business is going well. If your brand is all about healthy lifestyle, we assume you’re not smoking, binge drinking and popping pills like it’s 1999.

Walking your talk is the least your community expects.

It’s not too much to ask that you have integrity and that you’re immersed in what you do and aren’t suffering from the exact same issues that you help others seek to solve. Of course, you’re human, you’re not infallible. But you’re a leader and leaders walk their talk.

Using yourself as proof is different from walking your talk.

Why it’s lazy and obnoxious

Everyone loves an underdog story. One of the reasons we celebrate these is because they’re rare. It’s rare for someone with an impoverished, dysfunctional background to rise to great heights because your socialisation is a hugely powerful influence on your life.

Your socialisation, including your culture and ethnicity, your education, your childhood friends and subculture, your appearance, gender, job history and peers are all influential on how you think and what you do. To suggest otherwise is to disregard the innumerous research studies that back this up.

Yes, it’s possible to rise beyond your circumstances, and yes, attitude, beliefs and motivation do make a difference, but they are not the whole story.

But doesn’t it motivate people?

While suggesting “I’m proof” is suppose to be motivating, it doesn’t always work that way. While some find it motivating, others find it demeaning, patronizing or alienating.

It can be discouraging to those struggling with very real obstacles in doing what they want to suggest that their reality is not true and that they only need to work harder to change their circumstances. Tell that to a single mother receiving no support from family, who’s juggling children and a full-time job while trying to grow a side business.

Your attitude, beliefs and motivation are a big factor in what you achieve in business and life. As a business coach, I see this play out in my clients every day.

But it’s naïve or obnoxious to suggest that someone’s socialisation is irrelevant and that attitude, belief and motivation is all you need.

Measuring the efficacy of what you do

Proof means evidence, and one person’s story is not evidence enough. You need to measure the effect of what you do and gather testimonials and case studies to showcase this.

We are not the same and we are far from equal. Your process, methods, or techniques need to be effective for a range of people in a range of circumstances. This is why I seek diversity in the testimonials and case studies that I showcase (though yes, I have a lot of yoga teacher clients!).

Communicating value with stories and evidence

The gold standard of effective selling is that which appeals to both logic and emotion. Cite data and research that demonstrates the efficacy of your industry, sector or process. Use any media mentions from your sector or industry, as well as case studies and testimonials.

Combine this with stories, yours’ and your clients’. Stories are powerful to help develop rapport with strangers through computer screens.

Times have changed. Walking your talk is the least we expect. People are increasingly cynical and skeptical. Avoid using “I’m proof” and holding yourself up as an example or risk attracting groupies or dilettantes. You’ve earned people’s attention so don’t waste it with lazy, obnoxious marketing. We can do better.