The Stinky Cow Principle: How to Tell Stories that Make People Trust You

Andy Raskin by

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on Medium here.

Details—even the gory ones—make you more likable.

Last week I led a strategic storytelling workshop in which a millennial digital marketer named Max related the tale of how he came to his profession:

I was living in Los Angeles, trying to make it in the film business. But it wasn’t working out. So I moved back in with my parents. Then I found an internship in digital marketing, and I’m doing that today.

Aside from lacking a certain oomph, the story, as Max told it, made him come off as a bit of a quitter. I had the feeling Max’s story didn’t reflect who he truly was, so I asked him:

Can you describe the moment you knew you were not cut out for the film business?

That’s when Max told the class about a van, the Discovery Channel, and a smelly cow—endearing himself forever to everyone who was there, and serving up a priceless opportunity to demonstrate how well-crafted stories help you build trust with people you’ve never met.

Max’s “Stinky Cow” revealed

Executive leaders like Max attend my workshops to learn how to structure pitch narratives for their companies, products, and ideas. To familiarize them with narrative structure, I first ask them to share a story about themselves.

Specifically, I ask them to recall a time in their lives when something happened that forced them to take action. Screenwriters (and readers of my posts) will recognize this as what Hollywood screenplay guru Robert McKee calls the “inciting incident”:

In the movies, inciting incidents kick off the action. Nemo gets lost. Vader kidnaps Leia. Harry meets Sally.
Max’s inciting incident, in his story’s initial telling, was simply that his Hollywood film career was “not working out.” But when I asked if he could recall the moment he decided to throw in the towel, this is what he said:

“I’ll tell you exactly when it was. I was working on a shoot for the Discovery Channel, and part of the set was this carcass of a dead cow. It smelled to high heaven. I was a lowly production assistant, so after the filming was over, it was my job to ride in a van with this stinky, rotting mass of flesh. Wasps filled the air, and I could barely breathe. That’s when I said to myself, ‘Maybe this is not going to work out.’”

Nearly all of Max’s classmates were smiling now, so I asked them to share how their impressions of Max (whom they had never met before) changed after hearing the new details of his story. They said things like:

“I feel like I can trust him more.”

“He’s someone who’s not afraid to change course when things truly aren’t working, not someone who just gave up.”

“I can’t explain it, but he seems more creative now.”

I sometimes say that stories are a “write API” for humans — that is, a channel for inserting beliefs into other people’s brains. After all, if Max had simply stood up and said, “I’m trustworthy, I can change course, and I’m creative,” I doubt that anyone would have come away believing those things about him.

Of course, in order for your story’s “API call” to work its magic on an audience, you have to structure it properly. Can we generalize about why the extra details made Max’s story more effective?

The Stinky Cow Principle: Tell inciting incidents as scenes, not summaries

When you’re telling a story—whether writing a novel or relating recent events to a colleague—you’re constantly making a choice between the two narrative modes that writers call scene and summary.

“I took the cold keys out of my pocket, pressed the automatic unlock button, and heard the doors snap open” is scene.

“I drove to work,” is summary.

The big change that I got Max to make was telling his inciting incident as a scene (“…this stinky, rotting mass of flesh…I could barely breathe…”) rather than as summary (“not working out”). The details, sights and smells put us right there with him in the van, forcing us to imagine ourselves facing the same decision he did.

In tribute to Max, I’ve christened this the Stinky Cow Principle: Stories connect better with audiences when you convey your inciting incident as a scene—especially when the incident involves suffering, failure, disillusionment or struggle on your part.

“I decided to start a high-quality printing shop,” a woman named Melinda said during another recent workshop I led. When I probed for scenic details, Melinda described her own Stinky Cow, which happened to be her boss:

I was working on staff at a printing shop where the owner never cared about doing quality work. One day this man comes in to complain about a shoddy job we had done, but my boss just argued with him and told him to take a hike. That had happened dozens of times, but this time was the straw that broke the camel’s back—the one where I realized that if I wanted to deliver quality work that made people happy, I would have to quit and open my own shop.

I hope you’ll agree that the Stinky Cow version of Melinda’s story is far more effective at conveying her values — not to mention at positioning her as a compelling option for someone in need of high-quality printing.

Apply the Stinky Cow Principle to all of your stories—business and personal

Because my workshops are ultimately geared to business storytelling, the stories that participants tell often revolve around their careers.

But the Stinky Cow Principle makes any business or personal story more effective at connecting with people. For example, the next time you tell a customer success story, instead of just saying, “they had X problem,” paint a full picture — in all its Stinky Cow glory — of how your customers were suffering before you helped them make a change.
The Stinky Cow Principle also applies to happy inciting incidents: The next time someone asks why you first started dating your significant other, instead of summarizing the reasons, describe the scene.

As Max learned, everyone you talk to will feel more connected to the people in your stories — and to you.

Want to learn how to craft your story? Register for our webinar here.

Strategic Messaging & Positioning Leader