Who is your favorite novel or movie character?
Have you ever wondered why you love that character so much? The connection you have with your character is the same type of connection you can have with your buyer persona.
In our second of four blog posts on writing buyer personas that work, we will look at eight lessons fiction writers can teach us about building characters. As a business leader, writing a compelling buyer persona can solve two problems for your marketing, communications, and sales efforts.
- The process pushes you to become intimate with the problems your persona faces and the cost of failure.
- A well-written persona fosters empathy so that you care about solving the problems and helping the persona avoid failure.
However, you may feel conflict on your team between these two items. If you don’t have a deep understanding of the problems and pain of your persona, you’ll miss your customers by miles. It is most important. But, if you don’t have empathy, you won’t have the drive you need to solve the problems. (We will focus on empathy in part 4 of this series.)
Take these eight lessons seriously, but don’t move on to #2 - #8 until you fully grasp #1.
1. Understand that Your Persona’s Life is at Stake
Thriller novelist Dean Koontz urges authors to plunge their heroes into great peril quickly—on the first page if possible. As a reader, you become aware of how big the stakes are. Your heart beats harder. You turn pages faster.
- Lucy, Susan, Peter, and Edmund must defeat the White Witch or Narnia is lost forever.
- Robert Langdon must protect the Holy Grail or Western Civilization will crumble and many will die.
- Jack Ryan must rush to help Marco Ramius defect with Red October before the US and Soviet Union start World War III.
That’s why we read. If the stakes weren’t high enough, the author would lose us.
Why knowing the stakes is important
The stakes are this high for your personas. Do you know what’s at risk? Do the problems your personas face make your heart beat harder? Do you push yourself to serve them better because of their pain? When you know the depth, breadth, and width of your personas’ problems, your entire team will work with urgency and feel the victory with each sale.
How to include the stakes in your personas
Think through conversations with your customers. Do any of these “big stakes” ring true? If not, what’s at risk for your personas?
- Does your persona have an IPO on the horizon?
- Boss to persona: “You’ll need to find a new job if we don’t turn a profit this year.”
- Did your persona risk all her personal wealth to finish the funding for your product? Is she going to be broke if it doesn’t fly, but she did it anyway without blinking?
Still struggling to define the risks and pains? What’s at stake for your life and work? To quote George Bailey when he was lecturing Mr. Potter in "It’s a Wonderful Life," remember, you and your personas “do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community.”
Remember, wrestle this one to the ground first before taking any of the other steps. Refine this first before refining any others. If you conduct research on your personas, go deeper here than any other topic.
2. Give Names to Your Personas
What is the first thing you do when you meet someone? You exchange names. Approach your personas the same way: each persona is more than a list of statistics or facts. Each persona is an ideal, a hero, a friend.
Why Naming Your Personas Helps
When you give names to your personas, you’ll be able to refer to them by a shorthand. Everyone in your organization should know their names. When you say the name of one of your personas, your team members’ imaginations and brains should flood with the personality and character of the persona. Your team will find themselves defending your personas in meetings about new specs or features. They’ll bring the personas up in conversation and have them front-of-mind when working.
How to Find the Perfect Names
There are many methods for creating character names. My favorite used to be the phone book. I would pick a city to set my story in, call the phone company, and pay a small fee to have a phone book shipped to me. I would then open to a random page and start reading names out loud. Within a few minutes, I would find a strong first name. A few pages later, I’d discover a strong last name. You can use the same technique with your CRM. Sort your name list by an odd column, then start reading names. You’ll have a good name in no time.
Don’t forget other “names” — position in company, company name, company address. You can say a lot about the persona with these facts.
3. Physically Describe your Personas
Physical description is more important to some writers than others. John Grisham gives just enough to ignite the theater of the mind and distinguish the hero from the other characters. Stephen King likes to give his characters visible quirks and at points will go into fine detail.
Why Physical Descriptions Help
If you can’t see your personas, you will struggle to build a relationship with them. How we look says a lot about us. It says a lot about your personas, too.
How to Paint a Picture
Height, weight, hair color, and eye color are fun characteristics to give your personas. They are less important, however, than these characteristics. Try to write a short paragraph about each.
- How does my persona dress?
- What computer does my persona use?
- What personal tech does my persona use — phone, watch, iPad, Kindle, etc.
- What anti-tech does my persona use — Moleskine journals, Pilot G-2 gel pens, etc.
- What does my persona drive?
Be sure to actually include a stock photograph that personifies your persona.
4. Identify Your Persona's Inner Life
You’ve described what your personas look like on the outside. Now go inside.
Fiction writers will tell you that every superhero needs a fatal flaw (like kryptonite for Superman). They will also tell you that they have motivations, scars, wounds, past trauma, and inner demons to fight. For your persona, you can go this deep if you want to, but some surface idiosyncrasies could work well enough, such as a knee that goes up and down when thinking, a propensity to chew on the ear piece of reading glasses, or pacing when on the phone.
Why Defining the Inner Life Matters
Knowing more about your personas inner life will constantly remind you that your persona has problems to solve and pain points to resolve. Remember, knowing the stakes is most important. (See #1.) The inner life reminds us of the stakes. The quirks connect us with the person.
How to Write about the Inner Life
Think through three of your biggest customers. Sit with them in a meeting in your imagination. Watch them and listen to them. Let these observations and stories inform your personas’ inner life idiosyncrasies.
5. Create a Backstory
When you write your personas, you are writing them at a specific place and a time. You may know about your personas' level of education, but there is more to backstory than that. Just think about wanting to know more about Han Solo and Lando Calrissian when you watched the original Star Wars trilogy or being shocked when your favorite character’s old flame appeared in a scene in "Grey’s Anatomy."
Why Backstory Informs Today’s Marketing
Your personas have history. They have been through tough times. Perhaps your C-Suite persona lost a close race for student body president before senior year. That’s what drives her. She needs to win. Furthermore, she played lacrosse under a hyper-critical coach. That relationship is why she reacts to criticism so quickly. If you know the backstory, you won’t take questions and negotiation so personally. You’ll acknowledge something is behind the behavior
How to Think Through Backstory
Novelists will tell you that every character they write is somewhat autobiographical. What drives you? Motivates you? Slows you down? Distracts you? Raises the hair on the back of your neck? Take those stories and craft the backstories and relationships for your personas. Start with a paragraph about a key event and a key relationship for each persona.
6. Conduct Research
Conduct regular research with your name list; you can even use a service to do this for you. Research is important, but if you’ve been selling your product or service for a while, your instincts are good to build the baseline. Just don’t neglect research. Always be building more information.
Why You Should Include Research in Your Marketing Budget
Imagine an archery target. Archers score higher totals when they hit the bullseye. The more research you conduct, interpret, and communicate to your entire team, the closer everyone will come to hitting the bullseye with their work. If you’ve only done a little research, you’ll be lucky to hit the hay bale the target is attached to. Research powers information.
Two Categories for Research
Statistics - Survey your name list from time to time with a few key questions. Make sure that the data ends up associated with their name fields in the CRM. (Yes anonymous surveys have their place and can give you big picture data.)
Anecdotes - Ask your team to update the CRM with more than just the facts of meetings and phone calls. Their notes should include—lifestyle factors or even miscellany.
7. Determine What Makes You Like the Character
John Grisham’s heroes are often scoundrels but we love them anyway. Why? He builds one or two things into them that we like and admire.
- In The Firm, Mitch McDeere was a hardworking and smart lawyer who was a newlywed. You fell in love with him when he fixed a candlelight Chinese takeout meal for his wife.
- In The Testament, Nate O’Reilly is trying to escape his inner demons.
- In Rogue Lawyer, we think Sebastian Rudd is cool because of his van and his method of practicing law.
Why You Should Like Your Personas
If you like the persona, you’ll fight for the persona by making your product better, faster, or delivered on time. Everyone needs to like your personas or they won’t like working on the product.
How to Build in Likable Factors
Years ago, I had a customer who is 5’7” but carries himself like he is 7 feet tall. His smile was just as big. I just liked this guy from the moment I met him. Think about a handful of your clients or potential customers. What factors did you just like about them? If you find yourself saying, “none,” scratch that person off the list and keep thinking about others. Once you have three or four facts about each persona, you’re in good shape.
8. Put Your Personas in Situations
By now, you’ve got a pretty good idea of who your persona is… much deeper than a checklist or a graph of statistics. Now it’s time to make your personas move. Characters in books run, drive, escape, hide, and are hoisted on shoulders. What do your personas do?
Why Your Personas Should Act
Think about the AI revolution for a second. If AI doesn’t respond in a situation or conversation, it’s not very well developed. Your customers will respond to the stimuli you create. By imagining how your personas will react to what you say, market, show, and sell, you’ll be more successful.
How to Determine Actions
Think of a situation where you will interact with a persona. If you don’t know what they’ll do, have a conversation with the persona. Role play with another team member. You’ll be shocked at what the persona does and says. (And it’s a lot of fun.)
- How would your persona behave at a trade show?
- How would they interview and hire an employee?
- How do they relax? Celebrate?
- How do they act when they visit your website?
- How do they interact with your product?
- How would they go about buying your product?
Remember, you persona is a turbo tool for your marketing and sales efforts. Building a foundational understanding of whom you're selling to will increase your lead-to-SQL ratio.
In the next post, we will examine the missing step in the buyer's journey
and how to guide your personas through it.