#26 What’s the Problem?

On strategy and identifying the key issue.

Every good strategy begins with this question. Whether you’re working to solve a business problem or personal one, clearly defining the issue is essential if you want to get to the best solution. Not right solution (because there’s always more than one), but best for your context.

A couple of weeks ago we talked about who your hero is. Now we need to ensure you’re defining the problem they need to solve clearly. A well stated problems is one of the best ways to ensure the success of any strategy you put together and any story you tell. We talked about this a little last year in the context of needing conflict in a story for it to have energy and move forward. Now we’re getting a bit more specific and diving into the realm of effective strategy by naming your problem(s).

I’ve always been very good at sitting back in a meeting, letting people talk around an issue and stepping in once it was somewhat clear to me what the real problem was. I want you to get good at that. All you need to do is listen and pay attention. What’s the thing that your business, your project or your story keeps coming up against? More importantly, how is it impacting your audience?

A business problem is almost always a customer problem and if it isn’t you need to reset your thinking around your business. It’s here to help people (if you have a business and it’s not, this probably isn’t the newsletter for you). If your product isn’t selling, the problem isn’t that people aren’t buying, it’s that it’s not adding value to their lives or making their lives easier in some way. Dig in to that. Do research, talk to your audience try to understand what is happening in their world that may be impacting how they engage with your product or company. Maybe they’re too distracted by a messy house, or overwhelmed at work, or anxious at the state of the world. Your problem then becomes about helping them within their context.

What I’m saying really is that your problem should be grounded in your audience first and foremost. What problem is a potential employer trying to solve when they post a job? What frustration is a potential customer facing when they get online to shop? What roadblock has a client hit when they reach out for help? What is influencing the mindset of a potential buyer of your creative effort? (This last one is more about positioning you than about influencing the creative process, because creating is one of those times I encourage creators to be absolutely self absorbed at first)

An example. In creative strategy (what we do before we make advertising) the problem may come from the client in the form of low sales or a product innovation they want customers to start buying. The job of a good strategist is to refracture that problem and state it through the lens of the customer.

The client problem: Sales of the new doodad launched last year have stagnated and we need to increase them, or we won’t make our sales goals for the year (eye roll, capitalism)

Becomes: Customers are feeling uninspired in their day-to-day which is why they don’t see the ways in which the doodad can help reconnect them to their creativity.

You see what I did there? Yes it’s about selling doodads, but the problem isn’t that they’re not selling it’s that something more important is happening in customer’s lives that presents an opportunity for the client to be useful and helpful in the world.

The right creative storyteller can take that second version of the problem and turn it into a story of reinvigoration and rejuvenation that inspires more customers to buy the doodad and engage with the doodad brand. (Obviously the doodad is an eco-conscious, sustainable solution with long term value because anti-capitalism).

The questions to answer when stating your problem are who (usually your audience), what (the context or situation) and why (the reason for our what).

So before you start crafting your story whether it’s about a business or a fictional character or you, go out into the world, do a bit of research and clearly state the problem you are setting out to solve. I promise it’ll be helpful and grounding.


A Story Well Told

I can read again! I’m not sure if anyone is having or had the same experience, but I spent much of 2020 unable to focus long enough to read a book. Certainly not fiction. As someone who has spent most of her life tucked away with a book, it was hard to deal with. At some point late last year/early this one I picked up a book, Luster by Raven Leilani. I can’t say what it was about this particularly story that brought me back to the world of the reading, but if it has some sort of magical ability I wanted to share it with you, dear reader in hopes it does the same for you. It’s on a lot of lists for being great and provides a lens into an experience of the world and approach to it that is very different from my own, yet familiar. Let me know if you read it and what you think. Also, if you’ve encountered a story you love and think I should share, please just respond to this email with a note about why you loved it. I’m always looking for great new stories to enjoy, in any format.


No, I haven’t forgotten our giveaway. I did the draw last week and our lucky winners are:

Kathy L. - The Water Dancer, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Tanya S. - Becoming, Michelle Obama

Katherine B. - Heart Talk, Cleo Wade

Aly G. - me and white supremacy, Layla F. Saad

Do not worry. I promise this isn’t the last giveaway (in fact I’m in the middle of planning one I’m really excited about) so if you didn’t win this time there will always be next. I’ll be sending notes to winners to organize getting your stories to you.


If you know someone who has a story to tell and may need some help crafting it, please share this newsletter with them and encourage them to subscribe.

Also, if you’re enjoying this or if there’s something you’d like me to cover in a future letter—an element of your storytelling you may be struggling with, please let me know by leaving a comment below. I’m here to help.

You can follow me on Twitter here, and Instagram here. And you can always reach me through my website.

Thanks for reading and I’ll “see” you next week. Whatever the world may bring, there will always be important stories that need you to tell them. I’ll be here to help.

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