two clear drinking glasses on table

A Secret Look Inside a Nuthin’ Story

One of my clients is a former newspaper colleague who now runs his own marketing firm and who has more work than he knows what to do with. Truth be told, whereas once I was a mentor to him when he was a young journalist, he’s now a mentor to me as I seek to grow Johnny Boy Marketing.

A major client for Marc is a well-known midwestern university that has some of the most successful masters degree programs in the world. When Marc heard I was looking for some side-gig work, he started steering some overflow things my way.

Marc sends me transcripts of interviews and oftentimes links to other information about some of the amazing graduates who are currently doing things in the working world that would blow your mind — from artificial intelligence to bioengineering, project management of massive commercial construction jobs to advanced cybersecurity. The people I’m writing about make me realize exactly how little I did with my own college years.

(Sorry about that, Mom and Dad.)

My job is to find the story inside those interviews and crank out 500 to 600 words that will be posted on the alumni websites and new-student-recruiting pages for these programs. If Marc had enough of these stories to allow me to pay the bills and live the life I want to lead, I would do this full time in a heartbeat.

And yet, every once in awhile, there’s a story he tosses at me that I refer to as a Nuthin’ Story. I experienced Nuthin’ Stories as a newspaper journalist back in the day, and it’s good to know that something hasn’t changed. There are definitely still Nuthin’ Stories out there.

This isn’t to say that the people behind the Nuthin’ Stories are Nuthin’ People. They’re not. In the case of this client, they still are amazing people who are doing amazing thing.

Nuthin’ Stories are the ones that come from interviews in which the subject of the story can’t conversationally articulate why it is I’m talking to him or her in the first place. Most often, these folks are highly technical and/or scientific people with no familiarity of what a storyteller needs to showcase exactly how amazing they are.

That’s not their fault. The last thing I want these people doing is taking time away from, like, saving the world to learn how to make life easier for marketing people. Rather, it’s my challenge to find a way to take what might be bland, short answers and turn them into something engaging that people want to read.

The Anatomy of a Nuthin’ Story

I had just such a story from Marc this week. Amanda Chen (not her real name) is an exceedingly brilliant person, with three masters degrees and a job at a Fortune 500 company helping industry leaders develop and unleash technological initiatives to grow their businesses.

Yet in reading what Chen submitted as her answers to Marc’s questions, I couldn’t initially figure out what she did for a living, nor why it mattered.

If you’re ever in the market for a marketing person to help you in your business, this is a way you can tell the good ones from the ones who are doing it only because they got tossed from the newspaper industry or they don’t want to have a boss: What will your marketing consultant do when confronted with a Nuthin’ Story?

Nuthin’ Stories aren’t just blogs and articles. They could be Nuthin Products, as in, a product that’s just another player with no real differentiators in an already crowded market. It could be a Nuthin’ Business … for example, another cupcake maker in your small town that already has five. None of these things are bad. They’re just challenging.

Marc would pay me regardless of how engaging my story was. It would have been possible to turn out 500 words that told a solid tale and then go onto the next one that hopefully was easier. But the fact is, Marc was willing to subcontract with me because he knows that’s not how I operate.

Back in the day, Marc heard me rant endlessly in the newsroom about how the people are the story. I don’t care what you’re writing about or what you’re marketing, it’s not the product or the process that’s what I care about. It’s how that product or process affects real people.

City council changing a parking ordinance is boring as hell; it’s the people affected by that change who matter. Same thing with the products I’m marketing in my full-time job. They clean HVAC parts. Boring, right? You might not think that if your HVAC contractor didn’t know how to use them correctly and fried your air conditioning system right about now.

In everything I do, I’m looking for the person. What Chen’s answers gave me was a lot about her process of working and the technical things she does. It included this gem that could only come from a techie:

My responsibilities include: Serve as a trusted advisor to business and technology leaders to architect, mobilize, and launch delivery constructs to execute a Transformation Journey with clients.

I don’t know about you, but I have no clue what a delivery construct is, and I don’t think I’ve ever been on a Transforming Journey, though I’m excited about it based solely on the capital T and J.

So I dove in. I googled the company she’s now working for. I googled her rather interesting job title — Transformation Excellence Consultant — and found a job posting for it. I checked out her LinkedIn page. I read and re-read her interview answers to try to figure out what she was trying to get across.

And in the end, I did the one thing that has become a hallmark of my career when describing difficult concepts such as how electricity is generated and delivered or how air conditioning works: I found a good analogy.

Turns out, what Chen does, at its essence, is help important people change what they are doing to do something different in the hopes that it will make them and their business a lot more money than if they kept doing what they have been doing.

She’s a change agent.

So I thought of the 1998 best-selling book, “Who Moved My Cheese?” which is all about change and change management. This is another key when you’re hiring a marketing consultant: How worldly are they? Good marketing consultants make excellent Jeopardy contestants (or annoying people to watch Jeopardy with, depending on your perspective). They know a little about a lot — or even a lot about a lot.

I don’t remember when I read “Who Moved My Cheese?” and I didn’t remember exactly how it went, but I knew it well enough to know that it might apply here. So I refreshed my mind by googling the book, and from that, the beginning of my 500 to 600 word story was born.

Amanda Chen won’t hesitate to move your cheese. 

Chen joined information technology consulting giant Accenture as a Transformation Excellence Consultant in May. Her role is one that would appeal to Spencer Johnson, author of the 1998 best-seller “Who Moved My Cheese.”

In the fable, two mice and two “Littlepeople” try to track down their cheese when they find the supply dwindling from its usual place. The moral of the story highlights the possibilities brought about by change and the principles to guide change management. 

That is at the heart of Chen’s mission with the clients she’s working with in her new role. A main focus of her job is to serve as a trusted advisor to business and technology leaders looking to build and unleash changes that boost their companies’ performance. 

Boom. Suddenly, an interview that had really interesting things in it that weren’t quite ready for prime time was transformed into something alumni of that program could fall into.

I Want Your MindSpace

And that’s what I want as a marketing guy: I want the person looking at the work I do to spend time looking at it … as much time as possible. I want you, the reader, to immerse yourself in the world I’m creating for you — if only for a few moments.

Whether it’s a brochure for an early childhood learning center you’re considering for your child or an article about an alumni from your school, I want your mind there.

So if I can find that thing you can relate to, then I’ve done a majority of the work. Tying Chen’s job to a book that has sold more than 30 million copies is a hook that takes a Nuthin’ Story and turns it into a Somethin’ Story for the target audience.

Johnny Boy Marketing is being built on the mission statement: “Great Work. On Time. No Hassles.” In the end, I was able to turn this story in ahead of the deadline, without having to bug Marc to go back to his source for more quotes or any clarification. This lives up to the second and third pillars of the Johnny Boy mission.

Whether the story is great or not is something I’ll leave up to the client and the readers. I think it turned out pretty good, but whatever the thought on it is, my client will know I gave it maximum attention and effort.

John Agliata is a marketing professional with more than 30 years of communications experience. Reach him at or (352) 226-5852.

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