Whether it’s Marvel or Pixar, have you ever noticed how the hit hero movies always contain a story about the main character’s origins? The hero’s origin story explains to the audience who the character is and why he does what he does. These kinds of stories rapidly pull in audience interest because they reveal fundamental components of a person’s past and how they have shaped this person's current decision-making. In short, the origin story imbues a narrative with meaning, empathy, and wonder.
Speaking of wonder: it always amazes me that defense professionals don’t take advantage more of these hero origin story structures in their communications, especially considering the rich storytelling opportunities that exist in the industry to portray heroism. Part of this may be a result of the fact that the defense industry doesn’t normally attract creatives who think along these lines; my other guess is that many organizations or agencies shy away from promoting themselves in this way unless there is an upfront business or policy objective involved.
(If any of you disagree with me, please feel free to air your opinions in the comment box below.)
I started thinking about the importance of the origin story while working on my forthcoming memoir about my previous experience as an American serving in the Israeli security community. While there are many amusing tales I can tell you about my initial naivete in approaching the Israelis or the cross-cultural misunderstandings I had while serving in a foreign military, my editor was quick to point out that these stories would remain surface level for the audience unless I wove in the following:
Who am I
Where did I come from
What compelled me to want to work in the security field (and why Israel)
Why do I see the world the way I do
Memoir, after all, is completely filtered through the lens of the protagonist. If the audience is truly going to come along for the ride, they need to know who the driver is.
So too in the defense industry: give your audience the opportunity to see things through your eyes. Telling your origin story provides an opening to discuss your company’s mission or reason for existing, as well as the benefit you provide that might not be obvious at first glance. It also allows you to speak at a more foundational level in a way that will appeal to a layman or non-technical audience.
As creative director Matt Nagy puts it, “We’re drawn to origin stories because we want to see how ordinary becomes extraordinary.” Your audience wants to know why you do what you do and what makes you tick. The more your audience understands where you’re coming from, the more likely they’ll embrace your product or policy.
A good origin story should also be scalable—meaning, you can easily cannibalize it and retrofit it for different platforms and media so you get the most bang for your buck: share your origin story in a paragraph or two on your website, condense it into a snappy tagline at the beginning of your videos, or include it in the boilerplate you share with the press. You get the picture.
Just getting started? Below are a few quick tips for defense professionals looking to shape an origin story for their organizations:
Demonstrate in simple terms how your technology or service supports a mission (e.g., personal, organizational, national)
Master the ability to distill complexity in compact language. (This is really hard, by the way; you might need to hire a pro marketing writer.)
For discussing highly technical information, link it to a concrete or real-life example for memorable impressions.
Use strong, proactive, visual language, but don’t go overboard with hackneyed emotionalism. (For example, don’t say, “We prevent tragic terrorist attacks.” Terrorist attacks are clearly tragic.)
Don’t forget that compelling story demonstrates impact. Illustrate your organization’s impact upfront, in concrete terms that both the expert and the layman can relate to.
Whether you work for a defense contractor or you’re at a government agency or in the military, I invite your organization to step into the role of hero. It’s not about ego or profit; it’s about the valuable work you do for your country and making sure you properly educate your key audiences. If your audiences don’t understand the value you bring to the table, then why should they greenlight funding for your next project, support your policy, purchase your technology, or vote for you?
It’s easy to forget the past if we don’t unite people with dynamic stories that recall our original mission. Give people a reason to care by telling them why you exist and the benefit you bring to the table. You won’t regret it.
* * *
About Jessica Lauren Walton: Jessica is a communications strategist, video producer, and writer in the U.S. defense industry. She has written articles on a range of security and mental health topics and conducted interviews with military leadership, psychologists, journalists, CIA officers, filmmakers, and more. Jessica recently completed her memoir about her experience as an American woman struggling with mental illness while trying to get into Israeli intelligence.