SD #09: What Shake Shack’s Founder Can Teach Us About Story Setting and How it Inspires Action

solopreneur storytelling Sep 02, 2022
Child eats ketchup at table

What Shake Shack’s Founder Can Teach Us About Story Setting and How it Inspires Action

Read Time: 5.0 minutes

If you change the frame, you change the feeling. And nothing changes frames faster than a story.

— Joseph Grenny | Harvard Business Review

Have you ever thought about the role that setting plays when telling a story?

In this issue you'll see first-hand how setting can inspire your audience to take action in a great example taken from Harvard Business Review’s (HBR) interview with the founder of Shake Shack.

What’s the Tip?

Setting is a powerful way to create a buying environment for your product, service, or idea, because it inspires action. Setting establishes your audience’s expectations, and it lays the groundwork for the experience you want them to have.

How Do You Use It?

You have opportunities every day to establish a story’s setting. These opportunities include: the subject line or preview text of an email (which we talked about in SD Issue #06), the headline of a blogpost, or the first line of a social media post. 

In today’s example, we’ll show you how the use of setting in a story can change behavior.

What's an Example?

Five years ago, author Joseph Grenny interviewed Shake Shack founder, Danny Meyer, for a piece in Harvard Business Review, entitled, Great Storytelling Connects Employees to Their Work. Grenny wanted to learn about Meyer’s focus on building a “culture of hospitality.”

Meyer tells the story of a worker who was spending too much time on his phone and not enough time busing tables at a local Shake Shack.

The store supervisor wasn’t happy about this. And she found a powerful way to let the worker know that it wasn’t ok to be on his phone when there was work to be done. But she didn’t do it through a reprimand.

Instead, she decided to change the setting of her message from one about the worker’s bad habit to one that spelled out the consequences of that bad habit.

Here's the story Meyer relayed to HBR:

As Bert scrutinized his phone, he stood next to spattered and cluttered dining tables. Guests passed him on their way to order food. The supervisor pulled up in front of him, put her hand on his shoulder, and said in a serious and sincere tone:

“Hey Bert, twenty minutes ago a young mother left her two-year-old daughter on one of these chairs while she went to the order window to buy their food. When she walked away, her daughter began sweeping her hand back and forth over the table that was smeared with catsup from one of our previous guests. Then she began licking it off her hand.” 

Bert cringed. Panicked, he looked at the tables to see which ones might put the next two-year-old at risk of catsup-borne disease and began wiping them down.

By changing the setting from one about Bert’s lack of focus to a setting about a customer, the supervisor was able to remind Bert of the difference he made daily at his job and inspired him to be better at his job going forward.

What’s the Benefit to You?

Everything in storytelling, copywriting, persuasion—communication of any kind, really—starts with the setting. And you, as the communicator, have full command over what that setting is.

The next time you sit down to write something, remember the power of setting in your story. Setting is a choice. It’s a choice that sets the scene, the stage, and tone for your storytelling. It’s a choice that can set you up for success, by inspiring your audience to take action.



Setting is a choice.

Setting sets the scene, the stage, and the tone for whatever it is you're trying to communicate.

Change the setting and you can change the outcome.

More Reading You May Like

The Ultimate Sales Letter, Dan Kennedy

The AdWeek Copywriting Handbook, Joe Sugarman


P.S. Whenever you're ready here are 3 ways we can help you:

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  2. Stress-Free Storytelling for Solopreneurs | On-Demand Course.
  3. Private 1:1 Virtual Storytelling Coaching.

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