Deadly Tears and Emergency Storytelling: Get Serious About Your Brand Now!

How to become an unstoppable brand storyteller | KOTAW Content MarketingNo story tells itself. No story sells itself.

A story is only as good as its narrator and only as powerful as its marketer.

I can — and probably do — recite these truisms in my sleep. Getting wide-awake people to believe them, however, is a challenge.

Although storytelling has become a trendy marketing concept, it’s not one business owners easily embrace. And they’re even less likely to accept the idea that a story goes nowhere without passionate, ongoing promotion.

But, it’s true. You must tell — and sell — your story as if someone’s life depended on it.

And sometimes it does.

Unbelievable Story

A recent family medical emergency gave me unlikely but profound insight into the power of storytelling.

It started with my elder daughter’s tears. Bri had cried herself to sleep after learning that a close friend was moving away. And woke up with a pumpkin-shaped head, struggling to catch her breath.

I gave her a handful of Benadryl pills and took her to the nearest hospital, where the ER nurse was alarmed by my daughter’s swollen face and throat, but absolutely unconvinced as to the professed cause. Had she eaten a new food, changed laundry detergent, suffered a bee sting?

No, no and no. She’s having an allergic reaction to her tears!

The nurse looked at me as if I were daft. I explained that Bri suffered from two rare autoimmune disorders and might be experiencing a new symptom. The nurse had never heard of either of the diseases and trying to educate her meant delaying my daughter’s care.

I did the smart thing. I shut up. I held Bri’s hand while they hooked her up to an IV and answered whatever questions anyone asked without offering any opinion of my own. A few hours later, she was discharged with a handful of prescriptions and advice to eat organic food and avoid fabric softeners.

No one told her not to cry.

More Than Spilled Milk

Back home, we discovered that Bri’s younger sister Kelsey was already researching “best rheumatologists” and had come up with a short list of doctors who seemed to possess both the credentials and the compassion to treat Bri’s worsening condition. Because as dramatic as the crying episode was, it was actually less troubling than many of her other symptoms.

My daughters fairly quickly selected the rheumatologist, a world-renowned doctor who wrote and spoke eloquently about the baffling mystery surrounding autoimmune diseases, a man who had attended Kelsey’s alma mater (University of Southern California) and mine (University of Michigan) and — even better — loved dogs! This smart, soft-spoken man, they said, was the one we needed.

Let’s make an appointment!

This should have been the easy part, but there were a few obstacles:

1. The doctor was on vacation for three weeks.
2. He was not accepting new patients.
3. Bri had no insurance.

This is where the power of storytelling and story selling — kicked in.

And here are the practical — non-medical — branding lessons you can learn from the story of the deadly tears.

1. Once is Never Enough

I wrote a masterful letter to Doctor P., one I knew would pique his intellectual curiosity, tug at his heartstrings and massage his ego. I didn’t know if the letter would convince him to accept Bri as a patient, but I knew he would respond.

I’m my toughest critic. I don’t applaud everything I write and I still regret word choices that were made and published years ago. But I knew the letter to Dr. P. was among my finest work. He could not possibly ignore me.

Five days passed, and I heard nothing. I called the office and this is when I learned that the doctor was on vacation. And that I shouldn’t bother writing since he wasn’t taking new patients anyway.

So I had to tell my story again. And again and again. To scheduling clerks, nurses, managers, billing supervisors, executives, office temps — anyone who picked up the phone. Finally, someone told me she would personally deliver my fax to the doctor.

Two days later, we received word that Dr. P. would see us on the first day after he returned from vacation and had cleared a full hour of his schedule for Bri.

Lesson: Never assume that posting your personal or company story to your website — or promoting it a couple of times on social media — is all it takes to get your message in front of your target audience. Your story may bore you after the first or second telling, but you must summon up the original passion every time you share it. Your story is an integral part of your brand. Tell it often and well. You never know when you’ll reach the pivotal people who will champion your success.

2. Success is Fragile; Failure is Temporary

Bri’s condition grew alarming — we were back at the ER twice in the following 10 days — but we were optimistic that, if we could calm her symptoms for a few weeks, she’d get the answers and treatment she needed when she saw Dr. P.

We treated her with western medicine (steroids, antihistamines and pain meds), eastern medicine (acupuncture and herbs we prepared like witch’s brew) and home remedies (chamomile tea baths and poultices made from bread and milk). It was a weird maintenance mix that required near round-the-clock care, but helped us stave off terror as we counted the days until her appointment with Dr. P.

And gave us time to figure out how we were going to pay for Bri’s care. When she was diagnosed at 18 with rare autoimmune diseases, she became uninsurable. The day she left college, she was on her own for medical costs. Fortunately, she went into remission for several years, and we managed to absorb the high but not impossible expenses as they arose.

But now she needed care that could easily climb into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. More research, more phone calls, more hours on hold. Finally found that Obamacare provided for emergency insurance coverage. Filled out forms, got rejected. Filled out more forms, got rejected again. Finally went to a social services office to plead Bri’s case in person.

I Found myself in an absolute pit of despair. There were hundreds of sick, sad and depressed people waiting for assistance. How could I convince anyone that my daughter’s needs took priority? I had no paperwork, no doctor’s note specifying her ailment or the emergency. I didn’t even have the applicant — Bri was too sick to make the trip.

But I had Bri’s sister Kelsey, and we made a pair of unstoppable storytellers. The jaded, overworked social workers eventually believed us and pushed through the paperwork. We left with 60 days of immediate medical coverage and assurance that permanent insurance would kick in.

Hurrah Hurray. Yahoo!

Until a Thursday afternoon, one business day before Bri’s Monday appointment with Dr. P, when his office called to cancel the appointment. They wouldn’t take Bri’s government-funded insurance and wouldn’t take cash because that might jeopardize her (now meaningless) coverage.

The next 28 hours weren’t pretty, and I’ll spare you the details. But at 6:47 p.m., 107 minutes after Dr. P’s office had closed for the weekend, I had confirmation that Bri’s Monday appointment was back on.

Lesson: Enjoy and savor every victory, but never rest on past accomplishments. Getting record traffic to your website one month does not mean you can let your social media efforts slide the next. And the failure of a social media campaign does not mean your marketing efforts are fruitless. Branding is not a loaf of bread — it is never “done”. There are shortcuts, of course, and skillful strategies work better than haphazard ones (this is where hiring an expert comes in.) But the need to nurture your brand is, like parenting, a long-term commitment.

3. Start with the End in Hand

I was privileged to be among those involved in the publication of Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” so his “begin with the end of mind” advice was sharply imprinted on my brain long before the book became a bestseller and classic. Whenever possible, I like to take his habit a step further: get what I want first and figure out the details later.

That’s why I pursued Dr. P. before learning about his holiday plans, his no-new-patient policy or the bureaucratic nightmares of medical, insurance and governmental entities. I needed a victory to get me through the struggles that followed.

That victory was important for another crucial reason. By the time Dr. P saw Bri in his office, he was fully invested in her treatment. He had already memorized every line in her medical records, consulted with other specialists, planned a gazillion tests and investigated the possibility of turning Bri’s case into a clinical trial.

Dr. P., internationally known and respected, was not about to let the issue of money get in the way. He was Bri’s ally before they’d met and was already working on the payment issue behind the scenes. When he chatted with me a few days later, he told me not to worry about my daughter or the cost of her treatment.

Lesson: Don’t create obstacles to your success or resign yourself to second-rate tools or contractors. Go after what you want and need first. And aim high. The best, brightest and most successful people are often just as — or more — willing to help you build your brand than those new to the profession.

4. Find an Advocate

Dr. P., a professor at USC, teaches at the county-university hospital in downtown Los Angeles. It’s one of the largest hospitals in the country and has an abysmal reputation (its treatment of indigent patients featured in Michael Moore’s Oscar-nominated “Sicko” gave me nightmares.)

But, if Bri needed emergency treatment again, that’s where she was supposed to go. Use my name, Dr. P. said, and insist on seeing a rheumatologist. Bri will be well taken care of, he assured me. He did warn her, however, about the wait time in the ER — it averaged two days!

So I prayed that Bri would never need to go the county ER or hospital for any reason. She was taking some pretty heavy-duty medications and she had a follow-up appointment to see Dr. P in a month. Certainly, we could care for her at home until then?

But, just in case…I made some phone calls. Dr. P., for all of his knowledge, was not an ER doctor. I didn’t doubt his daunting statistic, but there had to be some way to get around those averages. How did people with serious medical needs — short of gunshot wounds and heart attacks — get prompt treatment?

An extraordinarily helpful man (David, cubicle 14, financial services) talked me through the ER admission process. I tucked the information away, thinking I’d never need it. But three nights later, when we had to go to the county ER, I applied everything David told me. Bri’s waiting time — from sign-in to admittance — was just under 10 minutes.

His most crucial piece of advice? Stick close to your daughter; become her advocate. Sick people, he said, generally do a lousy job of speaking up for themselves and, in a place as horrendously overburdened as LA’s county hospital, their needs may get overlooked.

So I stayed with Bri during all but 90 minutes of what turned out to be a five-day hospital stay. I made sure her questions were answered, her needs met. And, when a 6’2”, 240-pound man insisted on injecting Bri with medicine she didn’t want, I stood between him and his narcotic-filled syringe until he backed down.

Bri is a powerful force. Under normal circumstances, the bully nurse wouldn’t have stood a chance against her. But she was sick, scared and in pain, at times without strength to fumble for the call button. She certainly wasn’t up to educating caretakers about her mysterious symptoms at every shift change or asking questions about the ever-expanding mix of medications she was prescribed.

She needed someone to tell her story, to market her message.

Lesson: If you want your brand to get noticed in a market far more crowded and disinterested than what you might find at a 600-bed county hospital, hire an advocate.

Marketing, always complex, has grown exponentially more complicated in the digital age. The public distrusts ads and, although buying audiences do have faith in branded content, they won’t believe messages they never see or hear.

You can write a blog or produce a video and share it on social media, but you’re competing for attention with 27 million pieces of content shared a day, and more than 5 billion messages shared daily on Facebook and Twitter. You can advertise but, even if people respond to your message, fewer than 1 in 5 will find it credible, according to research by Forrester.

These are formidable odds, nearly impossible to beat without outside expertise. Few business owners have the time or acumen to successfully brand themselves on their own.

Get the help you need before a competitor — or Google algorithm — plunges morphine into your company’s veins.

5. Be Tough, Play Nice

Polite persistence has always been my approach to achieving goals, but I had serious doubts about whether it would prove effective in a chaotic hospital environment. My quiet “pleases” and “thank yous” were drowned out by the screamed obscenities of shackled prisoners and upstaged by diaper-throwing fights and dementia-driven monologues.

I was prepared to forsake all of my principles of conduct and join the shouting until I observed Bri’s stunning impact on the staff. Over and over again, doctors, nurses and technicians introduced themselves to Bri with some version of, “Hi, I’m X. I’m told that you’re in an incredible amount of pain and just about the nicest person I’ll ever meet.”

Bri’s gentle manner and contagious personality worked miracles. Doctors literally lined up in the hallway for their chance to help, came in on their days off to check on her, championed her cause to superiors and insisted that she be assigned a private room with free cable TV and telephone service.

The medical staff treated Bri exceptionally well for one simple reason: they liked her.

Lesson: In a noisy, sometimes cacophonous market, don’t try to outshout everyone. Be likable instead. Make yourself someone worth listening to and people will lean in to hear you and reach out to help.

Nice is not a synonym for weak. It’s a kick-ass word that shortcuts success.

No More Tears

Johnson’s Baby Shampoo never lived up to that promise in our household but, thanks to an incredible team of doctors whose diagnostic skills could inspire a reality version of “House M.D.” and a sister whose mystery-solving prowess would make Nancy Drew jealous, Bri is less afraid to cry.

Thanks to her improving health — she joined us on a walk with Ivy last week! — she’s in little danger of shedding any more deadly tears.

In fact, I’ve joyously witnessed the return of Bri’s killer smile — hazardous only to those who fall under its spell.

The digital landscape is treacherous for business owners unfamiliar with the demands and nuances of personal branding. What challenges do you face — or what advice do you have — for CEOs and entrepreneurs who are trying to mesh their individual and corporate identities? Please share your questions, wisdom — or both — in the comments section below.


  1. Hey Kat

    I am in tears. Your tenacity, talent and tenderness amaze me more and more every day. WOW

    I have not seen your ‘letter’ to Dr. P, but THIS is your most wondrous piece-of-work YET. (But I am sure your next post will be even better because you are the kind of person who sets new benchmarks of quality every time you pen something)

    My ‘virtual’ hugs do not have the power to communicate my love for you and your words, but here is my #CushiestHUGForTeamKat


    • Katherine Kotaw says:

      This certainly counts among the hardest pieces I’ve written so it pleases me immensely that you admire it. Everything I write comes from the heart, but this one came from its innermost depths.

      I expect the next few pieces will be “slacker” jobs, by comparison, but I will always strive for better — just as you do with your work.

      Please know that every time you struggle with a piece of work that it means you are growing as a writer. The frustration (the agony) that you sometimes experience is the mark of a great writer. And, yes, “great writer” refers to YOU.

      Know that I am always here to nurture your talent and remind you of your gift.

      Just KEEP WRITING, dear Kit and thank you for reading my words.

      Team KitKat is unstoppable!!

  2. What an impact you had on the health and wellness of your daughter. Thank you for sharing such a personal and triumphant message. Clearly you and your girls are a strong unit and I’m so glad you have each other! I’m going to work on the story of my brand and let you know when I’ve refined it.

    • Katherine Kotaw says:

      Thank you so much, Joann, for your words of support. And, yes, please share your refined story with me whenever it’s ready. I eagerly await it. :)

  3. This goes beyond storytelling. It’s the expression of unconditional love between mother and daugther, the proof of a superb writing talent and wise insights to transfer impactful life experiences to business environments. Chapeau Katherine!

    • Katherine Kotaw says:

      Thank you, Hans. Your high praise is leaving me at a loss for words, a circumstance that rarely befalls me. So please forgive the lack of a proper reply, but know that you’ve made me smile brightly tonight.

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