Storytelling Lessons from the Cheese Aisle


April 1, 2021

When I was growing up, the sophistication of my cheese palate was limited to bricks of Velveeta and jars of Cheese Wiz.

Fast forward a few years and I’m working at my first marketing job at a small architecture firm in Lincoln, Nebraska. My boss, Dave, buys everyone breakfast, bagels with cream cheese. CREAM CHEESE! I felt like the most sophisticated woman in the world.

The moment  Dave introduced me to this new, and actually edible cheese, I became a student of the world of fromage; Rogue River Blue, Stilton, aged Manchego, Irish Cheddar.

Pair this knowledge with the fact that I’m a Midwestern mother; I express affection and care with food. Scraped your knee? Here’s a cookie. Feeling down? I’ll make you a pie. Something to celebrate? I’ll start the barbecue.

Earlier this week I was in the grocery store and wanted to love up my familySo I meandered over to the cheese case to see what I could find.

New selections everywhere! The descriptions swept this yearning traveler to lands far away…

Connecting the dots between the voice that defined soul music and cheese…brilliant! I actually did repeat the reference to Marvin Gaye when I described this selection to my husband and kids.

Another read…

Humboldt Fog
An American original, expertly ripened in our caves. A layer of vegetable ash recalls Pacific mists rolling over Humboldt County’s pastures and separates the light and citrusy, cake-like layers of this now classic goat.

Even if you’ve never been to Humboldt County and seen the pastures, this descriptor creates a clear, soothing image of what happens when this cheese passes your palate.

And finally…

Domestic Muenster
We’ve specially selected this Muenster for a reason. Smooth, rich paste with a carrot colored rind. Aged for at least one month, it’s smelly, but not disarming, with a fermented sweetness to the stink.

Stinky cheese is a cheese-person’s cheese. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s filled with character like no other. This description was the equivalent of the angels whispering in my ears. It easily found its way into my cart.

But my warm and fuzzies came to a screeching halt when I came to this selection…

Sunset cheddar…are you kidding? It wasn’t an anomaly, I came across block after block that was nothing more than a list of partially filled in features.

Here’s my question to you…

Would you buy the cheese described as…

1) “Cow”, “melting” and “vegetarian”?


2) The one that’s smoother than a chorus of angels led by Marvin Gaye?
Seems ridiculous because it’s only cheese, right?

guarantee this same thing happens to you…that you fall into the “features” trap when you should be delighting and inspiring people with stories of what could be.

What cheese can teach you about storytelling

Why does my Friday-morning cheesefest matter to you? Because at one time or another, you’ve tried to influence someone so they will take action. It could be trying to show them an alternative so they’ll buy your stuff, support your idea or see your point of view (this could be equal parts direct-report or family teenager).

Here’s what you can learn from my experience…

  1. Understand what emotion you want to evoke from your story. Is it hope? Optimism? Fear of consequences if you don’t do anything? For me, cheese was about comfort and connecting. Stories are never, ever about conveying the bare facts (that’s the start of your problem, Sunset Cheddar).
  2. Realize that storytelling is about building a bridge. Stories create a vision of what’s possible in the future. Then, they pave the way for how to get from where you are today to where you want to be. Sometimes one will do (as in my cheese selection), sometimes you need a series of them over a long period of time (think of the 18-24 month long B2B buyer journey).
  3. Great stories make you want to keep coming back for more. (Lists of features don’t). I wanted more mist on the pastures and sweet stinkiness wrapped in a carrot-colored rind. What matters enough to your audience that they’d want to keep coming back for more? What’s the broader picture that matters to them?

Storytelling isn’t always easy. But focusing only on your product’s features kills any chance of romance before you even start.

What’s your biggest struggle with storytelling? Let me know in the comments below.

By the way, my cheese tab came to $108.

Photo credit: JillWellington via Pixabay

About Carla

Carla Johnson Innovation Creativity Speaker Author

Carla Johnson helps leaders who are often paralyzed by traditional thinking. They suffer from slow growth, an eroding competitive advantage, low employee engagement, and depleted investor confidence. Their teams lack purpose and progress and constantly battle a resistance to change and new ideas.

As the world’s leading innovation architect, Carla’s spent 20 years helping leaders shatter limits and discover undiscovered possibilities. Through years of research, she’s developed a simple, scalable 5-step process that teaches people how to consistently produce inspired ideas that lead to uncommon outcomes.