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Psychology of Storytelling: what I learned from tipping and walkathons

Would you tip the same if the tip-jar was hidden from anyone’s view?
Maybe you would. But most people wouldn’t.

Because, like walkathons, bikeathons, or fun runs, tipping is not just about the money, but about how it makes us feel. It is about the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. And it all comes down to reinforcing a sense of belonging: do my actions resonate with the person I believe I am? And, where does this position me within society?

A few days ago my family participated in a charity walkathon. All we had to do was “buy” our ticket in the run, which came with a t-shirt, and walk 1 km. Why did we not just buy our ticket, skip the walk and save ourselves from the sweat? A. Because walkathons are fun, and B. because belonging in a group of people who share the same set of values is powerful. A short way of saying this is through the words of Seth Godin: “people like us, do things like this”. There is something powerful in being able to say “I belong among the charitable/ fair/ kind crowd”.

Sophisticated charities have become successful at the fundraising end because they have figured out how to become part of the culture. If culture is the stories we share, then connecting people who can say together “of course I support this, we all do!” is more powerful than simply giving money.

As for that tip jar? It is an act of generosity that goes both ways: it is generous in that it gives a hard-working person some well-deserved extra money to support their family, but it is also generous in that it gives us, the customer, a priceless story to tell ourselves (and to those who observe us) about ourselves.

Every time someone puts 1 dollar in that tip-jar, they are doing it because it gives them 2 dollars worth of value back in the currency of identity. When you start thinking in terms of internal narratives, then your product/ service/ not-for-profit can show up and offer people an opportunity to feel good about themselves and at the same time serve the world, and you begin to realise that generosity is not giving things for free or discounts. Generosity is offering something that’s worth much more than what you pay for. That Luis Vuitton bag? It might be 2000 dollars, but its value is priceless. Those matching walkathon t-shirts my kids and I wore? Priceless. That 10 million someone paid to have their name on the new hospital? Priceless. Generosity has never been about discounts and BOGOs!

The gist of the story? That there is power in giving people a place to belong. That when people reach in their wallets for any reason, they are not buying specs, but stories. These stories are not the one you (the marketer) say, but the ones they say to themselves about themselves. It’s these internal narratives that align their identity, orient their value systems, form tribes, and finally, shape the culture.

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