Lessons from burlesque in telling your story and selling ideas
Updated: May 10
This originally appeared on my LinkedIn on April 20, 2020.
A few years ago, I had the chance to see famed burlesque artist Dita Von Teese perform in San Francisco and was positively transfixed by her show. What made her so engaging? How did she keep us enthralled? Why did I leave with a new-found desire to quit my communication career and become a burlesque dancer? (…there’s still time…)
All great performers are, at heart, great communicators. They know how to connect with their audience. To communicate in a way that brings tears to the eyes or a smile to the face, moves the soul, and inspires creativity. Dita Von Teese has built a career on giving people what they want with a riveting performance that employs a very nuanced understanding of communication techniques — techniques we can all apply to our business storytelling efforts to make them more effective, more powerful and — dare I say — even a little sexy.
If you think for one minute that storytelling isn’t important in selling your work or ideas — that your work stands on merits alone — you are woefully mistaken. No matter how strong your idea or business is, you still have to explain it in a way that people not only understand, but feel moved or inspired by. Turns out, decision-making is emotional, not logical. People with damage to the part of the brain that controls decision-making are utterly unable to make decisions about mundane topics (e.g. should I have a salad on the side, or fries?) because they can literally go on and on about the pros and cons of both decisions. What does this mean for your work? It means it’s your job to guide the user or investor to the same vision and solution you’ve already reached — using storytelling.
Here’s where burlesque comes in. Just as every great burlesque show has the following elements, so should your story.
The power of the hook: How you entice someone to open that email, share that link or give you five minutes of their time to listen to your pitch is all about the hook. With Von Teese, it’s simple — her hook is a smoldering gaze that dares you to look away and leaves you breathlessly hanging on to see what’s next. While a smoldering gaze may not be within brand for you (or maybe it is!), you still need to find your hook.
With email, a witty and well-thought out subject line can make all the difference between an open and a delete. Your hook when it comes to social sharing is to make it positive. Studies show people share and upvote stories that are inspiring and positive more than any other type, so a success story is going to get more shares than yet another generic “X ways to X” story. After all, it’s about how sharing your content or idea makes people appear to their network. Will it make them look smart? Positive? Bring joy?
You don’t have to go it alone. Von Teese doesn’t come up with her sets without a little help, so neither should you expect to come up with fantastic hooks in a brainstorming session of one.
Tease your audience: Speaking of teasing, the art of burlesque requires being a bit of a tease. It creates the desire to see more, learn more and an intense fixation on the stage for fear of missing something important in the moment you blink. You, too, can create your own “can’t afford to miss this” feeling. Get more traction by preceding your call to action with a bit of a tease about what they’ll find or receive once they get to where you want them to go or do what you ask them to. As with all effective teases, don’t be afraid to push the boundaries on what is and isn’t expected. It’s okay to be bold. If applicable, let it be known that you have multiple suitors — this works in just about every situation in which you want something from someone.
Reveal details one layer at a time: When rolling out something new or explaining an idea with LOTS of details, don’t overwhelm your audience. Start simple, even if your team is crying and pleading with you to include more details. If Von Teese came out every time with the most elaborate of sets and nothing but pasties, the whole point of burlesque would be lost. The same is true of your story. You lose the point and call to action if everything you want to say is presented in one, jumbled communication. Doing that is just as bad as reading the last page of a book first. It’s okay to reveal details one layer at a time. That’s how Von Teese does it: coming out fully clothed and slowly telling the story while losing a shirt here or a hat there along the way. And it’s one of the most powerful storytelling techniques of all. Give yourself the time to unfold the journey you want to bring your audience on at the pace that’s most appropriate for the time you have.
What’s your theme? Each segment of Von Teese’s show is themed. The opening set with the martini cup. The pink rhinestone bronco. But that pink rhinestone bronco would make no sense on its own. It’s only when part of a larger cowboy theme that the rhinestone bronco has value. All components of the same campaign should have the same look and feel, lest you confuse your audience. A theme builds continuity and ties the pieces together so your audience instantly knows where in the story they are, and can follow along. It also ensures you don’t go off on tangents that detract from your main point.
Less is more: The show-stopper at the end of each burlesque set is the big reveal. But less is more in your story, too. Keep each slide of a deck, presentation or communication focused on one idea to allow your point to come across clearly and your audience the time to grasp what you want them to.
When you view yourself as the artist and your storytelling as the show, you’ll be amazed at what you can create and achieve.