What Grinding a Bunch of Stumps Can Teach You About Brand Storytelling

I wrestled the clunky machine into place and fired it up. Clods of soil and grass flew everywhere as the wheel–spinning like a buzzsaw–flung itself into the ground. I planted my steel-toe work boots firmly into the dirt, grabbed the vibrating handles, lifted the wheel slightly and began shaving the tree stump in front of me.

Bit by bit, half an inch at a time.

Tiny wood chips accumulated at my feet and clung to my shoelaces. Back and forth. Back and forth. Cars honked as they passed and I gave a quick chin up to each one as the machine rocked my entire body.

There I was, 27 years old—wearing a tight white tank top, Carhartt work pants, sturdy Timberlands and a pair of RayBans—and deeply entrenched in the weirdest summer of my life as a stumpgrinder for a local tree removal service. If there was ever an award given for Most Baffling Hire, I would take the top honor. I’d never even mown a lawn at that point. It was a real headscratcher that this company would hire someone like me to operate a 1000-pound piece of machinery.

Eventually, the mystery fell into place as they put me on projects that involved grinding stumps in front yards located on busy streets. Usually during rush hour.

This company was smart. Because A) when was the last time you witnessed a stumpgrinding machine in action? and B) when was the last time you saw a platinum blonde woman with cherry red lips behind the wheel of a stumpgrinder?

•   •   •

It’s been well over a decade since wood chips have flown down the front of my cheap white tank top. But I often think about that summer of my life, the lessons learned and how I can use them to tell better stories today.

Here’s what I know:

Lesson # 1:  You gotta rock what makes you different

I used to resist telling people about my days of grinding stumps. What will people think? I’m this professional person making a name for myself in the world. My clients expect a certain level of writerly sophistication, not a mental snapshot of me sweating my ass off under the blazing sun with a bag of warm beef jerky in my pocket.

Once I embraced the stories that make me different, I realized that being a stump grinder ranked pretty high on my crazy shit-o-meter. It was not an experience to be ashamed of, but rather a badge of courage. Courage to get the job done every damn day while tolerating honking horns and people peeking at me from behind their curtains. Courage to deal with dirt constantly flying into my mouth. Courage un-jam scary machinery and swing a pickaxe at stubborn rocks. Courage to eat lunch every day with a crew of rough-hewn men.

When you look back on your life–and the life of your business–don’t be afraid to tell the less-than-glamorous stories. We all have them. We all relate to them. They have a way of becoming endearing lessons.

Most of all, they will make people remember you.

Lesson # 2:   Details matter

I’ve always been a bit of an oddball. Awkward to the core. But also, kinda  fancy. Along with the bag of beef jerky in my pocket, I also carried a shiny black tube of red lipstick. It was an homage to my confidence, my talisman in a world where I was definitely an outsider. I felt strong and empowered with my red lips, knowing I hadn’t lost myself underneath the daily grime and dust.

Red lipstick was my trademark. Still kinda is.

When you think about your stories and how you want to tell them, what details stand out? What makes your story unusual? For me, it was adding a bit of dazzle to a difficult job. 

I often tell people, “Humanity is in the details.” Those little gleaming moments of life? They matter. Dive into those details and figure out what resonates most with your crowd.

Lesson # 3:   Be thorough

The thing about grinding stumps is that you must finish the job. It’s not about simply shaving the stump down to ground level and calling it good. You’ve gotta keep slicing away at that tree trunk, deep into the earth.

No one wants to trip over a stump that you only partially removed.

The same goes for your business story. No one wants to hear only the favorable, surface-skimming parts. They want to go deep. Your grit-filled stories tell the world who you are, where you come from and what might be possible.

•   •   •

Take a look at the companies you love, the ones with devoted crowds that would do just about anything for their favorite brand. What is the universal thread among them?

Relatability. Finding common ground through shared stories. A “we totally get you” mentality.

Stories are human and real and when we share them, we create a sense of belonging and understanding.

And that’s always good for business.

2 comments leave a reply
  • January 7, 2016 at 5:35 pm

    Oh my goodness, what a story. You had me at beef jerky.

    I grew up working on my parents’ farm every single summer, and working damn hard. I hated it, but it definitely built character and a strong work ethic! I’ve never written about it, come to think of it…hmmm!

    Thanks for a great read!


    • January 14, 2016 at 11:01 am

      Thanks for the comment, Nicole. Beef jerky seems to be a theme running rampant through my life as of late. 🙂

      I’d love to read about your previous life as a farm worker. I’m willing to bet there is a lot of gold in those stories.


Leave a Reply