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

I wrestled the machinery into place and fired it up. Clods of dirt and grass flew everywhere as the wheel, spinning like a buzzsaw, flung itself into the ground in a massive, scrambling effort to dig, dig, dig… quite possibly to China. I planted my steel toe work boots firmly into the ground, 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 I was clinging to rocked my entire body.

There I was, 27-years-old, wearing a tight white tanktop, Carhartt work pants, heavy Timberlands and a pair of RayBans, deeply entrenched in the weirdest summer of my life. I was grinding stumps for a local tree service. If there was ever an “ideal” unlikely employee, it was me. With no real life arboreal experience… seriously, my brothers always mowed the lawn when I was a kid while I sat inside and read books… I shouldn’t have cracked this company’s top 100 list of viable workers. It was baffling that they would hire someone like me to run a 1000 lb. piece of machinery.

Eventually, it all fell into place as they continued to put me on the projects that involved grinding stumps in front yards. Located on busy streets. 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? My guess is never.

•   •   •

It’s been 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 weird

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 sophistication, a life spent indoors at a desk honing my writing skills, not outside sweating my ass off with a bag of warm beef jerky in my pocket.

Once I embraced the stories that make me weird, 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 stand outside in the sweltering sun, getting the job done every damn day, tolerating honking cars and people peeking at me from behind their curtains. Courage to deal with dirt constantly flying into my mouth. Courage to figure out how to unjam scary machinery. Courage to swing a pickaxe at stubborn rocks that had merged with a tree trunk decades ago. Courage to eat lunch every day with a crew of rough, non-hand washing 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. From a distanced perspective, they become endearing life lessons.

Most of all, they will make people remember you.

Lesson # 2:   Details matter

I like to stand out. It’s always been my nature to be a bit of an oddball, even when it comes to the tough world of grinding stumps. Especially when it comes to grinding stumps. I was a fancy manual laborer. Along with the bag of beef jerky in my pocket, I also carried a shiny black tube of red lipstick. It was the personification of my confidence, my talisman in a world where I was most definitely an outsider. I felt strong and empowered with my red lips, knowing I was staying true to my nature… even when completing difficult, dirty fingernail work.

Red lipstick was my trademark. Still 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 laborious job. 

I am always telling people, “Humanity is in the details.” Those little gleaming moments of life, the choice to do this instead of that? It’s what makes you unique. 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 it 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. They want to know your “why,” what you learned from it, how it made you better.

•   •   •

Take a look at the companies you love, with a devoted crowd that would do anything… ANYTHING… for their favorite brand. What is the universal thread amongst 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.

As you launch into a new year, think about how you can incorporate more storytelling into your marketing strategy. Over the next few months, I’ll be creating more posts about refining your brand story. In the meantime, check out this, this and this for more tips on how to put your stories out into the world.

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.


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