Sharing Lessons from Fantastic Storytellers
I created this presentation for Kalamazoo Social Media Week 2019. Looking over 70+ episodes, I knew I could bring some lessons to an audience. What I found was so much more than I thought it would be. So… I made it a bonus podcast episode!
I know you have an important story to tell. And I want to help you tell that story better and with more confidence. Whether it’s for business, a personal brand, a non-profit… story will set you apart.
Here’s my story… Toward the end of 2017 I was helping clients book podcast interviews as a marketing tactic. I was also appearing on podcasts as a guest expert. And I was beginning to learn all about the podcast community. All of this got me thinking – maybe I could start my very own show to connect with people who could use our podcast interview marketing services. And maybe some of those people could be top-tier podcasts hosts we’d want to get to know.
Plus I’d be talking with smart people in the marketing and creation world, connecting and learning. As a marketing geek and fan of story, it was all wins for me. So I spent about two months learning all I could about launching a podcast. I tapped into the community and amazing mentors like Jaime Jay of the show Culture Eats Strategy and his business partner in the production company Podcast Pilot, Sara Parish. Then I envisioned a new season every quarter so I could keep it fresh for me and the listeners. And I laid out my hope for all of my potential interviews. My launch was set for January 1, 2018. A Monday morning. Now, nearly 18 months later I’m more than 70 episodes into The Storytellers Network. And I love it. I’ve had dozens of insightful, inspirational conversations and learned a ton. I want to share that with you today.
First: What is Storytelling?
First a clarification. A lesson. What is storytelling? I want to dispel something. It's not Hansel & Gretel or Game of Thrones. Story is the best way the human brain processes and retains information. For instance, rather than saying "this is our product" ... you might say "Sharon was concerned with efficiencies issues at her manufacturing plant. So she looked into logistics solutions and found our company. We helped her increase efficiency and she got a promotion." That is a story. It's not summer camp counselor time... It’s the best way to get an idea across to an intended audience.
What You Should Expect
Today I’ll share some overall lessons like the fact that stories connect us emotionally, turning strangers into friends and prospects into customers. For so many of us, that’s what it’s all about. Whether we’re in marketing or sales, or we’re creating stories for entertainment, or we’re trying to raise funds for a non-profit, it comes down to building an engaged audience that will support our efforts.
I’ll also show that while the storytelling platforms may vary, the power of story is the constant. It doesn’t matter if you’re a filmmaker or a social media influencer, story wins. Every. Time.
We’ll go through each season together. You’ll “hear from” some of my guests. I’ve had the immense privilege of spending hours with some tremendous minds in business, in marketing, communication, writing, filmmaking, podcasting… so I’ll bring you a little taste of insights from different walks of life.
Finally, my goal is to teach… but more important than that, at least in my mind, is to inspire. You see, I know you have an important story to tell. It doesn’t matter if it’s a business story, a personal story, a social justice story, a tale about why you work for a non-profit… the thing that separates us from all other life on Earth … is story. You will walk away with insights and inspiration both.
Lesson 1: You Have Not Because You Ask Not
Let’s dive in. Our first lesson is this: You have not because you ask not. When I started planning my podcast, I knew that I wanted to talk to interesting people. I also knew I’d want some of them at the beginning to have an audience of their own. Launching a new thing, I knew I’d need some help. I mean, I had zero audience to offer early guests. So I figured if a guest with a big audience shared our interview and people liked it, maybe they’d stick around and build an audience for my show! But I also knew that I was a virtual nobody in this vast world of media. I’m barely known in my own hometown… who’d want to join me for an interview?? So I reached out to guests I personally knew, who had their own platforms, and would likely help me out. Then I envisioned some of my dream guests. And I just reached out. Now, I’ve had people ask me how I end up with well-known people like Zig Ziglar’s son Tom, with New York Time Bestselling authors like Erik Weihenmayer, with marketing legends like Seth Godin on my show… the reality is, I simply asked. Sure, I’ve heard “no” more than once. Mike Rowe said “not right now.” CBS News reporter and storytelling genius Steve Hartman said no. My friend Laura Fitton at HubSpot said no thanks, and that’s completely fine. Because I’ve heard “yes” so much more. And I decided early on that “no” is okay. It’s the radio silence that bothers me. So… ask.
Here’s what it looks like to plan out an entire year of interviews… This is 2018, my first four seasons. You can see the main columns. Plus I have a list in the lower right of people who didn’t get back or who said no. But you can see that I planned out exactly who I’d ask, where they’d fit in the season, and how the communication was going. Of course this is a completed year, so it looks easy…
Here’s what it looks like… right now. As Season 6 goes live, I’m working on recording for season 7, Entertainment Storytellers. I have a couple recorded, a couple scheduled and many others I’m waiting to schedule or hear back from. And as you can see, I’m not afraid to aim high. Now, because of that, I plan more than enough people in case they don’t answer or tell me no. But it always seems to work out. So again… simply ask. And yes, I’m hoping for Tim Allen or Jeff Daniels… because I interviewed Dave Lorenz of Pure Michigan and he had such a great time, I asked if he’d make an introduction. So jot that down - It never hurts to ask!
Lesson 2: Stories Hold Power
Speaking of… Part of my “ask” for potential guests, is of course a story. I cast the vision of a podcast that would inspire people to tell better stories. That story helped me to connect and evoke emotion with my potential guests. And that is the second lesson. Stories hold power. So many of my guests shared with me how powerful stories are in their work. David Meerman Scott, Seth Godin, Joe Pullizzi, National Geographic photographer Robert Miller, Simon Sinek’s writing partner David Mead… they all agree that emotion and connection is what moves people. So whether you’re trying to get people to support your non-profit, buy from your business, hire you for your next job, or agree to appear on your podcast, stories are what connect people to you and guide them to make the choice you’re hoping for.
Here’s an example of my story. This is the invitation I emailed to an early guest, sharing my mission, my why, my plan and how it all comes together. Because I love it when a plan comes together. Of course I use a little flattery in my note – “I want my listeners to ‘learn from the best.’” Which is them. But overall, this is a story that has helped me book some serious talent on the show. So take this note if you’re writing things down - Stories hold power. Telling the story of my show helped me find early guests.
Lesson 3: Stories Change the World
Another overarching lesson I’ve learned, which has actually caused my branding of the show to evolve, is that stories change the world. In fact my guest from season 3, Villy Wang, desires to change the world (capital W) as she changes the worlds (small W) of those she serves. You see, Villy wants to end racism one story at a time. She founded the organization called BAYCAT. The organization is like a school, teaching underserved and at-risk youth how to tell stories, specifically through video. Their students have gone on to win Emmy’s, create national ads, film documentaries and more. Not only have those stories changed the worlds of the people making them – they’re changing the world in general. The stories of these young people and what their America looks like bring to light the real life, emotional stories that humanize a big idea, a broad, sometimes scary issue our country faces. So instead of thinking about racism in general terms so many people can disconnect from, the public hears personal narratives of their fellow humans, making it all the more real. It’s much harder to disconnect when you’re emotionally invested in others. Here’s your note to jot down - Stories change the world.
Lesson 4: You Have to Write (Consistently)
Time to get granular. In season one I interviewed writers. These were authors, bloggers, business writers, inspirational writers… all varieties of written-word storytellers. The biggest lesson I learned: You have to write. Consistently.
Tammy Chupp, a West Michigan author, turned a tragic story of the death of her son into a story of hope, faith and inspiration. During our conversation, Tammy told me that she never thought of herself as a storyteller before the show. Even though she wrote a book and would tell the story of Daniel, she didn’t wear the badge of storyteller. Instead, it was almost like therapy. Her writing helped her deal with this tragedy of losing her son 20 years earlier, and just might help others. But what Tammy realized and shared with me was that it all started with having to sit down and write. Side lesson – not everyone considers themselves a storyteller and have given themselves permission to think that way. If that’s you, you’re not alone. And you are a storyteller.
Erik Weihenmayer is a blind man who has taken up the mantle of adventurer, despite what others see as a disability. He wrote the books Touch The Top and No Barriers… and launched an entire No Barriers organization and movement. The No Barriers foundation helps others with different capabilities or disabilities, whether they’re born with them or maybe they’re military veterans with mental and physical health issues. Within that, and through his books and other writing – and even speaking – Erik uses story to inspire others to overcome adversity. Erik calls the writing process incredibly powerful.
Finally, Marcus Sheridan joined me on season one to talk marketing and story. Author of They Ask, You Answer and marketing thought leader, Marcus says a big part of storytelling is to simply answer questions, helping others. And it can all come through in a story format. It doesn’t have to be a complicated thing. He says that nothing beats clarity when it comes to effective communication.
Lesson 5: You Have to Create (Creatively and Tenaciously)
The next group of storytellers I went after were podcasters. I figured why not connect with the community I was breaking into! Plus at the time I reckoned that I might be able to reach big names in the podcast world to connect them to the company I worked for at the time. And, it pretty much worked, making a name for me personally and for the business in the community. The biggest lesson here is that to be a better storyteller, you just have to create. It’s like the last lesson of consistent writing, but with podcasters it was a little different. Writing is part of it; but creating is more. Let’s get into the details.
First, it doesn’t matter if it’s your story or you’re picking up the mantle of someone else’s story. Kevin Miller hosts The Ziglar Show. It’s the legacy of legendary speaker Zig Ziglar. Kevin co-hosts some episodes with Zig’s son Tom (my guest on season 5!), but mostly does it on his own. While he’s speaking for the Ziglar brand, Kevin manages to still inject his voice into the story. The consistent creation of episodes and interviews makes Kevin a powerful storyteller. If Kevin didn’t create all the time, his skills would atrophy, and his reach would shrink. Being a powerful storyteller means creating consistently.
For Dave Jackson it goes beyond creating… even though that’s a major part of Dave’s story. He’s created so many different podcasts and has so much experience that he’s turned it into telling his story through his vehicle, The School of Podcasting brand including a very popular podcast. In fact he was inducted into the Podcasting Hall of Fame in 2018. In addition to creating – a ton – Dave suggests experimenting with different ways to tell your story. He’s launched podcasts about his health journey in addition to multiple shows teaching about podcasting and more. Dave tries new tools and platforms. He experiments with podcasting along with live social media video and speaking engagements. My takeaway from Dave? Try something, see if it works, and keep creating. Being a powerful storyteller means creating creatively and trying new things.
Finally from the podcasting world, I’d like to introduce you to Jordan Harbinger. Jordan keeps creating despite “losing” his own brand that he helped start and cultivate. And it all happened relatively recently. But that didn’t phase this storyteller. A few years ago, Jordan launched The Art of Charm, a show, a book, a website and more… then abruptly lost it all in a dispute with his co-creator. But he didn’t let that stop him. Instead, Jordan took control of his story and his personal brand, and just kept creating. Being a storyteller didn’t stop when things got rough. And part of becoming a great storyteller is just keep creating and honing your craft until it’s great. Or as Jordan called it… sticky. Now, The Jordan Harbinger Show is even bigger than what he had with his previous show. And it’s HIS story. Great storytellers aren’t afraid to keep creating in the face of adversity. The create tenaciously. So take that note. You have to create with creativity and tenacity.
Lesson 6: Video is Second Only to Face-to-Face in its Power
Season 3 kicked off my conversations with video creators. Filmmakers. Creators of marketing videos. Photojournalists. Mental health advocates. Yep, mental health advocates. You’ll see. It was a great season. My biggest lesson here: In its power to connect and move people, video is second only to face to face interactions. In-person connection is where it’s at with stories. Video is close behind.
Nick Nanton takes this seriously, creating short documentary-style videos or mini-films, for his clients at Celebrity Branding Agency. Whether it’s taking an entire team into the slums of Port-Au-Prince, Haiti … chasing down child traffickers for a powerful documentary film and non-profit… or it’s creating an award-winning brand story for a used car sales operation, Nick says video brings a power little else does. And when the story connects, branding really blossoms. It’s amazing what you can do in a 5-minute mini-film or a 30-minute business documentary. Think about all the singing competition shows… it’s the stories that move us. Those short vignettes can be powerful.
Video also has the power to heal. Coupled with virtual reality or immersive experiences, video is extremely powerful. Sarah Hill knows this. She’s the founder of StoryUp and has brought together a tribe of storytellers, psychologists, developers, filmmakers, audio engineers and technologists to help others. StoryUp created a product called Healium – that’s heal like make you feel better – that helps manage anxiety, post traumatic stress and more through VR. Using video stories is actually changing the world of mental health. It’s also brought experiences to people who can’t get out. In fact that’s how Sarah and I met. When I was Vice President of Talons Out Honor Flight, Sarah and her business partner Michelle Spry came to town with something called Honor Everywhere. We took VR headsets to an assisted living facility in order to literally bring Washington, D.C. to veterans who couldn’t make it on an Honor Flight. Video transported these men and women to our nation’s capital and moved some of them to tears. Video storytelling is incredible.
It’s also powerful when it comes to turning a complicated thing into something we can all understand. Besides being a fantastic author and audio book narrator, Rand Fishkin is co-founder of Moz – an SEO tool you may know – and the creator of the popular SEO video series Whiteboard Friday. He’s also co-founder of the new company SparkToro, so check him out there. While at Moz, Rand put video to work to connect with an audience over a complicated issue in a simple way. And it worked. Rand taught many everyday people the basics of SEO and helped democratize this jargon-filled industry just a little bit. And he did it through video stories. Serve your audience and tackle issues in new ways. If you haven’t thought about video, you may want to…
Break Time: A Challenge
It’s time to broaden our horizons and grow beyond our comfort zones. Although for some of you, this may be a cake walk. You are social media wizards after all. So here’s the deal. I don’t want to just word vomit to you. I want to help inspire real change for you. So here’s a quick exercise to put this into action. Storytelling doesn’t have to be complicated. And video doesn’t have to be a huge ordeal. Mad respect to video storytelling entities like Rhino and Kzoom, but sometimes videos can be simply from your phone. Here’s what I want you to do. Take out your phone. Record a quick story about your day. Where are you. Why are you here. What are you learning. How do you feel about Kalamazoo Social Media Week. Share it in social. It could be a Facebook Live, a LinkedIn video, and Instagram story, put it on YouTube… use the hashtag kzoo-s-m-week. Tag me if you’d like. Let’s make video storytelling a community event. I’ll give you a few minutes.
Lesson 7: Social Media is the Next Frontier (in Storytelling)
Okay welcome back. You’re over halfway through! Let’s get to lesson 7. This is from my 4th season – social media storytellers. I learned that while many of us may think social media has ruined real storytelling and have railed against the terrible downside to it, social media is really the next frontier in storytelling. And it’s an exciting time to be a creator.
In fact for Geraldine DeRuiter, social media not only helped her find an audience for her blog and her book, but it continues to act as an agent for social change. Not only does she share stories she feels she needs attention, but her husband challenges her to read things in social she wouldn’t normally consume, broadening her perspective. We could all learn something from that, gaining new perspectives and truly make social media… social. Interact with kindness and a curiosity. Side note – Geraldine also uses social media storytelling to connect with a community of writers. It’s a great way to find like-minded creators.
For comedy writer James Breakwell – known as Exploding Unicorn on Twitter and everywhere else – social media literally changed the course of his storytelling journey. James uses social to test jokes, to hone his writing skills and to build an audience. And with somewhere around 2-million followers across all platforms, he’s doing something right. Of course it didn’t go exactly as he planned, in a couple of ways. First, his secondary Twitter account Very Lonely Luke, a Star Wars parody, went viral first. But because he’d been consistent in his creating on his main account, when Exploding Unicorn went viral, people stuck around. Social media also helped James break into a writing career he’d dreamed of – becoming a published book author and columnist for the Indianapolis newspaper, The Indy Star. He ended up with an invitation to become a regular contributor with his own column, just like his childhood hero… his goal in life was to be a humor columnist like Dave Barry. It took social media storytelling to get him there.
Still need convincing on the power of social media storytelling? Michael Stelzner turned this “new way” of wasting time into an entire career focused on an emerging industry. He launched Social Media Examiner, and of course the huge event in San Diego, Social Media Marketing World. Much of his success came from blogging of course. But a critical component was, and still is, social media storytelling. In fact Mike is using YouTube as a social media platform and storytelling vehicle to promote the brand and event as well as build a loyal audience. “The Journey” follows Mike and his team as they grapple with all things related to running Social Media Marketing World, driving awareness and decision for the event and its tickets. It’s a great use of multiple platforms for story.
Lesson 8: Stories Motivate. Facts Tell; Stories Sell
I kicked of 2019 with the 5th season of The Storytellers Network and my favorite season so far – Inspirational Storytellers. Yeah, I know… like a parent you aren’t supposed to have a favorite. But let’s be real… we all do. And in this season, I’ve learned that stories motivate. The reality is: Facts tell. But stories sell. Numbers don’t usually matter, but the emotional component of story can change course for people.
Maybe you’re selling a story of community healing through authentic stories of struggle, violence and murder, and redemption like Will Latif Little. Will went to prison for killing a man in a gang-related shooting. But now he speaks on things like forgiveness – the victim’s own brother and Will work together – and helping the youth in his community. And Will tours the country speaking, he has a book and he’s a TEDx speaker. Story has changed his life. And he’s changing the lives of others with his inspirational tale. Rather than just talk about numbers of gun fights, gang numbers, how many deaths he saw and years in prison, Will shares his very personal story of coming from a broken family, abuse, life on the streets, violence, prison and redemption. Those numbers may be powerful in some capacity, but the real power comes from story and is what people ultimately connect with and where they find inspiration.
For David Powell, his story of adversity is helping him to sell a new career. David’s story can be boiled down to his brand motto: No arms, no feet, no problem. Sometimes, you have to not only tell your story, but SHOW. Here’s what I mean… When David was younger, he tried to get a job at a call center in his hometown. He said it was such an easy job and the company was in such need of people, that basically anyone could get hired. Except him apparently. His interview went well, but he didn’t hear back. He knew what was going on, this wasn’t new to him. So he marched into the business, spoke with the director of the call center, and proved he could do the job. Now he’s doing the same thing with his new career, working to book motivational speaking gigs in the Kansas region and working to expand his reach, by showing, not just telling, and motivating people with the power of his story. Look for good things to come from David Powell in the near future.
But how do we own our story and turn our story into inspiration for others? That’s what Arthur Joseph does. He’s the Vocal Awareness Coach to major media personalities. He’s coached mega stars like Angelina Jolie, Emmitt Smith, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Game Day Morning team on NFL Network, Zooey Deschanel and others. A big part of what Arthur teaches is how to listen, change vocal inflection, change pace and more. Arthur says one inspiration for his teaching and his style is the difference between the music world and traditional spoken vocal performances. He says singers have the advantage of looking at music where it tells them everything to do. But traditionally as storytellers, we only have words. So he teaches how to annotate those words, so they really come alive. Arthur’s episode is full of lessons for storytellers. The overall takeaway is this: When we own our Voice, we own our power.
Lesson 9: Storytelling Evolves and So Should We
Now to the current season. Right now The Storytellers Network is focused on those in the business world. In fact just yesterday my conversation with Jay Baer – author of Talk Triggers, Hug Your Haters, and Youtility – went live. For this season I talked with marketing thought leaders, business leaders, sales professionals, a rock star event planner and others. What have I learned so far? Like everything else, storytelling is evolving. We need to, as well.
First of all, if you’re in marketing or sales and the first two episodes of the season don’t scare the hell out of you… you’re not paying attention. Seth Godin and Mark Schaefer each tackle the current marketing landscape with me. They agree on some things and differ on others. Listen to the conversations back to back for that. And follow them in social to see it, too. But where they agree is that marketing – which is what we all have to do for our stories to reach their intended audiences – has changed. You must think of your story as better than average, and always strive to meet that expectation. By the way, read their books or listen to Douglas Burdett’s The Marketing Book Podcast with their interviews for the Cliff Notes version. Great stuff.
So of course beyond the creation of the story, you have to get it out to the audience. The problem, according to Chad Pollitt, is that most storytellers – especially content marketers – concentrate their efforts and budget on creation, all but ignoring distribution and promotion. He says that for every $5 we spend on content creation, we only spend $1 on distribution and promotion. We need to take a page from television ad executives and flip that. They spend $5 on distribution and promotion for every $1 they spend on creation. Think about promotion for Avengers: Endgame – it’s the same in movies. Chad also had an interesting take on storytelling in the internet age. I’ll leave you to hear that on the interview.
How else is story evolving? Well according to the authors of The Go-Giver, if we want to get our stories “out there,” we should go beyond the usual tactics and give more. Bob Burg and John David Mann will round out season 6 of The Storytellers Network. It’s a 2-part season finale. I interviewed each of them. But I’ll give you a sneak peek. The Go Giver philosophy is to give more value than expected. Do that with your story, and you’ll build a grateful, supportive audience. They both talked about what an incredible community they’ve been fortunate to build through storytelling. I’m looking forward to releasing those episodes.
Lesson 10: Podcasting is Powerful
So here it is… time for my final lesson I’ve learned from 70 conversations with storytellers – Nothing measures up to starting a podcast! Seriously. I’ve had the opportunity to get more than 70 hours of personal instruction from amazing thought leaders. I’ve connected with top-tier storytellers I’d love to invite onto the show like Mike Rowe (Dirty Jobs, The Way I Heard It), Bob Goff (author of Love Does), DJ Nash (creator of the ABC show A Million Little Things)… some of these were “not right now” while others are in the works. And other amazing people like Joe Pullizzi of Content Marketing World, Dave Sanderson who was the last passenger off the plane on the Miracle on the Hudson, Zig Ziglar’s son and CEO of the Ziglar brand, Tom Ziglar and so many others who spent time with me pouring out their stories… But no one would have ever taken my message if it weren’t for having a platform. Can you imagine trying to call Rand Fishkin or Scott Monty and just saying, “Hey, can we talk for an hour?” Unlikely!
So if you want to know more about podcasting – personal, business or other – and maybe start your own podcast, I put together a quick-start guide just for Kalamazoo Social Media Week. It’s on my website. TheStorytellersNetwork.com/Kzoosmweek.
You Have Not Because You Ask Not
Stories Hold Power
Stories Change the World
You Have to Write
You Have to Create
Video is Second Only to Face-to-Face
Social Media is the Next Frontier
Stories Motivate. Facts Tell; Stories Sell
Storytelling Evolves and So Should We
Podcasting is Powerful