Episode 30 - Storytelling
Peter: Hello, Jennifer.
Jen: Hello, Peter.
Peter: How are you on that side of the globe?
Jen: I'm feeling fine, how about you?
Peter: I'm feeling great. I just thought we've never done an episode where we led with pleasantries, so let's cover that off.
Jen: Well, that was so pleasant.
Peter: Okay, but seriously, I need to talk to you - I need you to talk to me and the listeners about something that you are an expert at, and something that I've been thinking about a lot recently, which is the power of storytelling.
Peter: Yeah, I know that you are an expert at this because I've heard you talk about it before, but I think it's only fair that we get you to unpack your thoughts on storytelling and narratives for the audience.
Jen: Mmm! Yeah, I'm game. Let's do it. This is The Long and The Short Of It.
Okay, seriously, Peter, it never occurred to me to talk about this. This is so weird.
Peter: What do you mean?
Jen: Why would this - this is literally what I go around giving my talks on and it never occurred to me to bring up storytelling as a possible topic for this show.
Peter: I've had this on my list literally since October to one day pick your brain. In fact, just get you to talk about this out loud, because, yeah, you could do this, and you do do this on stage in front of people all the time. So perhaps, for our wonderful listeners, you could give us the Jen Waldman 101 on effective storytelling. And I think, just for context, the reason I think this is so important, and I know you'll probably get into this, is that I have asserted, and many people have asserted, that literally everything is a story. The stories that we tell ourselves shape the way we show up, the stories that we tell others shape the way they interact with us, our products, our services, our projects, and so the better we all get at sharing and telling and hearing stories, the better we get at changing our corner of the world and spreading our message. So I'm just going to throw to you and take a back seat as you step us through effective storytelling.
Jen: Okay. Well, I think the first thing to call out is that every single one of us is an expert storyteller in every single moment of every single day, whether we know it or not, and whether we like it or not. And this is because every single thing we do has storytelling value. Everything we do. And this is an important thing to sort of embrace, because for many of us when we hear someone say "storytelling," we think, "Once upon a time..." or we think that we have to create a story, and create a character to walk through that story. But stories are around us all the time. In fact, for our listeners, if you share the content from today's episode with someone else, you are telling them a story. You're telling them the story of how you listen to The Long and the Short of It. Maybe you'll actually say it out loud, like, "You should really listen to this podcast that I listen to," or if you decide that you're just going to forward someone the link, the forwarding of the link has its own narrative. So everything you do has storytelling value, whether you like it or not. So that's point number one that we've just all got to deal with, because when we do deal with that, then we actually can start being more intentional with the stories that we want other people to receive. How do we want other people to interact with our actions, our words, our behaviors, and what stories do we want them to receive? What are we actually communicating? So, I mean I could go off on a million different tangents about this, but I'll try to keep it sort of thirty-thousand foot level.
Peter: I'll keep you in check.
Jen: Thanks, thanks, I appreciate that. So there are the, the stories that we intend to tell, the crafted stories that we intend to tell. So if, for example, you are crafting a marketing message, if you have a product that you're bringing to a market, and you want to share with people the value of that product, the best way to communicate that value is by sharing a story. And sometimes we use real life stories to actually demonstrate the value of something, but a hypothetical story can be just as effective as a real one. So, "Imagine a world..." can be as effective as, "Once upon a time..." What is important is that you always go back to the two questions that we always ask, Peter, "Who's it for," and, "What's it for?" So I'm thinking right now about a specific experience: I was doing a keynote down in Texas with a healthcare organization, and I was speaking to a group of donors - I can't remember if I've shared this on the podcast before - but I was speaking to a group of donors and potential donors at a fundraising event. And this particular organization was looking to build a brand new healthcare clinic in a new part of town. And so I shared a hypothetical story- you know, "Imagine a single father with two young daughters who wakes up one day feeling like something is not right in his body, that something just feels wrong. His intuition tells him he needs to seek medical attention, but today, seeking medical attention means making a choice between healing himself or feeding his children. And so he does what most parents would do: he chooses to feed his children. But now imagine a world in which this clinic exists, and he doesn't have to make that choice. He can feed his children, drop them off at school, and then go see a doctor of the highest quality for free. And that's what's made possible if you donate to this organization." Anyway, that was a hypothetical story that I told on that stage. But what's really funny is, after the keynote, a guy came up to me, and he said, "That story was about me." Well, no it wasn't. It was about a hypothetical character, but he related to it. So you know, when we craft our stories, we don't have to always pull from our true past, or something that's actually happened in order to make the point about what's possible. And just like you always say, what we're trying to do for people is help paint a picture of the future that they want to be a part of.
Peter: Yeah, and I think like you said, you couldn't have landed that story without a clear idea of who it's for, because you knew that that kind of situation was probably not that uncommon while it wasn't based on a specific individual. I love that.
Jen: Exactly, so that story is an example of one of my two rules about storytelling, and I think there are lots of tips, techniques, tools, and ways to do things. But I, I believe that there are two actual rules that you must follow in order to craft a, an effective change-making story, and one is, keep it human - so keep your stories about human beings. And the second rule is, start with "Why." In other words, be able to clearly articulate a purpose, a cause, or a belief that this story helps to eliminate, and always start with that "Why?" in mind. I was doing another keynote - it turns out this storytelling episode is me telling a lot of stories about teaching people how to tell stories.
Peter: But that's perfect. This is a Jen Waldman masterclass. That's what this episode is. I'm just kicking back.
Jen: So I was doing a keynote, and one of the people I was working with was a conservationist; he's attempting to save the planet, which is pretty cool, and he was telling me that he thought that the issue of climate change is a branding issue, that the controversy about climate change is a branding issue, not a science versus un-science issue (he didn't say un-science, but I can't remember what word he said). But basically, he said the problem is that when we started talking about it, we started by not talking about people. We started by talking about oceans and animals and trees and such - all, yes, which are affected - but if we had started by talking about people, we might not be having these kinds of conversations, which I thought was so fascinating and true.
Peter: So interesting. Yeah, so interesting. I think, something I think about is, like, when, when trying to articulate a change, or make an assertion, or tell a story is, there's always this idea of the audience thinking, "Yeah, well, what's in it for me? What's in it for me?" And the thing I love about the Jen Waldman rules of storytelling is, by keeping it human, you're forced to, I guess, appeal to an individual's needs, characteristics, ideas, assertions, thoughts, views, beliefs about the world. So that idea of, "What's in it for me?" is super obvious, because in the example that you used earlier, someone in the audience might actually think, "Oh, you're telling a story about me, so I see what's in it for me." So I really liked that. And that's a fascinating example with climate change, cause you're right, I think, as an individual, you, you might've sat there at the start and been like, "All this, all this science, but how does it impact me? Like what, what's in this for me?"
Peter: Okay. So what else, Jen, what, how, how can the listeners, for example, how can our listeners best think about and use these characteristics and affective two points of storytelling?
Jen: One is that if, if you are crafting a story and applying those rules, that's one thing, because you can sit down with your pen and paper and, like, really ask myself "Who's this for? What is this for? Who are the human characters in the story and why am I telling it?" So if you really, like, hunker down with yourself, you can answer those questions and come up with something that is compelling. But there are other times where we don't necessarily recognize the stories that are showing up in our day-to-day interactions. For example, yesterday I was helping a client reformat his resume, and the resume was not telling a clear story, so what he did was try to explain to me the story I was supposed to receive by reading the resume. And I had to come clean and say, "I don't get any of that from this. I, you know the ins and outs, you know all the circumstances, you understand the building blocks that brought you here, but the logic is not putting that story out for me to receive." So sometimes what, what happens is, because we have gone through, whatever, the whole experience of creating a resume, creating a product, whatever it might be, we assume that all of that information is communicated when we put that thing out into the world. And because we work so hard on the things that we are doing, like, if you have launched a new initiative, let's say, and much to your surprise, you were able to touch the lives of two-hundred fifty-thousand people, it's really easy to want to get on a stage, or in front of your board of directors, or whatever it is, and say, "We touched two-hundred fifty-thousand people, and this is how much profit came from that," and start spouting off the accomplishments and the metrics and the statistics and all of that. But unless it is grounded in the idea of a single human or a small group of humans, the two-hundred fifty-thousand people don't really - it doesn't compute. It doesn't compute. Of course it computes to you, because you did all the work.
Jen: But on the receiving end of the story, it would make so much more sense to tell the story of a single person, and then say, "I've got two-hundred fifty-thousand more where that came from."
Peter: Yeah, "For every one of those there's two-hundred forty-nine thousand, nine-hundred ninety-nine more." Yeah, I like that.
Jen: Yeah, exactly. And then, I think, there are stories of the mundane, the little life moments that we don't really pay a lot of attention to because they, in the moment, don't feel like they have a lot of impact. But those things have a cumulative effect over time. And the example I always like to give is the cleanliness of your bathrooms. So, so this was something that used to drive me crazy when I was working on Broadway as an actor, is that in the front of house where the audience use the facilities, things were sparkly clean. There was even a bathroom attendant handing out paper towels and candies. But backstage, filth, absolute filth in the bathrooms. Disgusting, disgusting. And so yes, in the front of house, the story you're telling is, "We care so much about people, we care about people's comfort and sanitary wellbeing." But backstage, we were telling the real story, which is, "We actually don't care that much. What we really care about is saving a buck." So I always think about, when you go into an environment that has bathrooms that are used by all different kinds of people, how clean are they? What story are you telling about how much you really care?
Peter: How clean are your bathrooms as a gauge to what story you're trying to tell. I like it. I like it.
Jen: I'm serious. I'm serious!
Peter: No, I'm into it. I'm into it. So I wrote down three questions that I think might be useful based on everything you've just said, is like, when we think about an initiative or a project or an idea, like, when we are intentionally thinking, "I want to create something," or, "I want to create a change or bring a story to light," I think some questions that we might start with, apart from "Who's it for?" and "What's it for?" obviously, uh, "What change do I seek to make," and, or, "What story do I want to tell?" And then the third I had was, "How do I want people to feel?" Because I think, the thing about a really effective story is it makes people feel a certain way. So if we can get clear on how I want people to feel, then we can get clear on how I can shape the human story that starts with "Why?" in order to potentially generate that feeling. Because a, a story that you want to evoke joy is completely different to a story that you want to evoke anger, or a story that you want to evoke sadness. So they're kind of the three questions that I often think about is, "How do I want people to feel?" "What change am I seeking to make?" and, "What story do I want to tell?" before I even get to the point of, "Now my story is going to be human. Now my story is going to start with 'why.'"
Jen: And, if there is a call to action associated with your story, I think your question about how you want people to feel is so important, because often a call to action is, "What do you want people to do?"
Jen: And then the followup question is, "and how do you want them to feel while they're doing it?" So if you, if you, for example, I'll just go back to this fundraising example, cause I love working with nonprofits to help them raise more money for their cause, and often the, the people on the asking side, the people who are doing the asking feel sheepish about asking for help for their organization. And of course organizations need funds in order to run and in order to exist. And yet, there is this sort of disconnect. So I always try to help people focus in on, who is a human that you can talk about, real or hypothetical? How can you use that story to illuminate your purpose, your cause, your belief? And then when you ask for the call to action, which is to make a donation today, how do you want someone to feel while they're making that donation? What you know you don't want is for someone to feel obligated. You don't want someone to feel burdened. You don't want someone to feel ashamed about the size of their donation. So what instead do you want them to feel? You want them to feel proud. You want them to feel inspired to tell someone else about this experience. So how can you shape the story in a way that makes it clear that they are allowed to feel those things?
Peter: That is rich. I love that. I just want to, like, double down on everything that you've said, because, having worked with some of the largest, you know, companies in Australia and created a bunch of new products and initiatives and all sorts of things in various roles, what I know to be true is not, not many people follow these rules. In fact, it's so rare that it's kind of shocking, because what this, what this whole notion of storytelling that you've described to us, really is centered in, from what I'm hearing, is this idea that it's not about you, it's not about me, the storyteller; it's about creating a story about a human that touches the person that you seek to serve. And so what's interesting about that is, in so many instances that I've witnessed, people fall down, because they say, "I want to tell you all about my products. I want to tell you all about my services. I want to tell you all about my features, my benefits. Look at all this amazing stuff that we've created. Look at this amazing technology. Look at this amazing blog. Look at this amazing podcast." Like features, features, benefits, and none of it resonates. None of it means anything. None of it touches the person that you seek to serve. So that is my one final rant for why this is so important, and why I was so keen for you to unleash the Jen Waldman storytelling master class.
Jen: Well, there are so many other layers to this, but I feel like that's a, a good thirty-thousand foot view for, for today, which is to start with "Why?" and to keep it human, so that you can share stories that move the needle of progress forward. And I think it's important to call out, just like, as a red flag warning, that when you do those two things, when you start with "Why?" and when you keep it human, it's amazing how quickly people will become enraptured with whatever it is you're saying. And that is a very powerful tool that must be used responsibly. I think there are many, many companies, ad agencies, marketing, marketing types that have figured out the way to manipulate you to do what they want you to do by using this as trickery. So what I would encourage people to do is fall back on their own integrity. What do you believe? What are you about? And ensure for yourself that the stories that you tell, if you are using them to make change happen, that you believe in the change that you're attempting to make; that it's not just because it benefits your bottom line, it's not just because it'll get you that promotion that you want, but because you can put your head on the pillow at night and say, "I did that, and I am proud."
Peter: And that is The Long and The Short Of It.