Short story. A few short days ago, US Dark Angel Richard Pelletier and Ted Leonhardt, held an event at Folio. It’s a lovely private library, perfect to discuss some great topics. Dark Angels’ new book, Established: Lessons from the world’s oldest companies, writing, business, branding, and story. Ted was accompanied by his lovely new bride Robin, and Richard brought n’er do wells from his childhood who mostly behaved. Ted and Richard love talking to each other so much about stories they just kept talking.
Ted, we had a wonderful public conversation at Folio recently. One question that we didn’t explore was this. How do storytelling and language work on people? In terms of pure bottom-line calculations—how do stories and language make a difference? You’re a keen observer of the business world. What’s taking place when stories succeed?
“Once upon a time there was a beautiful little girl who was very quick but she had a hard time staying focused on a single subject. Her parents loved her deeply but didn’t think they should pay to send her to a top school. So even though she was their first born when it became time for her to enter a university they…”
Well told stories make us feel something. They get our attention by creating a deep need that holds our attention. A need to satisfy the itch that the storyteller creates by giving us just enough that we’re compelled to continue the journey. The potency of story is in how it establishes a deep need within that compels us to continue to follow the thread. Once caught by the storyteller, we must find out more.
I’ve always used stories to attract clients. The stories I tell are my only form of direct outreach. In the late nineties, I did a lot of public speaking. My talks were illustrated by stories about people: how they affected the world around them and how that world shaped them.
Bottom line: My storytelling helped my company, The Leonhardt Group, grow to $10 million in sales.
My interest has always been in how we connect and persuade. In the last few years, I’ve started writing my stories as well as telling them. And in the process, I’ve built an active following through social media and email that’s resulted in a small, but growing consulting practice.
When stories succeed, the reader or listener forms a bond of trust with the teller. This trust lives on a subconscious level; it removes some of the natural barriers that exist between strangers. Reader and writer become closer through the shared experience of the story. The shared story seems to remove some of the “fear of the other” that separate and divide one person from another.
Stories also sort people into those who identify with the story and the storyteller and those who do not. I like to say “I’m not right for everyone, but I’m just right for you.” Stories prequalify people into those who feel a fit with me and those who don’t.
I like where you say that when stories work, they help remove natural barriers and fear of the other. These are terrific insights. I remember reading another piece of yours that touches on barriers and fear of the other.
I’m talking about your take on creatives – how they’re wired and how that puts them at a particular disadvantage as they prepare to work with or negotiate with tough-minded, and maybe tightfisted, clients. Can you talk about that? You’re onto something there.
Here’s the core of it. Our self-worth, our self-esteem, is all tied up with the work we do, in a not-so-tidy bundle. This results in feelings of extreme vulnerability whenever our work becomes the center of a transaction. The vulnerability can produce stress – sometimes extreme stress. When we’re negotiating a fee for creative work or a salary for a creative position, these feelings can be so disturbing that we’ll roll over, give in or not ask for what we need, just to reduce the anxieties.
On the other hand, we love the work we do. We get great personal pleasure from doing it. In fact, we get so much pleasure from doing the work that we’ll give it away for the recognition – for the opportunity to do more creative work. This isn’t a productive state of mind when we’re negotiating either.
I’m a creative.
I’ve struggled with this my whole life, and I’ve discovered that I’m not alone. Now my work is dedicated to helping creatives get their fair share. And I’ve learned a thing or two about how to retain my vulnerability and still get the money and respect I need.
Through my own experience and through helping hundreds of creatives use their intuition effectively at the bargaining table, I’ve come to believe that understanding what seem to be our top three vulnerabilities is our greatest strength:
1. It’s never good enough. We always think our work could be a little bit better if we could spend just a few more minutes, hours, days or years on it. Wishing it could be better undermines our ability to ask for top dollar.
2. We’re not motivated by money. We’re motivated by the work and the opportunity to do more work. Not a great mindset when fees are the issue.
3. We’re more empathetic than others*. It’s the empathy we pour into our work that makes it appealing to others. It’s the emotional impact our work has on others that our clients want from us. But our empathy makes us feel our own fears and anxieties more acutely. So when we’re negotiating fees with an MBA or a purchasing agent or some other accomplished linear thinker, we’re at a severe disadvantage and we tend to give in.
Our work helps people change their minds, discover new ideas, buy things and take action. We creatives break down barriers and chart new courses.
Our contribution is worth money. But when clients bargain with us, we allow them to take advantage of our willingness – eagerness, even – to get on with doing the work and past the uncomfortable feelings of negotiating the deal. Once this dynamic is understood, we can maintain our essential vulnerability and still get what we need to succeed for our clients and ourselves.
*In their book, Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, co-writers Scott Barry Kaufman, and Carolyn Gregoire, cite the latest findings in neuroscience and psychology, along with engaging examples that link creative traits and empathy.
Here’s a question for you, Richard. You’ve worked with corporate communicators from all over the world. You know how to tell stories that capture our interest, hold our attention and our hearts. And you’ve run into the difficulties of getting clients to tell it like it is.
You know that jargon and spin are the stink that turns off readers. What are the best ways to get senior executives to tell their stories with openness and honesty?
So, I’m imagining a speaking gig. A group of senior execs. They’ve come to learn why they should think hard about telling stories. Here’s my opening shot:
Right now, there’s a small army of hungry, talented word wranglers circling your offices. They’re eager to dig deep, to summon everything they’ve got. Imagination and empathy; emotion and precision. Clarity. Research and data. PASSION. ENTHUSIASM. They want to light a fire in the heart of your audience. They want to tell stories. Only one problem. You. You won’t let them. Oh, you’ll invite them in. You’ll make nice, make them comfortable. You might even listen patiently over coffee. You will seduce them. “Hmm, that sounds interesting. I’m liking the sounds of this.” But in the end, you won’t do anything different. You will still bore the pants off all of us while you crush our souls to dust.
Unless I can persuade you of a few things.
First, that the world has changed. Marketing as you’ve known it has run its course. It’s dead. And second, the only chance you’ve got to survive and thrive—the only chance any of us have—is to tell the truth. To stop the boasting, the assertions, the leading provider of this, the unique, socially conscious global leader of that.
Stories are how humans transmit and reveal who we are, how we operate, and, what matters to us. Stories are how we connect. When you leave here today, you’re going to say, “there was my life before I heard all this, and there’s my life now.”
So everybody buckle up, because first we’re going to look at the science…and it will blow your mind, what I’m gonna tell you…
Also published on Medium.