meaningful work podcast

Episode 3: Telling better stories

Mar 3, 2023 | Podcast


Welcome to Meaningful Work, Remarkable Life. I’m your host Brooke McCarthy and I’m a business coach, trainer and speaker living and working on the unceded lands of the Camaragal people here in Sydney, Australia. In this podcast, we explore the paradoxes inherent in working for love and money, magnifying your impact and doing work you feel born to do. We explore the intersections of the meanings we bring to work and the meanings we derive from work. Let’s dive in.

Today I want to talk about telling better stories. So this will be particularly relevant to you if you are self-employed and looking to tell a more powerful brand story, but also really useful to you if you are interested in the art of storytelling, if you are interested in being remarkable and memory-driven. If you are interested in refining your storytelling skills for innumerable reasons, including not just entertaining people at parties, but telling better stories about yourself and to yourself. Telling better stories about yourself to yourself. And of course the influence that that has on your beliefs, your behaviours, your thoughts and everything else.

So I’ve always been fascinated by storytelling. It is something that has always intrigued me. I loved to read as a child. I spent a good part of a decade, I think. It would have been the age of seven or eight to the age of 16, 17. Every single day I read under the desk at school, including during English class. And I was a little bit slow to read initially. And then once I got it, I really got it. And they banned me. They gave me the first library award at my primary school and then they banned me from the library. They spoke to my mother and said, I don’t really think it’s very good for Brooke’s social development, her friendships and blah, blah, blah. She shouldn’t be hanging out in the library every lunchtime.

So talk about mixed messages. I don’t know. Anyway, I loved novels. I loved the imagination and the fact that every single novel contained a universe. I could see it. It felt like a book full of friends. And there was a sadness when each book ended. And believe you me, I wasn’t reading high literature. I was reading all kinds of trash. It didn’t really matter. So long as it was a good story, I was there. I loved it. I loved it. And I also love watching people tell stories. So, you know, a party being a great place to see this in action.

Some people are really excellent storytellers and they’re often people that are great leaders as well. When I was a teenager, you know, there was a particular band of friends that I was in a particular group and, you know, we would all be kind of hanging around. Nobody would be doing anything. And then one of our mates would come along and he had this ability to get us up and united and off on a mission. Whatever that mission was, whatever misadventure we were going to have. He had this ability to round people up with his charisma and his storytelling.

I often think about my dad when I think about storytelling for all the wrong reasons as well. He often goes into much too much detail. He gives the background. He’s a former journalist. He’d give the context and the background and the details that weren’t important. And I would notice people, I would notice him losing people as he went into the caveats and the background before getting into the detail, into the actual drama of the story that he was telling. I love watching people on stage and the stagecraft that comes from that. And it’s also really clear and obvious to me when people are making stories up. I’ve seen this happen a few times where somebody is selling from the stage and I’m loving every minute of it. They’re excellent at their stagecraft, at their storytelling. But then a quick Google search while I’m listening to them, I’m on my mobile and I’m doing a Google search to see whether all of the accolades are true. And I can’t find any evidence of that. It’s obvious that they’re lying or exaggerating. And I think that’s indicative of a lot of us when we’re telling stories.

We oftentimes feel that we’re not interesting enough, that we haven’t been that fascinating. We’re not fascinating, that our life has not been adventurous enough to tell a good story. And therefore we feel, well, not all of us, of course, some people may feel that they need to make stuff up in order to tell a good story. And it’s absolutely not true. Far better to just tell the truth, far better to just actually focus on what has happened and understanding what other people find fascinating. Because it’s certainly true that a lot of people don’t realise how fascinating they are and how fascinating their stories potentially are. They take it for granted. I’ve seen this in my clients as well.

Some clients, my very first client was John Ogilvie from Byron Yoga Centre. This is 14, 15 years ago now, 2008. And I met John at a meditation festival. And I’d gone into, I’d found an empty room. It was a pretty busy festival, lots of people around. So I’d found a room that was empty and I was doing yoga by myself in the corner of the room. And John came in and sat down with his laptop. And he asked me if I was OK and I said yes. He sat down with his laptop. And then after a while we started chatting. And he told me the story of, you know, one of his stories. I’m sure he’s got many. And the story was that he had been very into yoga and meditation and that he was also into heroin. And that he had been living with the Hare Krishnas in Sydney, chanting Hare Krishna. And then he’d had an overdose in the Hare Krishna temple and they’d asked him to leave, you know, not that he couldn’t live with them anymore. And, you know, it’s a remarkable story. It’s certainly a memorable story.

Now, I heard John tell, he told me this story one to one, face to face in this room. And then I heard him tell the same story again, almost, you know, word for word, to magazine editors on stages, at conferences, at, you know, at events. He told the same story. And this is one of the things that we need to do, of course, if we want people to remember, if we want people to remember our stories, we need to tell them again and again and again and again. It’s not enough to do, you know, do it once on Instagram, perhaps, and think, OK, that’s done. Everybody knows it because we’re not all listening. We’re not all paying attention. And we need to hear things more than once to remember them, of course.

So what makes a good story? A good story has a dramatic arc. It almost always has a protagonist or a hero and almost always has a villain. And then the timing or the structure of the story is really important as well. And of course, when we’re talking about digital or being on stage or being at a party or writing a book or recording a podcast, the many different formats of the story will kind of dictate that structure or not dictate, but influence what structure works best. But certainly in digital communications and the way that our brains are moving towards is we need the gold up front. We need the drama up front. And that’s also true face to face. You know, if you think about my dad telling the story and kind of starting backwards with way too much detail and too much context and too many caveats. And, you know, I think we kill a lot of stories. We kill a lot of awesome stories by thinking we need to be chronological.

This is a big misunderstanding amongst a bunch of my clients. You know, when I teach business blogging, writing excellent blogs, we’re all suffering under that lesson from primary school from year one or year two of, you know, first this happened and then that happened and then this happened and then that happened. You know, that we’re almost reciting a history lesson rather than telling an exciting story. So, especially with digital communications, we need to chuck that out. And even when we’re talking face to face, we’ve got a group of four or five people that we’re hoping to fascinate.

We need to figure out where the story starts and where the story starts is not necessarily in the beginning. We can always circle back after and give the background and give the context. It doesn’t have to be told chronologically. We can start with the drama. We can start with the value. We can start with the provocation. We can start with the most provocative, memorable, interesting detail first in order to earn people’s attention. And we can see that happen. You know, let’s go back to that party example. You can see it in the body language of people leaning in and people kind of they’re almost lip reading the storyteller. They want to hang on to every word. And then conversely, we can see what happens when when somebody’s not a great storyteller and people are kind of leaning back. People are taking, taking cues from others and thinking, how the hell do I politely disengage from this? Because it’s taking too much time, too much of my attention up and not giving me a payoff, not giving me the drama that I’m wanting.

So oftentimes, you know, the hero’s journey is certainly a very common template or a common pattern of stories. And it’s oftentimes a story we see in marketing as well, particularly for soloists, particularly for businesses of one where the business owner perhaps might be attempting to create a personal brand or building a personal brand. And I don’t love this term personal brand or personal branding. I’m sure I’ve used it before. I’m sure at one stage I’ve taught courses on personal branding, but it’s not something I love because, you know, whilst we do want to share personal stories and we do want to share personal details of ourselves and of course, how much detail we share is totally up to us. It does, you know, a person is not a brand. And I think with a brand or branding, it’s often it has this inference of something that’s very clean and tidy and neat and cohesive and coherent. And that’s not generally speaking humans, right?

We are messy. We are contradictory. We are complicated. We are hypocritical. We are ugly. There are many, many bits and pieces that make us human and they’re not neat and they’re certainly not tidy. And I think sometimes, you know, when we attempt to create a personal brand for ourselves, we we shave off the parts of ourselves that aren’t cohesive and coherent. And we lose a lot of the interesting parts in that. You know, I think it’s true. I hope it’s true. I think it’s true that we do love to typecast each other. We do like to quickly and easily stereotype each other and say, you know, it’s like taking a shortcut. It’s like taking a shortcut in our thinking. We don’t want to think too deeply about somebody else necessarily. We want to say, oh, yes, she’s this, she’s that, he’s this, he’s that. They are this, they are that. Like we want to make it quick and easy to put people in a box. And so, you know, it’s almost like with personal branding, it feels to me like people are creating a box for themselves and then, you know, shoving themselves into it. And they’re in that process, losing some of the details that make them really interesting.

So with a hero’s journey and with this building of the personal brand, you know, what is really, really typical is this. My life was shit. Everything was shit. Then I got hit by a bus and things became shitter. And then I had some kind of epiphany. And now, you know, I’m enlightened. Now I’m marvelous. Now I’m successful. Now I’m awesome. Now you should buy my thing. Really, really common and something that I’m really keen on dismantling and discouraging because for innumerable reasons, for innumerable reasons.

First off, oftentimes this is a massive exaggeration. You know, oftentimes it’s actually a pretty common, you know, story. Of course, you partied too much in your 20s. Of course, you drank and took too many drugs and slept with the wrong people. You know, of course, you made poor decisions as part of being young. How are we going to learn otherwise if we don’t make a whole bunch of mistakes and bad decisions? And then hopefully, as you got older, you know, you had a series of epiphanies and you gained some wisdom, benefit of hindsight, perhaps, and you made different choices.

And so, you know, part of this story is actually quite common. And there is beauty in that. But of course, people exaggerate the details. The other thing that, you know, one of the reasons I’m not a fan of this is, you know, often it can be a very extraordinary story, the hero’s journey. So it could be, you know, I used to be an Olympic athlete in my spare time. I, you know, hiked Kilimanjaro or whatever. I hiked mountains. I participated in extraordinary feats. And then, you know, I got frostbite and I lost my limbs. And now, you know, I’m doing I’m completely different. And it is an extraordinary story that’s not actually relatable. I don’t have anything in common with Olympic athletes. I don’t have anything in common with people that, you know, put do extraordinary physical challenges.

It’s just I don’t relate to it at all. At all. I don’t even relate to those people that jump in baths of ice. I’m like, oh, kill me now. Give me a spa any day. So the hero’s journey is oftentimes misappropriated. And I want to I want to see more ordinary stories. I want to see the relatable stories. I want to see myself in other people’s stories. I want to identify myself in other people’s stories. I don’t want to feel that I don’t have anything to relate to this person, because oftentimes what happens then is the audience puts that hero on a pedestal.

The audience is looking for somebody to worship, somebody that’s done something extraordinary, somebody, you know, the rags to riches being kind of an example of this. The rags to riches stories, you know, are fabulous. Don’t get me wrong. They’re very inspiring. You know, I had all of these hindrances and I had all these difficulties in my way. And despite all these difficulties, despite it being very easy for my life to turn out shit, I managed to rise above that. And here I am a great success and not a victim of circumstance or a product of my environment. And again, very, very, very uncommon in the same way that most of us aren’t Olympic athletes. Most of us who’ve been born in circumstances where all the odds are stacked against us do not rise above that. And, you know, don’t get me wrong, I’m not discouraging anyone that does. I mean, that’s extraordinary. But the point is, it is extraordinary. It’s not common.

So a few different things that I want to highlight here is firstly, there is extraordinary. There is something beautiful and remarkable and amazing and fantastic and fabulous in your story, no matter how average you might think it is. That a lot of it is in the stagecraft. A lot of it is the skill of storytelling. And a lot of it is empathy and understanding what other people find fascinating, what other people find fascinating, because what we take for granted is oftentimes our strength. It’s oftentimes our natural strengths is the very thing that we overlook, whereas actually for a lot of people, it’s amazing. It’s not common to them at all. And it’s very, very attractive to hear of it.

So the other thing I want to talk about is that the hero is not necessarily you in the story. And I think this is something that we oftentimes get wrong or misunderstand when it comes to marketing, when it comes to branding, when it comes to talking about ourselves or using storytelling in marketing, is we oftentimes feel that the hero has to be ourselves. And I think it’s easy enough to do. I certainly know I use myself as an example in a lot of my marketing for privacy reasons, because I don’t feel comfortable and I haven’t gotten the express consent from my clients to share their stories, unless I’ve written it up in a case study or a testimonial, they’ve contributed a testimonial. I don’t have their express permission and consent to be sharing their stories. And I don’t want anyone to hear stories that I’m telling about other clients and thinking, oh, shit, I can’t be vulnerable with Brook. I can’t share my details of myself because I’m likely to turn up on social media without my consent. So it’s a shortcut to then use myself in my marketing stories, because, of course, I grant myself permission. I give myself my consent to share my stories.

But the hero is not necessarily you in the story. And this is really important because the hero is your audience. And this is also super important and useful, I feel, when you are feeling self-conscious about sharing your own story, because when I’m sharing my stories on the Internet, I’m not doing it to make myself feel good or to make myself look good. Obviously, I don’t want to make myself look bad, but I’m not doing it as an ego stroking exercise. I’m doing it because I want to make people feel better about themselves. And if I’m sharing something which is completely unrelatable, then how is that useful to the audience?

The audience needs to be able to identify themselves in your story. The audience needs to make them, you know, the audience needs to feel good about themselves or to feel less alone about themselves or to feel more empowered about themselves or to feel, you know, something positive, even if it’s just, you know, this is a melancholy story. But at least I’m not alone. At least I’m not the only person, you know, in this kind of sad situation. That’s, you know, that is hugely valuable and useful and life-affirming. So I hope that this is useful insofar as your self-consciousness diminishes when you’re doing it for somebody else. And I oftentimes think about marketing as almost like a community service when I’m sharing something where there is potentially a vulnerability hangover.

And I do have reservations about sharing it. And I do feel a little bit exposed. And I do feel like, oh, my God, look at all those wrinkles or, you know, are people going to think I’m a numb nut or whatever? To remind myself that I’m not doing it for me. I’m doing it as a community service. I’m doing it to make somebody else feel less alone, to make people feel seen or heard or validated, to make people feel good. And then the audience is the hero. The hero is the audience, not necessarily the protagonist. This can be super, super helpful for telling better stories as well.

Now, oftentimes, I think people miss the opportunity to tell better stories because they’re losing their audience. They’re not paying attention to the feedback that they’re getting. And this can be very disconcerting. Don’t get me wrong. There’s been many times where I’m on stage or I’m at the front of the room talking and I am feeling unsure or nervous or anxious or whatever. And I can’t, you know, I can’t connect with the audience because I don’t have the emotional capacity in the moment to I have to unfocus my eyes, you know, take my gaze somewhere so that I’m not, you know, so that I can calm my nerves, get my nerves under control and then proceed hopefully to connect with the audience. And I think when we’re not great at telling stories, we miss this. We’re not listening for the nonverbal feedback.

So case in point, I spoke at a conference about a year ago and at the end of my talk, the audience were invited to ask questions. The first person that came and stood up took this opportunity to stand on a soapbox and deliver a monologue that had nothing to do with what I was talking about or very, very little to do. And that was an example of somebody who completely missed the social cues of the audience that actually she wasn’t nobody was interested, you know, to be brutal. Nobody was interested. It wasn’t relevant. It wasn’t useful. It wasn’t valuable. It was certainly not a question that she was asking. So, you know, when we go on on our monologues, when we give a diatribe, we’re not, we’re kind of shutting down the dialogue. And, you know, when you tell stories, there is a back and forth between the storyteller and the audience, even if there’s no conversation, even if, you know, the speaker is speaking in the audience is listening, even if you’re posting on social media, there is still a dialogue.

The dialogue might be no response on social media, no comments, no likes, no engagement, no views. You know, the feedback could be, you know, that people are leaning in to listen, that you can see it in their eyes. You can see the thinking that’s taking place. You can see that you’re pissing people off. You can see that people are getting excited. You know, you can see all these nonverbal cues. Or like I said, you know, on social media, you’re getting a resounding silence.

Getting negative feedback is a good thing as well. Like on social media, on email, you know, I’ve often had people who’ve responded in a very strong way to, you know, stories I put out there, messages that I’m sharing, they’ve they’ve come back and they’ve gone, you know, they’ve given me a serve. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s often a really, really useful thing because it indicates that you’ve hit a nerve, that the story that you’ve shared, the message you’ve shared is relevant to them because of some if it’s not relevant, right, we just scroll on past. We don’t even notice it doesn’t even compute. If it’s relevant, oftentimes it has a big strong emotional response and that response is not always positive. That’s not a bad thing.

So telling better stories, whether you’re telling it to yourself, whether you’re telling it to friends, whether you’re telling it on social media or in your marketing, you know, in our sales, you know, in sales conversations, I’m oftentimes telling stories. And I might be telling stories about myself, but I’m also telling stories about, you know, my clients to an extent, obviously, you know, not naming names, keeping their, you know, I’m sharing many case studies or possibilities. I’m telling stories in a sales conversation as well. You tell stories when you try and get your kids to eat vegetables, right? One of the best techniques in parenting, one of the most useful techniques that I’ve found is that kind of distraction technique where you and it’s also really useful for yourself. You know, when you’re acting, when your emotions are like a pertinent, you know, two year old, you’re feeling as emotional as a two year old or a one year old, it can be really useful to distract yourself, to take that attention, you know, in the same way to redirect the attention in the same way a magician redirects the audience’s attention while they perform the magic trick.

Storytelling skills are human skills. These are skills that we have been using for as long as we’ve been around, for as long as language has been a thing, we have told stories, you know, we before we wrote things down in books, we chanted in groups, we told stories to pass down history and culture and learnings and rules, morality. This is a hugely human skill and it’s a skill I believe that will enrich your life when you can tell better stories.

This podcast was produced by Morgan Sebastian Brown of Brown Tree Productions and the original music was produced by Sean Windsor.

Brook McCarthy Business Coach

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