How Stories Can Launch Epic Transformation
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Episode 151 Transcript:
Chris Curran: Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper, episode 151, How Stories Can Launch Epic Transformation. This episode is brought to you by Business Advancement, Incorporated enabling successful leaders and companies to accelerate to their next level of success. On the web at BusinessAdvance.com. Now, here’s Pam and Scott.
Pam Harper: Thanks, Chris. I’m Pam Harper, founding partner and CEO of Business Advancement, Incorporated and sitting right across from me as always is my business partner and husband, Scott Harper. Hi Scott.
Scott Harper: Hi Pam. It’s always a pleasure to join you on Growth Igniters Radio, and as always our purpose is to spark a little insight, inspiration, and immediately useful ideas for visionary leaders to accelerate themselves and their companies to their next level of game-changing innovation, growth, and success. Now, Pam, it’s no secret that stories can have a major impact on a company’s brand and their success, but today we’re talking about the major impact that storytelling can have on communicating your vision, your leader’s vision for the company in a way that launches epic transformation.
Pam Harper: That’s right. There’s been a lot in the news about CEOs who’ve had challenges in uniting stakeholders around their vision. Either they’re too visionary or not visionary enough. So, what’s the answer? It’s through compelling stories. This is the way we create the emotional connection that builds the commitment it takes for transformation to succeed. That’s why we’re pleased to have as our guest today, Greg Stone, President of Stone Communications. His firm provides media and presentations skills consulting for high-profile clients. This includes major corporations such as IBM, 3M, and Fidelity as well as political figures and others. Greg has written two books, Branding with Powerful Stories, The Villains, Victims and Heroes Model, and Artful Business: 50 Lessons from Creative Geniuses. A three-time Emmy nominee, Greg worked as a writer at Time, Inc. in New York and as a TV reporter in Minneapolis, Boston and on PBS. He frequently guest lectures at Harvard Business School and is very active on the speaker circuit as well. Greg, welcome to Growth Igniters Radio.
Greg Stone: Thank you so much. It’s great to be there.
Pam Harper: So, there are a lot of myths about executive storytelling. Can you start us out by debunking the top myth that CEOs and C-suite leaders tell themselves about the importance of storytelling?
Greg Stone: Well, I think there’s a feeling less so now than years ago amongst CEOs and in general senior managers that they don’t have to think about explaining or telling stories or communicating because they relegate that to the PR people, to the marketing people, to their agencies and so on. It’s just like technology, a generation ago people had dumb terminals on their desks, and there was a big mainframe computer somewhere in the back room, and all the technology was relegated to the technical people. Now we all have technology in the palm of our hands and our desktops, and we’re all imbued with this, and the same is true with communication in the business veer. Because a good leader must communicate. You cannot slough it off on other people. The chief evangelist should be the CEO, the chief executive officer.
Communication leads directly to executive presence, which is a term that we here bandying about left and right, and people don’t really know what it means. I can offer a simple definition. It’s the ability to connect authentically with the thoughts and feelings of others to motivate and inspire them toward a desired outcome. It’s a combination of gravitas communication and appearance, and if you’re a business leader and you don’t feel you’re conveying this deep presence enough, you need to ask yourself a very tough question that might stun a room into silence, which is why would anyone want to be led by you? Chances are if you are a good leader a lot of that emanates from your ability to communicate and to tell stories, which express the essence of the business.
Pam Harper: We’ve seen that stories are especially important when you’re leading into unchartered territory. Do you see that too?
Greg Stone: Absolutely, because if you look at the great leaders from history, often times their ability to motivate people came from their communication know-how. You think about FDR. You think about Ronald Reagan. You think about Bill Clinton. You think about Napoleon. Now, when I mention the politicians you may love them or hate them, and this is not an exercise in partisan politics, but you have to look at the way they communicated mechanically, and most of the best leaders were able to cut through the clutter and appeal directly to the minds and hearts of the citizens.
Scott Harper: Now, we’ve heard people say, “yeah, storytelling is great and all that, but I’m not a storyteller. I don’t know how to do it.” Reading your book, you focus on a pretty straightforward model, the power of villains, victims, and heroes in telling a story for brands, including communicating a compelling vision for transformation. How do you come up with this model and why do you think it’s so impactful?
Greg Stone: Well, suffice it to say I’ve been a storyteller all my life. This has been my business, and I’ve always been interested in the arts and literature and movies. I got to thinking about what makes stories powerful. The villain is the most powerful character in the story. Alfred Hitchcock famously said that great villains make great movies.
Scott Harper: Yeah.
Greg Stone: And the same is true in business stories. Now, what does that mean? The villain doesn’t have to be animate. The villain is not a person. The villain is not necessarily a competitor. The villain is the problem. It’s anything that frustrates the consumer that causes him or her harm or indigestion or insomnia. Let me give you a couple of examples generally speaking from a couple of industries. Let’s take healthcare. The obvious villain is death. If you die at the end of a procedure that is by definition a horrible outcome, but short of that there are other problems, which are less severe. It could be something as simple as walking into a doctor’s office and encountering a receptionist who doesn’t look up when you walk in. Who says, “hello,” but doesn’t make eye contact or who treats you brusquely. Right away there’s a disconnect. Maybe it’s the fact that your doctor seems friendly. He or she seems distracted. I mean if we look at software, the problems are unreliable programs, porous security. In education, it’s high tuition, degrees that don’t lead to successful or useful employment.
Pam Harper: In some ways, it reminds me of the infomercials that you see where they have whatever those kinds of problems are, but now you’re casting them as the villain, which is kind of intriguing, actually.
Greg Stone: Exactly, and the villains are the problems. The victims are the consumers, the people who suffer from this. The hero is the business and its products or services. Now, do you say, if you’re the president of a wonderful university, do you come out and say, “we are the heroes of education, preparing all of our graduates for wonderful careers?” Of course not. That would be corny. But if you talk in specific terms about the solutions that you’re offering, that’s what leads to a powerful story.
Pam Harper: So, like what would be an example talking about the vision for transformation, that epic transformation?
Greg Stone: There’s an interesting study that was done analyzing 30 interviews with CEOs in the Harvard Business Review, and overwhelmingly the most common type of story these great leaders told were epics. Now, what is an epic? An epic is nothing but a dramatic story wrote large involving heroes and villains and great challenges and sacrifices with an inspirational edge. I can give you an example. We all know Swatch, the watch company. Nicholas Hayek, who is the CEO of its parent company described the marketing effort that the company engaged with in Frankfort in this way… He said, “we built a giant Swatch. It was 500 feet high, weighed 13 tons and actually worked. We suspended it outside the tallest skyscraper in Frankfort, the headquarters of Commerce Bank, and he said it was really something to see.” He also mentioned that they hung a giant Swatch in Tokyo in The Ginza. Now bear in mind Swatch is a Swiss company. So let me go back to the quote. He said, “do you think we broadcast our sales figures in Japan or that we acted arrogantly? Of course not. The Japanese are sympathetic to us. We’re nice people from a small country. We have nice mountains and clear water. They like us and our products, and we like them.” Now, this seems like a sort of an atypical story for a CEO to tell, but it involves an epic gesture of marketing, but it’s also emotional. Nicholas Hayek’s personality comes through. I love it when he says, “we’re nice people from a small country.” It’s not about arrogance. It’s not about braggadocio. It’s not about any kind of boasting at all. It’s a straightforward proposition, talking about who you are, what you do, and how you feel about it.
Scott Harper: But it sets them apart. It differentiates. It makes it memorable.
Greg Stone: Absolutely.
Pam Harper: So, the more that we are clear about who and what the villains are, who the victims are, and how our company, especially as we’re moving forward is going to be the hero, that’s going to be the beginnings of launching that epic transformation?
Greg Stone: Absolutely.
Pam Harper: Okay. So, we’re going to take a quick break, and when we come back, we’ll talk more with Greg Stone, author of Branding with Powerful Stories about Stories as motivators for epic transformation. Stay with us.
Scott Harper: This is Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper brought to you by Business Advancement, Incorporated. We focus on enabling visionary leaders to ignite, sustain, and boost the essential momentum for game-changing results. We’re on the web at businessadvance.com.
Pam Harper: We’d like to welcome our listeners and especially our many new listeners if you’re not already subscribed to our growth igniters community, you can get even more value by signing up. You’ll receive reminders of our new biweekly podcasts along with a link to a page filled with all kinds of resources. On off weeks you’ll receive a growth igniters post, which is about a two-minute read.
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Pam Harper: Welcome back to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper, that’s me, and Scott Harper. Today Scott and I are speaking with Greg Stone, author of Branding with Powerful Stories about how leaders can use powerful storytelling to gain commitment during transformation. Greg, how can people find out more about you and your book?
Greg Stone: Well, my book Branding with Powerful Stories is available on Amazon. My website is very easy to remember. It’s gregstone.com. I’m happy to communicate with anyone.
Pam Harper: That’s great. And you can access resources relevant to our conversation today by visiting growthigitorsradio.com, episode 151. Now, we’ve been talking in the last segment about the whole model of villains, victims, and heroes. What would you say makes stories so impactful as motivators?
Greg Stone: Well, there are physiological facts that underline the power of stories. Stories are 22 times more memorable than facts alone, and part of this is due to a phenomenon called neural coupling. If you hook a storyteller and a listener up to F-MRI machines you will see that the brains are responding and lighting up in the same way. It’s almost as if the two brains are part of the same organ. This can be demonstrated and has been demonstrated in labs. Also, emotional stories stimulate oxytocin. That’s not Oxycontin, which is the bad stuff, but oxytocin which is commonly known as the hug hormone, which enhances understanding and memory even after weeks have passed. Moreover, stories produce a cascade of dopamine. That’s that wonderful hormone that makes us feel better and more enthusiastic and upbeat about life. Beyond the physiological aspects, we can talk about something called intertextuality, which is a formal word which basically means that media overlap and combine and recombine. So, if I tell you a story about myself now, if I’m the CEO, that resonates with other stories that you may have heard that I may have told that my predecessors may have told that customers may have told, and they all blend together into what can be a transformative experience. You’ve heard the expression, memes referring to things on the internet.
Pam Harper: Right.
Greg Stone: Well, stories are really “narratemes” in the sense that they’re units of communication that can be very powerful, that become part of the myth, the mythology, the reality, the institutional memory of an organization.
Pam Harper: You know, that’s very interesting you say that, because they are a lot of times when we’ll go into companies and they have their transformational story, the narrative, and it has made a difference.
Greg Stone: Exactly, but you know one of my favorite stories about mission and transformation is JFK visited NASA during the days of the moonshot, and he was there and he encountered a gentleman who was dressed in overalls. The President said, “what is your job, Sir.” It turns out that this man was a janitor, and he looked at JFK like JFK was crazy, and he said, “my job? We’re putting a man on the moon.” Now how powerful is that, when you can connect every single employee at NASA from the astronauts themselves down to the janitor and make him or her feel that they’re part of a larger mission that everybody can care about. It gives me chills even now to tell that story, it’s so powerful.
Pam Harper: This story was, of course, before the internet. Now we have social media where many people are taking in the story, commenting on it, and even reshaping it. How does that impact the story that we’re trying to get across?
Greg Stone: When I first heard the term, “social media,” I thought this is redundant because all media are social, but then I realized no, that’s not the point. The point is that social media are like a water cooler conversation at large that it’s a place where people talk to one another rather than waiting for inputs from newspapers, magazines, radio, television or even now the internet. So, the story takes on a life of its own, and people commenting on stories become co-branders as it were. The evangelists, the critics, the hackers, the indifferent. Everyone is part of that constituency out there, and the dialogue becomes a pollywog with a lot of people participating and it proceeds organically. Sometimes conversations go in disturbing ways on social media, as we all know — but from a marketing point of view, it’s very powerful because it gives companies a window on what customers are thinking and feeling.
Pam Harper: Going back to creating this epic transformation, you were talking about the different types of stories and how those all have to come together in some new ways.
Greg Stone: Absolutely. You have to have consistency in messaging. That doesn’t mean that every single spokesperson for a company has to utter the same words. That would be ridiculous and robotic, but the central core of the messaging should be clear to everyone.
Pam Harper: That’s right.
Greg Stone: When you have congruence between message and the one who delivers it, that’s a very powerful thing.
Pam Harper: So, where does framing come into all of this? Especially when you’re crafting a story to inspire cultural transformation?
Greg Stone: That’s an excellent question. A lot of the framing work is based on a gentleman called George Lakoff who is a cognitive linguist at Berkeley, and frames are really mental structures that shape the way we see the world. They are metaphors, and they’re very, very powerful. They get etched into neural circuitry.
Pam Harper: So, they become part of the culture.
Greg Stone: Exactly. There’s an old saying in business that “culture beats strategy any day.”
Pam Harper: Absolutely.
Greg Stone: And if you can forge a culture where the frame is one of emotional commitment, like the janitor at NASA, that’s an extremely powerful frame to have permeating the organization. We’re putting a man on the moon. That’s why we’re here. That’s what gets you out of bed in the morning. In healthcare, it’s we’re healing the sick. In manufacturing, it’s we’re giving people products that they need and want that can make their lives better and so on. I think we all need to take a step back and look at the larger transcendent purpose rather than, “hey, we’re in business to sell goods and services, and that’s how we make money.”
Pam Harper: Definitely, the more that people feel emotionally connected to a company, the more engaged people will be and the more that all the different stories that are going on about the company fit in with what you’re saying. I can imagine that it’s more congruent. So, these stories that we’re talking about can really make a vision come to life. We’re going to take another quick break, and when we come back Scott and I will speak more with Greg Stone, author of Branding with Powerful Stories about immediately useful ideas for crafting stories for epic transformation. Stay with us.
Scott Harper: You’re listening to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper brought to you by Business Advancement, Incorporated on the web at businessadvance.com. Pam, some of our listeners may know that we speak at a variety of company events, conferences, and offsites. Can you tell us why clients engage us as speakers?
Pam Harper: One of the most challenging aspects of leading a successful, game-changing company is answering the tough question of how can we be more than a one-hit wonder? As growth igniters ourselves, we know how to spark the new thinking, new conversations and new decisions that generate the momentum it takes stay first, fast, and foremost.
Scott Harper: If that sounds good to you, contact us today at businessadvance.com to schedule a brief call to discuss how we can help you and your company get even more game-changing results.
Pam Harper: Welcome back to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. Over the last two segments, Scott and I have been speaking with Greg Stone, author of Branding with Powerful Stories about how powerful storytelling can launch and support epic transformation. Greg, can you tell us again how people can find out more about you and your book?
Greg Stone: Yes. The book, Branding with Powerful Stories: The Villains, Victims, and Heroes Model is available on Amazon and my website is gregstone.com.
Pam Harper: And as always you can find other information relevant to this episode by going to growthignitorsradio.com, episode 151 and scroll down to resources. This is the part of our podcast where we like to talk about the immediately useful ideas, and in this case, it’s for crafting epic stories to transform your vision into powerful action. What would be the first idea, Greg?
Greg Stone: Well, one of the most powerful paradigms in storytelling is what if. H.G. Wells said, “what if we could travel through time?” People are asking now, what if we can invent a computer that thinks better than humans? That’s already happening. We had Big Blue beat the world champion in chess, and we’re all terrified of AI, but whether we love it or not, it’s going on all around us. Let’s look at a more recent example, a more concrete example. Let’s think about the iPhone. Suppose going back to 2000, what? Three-four? Somebody had said, “what if we can invent a device that would keep time, play music and make phone calls?” At that point people would have said, “you’re crazy.” Well, the iPhone came to be, and Steve Jobs famously did not believe in market research, because he said people don’t know what they want until you show it to them. Now, most of us don’t have Steve Jobs’ genius, but we can try to think in what if terms, to look beyond the obvious.
Pam Harper: So, what if is really about engaging the imagination. So, as an immediately useful idea, if we start getting into the practice of saying, “What if,” as we’re crafting our stories, it seems like that’ s going to be the beginning of creating that epic transformation. What if? What if anything could happen?
Greg Stone: Exactly. What if we could solve the problems that our customers tell us that they have. What if we’re not doing that now? What if we try to think of a better way of doing it? How about this? What if we have conversations with our customers and ask them what frustrates them? What they like and what they dislike about our products. What if you’re the CEO of the company and you go and participate in those conversations? That’s an extremely powerful thing.
Pam Harper: I love that. It’s really energizing.
Scott Harper: Very good. And so you had mentioned another practical idea of crafting plot points in your story. Can you tell us about that?
Greg Stone: Absolutely. Thought points are dramatic reversals that spin the tail in a new direction. A lot of people know the movie Casablanca. Humphrey Bogart in the movie had a love affair with Ingrid Bergman.
Scott Harper: Right.
Greg Stone: And then she mysteriously disappeared in Paris and one day she shows up without warning at his bar in Casablanca. Now that turned his head around and turned our heads around as audience members, because it was unexpected and very dramatic.
But there are examples of this in business too, because oftentimes the resolution, the solution can be the exact opposite of the question. An example, with the invention of Google, Larry Paige and Sergey Brin — Larry Paige in particular — had a flash of insight, because he thought about how academic citations work. If you’re a very important professor, say a noble prize winner, you might have 10,000 citations for a given article. So, Larry Paige said, “hmm. What if we looked on the internet and looked at the way that data is collected and we said, “hmm, if there are 10,000 links to a particular site then when someone is searching for the subject of that site, we should take them there immediately.” So, we took the academic citation process, turned it on its head, and that’s how Google was born. Google, by the way originally was called Paige Rank, which is nowhere near as dramatic as Google. Maybe Google isn’t dramatic, but it’s an unusual name. It makes you stop and think at first, what does that mean?
Pam Harper: So, it sounds like what you’re saying is if we combine what if and then turn the logic on its head and create the story with villains, and victims, and the heroes that now you begin to get a feeling for a real transformation.
Scott Harper: It’s more resonant and more emotionally impactful.
Pam Harper: Absolutely, and by the way with plot points, one quick thing. IN good stories, villains aren’t entirely evil. If they are, they’re boring, and heroes aren’t entirely good, because heroes have flaws and they occasionally do bad things. Villains are not all evil. Sometimes they do good things. Look at Darth Vader in Star Wars. Spoiler alert, — he ends up not being such a bad guy after all in the end events, after doing a lot of horrible things. If he was horrible to the core, he wouldn’t be as interesting.
Pam Harper: We’re imperfect, but we’re amazing, right?
Greg Stone: Exactly.
Pam Harper: Something like that. So, where do sound bites come in, because I know that sound bites are very memorable, but how would you incorporate something like that with this epic transformational vision?
Greg Stone: If you think about what makes a good sound bite. Bill Gates once said, “intellectual property has the shelf life of a banana,” or a George H.W. Bush, Senior uttered the famous phrase, “a brilliant diversity spreads like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.” What these images have in common is that they are visual. The best sound bites create a picture in the mind of the listener. I know that you two will be happy to hear me say this, but for my money, radio is the most powerful media, because the pictures are better on radio.
Pam Harper: Really?
Greg Stone: And the pictures are in color on radio, because radio forces the listener to create an image to accompany the words that are being spoken. While radio stimulates directly only our sense of hearing, it engages the entire mind. If you’re narrating properly, it’s as if you’re describing a movie to a blind person, because we are blind if we weren’t there with you. It’s about engaging emotions. There are ways to make a good sound byte. Think pictorially, as I mentioned. Offer some wow statistics, if you have them. An example is that only one in three adults participate in the recommended amount of physical activity each week. We can see that right away, can’t we? That’s a sound bite that’s purely statistical that might get our attention.
Pam Harper: What about a tweet? Can you draw any parallels with a tweet? Should our sound bites be close to say, the length of a tweet, or does it not matter?
Greg Stone: Oh, it matters greatly. The best sound bites are brief, brief, brief. If we think about Julius Caesar saying, “I came. I saw. I conquered.” Those are six words that tell the whole story. You may think I’m kidding, but I think western communication or communication throughout the world I should say was set back when Twitter doubled the character count from 140 to 280, because 280 characters are verbose. If you have something that is an absolute core message, that is absolutely essential, you should be able to express it in a Tweet in a way that motivates people. Now, is that hard to do? Of course it’s hard, but it’s not impossible. I think we need to be able to explain what we do. When people ask me what I do, I say, “I help businesses explain what they do.”
Scott Harper: Short is sweet.
Greg Stone: Absolutely.
Pam Harper: Any final thoughts about the power of stories for launching epic transformation?
Greg Stone: Communication is very hard, but it’s very doable, and I would leave you with this. When Bill Gates was actively running Microsoft it’s said he spent 15% of his time on communication. When he traveled, he was almost macho about scheduling as many meetings back to back to back as possible, and it got out there. He met with community leaders. He would give interviews to local newspapers and to trade journals, and he was all about being a presence. That’s what made him a celebrity. Then, once he became a celebrity he used his celebrity to sell software. Now he’s using his celebrity to try to save the world. But that didn’t just happen. Bill Gates made that happen. You don’t have to be a natural communicator, a natural performer. You just have to work at it, and it has to come from your core. Again, as I said at the beginning, it’s not enough to be, you have to explain what you’re doing and why and what your emotional commitment to it is and why people should be emotionally committed to your brand.
Pam Harper: Well, Greg, thank you so much for being our guest today.
Greg Stone: My pleasure.
Scott Harper: Thanks, Greg and thanks to you out there for listening to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. To go show notes and resource links for this week’s episode, go to growthignitorsradio.com, episode 151.
Pam Harper: Until next time, this is Pam Harper…
Scott Harper: And Scott Harper…
Pam Harper: Wishing you continued success, and leaving you with this question to consider …
Scott Harper: How are we going to craft an even more compelling story about our company’s vision so we can launch epic transformation for our next level of game-changing success?