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Your success story depends on whether or not you can tell it

Throughout history, people have used the power of narrative to drive civil rights movements, political campaigns, and mass consumer change. But now, more than ever, it’s businesses that need to use stories to survive.

Brands today exist in the age of the consumer—a time when people have more brand options than ever before. Couple this with advertisement avoidance—skipping commercials, browsing the internet ad-free, and paying extra to eradicate ads on digital radio—and it becomes a major challenge for brands to reach consumers at all. If a brand or business wants to get consumer attention, they need to make something that the consumer wants to see. Something they will search out themselves. And that’s where stories come in.

We, the people, are hungry for stories. You can see this in the rapid popularity of podcasts like Serial and the online conversation catalogue Humans of New York. The growing fandoms reflect consumer demand for deep, emotional experiences in media—which can be hard to find in today’s digital landscape, crammed with fleeting experiences. In one day, we’ll see thousands of popups, tweets, GIFs and memes but there is no rooted experience, no meaning, and no effect on our lives. Stories are different. They take time to unravel. They give the viewer permission to pay attention to just one thing. They call on emotions and invite the reader to step into and exist in another person’s shoes. Great stories can change our lives.

The growing fandoms reflect consumer demand for deep, emotional experiences in media—which can be hard to find in today’s digital landscape, crammed with fleeting experiences.

Any organizations can benefit from telling a fantastic tale. But of course, you must first learn how. One person who makes that possible is Cyndi Freeman. Cyndi is an instructor at The Story Studio, run by master storyteller and podcast pioneer, Kevin Allison—creator of Risk. Cyndi talked with Relate about why stories are important, what they can do for a business, and how anyone can learn to be a better storyteller.

An interview with Cyndi

People love to hear and tell a good story. What do you think is so human about telling stories?

I think storytelling is the most natural thing that people do. It’s the ability to paint pictures for people so that we can experience the same things while not having gone through that situation together. I think that is a distinct human experience. It’s how we connect.

Listening to someone’s story can help you understand them on a deeper level.

I was in a workshop the other day, and one of the storytellers had been a child soldier in Uganda. I have never been held at gunpoint at age nine, but I can hear this story from this stranger, and he can paint all these pictures, and I can witness and empathize and know what that is and agree with him that that it wrong. I can hear somebody else's experience and in a way, experience that myself. This is how the collective consciousness works.

The word “witness” is interesting here. Some people say that empathy is not something you're born with, it's something that you learn. Do you think it's helpful to witness someone else's strife or pain in order to empathize with them?

Yes, you do. You need to, I think, witness at least some of it. Some people don't have a big pain threshold for that kind of thing, but you need to be able to witness it a little bit with them by listening. By empathizing.

For some people, it’s hard for them, say, to understand why there's a homeless person on the sidewalk and why don't they just go get a job. It's hard for them to understand that the homeless person might have been abandoned by their family and friends, or they might be sick or have drug issues, without hearing the story.

This is very true. Without understanding someone’s story, there's ignorance. You can say, as you just said, "Go get a job." Or you can hear all the things standing in the way of why that person can't get a job. Whether it be prejudice or judgment or illiteracy or all those things. Through that story, you can then empathize.

That requires people to be open to listening to the story.

Which is a skill also [listening]. It's a hard one. We're living in a world where so much is coming to us in these tiny little soundbites and under 140 characters. That is not natural to the way people are built. Storytelling carves out a safe space, where you're going to sit there and listen to somebody, for five, ten minutes.

That might be why storytelling podcasts like Serial and Risk and Moth are so popular right now; it gives the listener permission to take an extended time to listen to a longer piece of content.

I think that kind of communication is something that is getting a little bit lost right now. Storytelling is an example of how much people are trying to find it.

How do you think stories can help bring people closer together beyond empathizing?

I had a mentor, a woman that I took some classes with, named Rosamund Zander, and she's written a book called The Art of Possibility. Her big philosophy is that life is the story you tell. There's the things you've been through and the things you've experienced, the things you've observed, and then there's how you filter them and how you think about them. You can never change the events in your life. Those are concrete, and they're real, but you can change the way you think about them. How you describe them. You can switch your role from, "I was a victim," to "I was somebody who went through something and learned a lesson, and I am now a wise person." It's the lens that you choose. It's how you choose to look at the story. My husband and I think of it one step further: If life is the story you tell,

That’s beautiful.

It's people using storytelling that often draws people together in politics. It's that they see a vision of the future. Martin Luther King and the “I Have a Dream” speech. He, in the midst of absolute and utter turmoil, spoke to the world about, "I have a vision." He didn't say things are rotten, which they were. Things are crappy. Instead, he said, "I have a dream." I have a vision and this is what it looks like. Everybody agreed that's a beautiful vision. A movement is born, and people are connected, and people are quite suddenly fighting because they agree on a story.

When we're talking about politics and or business, are stories more powerful than slogans or even the candidates themselves because people start imagining that their lives will be what that story is?

I think the story and the slogan go hand in hand. If you have a vision (story), and you can bring it down to a simple tagline, that’s an anchor. It's almost an affirmation. Chipotle has a really good tagline, which is "Food with Integrity." They have a whole vision about the kind of farming and how the food is grown and what wholesomeness is and people working together to create food that is healthy to eat but also healthy for communities and their environment. That simple tagline, if you know the vision and then you hear "Food with Integrity," you know exactly what the entire story behind that tagline or that slogan or that motto is.

The story needs to be there for any marketing to make sense.

With businesses and brands, what is the difference between storytelling and advertising?

Why do you think they're two different things?

We are talking about how stories lead to genuine human connection but advertising is based on selling which can sometimes involve lying to the consumer. I was wondering if there needs to be some truth to the advertising story?

I do see what you're saying, but if advertising is done right it means that they're telling good stories. I think that good advertising is about authentic stories. Yes, we all want to make money, but wouldn't it be nice to make money doing something you believe in? Working for a company you believe in. Buying a product that you feel good about their mission and who they are in relationship to your community and the world.

I think that good advertising is about authentic stories. Yes, we all want to make money, but wouldn't it be nice to make money doing something you believe in?

People are smart, and if you're telling them a lie, they're going to sniff it out. You can say, "Drive this car and you will look like this sexy couple that's in the car." Everybody kinds of knows that's a lie. Or you could just talk more about the ride or how you're going to feel in it. Although, I do think some cars can make you sexy. I think I'd be sexier if I owned a Jaguar. [laughs]

Brands need to know their stories too in order to connect with employees and customers.

I also really, truly, believe that it's in stories where the soul lives. It could be of an individual or the soul of a company. There was a company we were working with at The Story Studio; it was an insurance company, and their tagline had to do with integrity. It was all about integrity. One of the stories that came out of there was about training. Where they had a bunch of new employees and one of the employees had lied on their resume and it was discovered during training.

He was let go and walked away, but then the trainer said, "I had to go back to the training after lunch. It was the first day. Where I had 13 people, now there's an empty chair, and there's only 12." His fear was this was going to destroy morale. He said to them, "I've got to be candid with you. This is what happened. He lied on his resume and in our business that's a big deal. If you can lie about something small, you might lie about something big. In a different business maybe that's not a big deal, in insurance it is. For our company it is."

Rather than destroy morale it actually built morale, because everyone at that table suddenly understood the company’s level of integrity from its story.

How can someone start improving their storytelling skills?

When somebody does it well, Everybody knows that family member or that guy from college who's just a natural. Again, storytelling is the most natural thing that people do, but there are techniques. They're very simple and you can learn in a class. Whether it be describing a picture so you truly see something. Describing the look in somebody's eyes. Describing, just painting the picture just a little stronger, so we see it. Or it could be in really understanding how important the set-up is, so we understand what the stakes are. Those are all technical, so if you can learn that, then when you need to tell a story, or you want to tell a story, you know how to draw people in. It ceases to be magic. Except for the people who are listening to you.

Where do you see someone being able to use these storytelling skills in their daily lives?

Pretty much everywhere. It's all about story. Everything you talk about is a story you're telling. It could be talking to a clerk at a store to try to get a product you need or the birthday presents you need. It could be talking to a doctor about your health. It could be talking to a child about why education is important. It could be flirting with the person next to you on the train. Everything is done in story. When you understand that, actually, very little can be done without storytelling.