Authenticity, Expectations & Emotion: The Storyteller’s Secret

Previously we talked about how storytelling — or more specifically purposeful storytelling — can make your narrative stick. We are fascinated by the idea of storytelling and we want to explore more about it, which is why we are excited to share insights from a book we read a while ago: The Storyteller’s Secret by Carmine Gallo. This book was written on the basis that all of us are storytellers: storytelling is not something we do, storytelling is who we are.

But, how come not everyone can be a great storyteller? What separates the great from the mediocre? This book was trying to answer that by giving an in-depth look at storytellers from various industries. The results are the so-called secrets; be it the additional ingredients they use on crafting the story or narrative; or the creative way they employed when delivering the story.

Without further ado, let’s dive in!

Starbucks — Making Your Story Authentic

Howard Schultz often tells the story of his father to explain his company’s mission and values. His father’s story frames the “why” behind the company’s initiatives. Schultz’s vision was to build a company that treats people with dignity and respect, the treatment his father was never shown.

“Treating employees benevolently shouldn’t be viewed as an added cost that cuts into profits, but as a powerful energizer that can grow the enterprise into something far greater than one leader could envision,” Schultz said. “Starbucks has become a living legacy of my dad.”

By framing Starbucks as a living legacy, Schultz is not positioning his company as a profit center. Instead, it’s a story where the employees play the starring role.

While his father’s story fueled Schultz’s desire to build a company that treated its employees with the respect they deserve, another event transformed Starbucks from a small roaster of coffee beans to a store serving 60 million customers per week. Here is how Schultz recalled the experience in a televised conversation with Oprah Winfrey.

“People think I’m the founder of Starbucks. I was an employee when Starbucks only had four stores. I was sent to Italy on a trip for Starbucks and came back with this feeling that the business Starbucks was in was the wrong business. What I wanted to bring back was the daily ritual and the sense of community and the idea that we could build this third place between home and work in America. It was an epiphany. I was out of my mind. I walked in and saw this symphony of activity, and the romance and the theater of coffee. And coffee being at the center of conversation, creating a sense of community. That is what spoke to me.”

The experience “spoke” to Schultz because he saw the story of what Starbucks could become. Schultz has never grown tired of telling the stories of his childhood or his visit to Italy. And it’s a good thing he hasn’t. There’s a direct correlation between his stories, engaged employees, and satisfied customers who view his shops as something more than just a place to get their morning jolt.

When storytellers like Howard Schultz talk about how past events shape their vision for a company, they’re connecting on two profound levels: story and authenticity. The stories belong to him.

Howard Schultz’s stories hit on the three dimensions of authentic brands, defined by marketing professor Julie Napoli as: heritage, sincerity, and commitment to quality. Customers want to know where a product comes from, who the people are behind it, and how committed they are to delivering a quality product. Customers don’t buy a brand or a logo as much as they buy into a set of values. And there’s no better way to reveal a company’s values than through the stories that fueled the people who lead it and continue to ignite the passion of the people who work there.

Apple — Violating Audience Expectations

Dr. Judee Burgoon at the University of Arizona developed the “Expectancy Violations Theory” in the late 1970s. We expect people to behave in a certain way. If a person deviates from the expectation, a “violation” has occurred. For example, if someone seated next to you in a loud coffee shop is speaking on a cell phone, you’d think nothing of it. If that same person is talking on the phone in a quiet movie theater — just when the movie begins — you’d be very, very annoyed. You “expect” quiet in that setting. A violation is uncomfortable, but in some cases — like telling a great story — unsettling is quite positive.

In 2007, Steve Jobs introduced the first iPhone. The audience expected Apple to introduce three products because Jobs set the expectations himself at the start of his presentation. “We have three products . . . The first one is a widescreen iPod with touch controls. The second is a revolutionary mobile phone. And the third is a breakthrough Internet communications device.” Jobs paused and repeated the products again. “An iPod, a phone, and an Internet communicator.” He paused and repeated the products again. “An iPod, a phone, are you getting it? These are not three separate devices. This is one device. And we are calling it iPhone.” Steve Jobs set expectations, and within the next 30 seconds, broke those expectations.

The takeaway: by violating expectations, storytellers who successfully educate their audiences give people something to talk about. They violate expectations in a positive way, crafting stories that are unexpected, shocking, or surprising.

Walnut Hill Medical Center — Evoking Emotions to Create Action

If the Apple Store were a hospital, it would look like the Walnut Hill Medical Center in the heart of Dallas. At Walnut Hill, a Dallas cardiologist serves as the hospital’s chief storyteller.

Every two weeks Dr. Rich Guerra kicks off an orientation for new employees. Guerra’s presentation is intended to motivate the men and women who have chosen to devote their full-time work to this particular hospital. Dr. Guerra has learned stories can carry meaning. Stories evoke emotions that make people feel more deeply, making them more likely to internalize the habits and practices that will move the brand forward. Guerra expertly blends stories of real employees delivering exceptional service along with fables like the following:

Imagine living in medieval times and you’re travelling through the countryside. There’s all sorts of dust, noise, and activity. You come across a man with a sledgehammer and he’s smashing rocks.“What’s going on here?” you ask.The man responds, “What does it look like I’m doing? I’m breaking rocks.”You continue on your way and find another man who’s got a sledgehammer and he’s breaking up rocks.“What’s going on here?” you ask.The man responds, “I’m making a living.”You walk further down the road and you see a man doing the same thing. He’s got a sledgehammer and is smashing rocks.“What’s going on here?” you ask.“I’m building a cathedral.”This man does not see what he’s doing as trivial. He is a part of something bigger. We don’t want people who are here to break rocks. And if you’re here to make a living, this place probably isn’t the best fit for you. If you’re here to do something great, this is the place to be.

Make note of two elements of Guerra’s story. First, it’s short. Guerra tells the story of the man and the sledgehammer in under 60 seconds. Second, he quickly ties the story back to the role of the audience in creating patience experiences.

In a paper titled “An Integrative Review of Storytelling,” Professor Robert Gill makes the case that leaders who tell corporate stories strengthen employee engagement, which improves a company’s external reputation. Employees who internalize the company’s vision through narrative become “reputation champions.”

Walnut Hill’s staff have certainly become reputation champions. Word of mouth began to spread less than one year after the hospital opened its doors. Walnut Hull received 9,000 applications in its first year. Only 3.2 percent of applicants were selected to work there, making Walnut Hill Medical Center harder to get into than Harvard University.


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