News & Perspectives

Rebuilding our stories

Rebuilding our stories

An interview with Michael Margolis
Perspective// Posted by: Jeff Greenwald / 25 Aug 2015

Michael Margolis is founder & CEO of Get Storied, the world’s leading school for business storytelling. An advisor to the likes of Google, Deloitte, Bloomberg, SAP, and Greenpeace, he’s also the author of Believe Me: a Storytelling Manifesto for Change-Makers and Innovators. As the Dean of StoryU, Michael is building a “next generation curriculum for influence and transformation through storytelling.” Dynamic, fast-spoken and candid, he’s one of Twitter’s leading voices on storytelling, and has been featured in Fast Company, Wired, and Inc.

ENTER: In 2014, 241 books were published on business storytelling. Fast Company reports that more than two dozen executives now hold the title “Chief Storytelling Officer.” What do you make of this relatively recent explosion in storytelling as a business strategy?

MICHAEL MARGOLIS: It’s all part of the “humanization of business”—which includes innovation, design, social media, corporate social responsibility and workplace culture. All of these speak to the same fundamental issue: How do we improve our human experience? The humanization of business has huge implications for how we communicate with and relate to our audience. It’s actually changing the culture of how we do business.

ENTER: You also mention the “democratization” of storytelling.

MM: Absolutely. That’s the role technology has in accelerating this process. It used to be that a few elite controlled the stories of our lives. You go back a few hundred years, it was the shaman, the priest and the elder. During the last 50 years it was the politician and the CEO and our parents. But now, because of technology, there are 1,001 platforms for telling our story—and less of a sense of “official” truth or knowledge.

ENTER: Ben Horowitz, of Horowitz Andreessen, said that “A company without a story is a company without a strategy.” Who are some of the big players right now who have recently embraced the storytelling model?

MM: AirBnB, which has gone through a major evolution over the last couple of years. They were doing well, but also coming against a lot of regulatory issues and pressure from the hotel lobby. And so they’ve repositioned themselves around the story of “Belong Anywhere”—which completely disrupts and redefines “oh, you’re an alternative to a hotel.” What they’re saying is “No; this is about being location independent. You’re a citizen of the world.”

AARP is another example. Their story, historically, was “We’re the voice and advocate for elders who don’t have a voice for themselves.” But baby boomers don’t want to hear that story. Baby boomers haven’t met an age that they haven’t redefined in their own image! So the folks at AARP have built a new platform called Life Reimagined. It celebrates the ways that people, age 50 and older, are approaching the next phase of their lives. AARP’s new story is, “How do I want to rewrite the next chapter of my story?”

ENTER: I find there’s a thin line between a story and a jingle. “Life Reimagined,” “Just Do It,” “Belong Anywhere...” Why do those pass for stories?

MM: Because we’re taking something incredibly complex, and distilling it down to its essence. And because in creating a new story, you want to start with addressing “where,” not “why.” The big unanswered question in the mind of any audience is, “Where am I? Do I belong in this story?”

People are struggling to find out where they are—and the job of good leaders and good brands is to help people locate themselves. To give them a story they can believe in. “Yes! I want to be a part of that! I want to be part of Life Reimagined! I want to Belong Anywhere!”

ENTER: Where do you draw the line between a story and a fabrication?

MM: Great question. One of our mantras is “How do you bring integrity to the process of speculation?” Because the very notion of innovation is about the imaginal realm. It’s about a vision, a dream. You’re inviting people to redefine the boundaries of what they think is possible. And so you have to orient people to possibility and opportunity. Then, only then, do you introduce the obstacle that stands in the way of experiencing that possibility.

Often, our business rhetoric is built on the premise of problem/solution. But it’s a terrible architecture. It repels more than it attracts. Because the moment you start with a problem, you’re putting people on the defensive. The simple re-framing from problem/solution to possibility/obstacle is one of the underlying principles of what we teach.

ENTER: Is there a neurological basis for what makes a story work?

MM: The neuroscience of storytelling shows that we’re hardwired for narrative. We used to all tell stories, sitting around the fire. These (often cautionary) tales were meant to get us to pay attention, because there was danger everywhere.

When you look at most classical stories, they begin by stimulating the release of cortisol, a stress hormone: Pay attention. But at the end, the story needs to have a payoff. This is oxytocin, the “feel good” hormone. It flows through your blood when you experience the love of your mother, or a good meal. So in a classic story there’s a relationship between fight and flight and feeling good. But classical storytelling—and marketing—overemphasizes cortisol and under- emphasizes oxytocin. We spend too much time trying to scare people, instead of doing the things that make them feel good.

There’s a deep pathology in the way we’ve built the communication architecture of our culture. I see a big, big shift underway, where we’re learning a new way of actually structuring our stories. Where we meet people is at a place of desire instead of a place of inadequacy—that something’s broken, and they need to fix it.

ENTER: In your talks you assert the importance of Truth, Empathy and Connection. That sounds shockingly non-manipulative. But is it actually non-manipulative? And do you really think things are going in that direction?

MM: When I look at the world today, and the kinds of big, complex issues that we’re facing as leaders of organizations, the stories we have to tell can’t be wrapped up in a pretty little bow. We can’t give people a prefabricated ending, because it will come off as fake, trite, and insincere. Our audience will call “bullshit” on us.

This requires that we learn to tell stories about paradox. The humanization of business is itself a great example. What allowed us to build the enterprises of today, these multi-billion dollar companies, has been effective risk management. Humanization—which is a letting go of certain control—rubs against risk management, doesn’t it? That’s the core challenge business leaders are facing right now. There’s a new way of leading. People want to be talked to in a new way. We don’t want to hear “corporatese.” Companies have to honor that paradox in their stories.

People are struggling to find out where they are—and the job of good leaders and good brands is to help people locate themselves. To give them a story they can believe in.

ENTER: There’s a no-man’s land between the old story and the new story, a place that you call “no-story.” How does one navigate this territory?

MM: Going from an old story to a new story is a non-linear process, which challenges many aspects of our western thinking. But we don’t pay enough attention to that space in the middle, which is the space of great discomfort. In shamanic terms, it’s called a “liminal state”. It’s where you’re in between identities. You haven’t quite gotten to the promised land of a new sense of self, but you’re far enough along to know that your old story, the old sense of self, is no longer viable. If you stay in the old story, you’re going to become extinct—or you’re just going to be miserable.

The first time a kid opens a box of Legos, they’re going to build the picture on the box. Then what do they do? They throw the Lego pieces on the floor, and create new things—using the exact same pieces. Or sometimes they mix it up with another box from a past gift that they’ve received. Likewise, we have to become more fluid and adaptive in understanding the ingredients we have to work with in crafting stories.

The way that we approach building a new story is quite simple, actually. We start by asking, What’s the future you’re trying to create? Once you have a sense of that new vision and future, you have to look at all the pieces you have and begin reorganizing them into a coherent new form. You have to use your past to legitimize your future. We actually have to reassemble the new story.

ENTER: What’s the most important thing a person needs to do to embody the story they’re creating?

MM: Learn the language of the world you want to be a part of. If you want to be an entrepreneur, learn the language of the startup. Learn the language of fundraising. If you want to be a designer, learn the language of design thinking, or aesthetics. If you want to be a storyteller, learn the language of narrative. When you speak the language, you have a seat at the table. You actually belong in that world.

ENTER: When he was the keynote speaker at Content Marketing World 2014, Kevin Spacey said that “a story reveals the creative tension between who you are and who you
want to be.”

MM: Yes—and it applies to both our organizations and our lives. We often let ourselves become the victim of our own story: we believe that we’re somehow trapped within our past, instead of realizing that story is adaptive. The question becomes, Am I telling the right story for the future I’m trying to create? When you realize that, you discover what true power and freedom is.

Jeff Greenwald
Jeff is a best-selling author, photographer, and monologist.