Telling stories is how we connect and relate to people and perceive and explain the world around us. Likewise, corporate storytelling is how we create and develop connections with clients, investors, and even our employees. Today’s guest is Colleen Stewart, the President of the Perfect Pitch Consulting Group. On her first pitch, she found herself in a room with a man snoring halfway through. Nowadays, she’s helping businesses talk about what they do, whether it’s their entire business or an idea, in a captivating, memorable way that inspires action. She chats with Ben Baker to discuss the importance of understanding story structure and how you can leverage it to attract clients and even improve your company culture. Learn all about her approach to business communication and get a new perspective on how to create the perfect pitch!
We're going to talk about telling the value of telling the right story in the right way. I've got Colleen Stewart from Perfect Pitch joining me. Colleen, welcome to the show.
Thank you, Ben. Thanks so much for having me.
I'm excited about this. We've been talking about doing this for a while. You and I met through a mutual connection. You were on Sheila's show, were you? I get this phone call from Sheila. That's the great thing about the community saying, "Ben, I recorded this interview with Colleen. You're going to love her. You got to interview her on your show." I love those introductions because first of all, you know that somebody great has already interviewed you. They already know that it was a great interview. Second of all, it lets me know that you have a phenomenal story to tell. Let's get into storytelling. This is one of my favorite things to talk about.
It's everybody's favorite thing to talk about and to tell. That's why it's so compelling and captivating.
The neat thing about storytelling is it's not something new. Everybody says, "Telling the brand story, this is new and it's exciting. It's innovative." We've been telling stories since the days of the cavemen and cavewomen are writing on the walls. That's how we learned. That's how we grow and our culture and purpose are built. Tell me how you got into the business of corporate storytelling and enabling companies to be able to tell their story more effectively.
This is a story a lot of my clients have heard many times. When I graduated from journalism school, I avoided work for as long as I could by traveling. When I finally got a job, it wasn't in journalism. I ended up working for a big publishing company. I sold college and university textbooks. This one year, I was pretty new. I was only eight months into the job, I had to deliver a presentation. It was for a pretty big deal in my territory that year and the manager had flown out from Toronto to help me out with this big presentation. I fancied myself. I’m a pretty good communicator. I had a Journalism degree. I could stand on stage and do speeches but fifteen minutes into this presentation, I heard this horrible sound for the back of the room. When I turned away from my slide deck, I realized a gentleman at the back had fallen asleep. His head was back and his mouth was open and snoring out loud.
I know some of your audience might be picturing a huge conference room with 200 people. No, this was a small room with about ten people in it. It was very uncomfortable and awkward. I was crashing and burning. I didn't get the business that day. By the way, he did wake up during the polite applause at the end. It forced me to reconsider how I was delivering business presentations. When I looked around at my company, I realized there were all sorts of examples of business communication that weren't engaging. Not only not engaging but sometimes incomprehensible or completely forgettable.The audience doesn't care about your shaky voice or the red blotches on your neck. They're just hoping somebody tells them a great story. Click To Tweet
A few months later, I was at a sales conference center and our CEO flew in to do a lunchtime address. This was a big ballroom with about 300 people in it and 50 minutes in, we were struggling to stay awake. I realized, "This isn't just a Colleen problem,” which was a relief, “This is a bigger problem with business communications." Back then, that was the germ of an idea to own a storytelling company. That's what I do now. I help businesses talk about what they do whether it's their entire business or an idea and do it in a way that is captivating and memorable and inspires us to act.
That is a lot harder than most people think. It's funny because I get people that are starting in the podcasting and they say, “How difficult is it? I can talk. I can podcast.” I'm like, “Not so much." Just because we think we're interesting doesn't mean that the world thinks that we're interesting. It doesn't mean that they understand what we're trying to say. Where do you start the conversation? You have CEOs of organizations, VP of sales of organizations, all of these people that have to stand up and do keynote addresses or even within a board room and have these conversations both internally, never mind externally. How do you get people to understand how to become more engaging when they're communicating? Most people think that they are far better communicators than they are.
That's why I record them and make them watch themselves.
That's going to be humbling.
It's very humbling and challenging to work through that. However, it's extremely rewarding. Isn't that true about life like that? That is the nature of a great story. These tough challenges that we have to face, we come out the other side and we're victorious. We've seized the treasure. The same can be said for any of my storytelling coaching. When I record my clients and make them watch themselves, they're squirming a little bit because it might be the first time they've ever been their own audience. At that moment, we don't have to argue anymore about whether or not this is needed. At that point, they're completely wide open to coaching, feedback and practice.
The other wonderful part about it is they realize the things they do worry about don't show up on the recording. Some people will say, "My voice gets shaky. You get red blotches on my neck. I can't seem to stand still." Ultimately, the audience doesn't care. They're sitting there hoping somebody tells them a great story. Once I teach them how to do that, a lot of those other things salt themselves anyway but the video recording is the number one way that I start the conversation. The other way is if I ask any of my clients to tell me a story of something interesting that happened to them last year or last weekend, I can map that out on a whiteboard or a flip chart and they will automatically tell me a perfect story. It will have a perfect narrative art to it. They know how to do it and I'll say, "Tell me about the product that you're trying to sell to your clients right now." It's a mess. We can't map that thing at all. That's where they realize, "I know how to do this," because Ben, you're right.
We've been telling stories since we were five years old trying to get our mother to let us have some more candy.
Explain why it wasn't us who painted the wall.
“It wasn’t me that painted the walls green. It was my brother.”
They realize, "I know how to do this but for some reason, I don't know how to do it at work.” That is the crux of the problem, in my opinion. That's why I have a business. Yes, you are a storyteller but you are not doing that at work.
Going back a few steps, most people are very self-conscious when they're telling a story. They think they don't stand straight enough. They feel that their voice is too high or low or monotone or whatever they twitch too much when they talk. They are nervous. They don't know what to do with their hands, for example. I find that when you're comfortable enough with the story, when you know the story, where you're going, the progression of the story and where you're trying to take people, a lot of those nervous conditions tend to go away because you're comfortable with it.
I know what I speak from the stage. I speak to three stories. It's a 30-minute, 40-minutes talk. I have three stories that I'm going to tell you during that 30, 40, 50-minute talk. I know those stories cold. Everything that I do in between those stories is adlibbed, modified as whatever based on who the audience is that I'm in front to make sure that it resonates with them. I'm comfortable enough with those three stories. It enables me the ability to go off-script and go off a plan and do it effectively. How do you help people get there? People, in a lot of cases, are very self-critical.
As soon as you start telling a story, it's like your brain isn't fighting the information anymore. Bullet points on the screen. I was reading to my audience when I put that gentleman to sleep or stringing information together in a meeting without putting together your thought. The brain doesn't like that. It likes order, pattern and structure. The minute you don't have it and whatever message you're presenting, you're going to mess up your words and act more nervous than you normally would. The other thing is a lot of people need to understand what story structure is. If we're going to tell an effective story, we need to unwrap what a story is. A lot of folks especially if they've gone through technical education, science, engineering, math, whatever, they haven't looked at that since maybe high school and grade school. You have to take an English course in high school at some point.
My son is going into Engineering. They have to take an English course in Engineering, which is phenomenal.If we’re going to tell an effective story, we need to unwrap what a story is. Click To Tweet
I always thought to myself they should teach storytelling in the technical disciplines because it's more important than ever now that the science, the data, the evidence be delivered in a way that's assessable to everybody. That's not just assessable but also engaging and captivating that we pay attention to it because we'll make better decisions as a result.
Let's get through this. Let's take it from a hypothetical to a reality. If you have a technical conversation that you need to have with a board of directors or with a client or whatever, how can you, as a person, organize your thoughts and yourself so you're telling the story rather than PowerPoint?
I don't want to pick on my technical presenters but a lot of them struggled with it. Except for the purpose of your presentation or your discussion that day is not to deliver every single piece of information. Your purpose is to leave your audience with a burning desire to know more. If you're a CEO standing up, presenting to the board of directors or you're an engineer pitching to the senior executives, the best thing that can happen is they don't want the presentation to end. They don't want it to end, "We got to follow up on this. When can we talk to you next? Let's book that next conversation." That is gold. The perception often is that, "No, I only have them for 30-minutes. Therefore, I have to pack as much in."
“I have to tell them everything, every nook and cranny, nut and bolt.”
It's like drinking from a fire hose. At that point, your audience can't wait for the presentation to end. They're done. They handle it all. Number one is to accept that. You're not there to deliver all the information. Number two, get out of your own perspective and put yourself into their perspective. On the day when the message is being delivered whether it's a conversation or a presentation, your audience is the hero of that story. Not you and your product or your service or your idea or your innovation, whatever it is. They are the hero. They're trying to accomplish something and you're helping them out. That would be the second step.
The third step is to then structure it according to a story structure, which is what I teach in my course. I've translated it into presentations, technical communications and I can show how that structure fits. If you can do those three things and practice out loud, ad nauseam, as often as you can in front of a mirror, to your friends, to your kids or to your cat. I don't care who you're talking to but say that thing out loud over because when you are delivering your presentation, Ben. You have those three stories and you've thought them down, it's probably because you've said them out loud a lot. I have a client. I'm doing storytelling consulting and/or coaching with her.
People get nervous and they get self-conscious. It's amazing that even in the first session of coaching, some clients imagine they won't be doing any storytelling. We're going to learn about this and that's great. As I said to my client, "Imagine I'm teaching you basketball. All you do is sit on the driveway. I show you all the moves, how to dribble and how to shoot and I never hand you the ball. You're never going to know how to play basketball." It's the same thing. You've got to practice out loud but we don't a lot of the time.
The reason I practice out loud and I'm sure that you do and everybody else does, is not to memorize. It's not to know this thing word for word. It's to be comfortable with the concepts. I can deliver the same keynote around the world a hundred times. If you recorded me a hundred times, I will guarantee you, it's never the same keynote. The basis of the story is long. Sometimes the story is a little longer, a little shorter. Sometimes I use different analogies, different intonation but the basic concept and idea is there.
That's why you practice so you're comfortable with the information. What I wanted to find out is to take people through the basic concepts of creating a story. Take people through the hero's journey so they understand what it is, that we don't just say, "Go from beginning to end and be done with it." It's enabling people to understand from a basic level what we mean by storytelling."
There is one critical element of storytelling that gets erased in business, especially. It doesn't matter who's doing it. If it's the marketing department or your engineering group, your product management group, it doesn't matter. What gets erased is the conflict in the story. They don't want to go there. They want to pick up the story when the hero has already seized the treasure and is returning it to the world as an elixir that's going to create balance and harmony in the world.
That's the story businesses love to tell. What they need to realize is that is the end part. That's when the popcorns are almost gone. You can feel people shifting in their seats. You got to go to the bathroom. You're ready to leave the theater. Where we stay gripped and we lose track of time in the story is during the trials, the tribulations, the challenges, the conflict. You got to back that story up and start right before you started to hit that bumpy road. With a lot of business people, they don't want to go there and for a few reasons.
If they're talking about their audience, they assume, "My audience already knows what the problem is. I don't need to talk about it because it's going to be redundant." No, you have to talk about it because this is an experience. You want your audience to feel the emotional pain of that challenge so that the rest of your story is more persuasive. If you're talking about your own company, it might be a little bit showing the chinks in your armor and that makes you uncomfortable. It might make you uncomfortable but it also makes you more trustworthy. We don't trust perfection, ever. If you pick up the story is, "I seize this treasure and I'm sharing it with the world." "So were a hundred other of your competitors. Why should I believe you?"
If you talk about the challenges you've faced and you're candid about that and descriptive about it then we trust that moment. The basic elements of the story are you need a hero, a central character to follow and they need to be in pursuit of something but there has to be conflict in that story. Hero, gold and conflict are the three building blocks that I call them of any great story but if you don't have conflict, you don't have a story.We need that little bit of friction to engage with the experience in an emotional way. Click To Tweet
I look at it as like nobody wants to see 5,000 5-star reviews with no comments on your webpage or your Google or whatever. They like seeing those 4.6s and those 4.2s and that occasional 3.9s because it shows us a company, "They make mistakes but they fix them. They make them right." It's the fact that they're saying, "We made a mistake. We came through COVID and we sent everybody home without hope and a prayer and no real strategy. We had these challenges but we worked with our team and we were able to fix them because we brought this to the table.”
“We listened to our people and we were able to bring this technology and these ideas and this leadership training to the table that enabled our team to succeed. We're a better company because of it." That's what brings people to the edge of their seats. That's what gets people wanting more. The fact they said, "We had some real problems during COVID," but look at what came out of it. Nobody cares as much. They want to hear the conflict. Do they want to hear about what did you learn from the conflict? What did you learn through the challenges? Why are you a better company? Why should we trust you? "We're going to trust you because you've been down that hole and you found your way back up again."
The other side of this is that we're living the story. Every single one of us, you know, I know, everybody knows as soon as you try something new or even if you've been doing the same old thing over the years, eventually, you are going to hit a challenge. It happens. You're going to work through a difficult time and learn something and be able to apply it as you go forward. We all experienced that. That's what we live. The minute somebody acts like they don't experience that, why would we trust you? It's interesting. A number of years ago, I worked with a client in the home improvement industry.
They would hire contractors to go in and do renovations in people's homes. They were very curious about their customer satisfaction surveys. What they found is and this is certainly not a direction in any way for tradespeople or contractors to go out there and screw up their customer satisfaction rankings. If the contractor went in and did a job exactly to specifications and went well, it was on time, on budget, the highest rating they could get was 7.5 out of 10.
If a contractor went in and messed up and the contractor handled it well, like worked through that problem but did it with a customer service perspective and handled it well, all of a sudden, they're getting 10 out of 10. It's almost like we need that little bit of friction to engage with the experience in an emotional way. Once you've got them engaged emotionally, your value and the value of your idea, it goes waypoints in this example.
As I tell my vendors all the time, I say, "I don't care that you mess up. Everybody's going to make mistakes. Everybody's going to fall on their face once in our relationship because I certainly am. What I care about is how do you get up and how do you fix it. How do you own the problem? How do you communicate back to me that there has been a problem and here's how we can fix it together?” Those are the vendors that have been with me for many years.
People that I refer business to time after time because I know that they're going to fix things. You're right. If it's perfect all the time, we remember things that were either bad or good. The stuff that's in the middle, the stuff that's like, "That's table stakes. They should have done that anyway,” those are not memorable. People don't care about those things, don't talk about those things and don't get excited about those. They get excited about that extraordinary service and the service that wasn't so great but they fixed it.
I liked that you mentioned different vendors and how they respond when there's a challenge or a conflict because storytelling so far, we've talked a lot about it in terms of how to communicate your idea, your business. How do you tell that story. Once my clients understand story structure and I walk them through the story compass model, they not only see the opportunity to communicate with others but they also do a little bit of reflection on their own lives and their own professional journeys. They realize, "This is also what I'm living."
If you understand that this is the way the story goes. When you're in those trials and tribulations, you can work through them with so much more energy and maybe a little less beating yourself up but working through it because you know what's on the other side. Once you get out of that monster's cave, you're seizing the treasure. It might be difficult and it might get you down but my inspiration is Joseph Campbell. Campbell says, "Rise above it and have a look at the whole circle here," because when you're in those trials, if you can elevate your thinking a little bit and realize, "I'm going to get to a good place with a bit of work.” That does impact how people see their experiences and how they react to their experiences and ultimately, how well they do.
Here's the question for you that have been burning in the back of my mind as we've been talking. How does storytelling help you be in a more effective leader?
Number one, if there's a lot of talk about connection, empathy and compassionate leadership and you immediately build those three things through storytelling. If you want to inspire people, make them feel emotionally connected to you then storytelling is the best way to do it. The other reason is it's so efficient at transmitting values and beliefs. You could write a list, "I'm your CEO. I'm perfect for the job because I have integrity. I'm honest. I'm focused on innovation." Tell me a story that illustrates that leader demonstrating integrity.
“You don't even need to need to say the word out loud. I'm going to know it.” They’re very efficient at transmitting values and beliefs. If you can do that efficiently, you will attract the customers, the investors and the employees you need to make that business great. Every leader needs to be learning and practicing their storytelling skills. It's a powerful form of communication and it impacts everything in the business. It can impact everything in the business.
Conversely, how do we get employees to recall, retell and internalize the story so they make it their own and it enables them to better understand the goals of the company and how they are an important factor in helping to achieve those goals.Make storytelling a part of what you do, whether you're doing a weekly sales call or meeting with your reps. Click To Tweet
Storytelling needs to be a part of the culture. When I work with companies and I do my story compass workshop, everybody gets a copy of the story compass journal, which is a tool that they use to collect these stories as they go. The biggest thing is there has to be somewhere where they use that. Otherwise, the journal is going to get tossed into the pile and collect dust and never get used. What I encourage my clients to do is make storytelling a part of what you do. You're doing a weekly sales call or meeting with your reps and one of those reps that shares the story that week or you're doing a quarterly review or project update review. Someone has to tell a remarkable story or a wow story.
The Ritz-Carlton hotels calls them wow stories. There is a company that has integrated storytelling into their culture. They consider it part of the training program. Every time there was an employee meeting, one of the employees has to tell a story. That's how they're constantly transmitting the values, beliefs, culture and behaviors that they want to see. You have to make this a practice in your business in whatever way you're doing that.
As these stories evolve, does the culture and purpose of the organization evolve with it?
It has to. How are you going to know how to live and be in your business if you don't have stories to guide you? I'll give you an example. My son, when he was thirteen, he wanted to get a job. He was determined. I loved it. I thought it was great that he had this initiative. He went out and got a job at Tim Hortons. Tim Hortons trained him on customer service. For Tim Hortons, customer service is you smile but you move fast. You get that order right, you get it in their hands, and you get them out the door. Nobody is in Tim Hortons to hang out for a long time. He got tired of Tim Hortons and decided to go and work at this funky, little, trendy bagel shop down on a small-town main street where we lived.
The manager said to him, "We're very focused on customer service." Sean said, "I got it. I got a ton of training at Tim Hortons." After a few weeks, he said to me, "Apparently, I have to do better at customer service." I said, "Work at that." He's like, "I'm going to," but he was working at being faster, getting the order done, get them out the door. He didn't know how much faster he could go. It turns out, the bagel company doesn't want to rush people out the door. It's a funky, quirky, little place. They want people to have conversations, chitchat a little bit, be super friendly and ask about them. It's mostly tourists in there who have come specifically for this bagel shop. That's a complete disconnect between the culture at Tim Hortons and what they mean by customer service and the culture of the bagel company and what they mean by customer service. I'll tell you a story that would have done such a better job of illustrating it rather than using this generic term that every company uses, customer service.
That's important because we need to onboard our employees in the way we want to have them act and react to our customers. Having those stories to tell how we've engaged with our customers in the past. What do our customers love about us? What are the things that they expect from us? What we want our customers to feel when they walk in the door as they're in our location, as they lock out the door is so important. A lot of companies miss that in their onboarding. They say, "Customer service is important." Your right. Customer service can mean a million different things. Until you can define customer service and what it means to us as an organization and why these dovetails with our values and purpose. You're not going to get people to understand that. They're not going to get people to live it.
Early days at Nike, they started storytelling sessions because they were growing fast. They started running storytelling sessions for new employees. This wasn't for the employees to learn how to tell stories. This was so the employees could literally sit there and listen to all of the stories from the early days at Nike. It was a good way for them to transmit their culture to these folks so that they understood, "I'm getting a sense of what this company is all about and now I know how to act. If I'm working in one of their stores or traveling around talking to different shops." It was a good way to transmit that culture. In the book, I tell that story because it's important to get that right.
Before I let you go, the book is called The Story Compass. Does it have its own website or is there a best way to get in touch with you to make sure that people can grab the book, get in touch with you all that fun stuff?
PerfectPitchPros.com. You can find the book on Amazon.ca and Amazon.com. You can connect with me on LinkedIn, @StoryCompass1 on Instagram. There are lots of places to go and find more information. Get in touch with me directly if there's any interest in running Story Compass workshops. This is why I love storytelling so much. I teach people a skill. They come out of it with a better understanding, not only of how to communicate but of how to react to their own experience at work. In a group setting because stories are so good at transmitting values, beliefs and creating connections. The team that leaves my workshop is stronger than when they walked in the door. All they've done is listen to their stories all day.
I'm going to ask you one last question then I'm going to let you out the door. When you leave a meeting and you get in your car and you drive away, what's the one thing you want people to think about you when you're not in the room?
I want them to smile when they think about the experience that they spent some time with me. I don't know what that means in terms of what they're thinking but I want them to feel that their lives are richer at work and in their personal life. They’ve gotten some richness to their life that they didn't have before. Maybe that's lofty but that's what I think.
Sheila did not disappoint when she introduced the two of us. Thank you for everything. Thanks for being a wonderful guest. Thank you for helping me tell stories.
Thank you, Ben. It was a great conversation. Thank you so much.
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