Tim Lewis: I was privileged enough to see Park Howell do a workshop at Social Media Marketing World about how to use storytelling for business. I am very lucky to have him on the show today. He’s a world-renowned authority on storytelling in business.
I think it’s ironic that, while there are lots and lots of people who are writing fiction books, very few of us are actually that good at using stories within our marketing efforts. So I thought it would be a fantastic opportunity to get Park on to the show to actually discover how you should incorporate stories into your marketing efforts. So with no further ado, let’s go over to the interview.
Hi, Park. Welcome to the show.
Park Howell: Hey Tim. Thanks for having me on board. You threw me there for a second, with just the “Hi” part.
Tim Lewis: So now we’ve established that you’re here, let’s start talking about stories and particularly stories in business. When did you first notice how important story had become in marketing and in business?
Why are stories important for business?
Park Howell: It was in the early 2000s. It was roughly about 2003-4-ish. And you just started hearing storytelling floating to the surface in advertising marketing. And I was running an ad agency, my own ad agency, during that time. And my creative director and I were sitting down, we’re talking about it and he goes “It’s just all about the story” and I was like “Well, duh”.
I mean, that’s what we always do and he says “Yeah, but story’s really starting to rise to the surface because people are looking to differentiate”. But he says “I’m not really sure that they know what they’re talking about when they say story”, and I ask him “Well, how would you define it?”
And he and I went on and we had a conversation for about an hour and we realised that neither one of us, although we were paid storytellers and made a good living telling stories on behalf of our clients … that was the first time that I realised, Tim, that I don’t know if I truly understand the definition of, and the structure to a powerful narrative. And so that was the thing that got my curiosity going and kicked me into gear.
What is a story?
Tim Lewis: Okay. So I suppose I’m going to skip from the questions I was going to ask and say, So how would you … if you were trapped in an elevator and you could only get out if you could give a one or two sentence description of what a story is, what would you say?
Park Howell: The story is the ultimate learning tool, that human beings are the only creatures in the universe that use, and story is made up of three acts, three things, as simple as a beginning, a middle and an end.
And before, Tim, you go “Oh duh”, let me explain that real quick because story is the ultimate learning tool, the beginning is the set up to the story to establish context, the middle is the “But” or the “Uh-oh” conflict. Something has happened. And the third act is the therefore resolution, saying “And here’s how we overcome it” or “Here’s how we overcame it” or “Here’s how you can overcome it”.
And that is what our reptilian brains, our limbic system, just loves. It’s constantly trying to learn and it uses story … not logic … It uses story to really understand what’s happening in the world around us.
Tim Lewis: Okay. So let’s say we’ve got somebody who is an author and you think that, certainly for fiction authors, you think that authors should be good at telling stories. How important is it for an author to know and be able to communicate their personal story?
Park Howell: I don’t know if I’d hold it just to authors. I think it’s important for every single individual in this world who is trying to accomplish something to truly understand and appreciate and embrace their individual story. Tim, you’ve probably seen this. So often we are living somebody else’s story. Our parents thought we would be doing this.
They thought I would be a surgeon or an attorney instead of an author. Or our spouses or loved ones have a preconceived narrative that they think we ought to be living into when in actuality, as Joseph Campbell said, America’s foremost mythologist says “Follow your bliss and doors will open for you where there were only walls before”.
So, I think it’s absolutely critical whether you are an author, a school teacher, a stay-at-home mom or dad, a fireman, an ad executive or a gentleman like yourself that runs a publishing company, self-publishing, to truly understand your story because it’s the only way you’re going to live into and prosper from your story.
You’ve just got to sit down and unpack it and figure out what it is, and then assemble it and tell it to everybody and watch it evolve as you tell it. It’s pretty amazing.
Story Structures and Why They are Important
Tim Lewis: There are many story structures. I’m sure a lot of the listeners will know things like and, but, therefore, and the simplest way to a very complicated … well, it’s not that complicated … but much more complicated hero’s journey. How can these help somebody working out their story and communicating it?
Park Howell: It’s because it helps you become intentional about it. So you don’t just go and build a house and start hammering stuff together. I mean, you probably did as a kid when you were building a treehouse or fort, and you just sort of wing it and throw it together. But if you’re going to live in a structure that’s going to be sound and healthy and be good for your family, you’ve got to have the entire architectural drawing and map down before you look to hammer.
The same, I have found, is true with story, to really understand your story and where it’s going to go. There are a number of different frameworks to your point. I have found though the hero’s journey to be the most powerful, at least in business. And I’ve boiled it down to ten steps, which I call the story cycle. It’s inspired by the hero’s journey.
And I have found where I teach it and get executives involved, that when they start following this very intentional framework … It’s not a formula. It’s a framework that captures, the content, helps them stay focused and find the thread of their story and take them from the beginning, through the middle, and to the end, and making sure that their audiences are onboard … that they are way more successful in everything they do, from clarifying their brand’s story, to telling stories internally that they get everybody pulling, buying into and pulling in the same direction, to helping customers and clients truly understand what they’re trying to do.
Stories help them clarify their mission, clarify their message to roll revenue and amplify their impact. And the only way you can do that is not by winging it … it’s really hard to wing it and make it work … but to follow a very intentional approach. And it’s not hard. It’s just to sit down and just kind of follow the blueprints for it. Fill in the blanks for your story and you will see your story sort of just bubble up within you.
Tim Lewis: I’m going to ask something that sort of occurred to me, something that came back as a flashback after I did your story workshop in March at Social Media Marketing World, was if we’re talking about somebody’s personal journey then they might not be necessarily at the position where they’ve gone all the way through the sort of story cycle.
Are you looking for a small enough story where it’s already complete, or is it okay to just kind of be half-way round the hero’s journey and you’re kind of just saying what’s going to happen and let people kind of work it on from there?
Practical Example of Storytelling in Business
Park Howell: Yeah. You don’t have to follow the hero’s journey exactly. It’s like anything. The more practised you are with it, the more you understand its nuances and how you can really make those work in your favour, but you can do a simple story as … here’s an example: I had a guy show up in my office two weeks ago. I had met him at a breakfast, and he was looking for a job, and he’s a comptroller. So he worked in finances, and that sort of thing.
And he came in and he had his resume and he had 20 years’ experience, and he was Six Sigma Black Belt, and he had all the requisite experience. He had all the credentials. He had the education and that.
But what he didn’t have was his story that really made him stand out. So when I asked him a little bit more about his … what is he really good at, what is he different at in the commoditised world of being a financial comptroller. And he was telling me then about this company that he ran that it was really successful.
He was the comptroller but the owner became a bit of an absentee owner. He had made a tonne of money. He really wasn’t into it anymore. And he started disappearing. And then the owner’s partner decided maybe he was going to retire. And they left it upon this guy to kind of start running everything.
It was a hardwood flooring company. And, oh by the way, not only run everything and make sure everything’s going … keep us profitable and see if you can’t sell us. So he did. Over the course of the next three years he set it up. It was sold to a company in Southern California that came in.
Of the 35, roughly, people that worked for him, I think he said only seven people lost their jobs. So his job was trying to keep them all together and move them forward. And it was very successful.
And then after nine months of that he decided not the place for him anymore and he left. But now he was looking to put together another job. He was looking for another position.
So when he told me that story about what he went through, and how he muscled up to becoming not only COO but CFO and making sure that people weren’t getting hurt on the assembly line and that kind of thing, I said, “Well, there’s the story for you. I mean you are a comptroller that works especially well in very strident very evolving, very disruptive circumstances.
And, by the way, the company that he was going to apply for was anticipating some disruption in market in 2018 and were looking on how to work their budget so that they could get through, invest through this disruption and come out well on the other end.
So I just said to him, instead of selling yourself as a Six Sigma comptroller twenty years’ experience, which is all commodity by the way, tell them the story about what you went through and what you learned in the most difficult times within that job, and that you are the person for this new position because you see difficult times coming ahead for them, as they’ve already acknowledged, in this disruption and you are the financial guy to help see them through it because you’ve done it before.
So now we’ve taken this guy who is like just a numbers guy, a total commodity as we all are, by the way, Tim, unless we really dial in our story. Now he has a real world, truthful well-told story that demonstrates the character of what he’s about. That demonstrates a fortitude that he brings to his job.
And demonstrates the principal financial background that he’s going to bring in, but probably more so than anything, shows them that he’s not afraid of taking on new challenges and seeing them through.
Now if you were going to line up six Six Sigma comptrollers with 20 years’ experience and everybody else just came in and talked about their credentials, who would you hire? The five that told you about their credentials or the guy that shared his character with you? That the kind of …
Tim Lewis: I suppose what I would say though is that, that’s almost like an anecdote, cause obviously it’s kind of longer than that, but we’re really trying to look for things that we can learn from our own personal experience that make us kind of unique and also indicate what we’re trying to achieve. Is that the right sort of idea really?
Park Howell: Yeah, really your best stories, your most pivotal stories, the ones that are really going to suck your audience in, come from the smallest moments in your life that have these greatest impacts. Like my father who’s 91 years old and he’s still cranking away up in Seattle, Washington, he was a depression era dad and it was all about work.
He was a civil engineer, heavy construction, and we were out digging fence posts. We’d moved into this new house. I was in fourth grade, third grade when this happened and we had twelve acres of land, beautiful place, and we were digging fence posts for these cedar fence posts.
And I was whining about it. It was kind of raining on, as it does in Seattle, and he came out, and I was sort of whining as I was digging that fence post. And he said one thing to me, Tim. He said, “Pick up that shovel or someone else will”. And then he walked off. And that I’ve kept with me my entire life. Work ethic. Stop whining, suck it up, get through it, life’s not always easy.
But that little singular moment has had an immense impact on me. And when I tell that story, other people nod in agreement because we’ve all had that fence post story in our life and it’s what makes us who we are today. And it’s a fun little story that is unexpected in a business environment but it reveals something about my character and it reveals something about the character of the people sitting in the audience when they can connect their story with my story. And that’s what you’re ultimately trying to do. Using story simply to connect.
Tim Lewis: How much does relevance count? So let’s say if we had somebody who’d written, say a thriller or something. I’m not sure whether that work experience story would be that useful for them in terms of marketing their thriller book. What sort of things should they be looking for in terms of their own life experiences or why they wrote the book? What sort of things should they be looking for in terms of marketing, say a thriller, or something along those lines?
Park Howell: I would say, like with everything, know your audience. Who’s your audience? What do they care about? And in your communication to them, answer three questions: What do you want them to think, feel, and do? What do you want them to think about you as an author, as a thriller author, in this case.
But it might not even be what do you want them to think about you, that’s the first place we always sort of default to, but what do you want them to think about the book or the story. “Ooh, like that’s surprising, that’s exciting, or that’s different”. What do you want them to feel like, maybe a little bit of fumble, “Am I missing out here?” The fear of missing “x”, “I haven’t gotten this book yet.
I feel like I need to get this on my bedside table as soon as possible”. And then what do you want them to do? “I want you to click here. I want you to go down and buy it. I want you to buy it through Amazon”, whatever that is.
And then to your point about the relevance statement. When you know who that audience is and what you want them to think, feel, and do, you can preface, and should preface every story, even your little anecdotes, with a relevant statement.
A relevant statement … I’ve learned this from the brilliant minds down at Anecdote out of Melbourne, Australia, and I’m one of their certified teachers and coaches for their Storytelling for Leaders programme … A relevant statement basically sets the stage for your story.
So my relevant statement for my post holes story, because you’d had asked me for an example, but I’m going to give that in a work situation, I would say, “You know I learned at a very young age that hard work is about perseverance and just muddling through, for example when I was a little kid …”
And then I went on and tell my relevance story. So everything … When you think about what your point is to your story, start with your relevant statement to help set the stage for that story, share the story, and then underscore the business point you’re trying to make.
And one other thing I would say if you’re presenting in person, large group, or someone sitting across from you, never, ever, ever use the “S” word. Never say, “I’m going to tell you a story”, or “Here’s a story for you”. And why do you think that is, Tim?
Tim Lewis: I don’t know. I’m going to let you explain.
Park Howell: Well, when I would say that to you, what’s the first thing that comes to you. “Tim, let me tell you a story.”
Tim Lewis: It sounds like, it’s almost kind of like this feeling you think of some old grandfather figure telling you some long boring story, or something along that line.
Park Howell: Exactly. So executives sit there, they cross their arms, and say, “I don’t have time for some story” or, “They’re just trying to set me up and manipulate me” or, “Oh, my God, not this story again”. So you’re already starting from a bad place if you use the “S” word. Just launch right into your story. Start with your relevant statement and then share your story. Make sure that you have a great business point related to that story.
The Reasons Behind Stories
Tim Lewis: So, it has to have a reason behind it where after they’ve heard it, they understand it. It’s not just you talking about how you went to the hospital once or …
Park Howell: Completely, yeah. When they ask, “Oh, do my stories have to be these big overarching epics”, I’m going to say “No, in fact, some of your most powerful stuff comes from the little, tiny moments in your life that influence your character”. And I can tell them a story about watching my grandmother, and this was when I was just a little toddler, playing the piano and was amazed at the beauty of it, and the mystery of it.
And I went on to play the piano my whole life. I got a degree in music composition and theory purely because that day on Lake Lida in Minnesota when my grandmother sat down to what I thought was a cupboard and it turned out to be a piano. And she played The Darktown Strutters’ Ball. I remember it like it was yesterday. So there’s a little, tiny incident that had an enormous impact on my life, and an example of a small story that can really demonstrate the character of yourself as a presenter.
Tim Lewis: So let’s say we’ve got somebody who is very private and they don’t really feel comfortable with sharing much about their life. How can they look for stories that may be are less personal or how would you approach somebody who was a bit sort of reticent about talking about their life?
Park Howell: I get them all the time and usually when they just tell one story … They raise that vulnerability and they’re scared witless and they get up and share a story and they see the reaction of the audience. All of a sudden courage kind of wells up inside of them. I had this happen to me.
I was working with Hilton Hotels in Memphis about a month ago. I was working with their internal ad agency there, plus some of their external agencies, and we would get a two-day story workshop to help them with their stuff. And one of their directors within the group was very reluctant to tell a story, but then came in a told an amazing story of growing up in the Philippines, coming to America, and how she now found herself in special projects at Hilton. And she took maybe three minutes to tell that story. And the people, there were about 14 in that crowd, you could just look at their mouths drop wide open.
And I said you’ve all worked with Mashera for a long time, did any of you know that story? “No, not really”, they said. I said, “Did it give you a whole new appreciation for who she is and what she’s about?” They said, “Oh, absolutely”. And she was beaming from ear to ear and she goes, “I even now have a better understanding of why I do what I do”.
So that was an example of a very reluctant quiet, but very bubbly, great spirited individual who was reticent to tell her story, came out, told it, and then just had amazing effect on the audience. And you could just see her courage as a storyteller well up.
In fact, Tim, I recounted that story on my website at businessofstory.com and it’s under the heading of a post I wrote called The Five Stages of Grief in Business Storytelling.
Tim Lewis: I wouldn’t have thought grief was that big a topic for business stories, but I’ll take your word for it.
The Stages of Story-telling
Park Howell: Well, think about the five stages, you know they have the five stages of death. And it occurred to me after going through this thing. Five Stages of Grief in Business Storytelling: number one is denial. “Oh, this story crap doesn’t work”. So you’ve got to show them that it does work, even when they cannot resist it, they get sucked into the story.
Then there’s anger, “My hard skills of technical thinking can out-muscle your soft communication relationship story telling skills every time”. So you get that anger thing, and then you show them that no, actually, you’re only angry because you’re afraid of it, “Let me show you how you can put it together”.
Then you have bargaining, “Oh my God, oh my God, I’ll do anything just don’t make me tell a story”. And then when they get up to tell the story they bargain again with the audience. “Now, look I’m not a very good story teller, so don’t expect much here”. And then they get into it. Always at the end after that first round you just see them sort of well up with some courage.
There’s depression, then as number four. “I don’t have any good stories to tell. Nobody wants to hear my stories”. And I’m telling you, Tim, everybody has marvellous stories within them, something that they’ve experienced that their audiences do want to, do want to hear about, because we learn from them.
And then, finally, the fifth stage of grief is not grief, but it’s acceptance. And when you see people finally accepting stories and using them in their lives … and I see this time and time again with my students from Arizona State University … is they will come up, even give me bro hugs, the big dudes give me bro hugs, say “Man I gave a presentation last week and people came up and said that was the best presentation I’ve ever seen you give”. And I said “What was the difference?”
He goes, “I used stories. I dropped in little stories here, little stories there, and it was so much better and everybody loved it. Nobody got bored, and it works”.
So that’s what I say, story is super powerful. It is like our one true super power as human beings, is story telling.
Tim Lewis: I used to work with somebody ten years ago or so, well two people. I used to work on this very small team with three people and one person talked all the time and the other person never talked at all. Actually you’d say “Hello” and he was like “Hello”.
And you would say, “How was your day?” And it was “Good”. And he, actually when I got to know him better, he had the most amazing stories. He’d lived all around the world and he’d married a sort of director of some enormous international company. And I think everybody has stories. I think that’s the thing that needs to be appreciated. And I suppose that was a story as well.
Park Howell: Yeah. And I think it’s in how you ask those kinds of folks those questions too. Is like “What happened to you today?”, or “What did you have to overcome?”, or “What was your biggest moment last week?”, and things like that to start thinking to themselves about a where and a when. If you get to talking about a where and a when that’s starts the story cycle process because if you’re spotting stories in the wild it really comes down to five primary things: a time stamp, when did this happen. The more specific you can be the better. “I was in Atlanta, Georgia last Tuesday, working with Research Directory at Emory University, so time stamp: last Tuesday.
Where: you want a location stamp. “I was at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia”. And then you need to have a central character. In this case I could any one person but just say for instance it’s the group. It’s the directors that I was working with in the research group. And then you need to have action. So something has to be happening. Is there a dialogue going down?
Well, it turns out with this group I didn’t realise what they had been through until my second day working with them. And I found out that they were the front line administrators for the Ebola crisis here in America back in 2014. They took in the first Ebola patient at Emory University and the people that I was working with was the group that had to prepare the hospital, had to work with the CDC, the Centre for Disease Control, the federal government, and make sure that everything was set up right so that the Ebola would not get out and they could take care of these patients.
And then you have to have a business point. So in this case the business point for me was … It occurred to me that only ordinary people do extraordinary things. Now we can look at a few of the big shots out there and think “Wow, that’s an extraordinary person.
That’s why they are achieving such great things”. But it looked to me when I was working with these folks, very smart, passionate, bright, brilliant people, totally dedicated to their world. But until I heard what they had gone through, I didn’t really particularly view them as extraordinary, but I sure do now. And that’s my point … is only ordinary people do extraordinary things.
How does Media Affect Story-telling?
Tim Lewis: Let’s go to a more technical question. Do you think it’s better both in text and in verbal form to have just one long story, or to fill it up with lots of little stories that are relevant to the point you’re trying to make or is a case of what works at the time?
Park Howell: I think it depends on what you’re trying to do. If you end up with a TED Talk and you’ve got 18 minutes, and I think you have to have a story, theme, or intention overall that takes your audience from beginning, middle, to end. In doing that, then, I think you’d pepper it with a lot of maybe little stories, or anecdotes, or insights that are story, very simple but would help propel the whole presentation along. Now in some cases you may not have that.
You might have only three minutes in front of somebody to make your point in which case you end up with one story. So I think it really does come down to the point you’re trying to make, how much time you have, and how quickly can you get them to that think, feel, and do moment.
Tim Lewis: Do you think there is any difference between, if you’re trying to communicate a story, say in a written form, or an audio form, or a video form. Are there any things that people should appreciate about how they’re telling the story, what the medium is?
Park Howell: Yes, certainly. I’m not a film maker. I’ve made a lot of little films for the fun of it. I’ve written a manuscript but not a book. And the training I’ve gotten through Storytelling for Leaders, I can tell you there’s a big difference between oral storytelling, which you and I are doing right now, so you can take little flights of fancy, bring it back, and you’re not going to use the best grammar all the time, and whatever. You might throw and “F” bomb in there for effect, I don’t know.
But if you’re going to then tell that story on paper, you’ve got to rethink how you write that. We read way differently than we speak. So even though you do want it to sound natural, and have dialogue and whatever, there’s a completely different approach, certainly, to capturing and sharing your story in written word versus oral story telling.
And you get into film, movie, TV spots, whatever now you’ve got see and say, you’ve got something going on on your audio track, your narrative level. Plus you also have visual story-telling, which is immensely powerful, so you don’t have to tell the whole story in your narrative dialogue. You can let the audience, and should let the audience connect the dots as you go through because they’re watching and seeing and experiencing it.
Then you have now virtual reality that’s really coming in. That is changing the face of how you use movies and TV. That audio-visual to interact with your audiences. And the narrative changes on how you go about that. And I think Hollywood is still working hard to try to figure that out.
Our middle son Parker, who is in Hollywood as a filmmaker, has been steeped now in VR story-telling and is learning a lot in the process. Just finished up a film that showed up in Berlin at the beginning of September and I’m going to have him here on my podcast here in a few weeks, and say “What are you so far that the rest of us need to know and understand about VR?”
So I think every medium has its own little nuances. There are even big nuances, if there is such a thing on how you tell a story, just depending on what channel you’re on, how much time you have, and what are the tools at your disposal.
Tim Lewis: I’m a little bit intrigued as to you must have a lot of confusion calling your son Parker Howell.
Park Howell: No, here’s the deal. When he was born my wife wanted to call him Park. And I said “No, the poor chap. He can’t be the second. He needs to have his own identity”. And so she said “Why don’t you make him a Parker?” I said, “Well, we can do that”.
So we did. We gave him the name Parker, thinking people would shorten it, if they wanted to, to Park. She had the namesake. Well what has happened, is people now extend my name to Parker. So just the exact opposite has happened. But he’s Parker James, and I’m Park Lewis. And it’s great fun.
Tim Lewis: It’s not the case that you named all your other children Park something as well, or Parks and Recreation.
Park Howell: (laughs) We don’t have a Parkette. We don’t have a Re-Park.
Tim Lewis: Park-tisha, or something along that front.
Park Howell: Right.
About Park Howell
Tim Lewis: Anyway, I think we’ve just about used the time up of the interview. So how can people find out about Park Howell and the things that you do?
Park Howell: Well, thanks for asking that. I mentioned the shameless plug early on, go to businessofstory.com and I’ve got just reams of content there for you. I’ve taken personal interest in story telling. When our son was going to film school at Chapman University and studied right along side him because I had him send me his text books when he was done with them because I was paying for them so that I could learn about it.
Everything I’ve learned, all the best writers, videos, that have really had an impact on me and how Business of Story has come about is in a library on my site. You’re welcome to go and check it out, Park’s Library there.
Plus I do a podcast once a week as you know, Tim, and I find business story tellers from around the world and connect them with my listeners to help them craft and tell compelling stories that sell. And it’s just something that I totally dig. It’s a curiosity of mine to really understand how story and narrative works in our life. And everything I learn about it and find out, I try to share with the world. So go check it out at businessofstory.com.
Tim Lewis: And the podcast is called The Business of Story, isn’t it?
Park Howell: Yeah, it is.
Tim Lewis: They can search on iTunes, or sure they can get to it through the businessofstory.com as well though.
Park Howell: Absolutely.
Tim Lewis: That’s probably where you want to send them, I guess.
Park Howell: And I will be back at Social Media Marketing World for my third story workshop there in February. I know you were out there last year. Hopefully, you’ll be coming out again. We can get acquainted over a beer or something.
Tim Lewis: That sounds like a great idea. So thanks so much for being on the show, Park.
Park Howell: Tim, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
If you liked this show you might like How to Write Short Stories with James Scott-Bell, How to reclaim your rights with Mark Schaefer and Writing and Pitching Screenplays with Charles Harris