Doug Lipman: Business Storytelling Strategies for a Criminal Defense Attorney

Doug Lipman is a storytelling coach helping people tell clear and commanding stories. He is the author Improving Your Storytelling: Beyond the Basics for All Who Tell Stories in Work and Play.


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Alzay Calhoun: Well, hello, everyone. It's Alzay Calhoun with Coveted Consultant. Today I'm here with Doug Lipman, and Doug Lipman is a storytelling expert. We're going to let him tell us about his angle, his approach on storytelling and see what we can't learn from him today. First let me just say hello to him. Hey, Doug, how are you doing today?

Doug Lipman: Hey, Alzay. How are you?

Alzay Calhoun: Hey. I'm doing good. I want to ask you this. I want to start here.

Doug Lipman: Yeah.

Alzay Calhoun: What was it in your career where the light bulb went off that storytelling was important?

Doug Lipman: Oh, yeah. I remember the day, actually, amazingly well. It was a rainy Tuesday in 1970, and I was a teacher of very resistant emotionally disturbed children. I was a new first-year teacher. I'd started the year with, "Oh boy, I'm going to be the adult ally that these kids have never had," and I discovered on the first day that they had other plans. I also discovered soon that one school-related skill that they had down really well was resisting the teacher. I got all the folded arms and the scowling looks. Nothing could change it. I tried everything. Arts and crafts, even. Nothing. Then one day, really by accident, I told a story, and their faces melted, just a little bit ... but after two months, man, that was like, the [inaudible 00:01:36]. The clouds parted: "Hallelujah!"

What happened there during the story was that I realized that they were on the side of the hero of the story, Jack, and I was on the side of the hero of the story. For the first time, we were on the same side.

Alzay Calhoun: Same side, mm-hmm (affirmative).

Doug Lipman: My relationship with them didn't transform in that one day, but that was the day I realized it was possible. It was possible for us to be on the same side. I rescinded my decision to give up, and a few months later, we really did achieve what I wanted.

Really, the whole rest of my life has been pursuing that sort of transformative effect of storytelling.

Alzay Calhoun: Very good, very good. Where have you chosen to focus your efforts? A certain kind of professional, a certain kind of niche? Do you focus on teachers? Where have you chosen to focus that energy?

Doug Lipman: It's a good question. Since it's, what, 40 years, I've had one focus after another. You know how it is. You just go, "Oh, here's a new thing." The people that I most love to work with now, and in a variety of ways to do that, are the people who, kind of like yourself, are like, "Oh, this is powerful, and I need to know how to do it better and I need to know how to make it work for me in a systematic way." Most of us happen on it in some way like I did. I just haven't had a long time to approach it from "How do you get better at it, what are the skills involved, how do you teach people so that they efficiently learn." Uncovering the, call them myths, if you want, about how we should learn a story and what a story is. We have a lot of misconceptions that we're taught, kind of unconsciously, in school. Help people figure out how to peel off those layers that are obscuring their natural ability to develop their storytelling abilities.

Then notice ... there's another set of misconceptions around marketing and around getting the word out. Anybody who wants to go from being stuck in the blahblahblahs, right? Your story is going to be the way to do it. Not only do you have to have one story, it's not like a project you do, like you get somebody to make you a new website and it's done. It's actually, you want to be able to generate stories.

Alzay Calhoun: Right.

Doug Lipman: A part of that is help people know how to process these stories but also how to mine their own experience for more stories that will become those new stories they can tell.

Alzay Calhoun: Let's talk about some of the myths.

Doug Lipman: Yeah.

Alzay Calhoun: Personally, I think storytelling is an underappreciated topic.

Doug Lipman: Yeah!

Alzay Calhoun: I think in the business world, it's often considered jargon. It's just a thing that we talk about but no one really understands it or commits to it.

Doug Lipman: Yeah.

Alzay Calhoun: In your experience, what are some of those myths? Let's talk through some of those.

Doug Lipman: Yeah. First of all, storytelling is for children. I've been a professional storyteller and a storytelling coach long enough that I've heard way too many people say, "Oh, you're a storyteller. Do you read stories to children?" I've never been someone who read stories to children, but I have been someone who told stories to children, and also to adults. The idea that's something that isn't serious. It's down there with all the other arts that are frills. In fact, the truth is that storytelling is essential to human survival. Think about it, Alzay.

Here our ancestors were, on the African savanna, wandering bands. We had to have 30, 50 people just to survive. No such thing as an individual human lasting long enough to reproduce, that's the circumstance.

Alzay Calhoun: Right.

Doug Lipman: Before this new technology, storytelling, if something happened ... say your uncle had an encounter with a saber-tooth tiger, and he figure out some clever way to distract the tiger and get away, well, unless you were there, you didn't learn from his experience. You were just as helpless with the tiger as though he had never had that experience. But after there was storytelling, then he could gather everybody around the circle and he could share what happened. When he was sharing it, he was not just giving information, he was actually sharing experience.

We know now that when he's talking about running, that some parts of his brain lit up that were some of the same parts that lit up when he was actually running, and when you were listening to your uncle, those same parts of your brain lit up. There's neural coupling through storytelling, and what it means is that you get to not just say, "Oh, here's the steps," you get to have experience what it's like with the emotions and the sensations, so that when you're there, you've practiced. You've had virtual practice.

We don't know what happened to the bands that didn't adopt this new technology, because they're not any of our ancestors! It's that essential. Because it was survival value, our nervous systems evolved to favor those people who were best at encoding their experience into narrative, and then decoding narrative into experience.

Alzay Calhoun: That's great.

Doug Lipman: It's the way we share what's important. That's what humans do.

Alzay Calhoun: It's the way we share what's important.

Doug Lipman: Yeah.

Alzay Calhoun: I think that's a strong statement, because if it's important, you find a way to put a story around it.

Doug Lipman: Yeah.

Alzay Calhoun: I think when we do that, we do that subconsciously. We don't always realize that we're doing it.

Doug Lipman: Right.

Alzay Calhoun: If it's important, you don't just tell it. You tell a story around it.

Doug Lipman: Yeah.

Alzay Calhoun: Highlighting that is, I think, is important [crosstalk 00:08:17].

Doug Lipman: Yeah, right. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Alzay Calhoun: Let's look at the other side of that equation.

Doug Lipman: Yeah.

Alzay Calhoun: I think you just said it, but let's go ahead and say it again.

Doug Lipman: Please.

Alzay Calhoun: For those that don't get it.

Doug Lipman: Yeah.

Alzay Calhoun: If you don't adopt storytelling, if you don't find a way to put story around the things that are important-

Doug Lipman: Right.

Alzay Calhoun: What happens?

Doug Lipman: What happens is that you rely completely on another wonderful technology, which is conceptual talk. Right? You do concepts. You have abstractions. You use those exclusively. Now, you can go a long way ... it's like having one leg. If you just have one leg, you can stand there pretty much indefinitely. You can hop along. But, if you have a second leg that you can alternate flexibly with, then you can not only go further and faster with less energy, you can actually navigate new kinds of terrain.

Ideally, we use these two modes of communication, which are also modes of thinking, conceptual on the one hand and story on the other hand. Actually, it's conceptual and image, and story, in a way, combines those two ... because image thinking is associative, it's rapid, non-linear thinking. Our minds will come up with images when we don't have a way yet to reduce it to a concept. Story is images related in causal sequence. There's that through concept of the story, that, "This is the story of how this thing happened to Oedipus, and he ended up dead." Right? This is all those things in between. Aristotle talked about everything in his story in a tragedy, he's talking about plays, "Needs to follow from one initiating incident." Every single thing is inevitable, in a way. Stories have that underlying sense of causality. I can just tell you that I told a story and the kids were happy, but that doesn't mean anything unless you know I was struggling to make them connect to me. Only then does the resolution mean anything.

When people say, "Cut to the chase," you have to be careful, because if you just saw the chase sequence from a movie, it wouldn't mean anything to you.

Alzay Calhoun: That's right.

Doug Lipman: A story is a way of organizing experience, and when you are trying to market to somebody, there's a whole lot of things they have to know, but you can say that there's three main ones. One, they have to know that they're talking to you when you try to reach somebody, that you're talking to them, as opposed to somebody else -- or even worse, talking to no one in particular, which is probably 99% of all websites out there, talking to no one in particular. Maybe not that many, but you know, big percentage. Then, they have to know that you have experienced their pain points and understand them. Then, they have to be able to imagine you helping them. They're not going to take that step unless they imagine in some way in their minds, "Oh. Alzay can help me."

How do you do those things? Well, am I talking to you, if I just meet you, how are you? In cultures all over the world, people have some way to say, "What's your most recent story?"

Alzay Calhoun: Right, right, right. Very good. Yeah.

Doug Lipman: We reduce it to a formality, but it's still that impulse of "What's going on? What's up?" The answer to that is a story, generally, right, if you trust the person and they're connected to the person as well. If I want you to be connected, I might have to say ... I might have to start off. You say, "What's up?" I say, "Yeah, I'm great. How are you?" "I'm great." I say, "You know, for me, it's been ... the other day ..." and then I [inaudible 00:12:33]. Then, you will share your story.

Alzay Calhoun: Right.

Doug Lipman: It's part of what humans know deep down, but that's not recognized as part of the myth or the fallacy that some of it's a frill, it's just fluff, and you just put it in there at the beginning of a speech so people will laugh and they relax and then you can really just bore them with concepts.

Alzay Calhoun: Right, right, right.

Doug Lipman: If you want them to care about doing something, they have to imagine it and imagine it having an effect. We have a direct way to create, [emit 00:13:10] those imaginings in people's minds. We don't create them, we stimulate them to happen, and then they create them, which is even better. If you come to an idea, you come to a conclusion, "Oh! That Lipman, he could really help me ... That Calhoun, he could really help me," and they've imagined it, then now they're motivated. "I'll press the button, give you my info, set up the phone call. I'm all over it." But until that moment, it isn't going to happen.

Alzay Calhoun: Let's talk about some success stories.

Doug Lipman: Oh, yeah.

Alzay Calhoun: Let's talk about a client you may have worked with that didn't have a grasp on storytelling, worked with you, and got a grasp on storytelling. Is there one that comes to mind immediately for you?

Doug Lipman: Yes. It's not a consultant, but it's somebody that I'm still working with, and she's had a big success.

This is someone who is a big deal in the marketing research world, in particular, Fortune 500 companies, companies all over the world hire her to do one better than focus groups. The goal is how do people really feel and think about a brand. She uses story techniques to do that. That's a whole other bit of it. She really gets people to tell their stories. She'll say, The question in pharmaceuticals is, "What should we advertise? How safe this pill is, or how effective it is?" To help that, she would get doctors, who are the customers, say, "Describe an island where everything is set up for effectiveness. What's there?" "The roads are clear and you can get through everywhere." "Describe an island where everything's set up for safety." "Oh, the roads are made of pillows, you can't hurt yourself." She gets people to say kind of their unconscious thoughts about those things.

Anyway, this is her work. She's been doing great. She's billed $50 million or something in a few years. She wanted my help because what she wanted to do was to be able to tell the results better. She's getting stories from people, but the clients, her clients, the people who were paying her the big money, they expect bullet points. How does she integrate story into that so that they get the real effect of what's happened there?

Alzay Calhoun: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Doug Lipman: She came to me. That was her goal, was to learn how to do that better. One of the things that I love to help people with is helping them discover their own creative process. How they access images, how they turn those images into something else, how they understand the causality and the structure of the story that they're telling. I worked with her for that, and really hit the jackpot, because she suddenly had stories just flowing out of her. She had to write them down, and then something happened to her, and she had to start writing about that. I think it was two years ago that we had that breakthrough. Since that time, she's published one novel and has parts of two others written. She's just this explosion of creativity once she found how to make it work, which was not, speaking of myths, not what she learned in school.

Alzay Calhoun: Right.

Doug Lipman: She found basically her source of creativity which was there, but was obscured with all these misconceptions that she's picked up over the years.

Alzay Calhoun: Sure.

Doug Lipman: The first book that came out, the big success she had recently, is that Jack Canfield gave it an amazingly glowing review on Amazon, like, a 150-word review that I couldn't have written a better one, and said, "Please sign this."

Alzay Calhoun: Very good, very good. I think her fundamental challenge of trying to put stories around bullet points-

Doug Lipman: Yes.

Alzay Calhoun: She had a client, and that client was looking for just the facts.

Doug Lipman: Exactly, exactly.

Alzay Calhoun: "Just give me the answer," and she's like, "Hm, it's more robust than that."

Doug Lipman: Yes.

Alzay Calhoun: What I'm also hearing is in order for her data to be useful to her clients, they have to know it in story so they can tell the story.

Doug Lipman: Absolutely.

Alzay Calhoun: If I give you bullets, you'll communicate bullets to that [inaudible 00:18:01]. Doesn't work. I think regardless of ... any professional can appreciate that. If you've got a boss, if you've got a presentation to make, you're typically asked to do it in bullets.

Doug Lipman: Yes.

Alzay Calhoun: Yeah. Connecting with the stories around those bullets helps you ... yeah. I think that's really good. That's really good. Good.

For those who want to take some forward steps ... they have digested this conversation well and they're like, "Yeah, okay, I get it. I can do a little better with the storytelling thing," where would you suggest they start to begin to make this transition in how they communicate?

Doug Lipman: Oh, yeah. Ask that question a little differently? I didn't quite connect on it.

Alzay Calhoun: If I want to start storytelling, where should I begin.

Doug Lipman: Where should you begin. You should begin by telling stories, but you need to clear up some misconceptions before you even bother. Right? Number one, we're taught kind of what I call the "homework" method of learning stories. You go up to your room alone, you create a script, you stand in front of the mirror, you memorize it, and then, only then, do you go to an audience. What you do is you spend hours and hours alone, and then you try communicating. What you've just done is you've spent hours and hours practicing not communicating.

Alzay Calhoun: Right.

Doug Lipman: Whereas, your uncle on the savanna, what did he do? He remembered what happened to him. "Remember," the source of that word is "To take a body and put it back together," put the members of the body back together. This turns out that this isn't just history of language, this is what happens neurologically, that when you remember, you are pulling out the parts of it and putting them back into a hole from different parts of your brain. You remember, and then you start telling it to somebody, and you respond to their response.

Alzay Calhoun: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Doug Lipman: Then, if you're going to get good, like all the times that we've just naturally created a story that we tell almost the same way every time, like our operation or how we got into this field or how we met our spouse or something like that, we tell those over and over again, and what happens is each time we tell it, because we're responding to people's responses, we notice, "Oh, that worked," so you keep that for the next time. You don't have to write a note of it, you remember it, right?

Alzay Calhoun: Right.

Doug Lipman: "Oh, this didn't work. I have to stop, backtrack, and explain it." "Okay, [Cecile 00:20:45], I forgot to tell you that," and then the person finally lights up again and you say, "Okay, the next time, I'll just go straight to that part."

You accumulate successes, and also, you're practicing fixing the responses you get that aren't the ones you want. If you're working with a script, you have no practice in that, and the minute it doesn't work, you're like "[wahwahwahwahwah 00:21:07]," right? There's other reasons why the script is a bad idea, but your number one thing is just to know this is how you do it.

If you want to learn to tell ... if a story that matters to you, there's all kinds of tools that I teach to accelerate the process, but this is the basic process you want to build on always: imagine. Imagine in multiple sensory modes. Tell it to someone who is willing to listen to you. When it's a new story, you don't want someone that you have to command their attention. You want someone who says, "Hey." I'll say, "Do you have five minutes? I just have this new story, I want to run it by you." You get someone who'll do it for your sake, and you tell, you respond to the response. Then you repeat that process a bunch of times. If you do it five times, it'll be way better than it was the first time. If you do it ten times, it'll be pretty good. If you do it 15 times, I promise you it will be excellent.

It's that simple. Like I say, there's tools that you can learn to accelerate the process and make sure that you don't get stuck on different places, but that's what humans have always done, that's the thing you should go do.

Alzay Calhoun: I heard it needs to matter to you, what you're telling needs to matter to you.

Doug Lipman: Oh, it does.

Alzay Calhoun: The practice is in sharing it, the practice is not in practicing it.

Doug Lipman: Exactly. Now, there's a time to be offline practicing and just going over in your mind, but that's not the essence. That's a little separate thing you do sometimes.

Alzay Calhoun: Mm-hmm (affirmative), got it. Very good, very good, very good. Let's talk about your business for a second.

Doug Lipman: Yeah.

Alzay Calhoun: Is there a big project you're working on or a thing you're trying to get done in this new year?

Doug Lipman: Yeah. I was teaching storytelling to criminal defense lawyers. These are people that risk life and death storytelling. If they don't tell a story that makes the jury or the judge feel that their client is a real human and not a monster, the client dies. Right?

Alzay Calhoun: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah.

Doug Lipman: There's no higher stakes than this. Great people. I was working with a group of 30, half of these lawyers, half of other people working with them, and I discovered that about half of those lawyers weren't getting it. Everybody else, three quarters of the room is doing great, and I didn't notice until people said, "I think so-and-so isn't getting it, and also neither is so-and-so," and I realized that they had been so trained to use conceptual talk that they thought a story was, "His mother was an addict and he had a hard time," right? "He was in and out of juvenile this many times, and blah blah blah." That's what they thought a story was. There's nothing to help us imagine. There's no imagining going on there, so there's no connecting so there's no neural coupling. We're not stimulating anybody's [imagine 00:24:10].

I discovered that they needed a lot of help getting to a layer of storytelling skills that most people who find themselves telling stories have learned unconsciously. These are our base layer skills which are just how to talk, how to do report. Infants learn these things in their first couple years. Takes them a long time, takes them a little bit of years to learn it, but they do it. The top layer skills are what we mostly talk about: how to structure your story, what should be in the story, all that kind of stuff. There's a mid-layer of skills that even storytellers take for granted, and these are the things like how you adjust the concreteness of a statement. How you go from "She was an addict," which is no concreteness at all, all the way down to, and this is what one of the lawyers did after getting it, "She was trembling. She could hardly hold onto her syringe as she filled it. She injected herself." Now we get it that she's an addict on the deep level of concrete imagining.

Alzay Calhoun: Right.

Doug Lipman: A lot of storytelling advice is always to be concrete. No, that's ridiculous. I told you I was a first-year teacher. You don't need to hear that concretely, that's enough. You want to save those parts for the essential parts. You want to dial the concreteness up for the parts that really matter, and dial it down for everything else.

These adjustment skills which are concreteness and many other things, I call the "hidden storytelling skills." It's that mid-layer, and that's what makes things evocative and memorable. Those skills, because almost everybody who knows them takes them for granted because you learn them unconsciously, and everybody who doesn't know them assume that they just don't have the talent for storytelling.

Alzay Calhoun: Right, yeah.

Doug Lipman: Right? I've put a lot of work and been putting work into how to teach those to people who don't know them, and also even good storytellers how they can practice them so they can round out those skills, because since we learned it unconsciously, we don't know which ones we've learned and which ones we haven't learned.

Alzay Calhoun: Very good. There's a gentleman who works in a much different, different field. He actually works in the Crossfit field.

Doug Lipman: Oh, yeah.

Alzay Calhoun: His basic point is, "I work to make the invisible visible."

Doug Lipman: Well said.

Alzay Calhoun: I think it's very, very smart. In his field, Crossfit is about being athletic, and there are certain athletic things your body is supposed to be able to do.

Doug Lipman: Right.

Alzay Calhoun: Many clients come to him and they can't do those things, but they don't understand why. They [inaudible 00:26:53] because all the training that you may or may not have received earlier in life. He puts you in these weird spots so he can help you see that you don't have flexibility here or there or here or there.

Doug Lipman: I love it.

Alzay Calhoun: That's what I'm hearing you say is that, "Hey, you can't tell the story, but you don't know why. Let me put you in this weird space so you can see that there are some invisible things that should be visible."

Doug Lipman: That's right.

Alzay Calhoun: That's strong. I appreciate that, a perspective that you shared with me that I hadn't ... it was invisible to me until you just explained it.

Doug Lipman: Yeah, I love that. I didn't know that example from the Crossfit, but it makes perfect sense. I'll use that analogy too.

Alzay Calhoun: Yeah. I think it's strong. Some good stuff. Doug, we've had a good time today, and I think we've done it. I think we've done a good thing. Thank you for your time, thank you for offering the insight and the good stories to help us appreciate storytelling. I think some folks are going to get some real value out of our time today, so thank you so much for it.

Doug Lipman: Thank you. Oh, and you know what? If people want to know about that new project, takes you to a one-page description.

Alzay Calhoun: Thank you, because I meant to ask you. Now we have the link.

Doug Lipman:

Alzay Calhoun: Thank you.

Doug Lipman: Also, they can go to my newsletters at

Alzay Calhoun: Very good. Thank you, sir.

Doug Lipman: Hey, thank you. I wanted to tell you that your questions you sent to prepare, they were really helpful. I'm redoing my website, and "Never mind Alvay, these questions are making me..." The kind of stuff that you note to ask yourself, but until somebody asks you something, you didn't do it. I had a whole morning just writing stuff based on that. It was very, very helpful. Good set of questions.

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