Jonah Sachs Speaks: Winning the Story Wars
Jonah is an internationally recognized storyteller, author, designer and entrepreneur. As the co-founder and creative director of Free Range, Jonah has helped hundreds of social brands and causes break through the media din with campaigns built on sound storytelling strategies.
His book Winning the Story Wars calls on case studies from his own body of work and some of the most successful brands of all time to show how values-driven stories will not only revolutionize marketing, but represent humanity’s greatest hope for the future. Today's interview covers some of the core principles of that book.
Alzay Calhoun: Hey everybody, it's Alzay Calhoun with Coveted Consultant. Today, I'm here with Jonah Sachs. Jonah Sachs has written a book on storytelling. I'll let him introduce his own book.
But, I really appreciate his perspective, because I think he's going to highlight the problem that you're feeling as you try to tell stories around your specific products or services. But first, let me introduce Jonah. Hey Jonah, how are you today?
Jonah Sachs: Hey, how's it going? It's good to be here. I'm good.
Alzay: Good, so let's start with the book. What's the name of the book you've written?
Jonah: The book's called "Winning the Story Wars" and the subtitle is "Why those who tell and live the best stories will rule the future."
Alzay: So, talk about the inspiration of that book please. Why did you feel compelled to write it?
Jonah: I've been working on getting people to react and to move on grand messages for the last 17 years, and I've always been experimenting with what's happening now that audiences are in control of the content that they share, that they consume. We're not just sitting on our couches getting blasted with ads like we used to. We're too smart for that now.
So, what's going to happen, I've been experimenting with what gets audiences to actually share ideas, make them their own, put them through their social network? I discovered in a lot of experimentation is, you have to tell a great story. That's what it comes down to.
It's not about the exact words you use. It's not about the look and feel. It's not about just being funny, or just being smart. It's about telling a story. When I realized that, I had a few viral hits from doing storytelling.
I started looking into, "Why do humans like storytelling?" "How do tell them and how does the ancient art of storytelling apply to our modern context, and doing that just uncovered so much amazing stuff about the human history, advertising history, and where we're going, so I thought I had to write a book about it.
Alzay: Your material does a phenomenal job, by the way, of laying that out. Can you please give us a short version of the formats that made storytelling powerful before, and how we got to where we are now?
Jonah: For 99 percent of human history, almost as long as we've been on this planet, humans have communicated in this oral tradition, which means that, "You tell me an idea, if I find it interesting, I'll pass it along." That's how it worked, and that's how our brains are programmed, survival of the fittest landscape.
If I don't think your idea is cool, I'm just going to drop it and it's going to be forgotten. Then, for the last 200 years, we've been in this broadcast time, where if you're rich enough, not survival of the fittest, but survival of the richest, you can buy that billboard, or that TV spot. You can reach a million people.
You don't have to cater that message that someone wants to make it their own. They're just sitting back on their couch drinking their Pepsi waiting for their episode of "Cheers" to start up again, and they don't even have a remote control to skip that ad.
So, that's a different kind of communication style, and every one of us, unless you're super young, was raised seeing, "Oh, that's how marketing works." Now we know that we're moving past that broadcast. People don't trust the ads they see on TV. They skip over them, they avoid them, what they really trust is recommendations from friends, from other people on the Internet, from social networks.
I think we're returning to that survival of the fittest oral tradition again, where everyone owns messages, everyone makes it their own. You have to pass it on for it to survive, but now it's digitally empowered. So I call it the "digitoral era" digitally empowered oral tradition.
Then we have to ask ourselves, "What survives in oral tradition society?" We know that in oral tradition societies, we still tell those stories that they told. Our stories are still based on those ancient patterns. The most interesting ancient pattern is called, "The hero's journey". Joseph Campbell found it by studying cultures across time and space, and this is the pattern that Star Wars is based on.
In fact, Joseph Campbell helped George Lucas write Star Wars. That's why it's such a successful movie. Human beings, when given a chance to share stories, they like to tell this kind of story Campbell discovered. Hollywood uses it all the time. So, what it is, you've got this helpless outsider, this could be like a dwarf, or a hobbit, or a slave, or an old person, who is in a world that they can't feel that they can really change. They don't like the way the world is, but they can't do anything about it.
Then they meet this mentor that is like Obi‑wan Kanobi, or The Fairy Godmother, or Morpheus, God in the story of Moses, and they say you have a great destiny. You can do something amazing if you take this dangerous journey. The hero's like, "I can't do that, not me," but the mentor convinces them, go and do something hard and difficult.
They go into this magical world, they slay a dragon and they get this treasure, but this treasure doesn't make them rich and famous. It helps them heal the world. We love to hear stories about ordinary people who live out their highest values in the other worlds.
What's different about this kind of approach than a broadcast approach, is in the broadcast approach, the brand become the hero. Buy this product and you're going to be awesome. If you don't, you suck. You won't be cool enough, sexy enough, whatever. People while they're sitting on their couch are like, "That couldn't be true," you know, but when you're sharing stuff on social networks, are you really going to share a message to all your friends, like, "You smell bad. Get this product and girls will like you."
Jonah: No one really wants to share that. You don't build social capital that way. The way that now, storytelling works, is you make the audience the hero of the story, the unlikely outsider. You help people realize not how great you are, but how great they can be through a relationship with you.
That taps into ancient neural networks that light people up. So, instead of making people feel bad about themselves until they hate you less, let's make people feel amazing about how great they can be through a relationship with us. That's the basic concept that I use.
Alzay: Let's go back through that. Let's pinpoint a couple of things. One thing I just took away was I am known as a business owner. I am no longer in total control of the story I'm telling.
Alzay: Is that true?
Alzay: Tell me why that's true.
Jonah: In the old days, what you would do is you would say, "What's our story?" You would go to an ad agency, or you would make it yourself, and you would make that one piece of communication and that 30‑second spot, or that billboard, or that logo, that would just be what you stood for. People, because you had the money and the wherewithal to get in front of their eyes, and buy some piece of broadcast, they would just be like, "I guess that's true, sure, alright."
But now, we have to reach our audiences across so many touch‑points, thousands of touch‑points. They are communicating back to us and with each other. What they say to each other or what they say on our ratings, our products, that matters more than what we say about ourselves.
So, how do you deal with that? Because you can't tell your story by yourself any more, what do you do? Well, I like to think about the brand as a story. Instead of saying, "Well, I'm going to tell the perfect story right now," no, my brand is a story. It's a story that I'm telling, that my audience is telling. We're all sharing.
One simple thing that you can do is say, "How does a great story work?" A great story has a moral to it. Let's look at the moral of my story. What is that core truth that once someone experiences my story, they're like, "Oh, that's my truth too." So, maybe the moral of my story is like, humans are good. That's the moral of Airbnb's brand story. Because you can trust, you can stay at other people's homes, you can share.
Once you have a compelling moral about the story and its core values underlying that moral, you start to think, "Well how does every communication I put out, or every story I tell make that larger brand narrative and hold it together?"
If I ask you, "Hey, what's the moral of your story?" and you don't know for your brand? Well, you're probably tweeting it and making Facebook posts and sharing online in ways that totally your audiences don't mesh with altogether. So, you can't really control your story any more, but you can kind of set the tone for it, set the world for it, and let everybody play in that world.
Alzay: So, there is a reality that I have to come to that can I not totally control the story on my end, but I also have to accept what folks say back to me. I have to respond to those new messages. So help me think about that. As I grew up in the ranks, doing what I do, I didn't have to respond to YouTube comments, or Facebook comments, or Twitter. I didn't have to do any of that. Now I'm kind of being forced to. How should I think about that? How do I do that?
Jonah: First of all, you've got to think of it like a conversation. It is a conversation between you and your audiences, and the more that you are engaged with those audiences, the more real that conversation looks. That doesn't mean you need to respond to every hater online.
There's a lot of online culture where you just don't need to get into that. Just like if you're at a party, there's certain people you're not going to spend your time talking to because it's not productive. These day's people expect brands to be very human. Not like the old days where the ad would come on and be like, "There's never been a better time to buy a Cadillac. Come in today." No one would be like, "Who's that guy?" Just be like, "That guy is on the radio, so I'll do that." Now you want to know the human being behind the brand.
If that human being is showing themselves to be imperfect, that's cool. If you're showing yourselves to be listening and learning, a lot of the stuff that gets shared the most is when a brand is like, "Yeah, we blew it. Here, how can we make it up to you?" and doing delightful little things for the people who engage with them.
Usually, someone who is indifferent to you is not going to post, but someone who is disappointed by you, they're going to be the ones posting negative. Those are the people, they're disappointed because they have high expectations of you, and that means that you can win them back. I just think that you can't spend all of your time responding and talking, but brands that do stay in connection with their audiences give them reasons to share things that they offer, that are genuinely interesting and respond to their concerns have suddenly gained so much cachet, and also, you learn from your customers.
I think that monitoring and engaging these conversations actually puts us in touch. One of the quotes that circulates a lot in my book is that, "Good marketers see consumers as complete human beings." I think that that's really true. The weird thing is, "Oh, well, we're targeting moms who are busy. That's all we know about them." That's not that helpful. Once you start talking with those moms, you start to know what kind of stories they want to hear.
Alzay: What if I fessed up and say, "I'm just not good at this."? I hear what you're saying, and I understand the idea that I need to be telling a different kind of story that also involves my audience. I understand that there are tools. I need the leverage to do that. But as a company, we're not good at that. So we do. We sell our thing. We're not good at this interaction thing.
So, help me think about, kind of operationally, what things I need to have. Am I now hiring Chief of Story, a Chief of Story Officer? Am I hiring 40 digital marketing people? How do I get good at this as a company?
Jonah: That obviously depends on the scale of the company. I work with individuals, individual brands up to Fortune 500's, and they all have different approaches. I will say almost everybody is in the same spot of being like, "We have got to be better storytellers. How do we do this?" I think everyone's struggling.
One thing that I ask people to start by understanding is that, make the assumption that nobody is going to believe your facts and your claims. Because we live in a world where anybody can make any claim at all. Let's take that off the table as your primary weapon that you can say, "Hey, compare this to other products." Madison Avenue learned that in the 50s. You can't just make a claim any more.
Let's take that off the table. Let's take off the table the fact that you can speak in the voice of God. That you can just go out and proclaim things. You need to be a human being, so let's take that off the table too. Finally, let's take off the table that anyone actually cares about your message. That people are going to give you the time of day just because you're a brand.
What are we left with? Let's walk into a situation. What are we left with? That challenges us to communicate differently. If we can't make big, broad, statistic‑based claims, that means we actually need to show our product playing out in the lives of an individual. If I show you what someone, who you can relate to, is doing with my product and how that is making their life better, I'm not likely to say, "Oh, well, that's a study that you guys did. I don't believe that 50 percent [inaudible 12:47] ."
I'm like, "Look at how happy that person is using that product to make their life better." It's not a believe or not believe, it's just a be moved emotionally. So, some part of storytelling is just like, get out into the field and see what it looks like for a real human to be truly interacting as a human scale with your brand.
One simple way to know if a story really is a story or not starts with a time, a place, and a person, that's a story. If there is no time, no place, or person, it's not a story. So there's a simple shift. I started last Thursday, suddenly I'm moving into storytelling. If I'm like, "We think that there are 35 different ways." That's not a story [inaudible 13:29] .
So, start taking off all those old ways of doing things and seeing what's left. Start figuring out what it actually looks like in the field interacting with your products and services are telling those stories. I do take people through this process that I call the five‑part brand story process, which, I think anybody can do this.
One, let's think about, what is a story? Like I said, a story is a bunch of elements all arranged to illustrate core truth, the core moral of the story. But, what if that core truth that you stand for and that you're living out every single day in your lives, any truth is based on values? What are those values that you have that you want to share again and again with your audiences? Those are important human values.
Your audiences want to be more created, they want to be more connected to their families, they want to be more connected to their communities. What do you stand for, and how do you communicate those values to someone and say those are my values too? Those are two parts, values and the moral.
The third in this map that I help people create is who is the hero of this story? If it's not you, how do you really get to know that customer and know what they care about? So, map out that hero. What are the things they want from their lives and how are you going to deliver it?
Number four, if you're not the hero, who are you? I help clients see that they're more like that Obi‑wan Kanobi character. They're like the mentor. Nobody listens to a mentor who is cold and distant. So, what is your human voice? If you were a human being, who would you be? We use archetyping, there's lots of ways to do it. Find a role model, a voice you want to speak in.
Finally, that mentor always gives a hero some kind of gift, like ruby red slippers or a light saber. What is that magical thing that you're giving people that no one else is? If you map those five things out, values, morals, gift, mentor voice, and you know who your hero is.
Map those five things out and say, "We're not going to rely on facts and claims and our authority any more. We're going to tell actual stories that point back to this bigger strategy." Anybody can get better because storytelling is a natural human proclivity, and we've lost it, but we can slowly build it back. I don't think that anybody needs to think, "We need to be amazing at it to get started."
I think that people do suddenly find, "Hey, when we go out in the field and see how our product is being used to tell this story, we actually realize we have some holes in our product. We need to make it better. We need to make our customer experience better."
The customer experience itself is a story. What's that story that my customer is going through and, "Whoa, this story kind of sucks at this point. Let's fix that." So, when you start understanding the story and looking for how it's actually playing out, you learn so much about your business instead of being there being like, "We have to put 25 tweets together today, what are we going to say?"
It's not easy, though. You know, this is not like a four, simple steps to automatic success. It's a commitment, but it's also super fun. I'm not talking about endlessly pouring through data that you don't understand. It's about reconnecting to some, I think, core human joy of telling stories, sharing ideas, being emotional again.
Alzay: Wonderful. So, thank you for framework. To conclude us, what haven't I asked that I should have asked?
Jonah: I'll give you a little interesting thing that's going on with me now that kind of broadens this. I find that we live in a time of anxiety for marketers. There's never been more ability to reach audiences, never more opportunity. But there's also never been more noise, and competition, and change, and that's really tough.
The next book I'm writing is called "Unsafe Thinking", and it's about how to change your actual thinking patterns to get more creative results. How do you make yourself uncomfortable? One thing that I've learned is teaching people all of these frameworks for storytelling, getting them psyched about it is great, and then people go back to their desk thinking, "Oh my God, what am I going to do today? How do I start?"
I've been studying some neurology around this, I call this the safe‑thinking cycle, it turns out that when we perceive the need for change and most of us are perceiving this need to change the way we market. We say, "I want to do something different today."
But we're getting this, kind of, cortical arousal. Our brains are getting nervous. They're getting anxiety, and when we get anxiety, we're programmed by nature to narrow our focus, to act in stereotypical ways, to respond with short‑term thinking. In fact, do things more similar to the way that we did them before.
We're like, "OK, I've got to change." That perception of need for change makes us nervous, which makes us do the same thing again, which brings us back to even greater threat because we need to change even faster because we didn't do it yesterday. We wind up in this loop where we're doing the same thing again, and again, and again. We keep telling ourselves that we're going to do something different.
How do you change that? Even if you have all the tools in the world, if you're not willing to change that cycle, nothing ever changes. What I've learned is that what most creative people do is they take an approach to anxiety and to fear that is much more positive, which is to say that when we have new ideas and new opportunities, that makes us nervous as well.
When we feel that anxiety and that fear, we can see that as a possibility that change and opportunity is coming. There's actually no way of moving to avoid those difficult feelings. But if we say, "Hey, I'm feeling nervous, I'm having ideas that make me feel nervous. Maybe this won't work. Maybe this will fail. Maybe my boss won't like this." That's when you know you're on the cusp of creative breakthrough.
I'm helping clients now realize that it's going to be uncomfortable and make you feel like you're taking steps backwards when you start going down this road to storytelling, and that uncomfortability is a sign that you're making progress and getting closer.
Don't expect this to be easy. Don't expect it to be successful right away, but do expect it to challenge you to actually grow and learn and to be a more effective marketer if you stick with it. So, I'm helping people kind of get out of that thinking cycle as well as become storytellers.
Alzay: Wonderful, and thank you, because there's no way I would have asked that question
Alzay: I didn't know what to ask, so thank you for offering. If someone wants to contact you and learn more about you, where should they go to do that?
Jonah: My company is Free Range Studios, so freerange.com. I'm @JonahSachs on Twitter. They can hit me up on LinkedIn as well. Jonah Sachs. I have to say that as an author, I'm impressed with your ability to produce books as well that seem to get attention on Amazon. One day I would like to hear some of your insights as well, although, I know you've written quite a bit about it.
Alzay: Well, thank you. [inaudible 20:26] you've done a good job today. I just want to wish you the best of luck in the future.
Jonah: Thank you so much. Let me know when you get this up and running and how the response is.
Jonah: Alright. Bye‑bye.
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