By: Chuck Frey
In this interview, Michael Margolis explains the importance of storytelling as part of the paradigm of creative leadership.
My ninth interview in the Creativity in Business Thought Leader Series is with Michael Margolis, President of Get Storied and author of Believe Me: a storytelling manifesto for change-makers and innovators – 15 storytelling axioms that will help you re-think how you must communicate your work, especially in this new adaptive age.
Michael advises businesses, nonprofits, and entrepreneurs on how to get others to believe in their story. Taking a storied approach has direct impact on the bottom line by turning current and potential customers into true-believers – and then anything becomes possible.
Q: How does you work relate to creativity?
Margolis: For most creative people, the “ideas” side of the process often comes easy. Yet getting others to understand and care about your ideas is a different story. There’s a big difference between creating for the pure sake of creation and creating things that others will want and buy. It’s called relevance. And it lives at the intersection of creativity and storytelling. Anytime you’re introducing something new or different, you have to paint a picture that others can actually relate to. Otherwise, your idea is just plain dead on arrival.
Q: What do you see as the new paradigm of work?
Margolis: So many people and organizations I know seem to be in the midst of “re-invention”. We’re all somehow recalibrating who we are and how we show up in the work. There’s a huge hunger and thirst for creativity. The old way of communicating is falling on deaf ears. People want a genuine, authentic, responsive connection – whether they’re an employee, a customer, a donor, or a member. It’s a time of major upheaval, as we re-examine and re-define what we mean by “value”. We’re all learning new ways of communicating and relating to one another. And this requires new stories, and new ways of telling them.
Storytelling has huge business value. It’s really about apply narrative to the strategic conversation –developing a new mindset around the stories we choose to tell, and how those stories shape our world. Every business tells stories. They’re just not always conscious of them. Your brand tells a story. Your strategic vision tells a story. Your cultural norms tell a story. Stories are one of the drive-trains of our economy and our society. Behind every stock price are stories that drive perception of market value. And as individuals, we define our lives and identities through the stories we tell.
These are some of the big themes in my new book, Believe Me. My very first axiom says, “People don’t really buy your product, solution, or idea, they buy the stories that are attached to it.” Which means if you want people to believe in what you’re doing, you better look at the characteristics of your story. One of the first questions to ask yourself is whether your story is big enough?
Q: What do you see as the role of creativity in that paradigm?
Margolis: Creativity is about expanding the world of possibilities. Many organizations are faced with increasing constraints and plenty of reasons to be depressed and demoralized. I think that creativity from the perspective of new possibilities is a refreshing attitude. The bigger the story you can tell, the more room there is under the tent for people to locate themselves in it. Which means you want a story that people can identify with as their own. Also by expanding the story, you move beyond old constraints into greater space and freedom.
Q: What attitudes and behaviors to see as essential for effectively navigating the new work paradigm?
Margolis: In every business, industry and issue area there’s usually a bigger story just waiting to be told. You have to look at the possibilities, and find the larger universal story that everyone can relate to and accept as truth. One example is the organization Charity: Water. There are plenty of nonprofits working on water issues, but Charity: Water is the only one that in just three short years has built a global pop culture movement around the issue of water. It engages both celebrities and the general public in a manner that turns people in true committed evangelists. The various ways Charity Water packages the story makes it so easy to become invested as a true believer. They ask photo journalists to document the stories of how communities transform when they receive access to clean water wells. Google Maps and info-graphics show you where the water wells are built. And there’s creative banner graphics and social media plug-ins for anyone to become a brand ambassador for the cause. Charity: Water is finding a way to crack the code on the water story and get people to feel invested around the issue.
Q: What is one technique or approach that people could start applying today to bring more creativity into their work or their business organization?
Margolis: In my journey to become a better storyteller, I’ve had to learn how to become a better story listener. The responsibility is on me to become a better listener by listening to others stories. As I develop a deeper intimate understanding of their world, I can share in a way that better relates to another’s story (i.e. it’s not always about me!). You can do this too. Channel your inner-anthropologist, and go observe and listen. Here’s one simple idea:
1. Buy a digital video camera (about $100 now!) – and go around asking a bunch of people the same question.
2. If you’re in a big company, ask co-workers a question about mission or passion.
3. If you’re more on your own, go out in public, or better yet where your customers gather, and ask them ONE question about their lives.
4. In either case, the question has to be something that people will have energy around. If there’s energy, you’ll collect great stories.
5. Finally, look at the patterns of what you hear. What is the common storyline or variations on a theme? If you can find where people agree, build your own story around that. You can also learn a lot about the status quo story you might be up against.
Q: And, finally, what is creative leadership to you?
Margolis: I think back metaphorically to Christopher Columbus and the Age of Exploration. We know there’s something bigger out there, because the current world as we’ve defined it, feels way too constrained. We’ve outgrown the existing container and our systems are clearly strained beyond capacity. Creative leadership to me is about learning how to travel off the map.
But what lies out on the horizon? That’s the task of Creative Leadership – to lead people into the creative unknown. This takes a leap of faith and the belief that a more generative future is possible. If not, all you have are the existing stories, which have been over-rationalized to death. We’re all thirsty for the bigger story. It’s your job as a creative leader to find and tell the bigger story.