Episode 149

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In our industry, storytelling is one of those words that is so overused, it can lose its meaning pretty quickly.

Great stories stick with us. My guest, the co-author of The Storytelling Edge, Joe Lazauskas, understands that good storytelling gives you an edge. In a world where content can be all-but-meaningless pablum, it can also tell a story that moves a customer and makes a connection with them.

As a writer and storyteller myself, I always soak up any time I can spend with someone who’s as passionate about this subject as I am. Joe gets into the brain science of why stories are so powerful – they are a way to understand each other and ourselves better. He takes that knowledge and helps brands tell better stories.

For agencies and our clients, stories are how we build trusted connections with customers. In an era where there is pressure to churn out content, Joe helps us take a step back and understand why story is so important, and the key ingredients and tactics for telling good stories.

Joe Lazauskas is an owner and the director of content strategy at Contently. If you’re not familiar with Contently, it is a content strategy practice. It offers a dashboard, but they also help big-brand clients create stories and content for those brands.

Joe was also one of the founding editors of the New York Egotist. After that, he became a tech and marketing journalist for FastCompany, Digit Day, and Forbes, among others. He joined Contently in the early days of their formation and in the beginning, he served as editor in chief.

 

 

What you’ll learn about in this episode:

  • How the brain engages with story, and how you and your clients can benefit
  • The four elements of good storytelling
  • Why content without a story is missing something
  • Key tactics for good storytelling, and how to apply them in your agency
  • How to help clients have less fear about sharing the gap between what is and what could be in their business
  • Discovering what the customer is interested in, and telling compelling stories around that
  • Educating clients about the power of content that tells a story. It’s not checking off the “wrote a blog post” or “sent out some tweets” box
  • The companies doing storytelling content well, and how you can scale it
  • Implementing editorial boards and newsrooms to get strategic about using content to tell stories

The Golden Nuggets:

“One thing I’d recommend for any agency is to have storytelling workshops for your clients.” – @JoeLazauskas Click To Tweet “The brain science tells us that when we hear a good story, our brain lights up at five times its resting capacity.” – @JoeLazauskas Click To Tweet “Building relationships with people should be the ultimate goal of putting content out there.” – @JoeLazauskas Click To Tweet “Your salespeople, your accounts people, HR – these are like reporters for you. Tap into those resources. It’s creative firepower for telling your stories.” – @JoeLazauskas Click To Tweet “We become really grounded in a story when we can relate to the narrator or the protagonist in some way.” – @JoeLazauskas Click To Tweet “The vast majority of content that is done well is really storytelling.” – @JoeLazauskas Click To Tweet “Our brain is attuned to pay more attention when there’s something new or novel. It’s a Venn diagram between relatability and novelty where something is familiar, but with a new or novel twist – that’s how people get locked in.” – @JoeLazauskas Click To Tweet “Bringing staff together regularly in some systematic way is a great way to gather stories. And people are glad to be there, because it’s fun.” – @JoeLazauskas Click To Tweet

 

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Speaker 1:

If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits too? Welcome to Agency Management Institute’s Build a Better Agency podcast presented by HubSpot. We’ll show you how to build an agency that can scale and grow with better clients, invested employees, and best of all, more money to the bottom line. Bringing his 25 plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey, everybody. Drew McLellan here with another episode of Build a Better Agency. Today’s topic is storytelling, but before I get into that, I want to remind you of a couple things that I think are super important, that I think are of benefit to you. So, the first one is please make sure if you haven’t done it already that you go over to agencymanagementinstitute/podcastgiveaway, and that you sign up for the drawings that we do. A lot of our guests are super generous. They give us signed books. They give us courses. We’re giving away workshop seats. So, we just gave away a seat to our advanced AE Bootcamp in March a few weeks ago. So, somebody got to go to that workshop for free. So, we’re giving away some pretty cool stuff and some very valuable stuff, and I’m a little baffled that all of you have not gone and put your name in the hat. I don’t care where you live. I don’t care if you are on an outer island in some foreign country. I don’t care if you are my next-door neighbor, we will get the gift to you. So, again, agencymanagementinstitute.com/podcastgiveaway. Please go and make sure that you take advantage of getting even more of the smarts that our guests offer and some of the things that we offer at AMI.

So, with that, let’s talk a little bit about storytelling. So, when I think about my own career, my own path through marketing, and advertising, and agency life, the truth of the matter is I’ve been a storyteller and a writer my whole life. That’s sort of how I self-identify in terms of my skill set. I’ve done other things. Obviously, I’ve owned my own shop for the last 20, almost 25 years. So, obviously, I’ve had to learn a lot of other things about agency life, but at the core of my skillset is storytelling, and I do believe that stories are the way that we change minds, the way that we change behavior.

And by the way, I think this is equally important. We don’t talk about it a lot in the interview, but I want you to listen from two perspectives to my conversation with my guest today. I want you to listen to it in terms of I’m an agency that is producing content, and by the way, content is pablum compared to storytelling. So, I want to elevate my content to really telling stories that engage someone. But also, I want you to listen from the perspective of an agency owner or an agency leader who is trying to create culture inside your organization. And I believe one of the most powerful ways for you to create culture inside your organization is to be mindful of the stories that you tell about the agency, and the agency’s history, and the founding, and the mission of the agency, and why you exist, and the good fight that you fight on behalf of clients, and we don’t do enough of that. We don’t share sort of that tribal knowledge and that tribal pride inside of our organization. So, as you’re listening to this episode, I’d really love it if you would listen from sort of both perspectives.

So, let me tell you a little bit about our guest. So, Joe Lazauskas is now one of the owners and drivers of Contently. So, if you’re not familiar with Contently, it is a content strategy practice. It is a software as a service. It’s a dashboard. But they also help clients, big brand clients create stories and content for those brands. So, Joe started a new site called The Faster Times with one of the first branded content studios back in 2010, and then he was one of the founding editors of The New York Egotist. So, he then became a tech and marketing journalist for Fast Company, Digiday, Forbes, and some others. He joined Contently in their early days of their formation, and in the beginning, he served as editor in chief. And so now, he is really driving the storytelling for that organization.

And Joe just wrote a book with his co-author, Shane Snow, and the book is called The Storytelling Edge. It is a great book. So, the first part of the book sort of explains how and why stories work, why they’re effective, and the second half of the book talks about how to build stories, very much from a brand and an agency perspective. So, what I love about the book is it really does help us understand the elements that make up a good story and gives us sort of a mental checklist, or if you want to you can create a checklist, but a mental checklist of what we need to make sure exist in the stories we’re telling on behalf of our agency when we’re trying to get prospects or recruiting a new employee, and the stories that we’re telling on behalf of our clients in terms of trying to attract prospects to their business and/or make them even stickier to people who already love their brand.

So, as you know, great stories, they stick with us. They change our mind, and they drive us to action, and the book is packed with stories about, no pun intended, of how stories have influenced people, both on a… You can tell these guys are sort of geeky nerds. A lot of the stories they tell are Star Wars stories. They look at the Star Wars story arc and use that to teach us. So, whether it’s how it moves me in a movie theater or how it moves me in a grocery store, the stories are at the core of that. And so, I really am excited to introduce you to Joe and his thinking around stories so that you can very quickly absorb it and weave it into the way that you tell stories for both your shop and for your clients. So, let’s get to it.

And so, with that, I just want to welcome Joe to the show. Before I actually welcome Joe to the show, I want to warn you that I have a great cold and Joe has a sinus infection. So, we were laughing before we hit the record button that we sound a little bit like a commercial for DayQuil. So, if you hear us coughing a bit or sniffling, we apologize in advance, but we wanted to make sure we got this conversation in no matter whether we were sick or not. So, Joe, welcome to you and your sinus infection to the show.

Joe Lazauskas:

Thank you. Yeah, it’s about the 12th podcast for me about the book, but the first for my sinus infection. So, it’s a little bit nervous right now. Hopefully, it won’t act up too much, but I appreciate everyone bearing with us today as we power through.

Drew McLellan:

So, as I said, I’ve been anxious for this conversation because I read the book and I love the book. And I know, as you know, the listeners of the show are agency owners and leaders in small to mid-sized agencies, and there’s so much pressure for them to help their clients define actually what good content is and what storytelling is in relation to content that I just knew we could not wait until you and I were healthy to get this recorded. So, I appreciate you jumping in, even though you’re not feeling a hundred percent.

Joe Lazauskas:

And I’m super happy to be here.

Drew McLellan:

So, let’s start with that. So, storytelling is like our industry has a million of, but storytelling and content marketing, all of those buzzwords swirl around. How do you define the difference between content and storytelling, and talk to us a little bit about the critical indifference of our ability to help our clients tell stories? Later on, I want to talk to you about what do you do when a client doesn’t want to tell their story because they’re afraid, but for now, let’s just define storytelling, how is it different than content marketing.

Joe Lazauskas:

Yeah. So, I think right now, if you look at the industry, there’s a lot of brands creating content, maybe not a lot of brands telling great stories. There’s this study back in last year that found that 5% of all branded content is getting 90% of all engagement branded content. So, there’s basically a few brands out there that are doing a really good job of telling their story, and then there’s a lot that are pumping content out there. They’re putting out white papers and blogs, but it’s not actually having an effect. It’s not building a relationship with people which should ultimately be the goal of putting content out there. Right? It’s to deepen your relationship with your target audience, your prospective customers, your current customers. And as our head of content strategy at Contently, this is something I see a lot, and a lot of it I think is because we have a lot of business people. We have a lot of marketers that have sort of been tasked as content marketing has come up in this tidal wave, right, over the last seven years with you have to go start a blog, you have to do content now, but they never got a chance to actually understand what makes for good stories, what makes for good content.

A lot of folks who especially come from a more technical SEO or digital marketing background didn’t necessarily go to school to learn how to tell stories. And so, much of what we wanted to do in this book is really explore the art and science of storytelling. How do stories actually impact us in our brains on a neurological level? What are some of the key tactics that have made for great stories throughout history, and how do you actually apply that to your own business? So, that’s a roundabout-

Drew McLellan:

So, define for me what a story is that content is not.

Joe Lazauskas:

Yeah. So, that’s a roundabout way of saying is that I think that all good content tells a story. If you have content without a story, it’s probably that it’s something lacking, right, or it’s something that’s very solution-oriented or tactical or just a product one sheet, or just say an ROI calculator. But I think the vast majority of the content we create, even if it’s not top of the funnel should have elements of story in it. Your case studies should actually be really provocative and intriguing stories about your customers that have tension between where they are and where they could be. Your story about your brand, about who you are should include a story about what your mission is and what your brand cares about. It shouldn’t all just be a dry memo one sheet. In fact, a study that your brands put out should not just be a lot of dry statistics and findings on a page, but tell a story about where your industry is and where it’s going on.

So, in my mind, the vast majority of content when done well is a story. Certainly, there are some tactical, pure utility pieces of content that there’s not as much of an opportunity to tell a story in. But I encourage us with our team internally with the clients that I work with to search for the story whenever possible because as human beings, it just helps us absorb information in such a deeper way. When we hear a good story, our brain lights up at five times the capacity. Neurons fire at five times the capacity of when we don’t, and stories trigger the release of this empathy drug called oxytocin where we feel closer to the protagonist or the brand or person that’s telling us the story. And when you get those two things fire together, you’re going to have information recall and a connection that’s much deeper than when you don’t. So, there’s just such an advantage to finding the story whenever you can.

Drew McLellan:

That gets to what you refer to in the book as sort of the witchery of story which is sort of the science of how we react to the stories. So, what I heard you just say was, A, our brain reacts, our brain chemicals react differently to stories, and, B, that it actually engages more parts of our brain. So, if I’m reading a fact sheet versus a story, my brain actually reacts in a different way and connects me to the story, and if I just heard what you said correctly, it actually releases a chemical in my body that creates an emotional connection. Yes?

Joe Lazauskas:

Yeah. This is sort of the new science of storytelling that’s come out over the last 10 years is we always knew that oxytocin was a thing. Right?

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Joe Lazauskas:

We knew that mothers release it in their brains when they’re near their babies. We knew that hugging or being near a loved one can do it. Dr. Zak Hawkins is this neurologist we’ve worked with a lot on this. My co-author Shane’s actually had himself strapped up to measure his oxytocin levels when he watches or engages with different stories. They had an awesome study come out, all the Superbowl commercials that are going to be ready in about this week where they measured oxytocin levels, and we actually see that oxytocin spikes when we hear a story. And this is the way that we always built connections with each other as human beings.

When we were ancient human beings, we were sitting around campfires in prehistoric times. Before we had written language, the way we passed our lessons of where to go to get food, or what berries to avoid, or how to stay safe was to tell each other stories to pass on that information. And that feeling of oxytocin in the brain is how we built connections with people, how we knew someone was part of our tribe. And when we hear someone’s story, we come to associate them as part of our tribe. It’s how we feel closer to someone. It’s why you might feel a connection with your favorite celebrity that you hear their story over and over again, right, or when you watch a documentary about someone that you never knew before, you feel close to them after hearing their story. The same thing can be true of a brand like Dollar Shave Club that tells their story of why they started their business in a funny and provocative and interesting way. There’s just so much opportunity to build those stronger connections through stories.

Drew McLellan:

And for you, storytelling is really made up of four key elements that make up a great story. Can you walk us through what those elements are and how we as marketers can think about those elements? Because when you’re writing a children’s story or a fiction story, you can sort of see how it would be easy to bake all of these elements in. It’s a little harder when you’re writing about an auto repair place. Right?

Joe Lazauskas:

Yeah.

Drew McLellan:

So, can you tell us what those elements are and how as marketers we can look for ways to bake those into our content?

Joe Lazauskas:

Sure. So, there are four main elements of storytelling. Relatability, novelty, tension, and fluency. So, the first and the key one is relatability. Our brains will reject any story or scenario that seems too out there. We come really grounded in a story when we can relate to the narrator or the protagonist in some way. So, if you think about this in fiction, it’s when we see part of ourselves in the main characters, the protagonist, or the situation we’re in. But even if say you’re writing about content marketing or about an auto repair shop, it’s about bringing in the reader or the viewer with a lead that makes them see themselves in you. So, for me with say Contently and everything I write for our blog, it’s about talking about my own experience as a content marketer to bring people in challenges I face, scenarios I found myself in, and that creates that connection with the person that is reading or watching something.

But the next thing is novelty because if something’s relatable, but it’s boring, it’s not new, it’s the same story we’ve heard over and over again, it’s not going to capture our attention. But when we hear or see something new, once we’re locked in via the relatability factor, our brains actually light up. Our brain is naturally attuned to pay more attention when we’re seeing something that’s new or novel or learning something new or novel. So, there’s sort of this Venn diagram, right, between relatability and novelty where something can’t be too unfamiliar, but if you bring and lock someone in through the relatability factor, you then can make things a little bit different and more novel and more new because they’re already locked in. This is why say like something like the first Episodes Four through Six of Star Wars work really well because although it was a far-off planet, it conjured a lot of 1950s Americana. Right?

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Joe Lazauskas:

The spaceship looked like cars of the 1950s, a lot of the fashion evoked nostalgia of the late fifties, early sixties, whereas something like the first three Star Wars movies were just so out there and weird that our brains didn’t get locked in in the same way. This is the same case that if you’re not… As if you’re telling a story that isn’t really related to the challenges or needs of your brand, if you’re not bringing them in in a way where yo