The Beyond Storytelling Interview: How to Find the Story that WANTS to Be Told
Sadly, the meaning of storytelling has become clouded by the fact that it has become a “marketing buzzword du jour.” AND, as my expert guest Michael Kass says, “Story is real!“
Story is so real in fact that, if you listen to yourself carefully, you might find that there’s a story in you that WANTS to be told.
This episode of Video Mojo is different. It’s longer than usual because it’s an interview/conversation with healer, facilitator, and coach, Michael Kass, who encourages us all to plumb the depths of storytelling. As you will see and hear, this approach is something quite different from the more mercenary and manipulative, “storytelling-as-a-marketing-strategy.”
Most importantly, Michael aligns with this program’s core values of being more human and our commitment to cultivating what it takes to build more authentic relationships and community. Sound good?
About Video Mojo
Video Mojo is an (almost) weekly video blog (vlog) and podcast hosted by award-winning media innovator, Jon Leland ( that’s me! ). Video Mojo combines timeless marketing principles with a playful exploration of the “bleeding edge” of video & marketing communications tips, tools and techniques.
For more Michael Kass, please visit: https://www.storyandspirit.org/
Your Feedback, Questions, and Reviews… Please!
I’d love to hear what works for you and if you find this program useful. If you’ve got questions, feedback or suggestions, please comment below, or let’s connect (and leave us a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever).
I’d love to hear what works for you and if you find this program useful. If you’ve got questions, feedback or suggestions, please comment below, or let’s connect (and leave us a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever):
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The Beyond Storytelling Interview: How to Find the Story that WANTS to Be Told
Welcome everybody to a very special episode of Video Mojo where we bring together both traditional marketing concepts, really timeless marketing concepts, and the next latest generation of tools, techniques, and strategies.
Today, in some ways we’re talking about an UN-strategy. We’re are talking about going beyond storytelling and my good friend and the storytelling expert, Michael Kass is with us.
Jon: Michael, Thank you for being here.
Michael: I am happy to be here. This is fun!
Jon: Yeah and unlike most of my editions of Video Mojo, 1 – This is going to be more than 4-5 minutes long, and 2 – It’s going to be a conversation. Michael and I are going to talk for 10 minutes maybe about storytelling and then we’re going to open up and have Q&A with the people that are joining us online. And thank you to those who are with us live or those that are listening to the recording. Anyway, this will go out via podcast as well as via the video blog. So Michael, storytelling. I was thinking that “Beyond Storytelling” as a title would be in quotes and then within that “Storytelling” could be in quotes because the word “Storytelling” has all these meanings. Historically it reminds me of way back in the day when multimedia was the hot thing and I would be talking about multimedia and I would hear What do you mean by that?. And then digital video came along and now there’s not only YouTube but high-end commercials, television, tick-tock and Facebook live. I mean all of that is technically digital video. My point being the term becomes so broad you don’t know. I think that storytelling has become a buzzword and it means a lot of things to a lot of people. I saw a blog post the other day that I didn’t send to you because I think it would have made you nauseous because it was about how with storytelling you have to tell your brand’s story and it’s become this marketing hook.
Michael: My heart! My heart!
Jon: I know, exactly! So I don’t want to make you sick but I also think it’s very exciting to go to another level of storytelling. So how do you distinguish that? I liked the way you did in one of the social media posts about this conversation you said “It’s NOT about marketing and It’s NOT about persuasion” So, what the heck is it?
Michael: That’s a great question! So there was a moment a couple of years ago where I had a pretty profound realization about story. I’ve been hired to teach storytelling in a prison up in the Central Valley and I was very bad. It was 12 sessions and I was terrible. I didn’t know how to run the room and I was just doing a bad job. As I was on my way out one day a guy stopped me. He was the Native American spiritual leader in the Chapel of the prison. They had all the different religions represented and he asked what I was doing. I tell him “Oh, storytelling”. We then got into a conversation about the role of story in indigenous cultures. I had known this but the way he said it really struck hard for me. He looked at me at a certain point and said “Story is real. It’s not a form of communication and it’s not a tool to allow us to connect. Story, quite literally, creates the world around us.” So at that level, story is an act of profound creation. And if you do it in a really deep way it becomes a profound act of co-creation because you’re inviting others to create with you. So when I think of story I think of it as a profoundly creative act, that’s also the basic building block of community. If we start to think about our businesses, really if you’re doing it in a centered way with integrity you’re engaged in the act of community building. What wants to happen and what story can enable, and isn’t really being fully realized much, is a deep act of code creation with the people who joined that community, right? So that’s how I think of story. When it gets flattened to – Well, if you just tell your origin story then it’s going to tug at the heartstrings and people are going to want to X – whether X is buying your product or contribute to your nonprofit or whatever it is, I think a pretty profound misunderstanding of how deep story is woven into the way that we make sense of the world.
Jon: So clearly you’re talking about going deeper. Is it a philosophical concept that our language basically creates our reality? So are you going to that kind of fundamental level?
Michael: Yeah, I wouldn’t even say that that’s philosophical. I would say that there’s, you know, there’s the clickbait articles. According to science language creates our reality. My favorite example of this, and it’s the language substitution I give to everybody I work with is Hey, what if you substituted the word and for the word but every time you use the word but. The use of a word as simple as but automatically cancels out everything that came before it. Like, “I really wanted to do this conversation with John but it was a busy day.” Well, now it doesn’t matter how much I want to do the conversation with John as opposed to, “I really want to do this conversation with John and it’s a busy day and I’ll make it work” or “and we can reschedule it” So even something as small as that starts to create a different reality. So I push back on the idea of philosophy but yeah.
Jon: Okay good. So, the other angle that I hear there is, which is one that I love and that I would say I still aspire to reach as I have something of a following, is this community building and co-creation. And the language that then “positions me“, right? You talked about, I’m trying to remember the example you said something earlier that the word flash to me is, well that’s manipulation. If you’re telling your story designed, you talked about moving people, so we’re going to design our story to have an emotional hook. And that’s storytelling that will make a difference. You’re really talking about something different from that so how do you distinguish between something that makes an emotional connection and something that truly is a co-creation and builds community? Meaningful storytelling is really what I want to do with Video Mojo and it is actually kind of part of the mission.
Michael: Yeah, that’s a great question and it’s tough. I think that for me it’s sort of a felt sense thing. So, unfortunately, there’s no chart where you can say Oh okay, this story is co-creation versus this story which is manipulation. I would say that when folks are engaging in storytelling that is not fully aligned and doesn’t have integrity, at a certain level they feel it. It just doesn’t feel quite right, there’s a little hitch in it, it doesn’t work. Then the question becomes, how do you train yourself to recognize that feeling of misalignment? Breathe into it and go okay, what wants to happen in order for this to feel more fully aligned.
Jon: And the converse – right? That converse is when you’re in alignment and you are connecting your heart to your soul’s story, if you will, you know when that’s happening to. I think that’s part of the reason I became good friends with you is because I think you and I have these conversations and it happens enough that I want to spend more time with Michael even though most of it we do like this in zoom. There’s a resonance that happens and that’s also the converse indicating that you’re in alignment.
Michael: I would say I love that word “resonance”. You know, what’s coming to me is when I feel that my story is in alignment and I’m deeply connecting I can tell because I literally feel my body temperature rising. I’ll feel my eyes tearing up and my body feels different in very very tangible, measurable ways. And there is the science behind that, there’s oxytocin flooding through my body because I’m connecting with another human being or several hundred human beings if I’m doing a large workshop. And if I stay aligned with that in attuned to that feeling then it’s easier for me to hit those places of integrity and alignment.
Jon: So you ask the question as you were talking, “How do you train yourself to notice when you’re out of alignment?” and I would also say how do you train this in alignment and that is in fact what you do. The context is, if I’m wanting to connect with more people, if I’m wanting to build community or wanted to build an audience or wanting, god forbid, to sell something online – which there’s nothing wrong with doing that – How do you bring this kind of storytelling into play? How do you teach yourself to do it in a way that works?
Michael: A part of it is ignoring everything that they teach you about storytelling. So a lot of the more conventional storytelling will train people to follow a template that fused pretty closely to the hero’s journey. The standard entrepreneur story would go something like, “I wasn’t doing well I was in a real I was in a real pickle and I was sleeping on my grandmother’s couch and I went I wonder how many other people have couches that they would like to rent out to people and then I formed Airbnb and now I’m a bajillionaire.” That’s kind of the fairly standard way of doing a story. Once you get trained to only tell stories that way, you’re stripping narrative of a lot of its humanity and you’re stripping it of the details. In terms of how to share a really authentic story, I would say go to those moments that feel really resonant to you, and don’t worry about structuring, just write down what made the moment so resonant. Really go through an exercise of deep exploration knowing that the deeper we go in that exploration then the more universal chords will hit. Because it’s not just what happened, which is where a lot of particular entrepreneurial storytelling tends to stay at the plot level. “I wasn’t doing well I made a bunch of money now I’m gonna sell you this thing so you can make money too.” There’s nothing human in that. That’s a functional story. And it’s based on somebody’s perceived lack. Meaning, if that story resonates with you, you feel like you don’t have enough money. That makes sense? As opposed to, if I share a very simple story. You know my favorite one, this guy I was working with had a small business and we just asked him to share story just about a time he wanted something really deeply. It ended up that the thing that came up for him, and he apologized for this, he was like this is a stupid story. I’m gonna tell it because it just came up. He was eight and he wanted this pair of shoes and he would have done anything to get them. He ended up spanging, asking for spare change, in a small town to get these shoes. Now that is a pretty dumb story but what did those shoes mean to you? What did they represent? And it ended up that the rich kids in the neighborhood wore them, and so it represented growth and social mobility and he felt that if he had those shoes he would finally belong. The business that he ran was all about helping small businesses scale and reach a different level of achievement. So in that small human moment what he actually uncovered was the same DNA that made him so passionate about his business. And he started sharing that is almost an origin story and people resonated with it because it showed not just that he was effective at what he did but that at a deep level he knows what it is to do what it takes to move into what he thinks will bring him more satisfaction. So it’s finding those small moments and really lifting them up, I think, it’s where you find some really powerful stories that almost never get told.
Jon: Yeah and I will dovetail on that in terms of what’s been working for me which is, I think it’s a practice. That’s the other big fallacy about storytelling – Oh, we’re just gonna switch we’re gonna pivot right and try a new strategy which is storytelling – That’s just more of the same really. But what I found with the video blogging, particularly because I’m doing it really without an agenda, is that I’m now getting practice and exploring my voice and what do I really feel called to talk about and do. This of course conversation is part of that. So good! We’ve probably done, Oh we’ve done 15 minutes. And we could go on about this. But, you know, the thing that I wanted to say is that I think training is like a practice. The more you do it the more you can feel – am I in alignment? am I not in alignment? – and kind of tune your listening machine, your human-machine, if you will.
Michael: Yeah, I love what you said bringing more humanity into it is really a measure. To build on that real quick before we see if folks have questions, you know one of the things that happen, especially when I do workshops for organizations, that I caution people is you know in the room in a safe space all of this stuff is very intuitive, right. It makes perfect sense, cool we can share stories. And then they’ll go out in the world and they’ll try to do storytelling this new way once and maybe it’ll work. Then I’ll do it again and it won’t work. Then they feel stupid and never do it again. So it’s not just practice, it’s creating spaces or groups that are dedicated to practicing storytelling in this more deeply human way so that you’re building the muscle. We’ve gotten so far away from it, many of us, especially in our work lives that it takes some time to build that capacity back up.
Jon: I want to thank you and I want to ask you one more question which is when you were talking before and we talked about the inner work and connecting to our authentic self. I love the book called The Legend of Bagger Vance. He talks about the authentic swing because it’s a golf story. We’re getting a little woo-woo, right? And a lot of people are listening from the context of business, so where’s the overlap between wanting to be successful in the business and wanted to have thriving successful businesses and this community inner work taking time for alignment. I mean I will answer my own question in part because and I mentioned in my last Video Mojo episode the book Content Inc. And he has a model which I think I’m going to be talking more about as I work it through myself. But when you look at the sweet spot of you know who you are, what your capabilities are, and what you’re really passionate about and then how you do the content tilt about your unique message. It’s not something that happens in a day it happens from expressing yourself continually, blogging, video blogging, podcasting, what have you, so that you can find it. But is that a business model or are we outside the business realm hoping business catches up somehow and if you tell your authentic story the money will follow.
Michael: No that’s not a thing. But I will say, there’s a question that came up as you were saying that which is how do we define success and thriving in our business, right. So if success is purely financial then tell manipulative stories. Make people feel that. If your goal is just to make money then let nothing stop you in the pursuit of that goal, right. I think that’s a crappy business model. I think it’s an unethical ideal, it’s terrible.
Jon: That’s a crappy life model.
Michael: So I would define success and thriving as finding that place where, yes you are able to generate income and be comfortable at whatever level feels right to you and do that in a way that is uniquely yours and has deep integrity with your deeper sense of purpose. You could say souls purpose or reason for being here. That’s not a woo-woo thing, that’s just real that every single person at some point feels, unless they’re very lucky, that the work they’re doing or their life that they’ve built around them doesn’t fit. And that’s because there’s a misalignment between the story they’re out there telling and the story that wants to live through them.
Jon: Say that again slowly. I think this is the point.
Michael: Yeah, everybody, certainly myself among them, at some point feels like the story they’re building out in the world, what they’re part of, their work the life that’s built around them is out of alignment or intention with the story that wants to live through them and who they really are. And resolving that tension happens when we do that deeper inner work and bring those stories into alignment. It’s rarely a comfortable process, right. People do it in all sorts of ways through therapy, through soul seeking, through dumping their life out and putting the pieces back together like a jigsaw puzzle. But at some point, that’s what wants to happen. Then when we share that story the results of that process that becomes a really really powerful thing that community can build around.
Jon: I love that! But I do think that it’s in some sense a radical concept to presume that there’s a story that wants to live through me. I think that most people are thinking, this is kind of where we started, is when they think about storytelling they well I can just make up the most clever manipulative story that fits the model of selling. Whatever it is I want to sell as opposed to being willing to listen and wait and then actually hear the answer and then actually respond to that. I mean that’s a fairly, I would say, sophisticated spiritual process.
Michael: Sneakily, I use story and story coaching as kind of a Trojan horse to talk about these deeper, you know, spiritual or personal growth concepts. Because if people really want to tell a story that sticks than it wants to be told from that deeper level of connection.
Jon: Yeah, I think what you said was that you wouldn’t disagree with me. That it’s a fairly sophisticated spiritual concept to assume there is a story that wants to be told through you.
Yeah Alright, so we have some people online. Who has a challenge or an issue or a question around the stuff that we’re talking about here today? You can raise your hand. Judith has a question. Thanks so much for joining us.
Judith: Hello. Hi Michael. How are you?
Michael: Santa Fe looks good on you!
Judith: Yes thank you! I’m enjoying it, it’s great. You know, there are a few things. You said so many things they were really great. I came in when you said story is real and that just like Whoa I just got my money’s worth! That really resonated deeply with me. I think it’s interesting that you’re having this conversation about story versus business versus woo-woo and I think that is – I don’t know if this is a question or a comment and it might be both – I think that that’s an indicator of how far we have moved away from what it means to be human. Because the truth is there is no, in my view, real distinction between story, what we do our business our work, and this idea. You know, I once looked up the definition of woo-woo and woo-woo is something that can’t be scientifically validated and everything we’ve talked about is scientifically validated. We know that story has existed that this was how we passed information on for millennia until we learned how to write and then even after that because not everybody knew how to write. And then now that everybody knows how to write we’ve let go of these very fundamental human qualities. I think that we’re I struggle – and perhaps this is my question – and we’re many of us struggle who grew up in this modern era is that we don’t understand what real story is. It’s just become a foreign concept. So even though it’s innate to who we are to being human and that there really cannot be, and is no conflict with what it means to run a business. It’s still something that I, and I imagine others, struggle with. So if that’s a question?
Michael: I think there a question in there.
Jon: What’s the, How would you describe the struggle? What’s your struggle with it because you seem clear that story is real?
Judith: Yeah I think the struggle is that when we get into business mode we put up the barriers and we stick to the facts, as Michael was saying earlier, that we just focus on the factual and we don’t get into the deeper stuff which is where people connect. And as Michael knows, I actually teach this I teach about human emotion and connection and that if we want to be successful it’s the emotional connection. And yet I even still find myself in the way I might be approaching potential business clients who are businesses with just the facts.
Michael: I was gonna add you don’t just teach this stuff to anyone though, you teach it to Lawyers. So you go into the places that are most disconnected. I just wanted to add that because you glossed over it.
Jon: Yeah, Michael do you want to answer?
Michael: Yeah, I have a thought. I think you’re absolutely right. Because, you know, there’s inertia and all of the structures, particularly in conventional businesses, all the structures are in place to support a fairly shallow level of connection and being.
Judith: Yes Yes
Michael: So, what’s necessary, and I’ve had some beautiful experiences of this recently, is to create experiences where people get to have the embodied experience of sharing story deeply and allowing the stories that are shared to reveal, for example core values for a team or to reveal strategic opportunities. Instead of coming at it from a very left-brained rational way. Because if we try to tell people that the way they’re doing things is deeply extractive and responsible for everything terrible in the world that doesn’t work. I had this beautiful experience on Friday where I created a story experience for people where in the space of 30 minutes they shared really deeply with each other. These are people who have worked together for years and they came out of that experience just with tears in their eyes profoundly grateful because in those 30 minutes so much stress and so much disconnection fell away. And that created enough curiosity in them to get them to ask well what do we do, right? We’ve had this experience how do we do it? Because it’s so short and so simple, they are leaders in their organization, they can bring that back to their teams. But if we just go in and start doing things a different way it won’t land. How do we invite people to participate in this different way of being? I think that’s what you give people in your classes as well. You give them tools that allow them to move differently, I think.
Judith: I do yes I do. And yet I find in my own experience when I’m thinking about myself I actually have a tendency to go more toward the less emotional and the more factual. I find that to be a curious conundrum. What you said just now I think is an opportunity for me to notice when I’m going in that direction and bring myself back. So thank you.
Jon: Yeah and I think that that’s exactly the process, I mean Buddhism, for example, you know talks about the human condition and how we get stuck in our patterns. I know a little bit about recovery and it’s like you don’t undo what you’ve been doing for an entire lifetime in a short period of time. And as a culture this moving away from, as you said at the beginning, being more human. I think my Michael’s approach to storytelling and what we’re talking about in terms of this story that wants to be told is very deeply human and we all have these patterns and tendencies to go off into “Show me the money! I’ve got to make a buck!” or whatever the other story is a cultural one. I’m also a fan of a group called the Pachamama Alliance which taps into the wisdom from the indigenous people of the rainforest. They call it the dream. You know they say It isn’t just enough to stop the drilling we have to change the dream. I think that’s very similarly the same thing. We have to be more human recognized that we’re part of nature, what our true nature is and so forth. Anyway hopefully that helps reinforce what you’re asking about. It is like we’re talking about earlier I mean it is a practice and it’s a skill just like meditation and other forms of alignment doesn’t happen in a day it’s a practice and a skill that you develop. This being more human and what I’ve learned from Michael in terms of working my own finding the story that wants to be told you know it’s a process that goes on literally over years. Some people might say that’s the bad news other people say we get to enjoy the journey.
Michael: Yes and the other thing I’d add to that is people are hungry for this. I know Judith you’ve seen this with your students and I’ve seen it you know when I walk into a room of like conservative business people in suits there’s always part of me that’s like this is the time it’s not going to work. And every time they have a pretty profound experience and they’re very curious about what they can do with it. So I think there is a deep hunger that people maybe aren’t aware of until they have an experience of something different that’s simple and doesn’t come across as you know super-spiritual or crystal slinging. It’s one of the reasons I love working with story. Its story everybody can work with story. There’s no you know sure I always wear my white robes and I’m my little golden crown but other than that I’m just like them!
Jon: That’s a very funny image Michael!
Judith: Yeah, I’d love to see you in your white robe and gold!
Michael: That’s never gonna happen
Judith: You know it’s really true, I’m no longer distracted by the suits and ties because nothing enough times the human shows up the experience they’re really there to get something. When there are the cynics in the room it’s always really surprising and enjoyable to see them look up and go “huh, what something’s happening here” and you know there’s not as much resistance as we might imagine. But the continuity I think is what’s important to both of your points and to Jon’s point a moment ago and creating that continuity I think is where people run into a challenge. It’s really easy to just fall back and this has been working it’s not comfortable but it’s been working so far so I’m just gonna keep doing it.
Jon: Thank you so much! I really appreciate you coming on being willing to show your face and be present in the video
Judith: Thank you! I’ve been enjoying it.
Michael: Something that Judith said feels very very powerful because I know especially when I talk about story it can get a little bit esoteric and it goes you know kind of like conceptual and big up here. So I think it’s really useful to bring it back to something really concrete which is my favorite thing. This comes from the social transformation project and it’s the wheel of change. I think we’ve talked about it Jon.
Jon: I’m not sure what’s a social transformation project is.
Michael: The social transformation project comes out of either Berkeley or Oakland. But they have a whole bunch of amazing tools that are all about you know social transformation and one of them is called the wheel of change. And the wheel of change is very very simple. It’s basically, you have a change you want to create, so I want people to tell stories in a more human way and bring humanity back into the workplace and their businesses. Cool, that’s the first part it’s hearts and minds, right. There has to be a shared desire to create that change. Which doesn’t do anything. A shared desire is lovely but it just sits there. Then you need behaviors, what are the behaviors we want to shift, right. So in my case, I would love the behavior is deeper listening, right. I want people to see each other’s deep humanity and relate to each other in the world around them in a profoundly different more co-creative way. Those pretty big behaviors but those won’t happen on their own because there are so many structures in place to either inhibit those behaviors or promote the opposite behaviors, right. So then the third part is structured. This is what Judith’s point triggered. If we don’t put structures in place to reinforce the desired behavior then nothing will change and that’s where a lot of organizations and individuals stumble because they don’t put the structures in place. Those structures can be something, I just worked with the group I was like hey you’re not allowed to have any meetings that are longer than 45 minutes and here’s how every meeting needs to start with three deep breaths. Great. That’s a very concrete structure. Another one would be, you need to do quarterly story circles where you get together and you go through this process. That’s a structure to reinforce the behavior. That’s how we create change in a systematic and strategic way. It’s not just about information and about desire. It’s also how do we put really powerful structures in place to support this new way of being.
Jon: Fabulous! I love that you brought it back to the concrete that way. Alright well, I think we made an awesome new episode of Video Mojo, which my podcast and video blog. Find it everywhere or if you’re interested in more information my website is combridges.com Where do they find if they want more Michael Kass where do they go?
Michael: They could find me at Storyandspirit.org
Jon: Okay awesome, Michael has all kinds of awesome services and things that he uses stuff and things yeah!
Michael: So check it out and feel free to get in touch.
Jon: Yeah, so Welcome and thank you all for being here live thank you for listening to the recording. Thank You, Michael, so much for your time and presence and the teachings and the mission that you’re carrying forward I really admire and respect it.
Michael: Back tell you Mr. Leland. Thank you for having me.
Jon: You’re welcome, Thanks again. And as I say at the end of every episode, See you next week!
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