Shane Snow discusses how to make your message more compelling through storytelling.
- Why storytelling isn’t just for writers
- The four elements of the most captivating stories
- The surprisingly best way to improve at storytelling
Shane Snow is an award-winning journalist, explorer, and entrepreneur, and the author. He speaks globally about innovation and teamwork, has performed comedy on Broadway, and been in the running for the Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism.
Snow has helped expose gun traffickers, explored abandoned buildings around the world, eaten only ice cream for weeks in the name of science, and taught hundreds of thousands of people to work better through his books, including the #1 business bestseller Dream Teams.
Snow’s writing has appeared in GQ, Fast Company, Wired, The New Yorker, and more. He is also a board member of the media technology company Contently, and the journalism nonprofit The Hatch Institute.
- Shane’s book: The Storytelling Edge: How to Transform Your Business, Stop Screaming into the Void, and Make People Love You
- Shane’s book: Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success
- Shane’s website: ShaneSnow.com
Resources mentioned in the show:
- App: Evernote
- App: Pocket
- Article: The Peekaboo Paradox (The Great Zucchini)
- Book: Influence: Science and Practice by Robert Cialdini
- Book: Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade by Robert Cialdini
- Book: A Book About Love by Jonah Lehrer
- Netflix Documentary: Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates
- Past episode: 457: How to Persuade through Compelling Stories with DonorSee’s Gret Glyer
Thank you, sponsors!
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Shane, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.
I’m really happy to be here.
Well, I’m excited to talk to you. One of your areas of deep expertise is storytelling. And I want to put you on the spot right up front, and say could you open us up by sharing one of the most compelling short stories you’ve ever heard and then tell us why it’s compelling?
Oh, wow, one of the most compelling short stories I’ve ever heard. How about I tell the short version of one of the most compelling stories I’ve ever read?
So, Gene Weingarten is a Washington Post reporter who’s won the Pulitzer Prize twice and one of my favorite writers, and his best story, in my opinion, is the story of The Great Zucchini who is the premiere children’s entertainer in Washington, D.C. If you’re having a birthday party and your kid is under 11, then you invite The Great Zucchini to come and do his clown performance and his magic and tricks. And what the story of The Great Zucchini is that he was the most in-demand, most popular children’s entertainer in all of D.C. If you were a senator, your kid had to have him, and you would fight with the parents at the prep schools to get The Great Zucchini on your kid’s birthday.
And the story though is that The Great Zucchini was so great with kids not because his props were good or his act was particularly good, he was actually really sloppy and his stuff was all old, but he was so great with kids because it turns out that he had an incredibly messed up childhood and could relate to kids in a very deep way.
And what happened is this reporter followed The Great Zucchini around and discovered that in his apartment there is no bed, there’s just like a blanket on the floor, and there is a closet full of envelopes and bills and collectors’ notices and nothing else. And that on the weekends, The Great Zucchini goes to Atlantic City and gambles and blows all of his money and comes home hungover and depressed ready to go and entertain children.
And so, the story actually, which started out as, “Well, how is this guy so great? What are the makings of a great children’s entertainer that you want in birthday parties and that could entertain kids?” turned into a story of how a tragic childhood had created this person who kids love so much but who actually was deeply, deeply hurt and wounded and was having a terrible time himself.
And what the story points to is how, one, we never know what’s going on behind the scenes of someone who appears to be very successful, who we might be jealous of, other clowns hates this guy, by the way, because he was so popular and kids love him, but no one had any idea that this guy slept with a blanket on the floor and blow all his money on gambling and had like terrible anxiety. They just thought that he was really good at what he does and super successful.
And I think the other sort of lesson of this story is what happened afterwards, which is the story came out and The Great Zucchini, I forget his actual name, but he was so worried that the story would come out and it would ruin his career, that people wouldn’t want their kids having contact with him because he was a mess, and actually people kind of showed up for him after this story, and their hearts went out to him, and people helped him get his finances in order. Like, people volunteered to help this guy out basically when he thought that the opposite would happen that people would keep their kids away from him.
So, it speaks to, I think, humanity, how learning his story, and I’m telling this story on purpose because it’s meta, learning the story of this guy, flaws and all, actually caused people to care more about him. So often we worry that when people learn who we really are and our real stories that they won’t care about us because we’re flawed, but it turns out that the opposite is usually true with humans.
Yeah. Well, we now have to go read it.
Yeah, I mean, I’ve got so many follow-ups but we’re not talking about The Great Zucchini, we’re talking about storytelling. But, yeah, you’re right, it’s a great lesson right there in terms of we’re worried about sharing or revealing those things but it can really be warmly received. People can relate to you all the more in terms of, “Yes, I, too, have some stuff that’s messed up. You are like me,” and that’s vulnerable, relatable, and good stuff.
Well, let’s maybe talk a little bit about the why in terms of storytelling, I mean, it’s cool and fun for undercover and investigative journalists and Hollywood types. Can you make the case for why storytelling is a viable skill for your everyday professional?
Absolutely. There’s a reason why stories work on us, why we get pulled in, and it’s actually built into our brains. The human brain is wired for a story and there’s a couple of reasons. Whether you’re taking the evolutionary biology approach, and saying, “Well, humans evolved to need certain skills that are useful,” or if you’re just looking at the phenomenon that we are pulled in by stories, either way you can come to two conclusions very quickly when you look at how human respond to stories.
One is that stories make us remember information better. So, historically, if you wanted to pass down knowledge to your tribe or to your family, you often did so using stories around the campfire. So, if I give you a statistic and show you a bunch of charts, you’ll remember them a lot worse, retain that information a lot worse than if I tell you a story that illustrates the statistics.
One great study that comes to mind is about research split-testing ads for charities. You can show some people an ad for charity and talk about all of the kids that get leukemia and how few of them survive and how horrible it is, or you can show them a story of a parent talking about their child that has leukemia. And in that kind of a split-test, always the story will get more donations and more percentage of people will donate. The story makes you care in addition to making you remember. So, those are kind of the two functions of storytelling that are built into just how our brains react.
We had Gret Glyer of DonorSee on the show who kind of does just that in terms of donation to impoverished areas, and you could see as a donor, DonorSee, what impact you’re making. And that was a lesson he learned early on is that the stories did a whole lot more than the statistics. And I think the Bill Gates documentary on Netflix, he says, “Hey, if you talk about like a thousand people dying of something, we should be a thousand times sad, but somehow we just don’t work that way.”
I don’t know if you happen to know the results of these split-tests, but can you give us a sense of order of magnitude to the stories outperform like, “Yeah, 5%, 10% better, they’re getting some statistical significance,” or they’re just like walloping the statistics?
Yeah, off the top of my head for a particular study, I couldn’t say but it’s like double, like on that order.
In that ballpark of double. All right. That’s good enough for me.
Yeah. And so, it gets at the question you’re asking is, “How can stories help us regular people if we’re not making movies or writing articles for newspapers?” And it’s those two things. If you want people to remember what you want them to remember, what you want them to know, you have something to say you want to be memorable, and if you want people to care about what you have to say, then storytelling is an incredibly powerful way to make both of those things happen.
So, if you’re a salesperson, you want people to care about your product, you want them to remember you and the things that it can do for you, if you are trying to build a relationship with someone, personally or professionally, stories, sharing stories, and specifically, stories with certain elements, which I’d love to talk about, will make them remember you and make them want to do business with you or want to form a relationship with you more than any other thing.
You go on a date with someone that you want to impress, talking about how much money you have or spending money on them is going to be less effective in making them want to be close to you than if you share stories about your life and things you care about.
And how much money you spent on your jet.
If the story ends with, “And then I bought a jet, and if you want to go on it,” maybe there’s some adventure to that that’s intriguing. But what we do on dates when we get to know people is share stories. What we do around the dinner table when we’re bonding with our families is share the stories of what happened to us, or the stories that we’re watching. We bond around stories that aren’t even about us, and this brings humans together and makes them care about each other.
Okay. Well, that sounds like a lot of good things that I’d like going on both in life and in career. So, yeah, let’s dig into some of those components. What makes a story effective in these ways? I guess you could say we might call a story effective in the sense of it keeps you engaged and interested, so, I mean, that’s part of the game. I’m sure that’s probably part of what you’re going to tell us. But, I guess, I mean effective in the sense of it yields those benefits, it is memorable, it does draw people to be closer to you and form a bond and a respect for you. So, lay it on, what are the key principles?
Yup. So, we can now actually watch people’s brains when they watch a TV commercial, or listen to an audio book, or have an interaction with their spouse, and we can measure certain effects that indicate whether memory encoding is going on, and whether they are immersed in the experience. Immersion in sort of the crude neuroscience term is like that thing that happens when you’re watching a James Bond movie and suddenly someone coughs, and you realize you’re watching a movie, you have forgotten where you are, you’ve forgotten that you’re sitting on a couch and you have people next to you because you’re so pulled into the movie or the story.
And so, we can actually measure how much of that immersion you have, we can measure the emotional effect that you’re having, and we can actually measure a couple of things, how deep of an emotional experience you’re having, not necessarily, we can’t do a brain scan or monitor your vital signs and tell that you’re sad versus happy necessarily but we can tell that you’re deeply emotionally affected in some direction. And then there are other cues that we can look at to see if you’re affected in a negative or positive way. So, are you crying because you’re happy or are you crying because you’re upset?
And when we look at these signals, while people watch movies, or listen to stories, or talk to each other, tell each other stories, there are some very clear things that achieve memory encoding and basically caring. Oxytocin is the neural chemical that people always talk about with storytelling. It’s the neurochemical that indicates that you care about something. It’s involved in emotion, and social bonding, and including people and excluding people. So, if you can detect that there’s more oxytocin being synthesized in someone’s brain, you can detect that they care when they’re having an empathetic experience one way or another.
So, the things that lead to these are actually pretty basic and they can go pretty deep but there’s four of them that I usually talk about as the biggest ones. Relatability. So, if you can relate to a character or a situation, then your brain perks up. You will encode, or at least start to encode into memory, and start to care. So, if there’s a story about something that you have never heard of and there’s nothing to hook onto, then it’s hard to relate to, then it’s hard to care and it’s hard to remember. But the flipside of that is novelty, that our brains are wired to pay extra attention to new things that could be useful or could be harmful.
So, it’s like the prehistoric version of this would be an object is moving towards you very quickly. Is it a threat or is it something that I can kill and eat? And so, our brains are programmed to pay attention to new things. And so, if something is a story that’s relatable, has characters that you might care about so you can relate to them, or remind you of people you know, or whatever it is, situations that are familiar, and there’s something new about it, then we really get hooked and we start to pay attention, our brains can start to encode memories.
Then you add in what I call fluency, which is basically making it easy to understand what’s going on. The easier something is to understand, the more you’ll encode it and…
There’s not like a lot of jargon, or quantum physics, or derivative trading financial stuff. Not those.
Exactly, yeah. After I show the fourth one, I’ll actually tell you about a study that I conducted with one of my writing partners that illustrates these in action right now as it has to do with TV commercials. But the fourth element is I think the most important one for getting people to really care, and that’s tension. So, it’s establishing that there’s a big gap between what you want and what you have, or what is and what could be.
I’m sorry, I knew you were going to say tension, and I thought that you were going to like stringing me out a little bit to build to that.
I forgot about it.
I’m with you again, thank you.
Yeah. So, one of the best ways to set up tension is to establish characters want something and it’s going to be really hard to get it, or it seems impossible, or death is on the line. So, with the story of The Great Zucchini, it’s one of my favorites in part because it has all of those things and it’s easier for me to remember because it’s a great story, but it’s like, “Yeah, everyone has been a kid, everyone knows children’s parties, magicians and clowns,” like there’s something that you can kind of like hook on to and be intrigued by, but the novelty and the tension is that this guy is a mess, and, “Should kids be around him? And what’s going to happen to him? And his life is falling apart.” That tension makes you intrigued enough to want to keep going on with the story and find out what it is, even if the ending is not even that exciting. You stick it out to the end because at that point you do care.
So, the study that I recently ran with my co-author for the book The Storytelling Edge and one of my longtime collaborators, we ran a study a few months ago where we looked at campaign ads for Democratic primary contenders. So, whoever it is that’s going up against Donald Trump, what are the ads that they’re showing people and how effective is the storytelling?
And what we found, and this was at the time when everyone had written off Joe Biden that he’s definitely not going to win anymore, everyone had written him off, and we found that despite what people said in the surveys, the pre-survey before you watched these commercials and we interspersed the commercials between like bad television, like CSI, and in between you have these commercial breaks with these political ads, and we asked people, “What do you think of Joe Biden? What do you think of Elizabeth Warren? What do you think of Bernie Sanders? Who are you going to vote for? How left- or right-leaning are you?” all these things.
Even though so many people…Joe Biden did not win the poll essentially in this pre-survey. He overwhelmingly won the good feelings study from a neuroscience level. During his commercial, which was basically…and his approach is pretty consistent, he’s like, “You know, when I was growing up in Scranton, Pennsylvania things were hard, but good people, they came together and they helped each other out. My whole life, I’ve been fighting for people. And the time that I ran for Senate and I achieved my dream to help people, but then my wife and son got killed in a car accident. Coming back from that was so hard but I realized that people were up against this sort of thing every day, and I have the opportunity since I’ve been in politics and I know how it works to help with people who have these kinds of problems. So, anyway, I’m on your side, and I’m Uncle Joe Biden. Vote for me.” Like, that’s basically his pitch in this commercial that we did, and that is largely how he presents himself.
And it’s like that story, even if you say you’re not planning on voting for him, that story has all of those elements. It’s like it’s got the relatability right away, like, “I grew up a normal person. There’s real-life problems that we’re all dealing with. Also, here are some things about me that are novel and you never knew necessarily. And things are hard but we’re going to get through it.” And the warmth there, people overwhelmingly just feel positive feelings. And even the people who said they don’t prefer him, their brains are saying that they believe him and care about what he’s saying.
Whereas, Bernie Sanders, among the Democrats who are part of this survey, he was the lead person in the survey beforehand, his ads didn’t have that fluency. First of all, he didn’t narrate his own ads, which I think was a downside already. It wasn’t as relatable and personal. But his ads were like all these clips of the narrator is saying things like, “The working class is getting a bad rap, and the people with all the money and the drug companies that are taking outsized share, and blah, blah, blah. And Bernie is a fighter, and he’s here to help reverse this bad situation,” or whatever it is.
But it’s showing clips of like welders, and taxi drivers, and nurses, and B-roll, and then it has interspersed some of his stories of him getting arrested in the ‘60s in protest for Civil Rights and stuff, which is actually supercool part of his story, but it’s just like this montage of these clips. And you watch people’s brains and it’s like they don’t get it, they’re like, “What am I seeing?” and they’re trying to piece it together and so they don’t remember it, and they don’t feel good. They actually feel kind of negative.
It’s like those some fragrance ads back in the day, they’re just like, “What?” which is all of these things, like, “Something, something, by Calvin Klein.” Like, “What? Okay, I’ll smell good if I use it maybe. What are you saying to me?”
Yeah. And so, it’s like a wasted opportunity. You’re spending all this money on advertising and people aren’t remembering you because they’re confused. Meanwhile, your competitor who’s not saying anything other than like, “Oh, shucks, I’m a great guy and I really care,” people are coming away from that and being like, “Hell, yeah, this guy cares,” even if what they’re saying in the poll doesn’t match that. And this speaks to with some similar studies with Clinton versus Trump in 2016. It showed that a lot of people, when they watched their ads, they would get very emotionally involved in Trump’s ads and they would kind of tune out in Clinton’s ads, and that makes a big difference. The story, regardless of what you think, how you feel tends to have an outsized impact on the decisions you make.
Research shows that we often decide things, we justify how we feel with logic rather than the other way around. We use logic to then determine how we feel. It’s actually usually the other way around, which is why stories are so powerful because they make us feel. to wrap up the monologue, the ultimate thing that causes people to remember and care is instilling emotion because you remember emotion, and emotion causes you to care one way or another.
Okay. Well, so those are the elements that make all the difference. So, then in practice, let’s say I’m trying to make a point, advocate for a view, like, “We should do this, or we should not do this,” inside an organization. And so, I guess, data is going to be a part of it but, from your view, it seems like we’re going to need more than numbers and bar charts to make a compelling memorable emotional case. How would you recommend that we proceed in crafting and delivering a great story?
Yeah. So, I will say that, ultimately, in problem solving, you want logic to stand on its own. You don’t want actually for your feelings really, to get in the way of making good decisions, so I wouldn’t advocate using storytelling to persuade people and get people to care about something that they shouldn’t do. However, it is really effective at getting attention for something that you believe is right or that should happen.
So, let’s say, to use kind of what you opened up. You have data that shows that a decision should be made, or that a certain thing needs to be raised, but like with the charity studies, you tell people a thousand people are dying and people don’t really register it or it doesn’t motivate them. So, you, finding a story that has those elements that people will hook onto, that has something new and surprising, that’s easy to get through and that has tension built in, and wrapping the data into that story is a great way to get people to remember and care and pay attention to spread whatever it is that you have to say.
So, you’re at work, you’re trying to make the case for something, people aren’t paying attention, it could be because you’re not using a story. When I write in my books, I deliberately use this structure where I will open up a chapter about something important with a story that I leave on a cliffhanger, and then I will get into the research, the data, the science, whatever it is, the medicine, because I know that people will want to know what the end of the story is. So, they slog through and I try to make it more entertaining than just to slog, but they get through the important part and then I wrap up the story, that cliffhanger, with lessons that that data explained.
So, in that way, you’re getting everything but the story is really going to help you remember it, and the story itself is going to help you care enough to get through it. So, I think that is a strategy, generally, whether we’re talking about making sales or making a case for something, I think is generally the framework that I like to use. And you could be obnoxious about this, like everything shouldn’t start with this intense story that ends on a cliffhanger or whatever, but something that’s important that you really do want to sink in, I think that’s an incredible framework.
Yeah. And, boy, so much of this is clicking into place for me. I’m thinking about, well, one, Bob Cialdini, if you were peeping my shelf, Influence: Science and Practice and Pre-Suasion are some of my favorite all-time books, and that’s one of his things, is, I guess, the tension, you bring up a question that remains unresolved, like, “How could this be?” or, “What’s going to happen? How does it unfold?” And I guess you can use that anytime, like, “Hey, a customer was furious about this situation. They say dah, dah, dah, dah, dah.” And then you just switch over to, “We’ve gotten 35,000 calls along…” and so you’re going through this, and they’re like, “Well, yeah, but what about the customer?” And then you say, “Hey, ultimately, we’re able to give him what he needed but it took way more effort than it should have, and here’s how it could be easier.”
And, now, what I’m thinking about, the data versus story, I remember, boy, so right now, as we’re recording, coronavirus is a hot topic and, hopefully, in the months and years to follow, as people listen to this, they’d be like, “Oh, I remember that and it’s long gone.” But I remember I encounter a lot of statistics, news, and it’s like, “Okay, that’s happening.” And it’s like, “But, you know, is it really worse than the flu? Is it not worse than the flu?”
And then when I saw like a Facebook post from a friend of mine who said, “Hey, I’ve been doing some shifts as a nurse in the ICU, and I tell you what, when you see a few teens who had no health problems ever fight for their lives on the ventilator,” then it really puts some perspectives, “This is no joke. Stay home even if you’re an extrovert like me.” And I was very persuaded by that and that image because it was relatable, it’s like, “Oh, I’m a younger-ish person without preexisting health problems.” It was relatable because I know this person but it was new in terms of, “Oh, here’s this person who is engaged in this thing, I think, I heard a lot about, but here’s her take in experiencing it up close and personal.” More relatability, it was in the Chicago area, and then tension, “Uh-oh, I hope they make it.” And fluency, it was, well, very digestible bite-sized, it’s just like a Facebook post, maybe five sentences.
So, yeah, what a contrast right there in terms of looking at the tables of how many new infections and hospital admissions and deaths that had been versus, “Here’s someone I know who’s dealing with it head on.”
Well, you bring up something that I think is an important subtlety is that many a compelling dataset has been just utterly dismissed by a good anecdote. And this is something that is not necessarily good, right? It happens all the time in business. Now, we did the research and it says that most of our customers are unhappy with this, and then the head of customer success is like, “Well, our biggest customer loves it, so your research sucks. Moving on.” So, there’s danger in that. However, within that is something that’s really powerful which is that if we’ve made up our minds about something, a story is much more powerful at helping us to reconsider the way that we think than just being barraged with statistics.
So, it can be used as a tool that can foil us so we need to be wary of that. However, it’s good for us to reassess what we’ve made up our minds up about. So, if we’re like, “Yeah, yeah, I’m young. Coronavirus isn’t going to get me. I’ve read the statistics. I had a lot of texts with friends.” Well, I’ve been that guy. “I mean, like, hey, we’re in our 30s, we’re going to be fine,” until I found out that people in my life might have autoimmune conditions, and they’re not going to be fine. And, suddenly, that individual story makes me rethink, “Well, how dangerous is this?”
And so, I think that’s healthy and it’s important just the change agent that it can be. Often, what we’re trying to do in business and life is get people to change, or get them to change their minds, change their behaviors, and it’s a lot harder to do that if you’re going to argue over stats and studies and this and that, than if you use a story to get people to open the door to changing their minds. And then, once again, we can weave in those studies. But we don’t often consider evidence because we’ve already made up our minds. Stories can help us to be in a place where we will consider new evidence.
Yeah, that’s handy. Well, you gave us one particular approach in terms of set up a cliffhanger and then return to it. You’ve also got this CCO pattern. Can you share what is that and how do we do that in our careers?
So, CCO is kind of the mnemonic for how to systematically tell consistent stories to build a brand, or a reputation, or a movement, or a case for something. And the CCO stands for create, connect, and optimize. So, really, the process of sort of the business of storytelling, when we’re talking about companies or just the business of me using stories to convince you or connect with you, is really you create the story then you get it to people, and then you see how it lands and make tweaks. So, the first time that you tell the story about whatever. Like, I’ve never, in an interview, tell the story of The Great Zucchini even though it’s one of my favorite stories.
I feel awesome as an interviewer just for what that’s for.
A lot of people have read it. It’s not even my story. A lot of people have read it but it’s a good example but, probably, the next time I tell someone that story, I’ll probably tell it a little bit differently based on how it went this time, especially if I listened to the episode and I really analyzed how it went and your reactions, and I get feedback from you. But if you’re trying to use storytelling for marketing, say, then you create content, you put it out on Facebook or whatever your channels are, you connect to people, you email to people, you tell people about it, you see how it’s received and then you optimize it.
So, you change the headlines, you focus in on the parts that people really grab onto. This is where analytics really helps. But you figure out what it is that really is working and not working so you can emphasize those things the next time around, whether changing the story and putting it out there again, or just the next story that you’re telling, you can say, “Well, people really do seem to relate to this thing so I’m going to do more of that,” or, “This channel, this place is just really bad. People are not paying attention here so I’m going to try a new avenue for where to get my stories.” And we call this the flywheel because you go through this process over and over again. You create a story, you connect it with people, and then you optimize, do better next time.
And I will say, another subtlety, is this is not about embellishing and lying. This is not what I’m saying. Unless you’re a fiction writer, in which case, awesome, do that. But it’s about figuring out for your audience and for your goal what is the approach and the subset and the emphasis and the channel that is really going to make your story have the best chance of success.
Yes. Well, so then let’s talk about the connect bit there. I guess it sounds like much of it is just, “Hey, just get that in front of some people,” whether they’re in the seat in an auditorium or they are clicking it on their screens. I guess I’d like to get your take on how can we really know what folks want and will connect to? I guess you mentioned analytics so, sure, there’s that. We can look at the clickthrough rate, and the actions, and the cost per acquired customer, etc. And then I guess I’d love your take in terms of whether it’s sort of real-time observation, what should I be looking for from a human space? Or, maybe in advance research in terms of favorite questions to include in interviews or surveys, is how do you really know what’s likely to, you know, connect and resonate with folks?
Yeah, I guess you can say that there are three ways to plan out your content or your story. You can look at past signals, so that’s where analytics, people always share stories about pumpkins around Halloween time, whatever. You look at the data and just do that, and this is where a lot of this stuff that I talk about with the neuroscience, it’s like, “Data shows that people really connect to emotional stories and you got to get them in the first few seconds with something that they can relate to and all of that.” That can give you guidelines or it can be really specific.
The second thing is you can predict what people might really connect to, and you can make educated guesses, and that can rely on data or pattern recognition, watching people, whatever it is. And then the third is, I think, the important one that a lot of people leave out, which is you can experiment. So, you never know what’s going to become the new best practice because everyone’s doing the best practice, everyone’s doing the thing that everyone is doing so you don’t know what’s going to be the thing that next goes viral or catches cold. You can maybe predict but often that thing, that next big thing, is a surprise, so I think you should reserve some amount of your effort for experimentation.
I like to use the example of comedy. So, for my first book, I spent a week with The Second City in Chicago, the comedy school. Yeah, a lot of great comedians, Stephen Colbert and Tina Fey and really great famous comedians have come from there, their training program. And I spent some time with them, and they do this really interesting club or thing, which is when they’re doing a review, which is like those shows where there’s lots of skits and it’s kind of like well-rehearsed and well-practiced. What they’ll often do is they’ll slip in test material into the reviews.
So, they have the show that they know everyone is going to laugh at, and they know that these things are going to hit, these jokes, these sketches, and then they’re going to put in these two things that they’re just going to see what happens. And if no one laughs, then they’ve collected data that that’s not going to work. If people laugh, then they keep iterating on it. And it’s kind of a version of that create, connect, optimize. The connect part is that people are already there in the theater. I guess that’s why it came to mind because you brought up auditorium. But they’re experimenting not based on what’s worked in the past but based on things that they are throwing out there that might be a killer thing that no one thought about.
So, I think that, with a content strategy, is really important. Don’t just do repeats of what’s worked in the past, and don’t just try to predict, but actually throw some random stuff, some experiments out there, and maybe this is a version of the predicting thing, like you’re using your intuition which is just your pattern recognition to try some things that might work. Sure. Either way I think that that’s really important. And so, you see that the best media companies often do a version of this. They do a lot of looking at people’s behavior and what resonates with them. They use that to kind of predict what will happen next. But then they also experiment with things some percentage of the time.
The analogy in the business world is 3M or Google. They let their engineers spend 20% of their time working on random stuff, whatever they want, in the off chance that one of those things will turn into Gmail, which is where Gmail came from, someone screwing around in their random 20% experimentation time. So, I think that that part is really important.
Well, Shane, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?
I would say the most powerful thing you can do, before you even want to get into the nitty-gritty of training in better storytelling is think about stories that you love. And I think movies and TV shows and books are a great place to do this. Think about stories that you love and watch them or read them again, and take notes, and actually break down how the story goes.
I’ve done this a lot as a writer, taking movies that I love, and just like taking notes, which is a really nerdy way to watch a movie, but take notes on how the story goes. Like, what are the scenes? Where is the tension being set up? Just being thoughtful about analyzing stories that you like will help you to build up the muscles of exercising those elements of stories in whatever context you’re doing. If you break down 10 action movies that you love, that can definitely meaningfully impact the way that you tell stories just to get to know people or as a salesperson or whatever, so I would recommend that.
Training stuff is great and I’d love people to check out my site, but actually be a nerd and break down stories that you love and see what the patterns are there. And chances are, those are the kinds of stories that will be more comfortable for you to emulate or use pieces of yourself.
All right. Cool. Well, now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
So, lately, my new favorite quote has been “When you know better, you do better.” This is an Oprah and Maya Angelou one. But I think it’s really true, when you know better, you do better. It’s the best excuse for continually learning and for that thing that I mentioned earlier, being willing to reassess what you think and reassess your conclusions because if you know better, then you’re going to do better even if it’s a little bit painful to realize that you’ve been wrong about something.
And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?
Most recent favorite study is about kids and trust. So, I’ve been doing a lot of writing around teamwork and innovation, and trust is a really big factor in those things. And I think it also plays into stories can help us to build trust if the stories are empathetic and help you get to know people. But there’s a really interesting study about kids and trust. Basically, researchers put a bunch of kids in a room, and then made it clear that something was wrong, that something was going wrong, and then they would have an adult, authority figure, come in, and tell the kids that everything was fine, and everything was going to be fine. And what they found was that the kids’ stress levels spiked more at the part when they were told things were going to be fine. And they were more stressed out upon realizing that an authority figure and an adult was lying to them or sugarcoating to them than they were about the bad thing.
And I like this study because it does speak to human nature, that kids are perceptive. Adults are perceptive too. I think in, many ways, we should be way more perceptive but we are way worse off when someone tries to sugarcoat the truth, or shade the truth, or push away the bad news, than we are with the bad news. And so, I think I like this study because it gives a little bit more of a reason to be honest and to not try to make things easy on people because, actually, sometimes making things easy on people is actually going to make things harder on them. It creates more stress and it erodes your trust. So, I like that study of late.
And how about a favorite book?
The book I’ve recommended the most to people the last couple of years is called A Book About Love by Jonah Lehrer. It’s about the neuroscience and psychology of love, not just romantic love but friendship and love of self-compassion. And it’s also kind of a redemption story, a story about learning to forgive yourself after you’ve done something wrong. One of the most insightful life-changing books that I’ve read in a long time, I bought it for like 30 people at this point, so A Book About Love.
Cool. And how about a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?
The tool I use the most is Evernote. I like it for the flexibility of being able to clip stuff from the internet. I like it for helping me to get over FOMO when I might be distracted by an article. It’s similar to Pocket where you have an article up, and you can save it for later rather than having to read it now, so Evernote has a clip where you can do that. Because if I’m working, I’m trying to focus on something, and someone sends me something interesting, or I come across a side tangent, I worry that if I don’t read it now I’m going to miss it, or I’m just going, by having it, get sucked in. But saving it for later, clipping it down, eases that anxiety or that FOMO or curiosity because I know I’ll get to it later, and I can stay focused and not get distracted. So, that’s one that’s really been useful.
And how about a favorite habit?
Well, I like to think of, actually, a ritual that I have for my writing. A way for me to get into my own personal flow or zone when I want to write is I have…I’ll show you. The listeners won’t be able to see it. But I have this little coyote figurine that a friend of mine gave.
And what I do is when I’m getting ready to buckle down and write, which is often hard to do, you procrastinate, you do all those things, and you feel blocked, I have a specific routine that I go through, and it culminates with me putting the little coyote on my laptop. And when the coyote is there, then I’m in writing mode. There’s actually some science to this, that superstitious routines and rituals, they’re not magic but they do work because they can help your brain calm down and get into sort of a place of focus. So, when baseball players do like all the crazy moves before they get up to bat, that’s actually helping them to calm down and get into a place where they can focus on their performance. So, I do that with my little ritual with my coffee and my baby coyote figurine.
Oh, thank you. And is there a particular nugget you share that you’re known for, it’s quoted back to you often?
Probably the most common quote I see tweeted or people react to is, I think it’s cheesy just because I think a lot of quotes are cheesy, but I think it’s absolutely true, is that “Genius is less about the size of your mind than about how open it is.” So, history shows that really, really smart people are often outperformed or out-clevered by open-minded and flexible people who are willing to do things not just really smart in one direction but are willing to consider lots of options.
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?
Just my website ShaneSnow.com. It has everything: articles, books, training courses, and my social media.
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?
So, relevant to right now, but I think people listen to this after the quarantine is over, there’s a tool that I made. It’s a free tool, it’s called the workstyle quiz. The challenge would be either use this tool or spend a few minutes doing this, which is figure out your unique way of working, and share that with the people you collaborate with most. So, my workstyle quiz asks a bunch of questions that seem small and insignificant but they add up, that when people are more aware of how you work best, including yourself, then people will work better with you.
So, things like, “Do you do your clearest thinking in the morning, in the middle of the day, at night? When and how are you best able to get into a flow when you probably don’t want to be distracted? What’s the best way to get a hold of you in an emergency? What’s the best way to get a hold of you with something that can wait a little bit but is important?” Spelling those out, taking a little quiz, or thinking through those things to spell those out for the people you collaborate with makes a huge difference so that people will contact you, communicate with you in ways that help you to work better because they know it’ll help them to work better.
And, also, if you do make an effort to accommodate people’s different work situations and styles, then that builds trust which will then, hopefully, be reflected on you and help you get your work done too.
Well, Shane, this has been a treat. Thank you and good luck in all the stories you’re telling.
I appreciate it. Thank you.