Doug Rice Q and A
It’s a great treat to feature someone in this Q&A series who is just starting out in the story field. Doug Rice launched his blog and business, Small Business Storyteller, just a few months ago.
Bio: Doug Rice is the founder of Small Business Storyteller, an Internet marketing company dedicated to helping independent professionals develop their personal and professional brands via the Web. Currently, he offers a variety of free content for the general public, including a blog, a monthly newsletter (free eBook for signing up), and a small-business article reading schedule. All of this information is available on his Small Business Storyteller website.
Q&A with Doug Rice:
Q: How did you initially become involved with story/storytelling/ narrative? What attracted you to this field? What do you love about it?
A: I’ve been a storyteller for as long as I can remember. Growing up, I wrote poetry, short stories, and eventually a novel (unpublished). Narrative has simply always been the most poignant metaphor for describing life. Sure, life is like a river. Life is like a song. Life is like a box of chocolates. But life is a story. It has a beginning, has an end, and is filled with characters in between.
Professionally, I kind of fell into storytelling. I would love to create an intricately compelling narrative about how I came to use this concept but, truth be told, I just picked it. I had been doing Internet marketing for a couple of years and decided I wanted to go out on my own. I started to think about what exactly I was trying to accomplish and who I was trying to do it for, and I named my business after the conclusion to my question. I was trying to help small businesses. I would help them by assisting them in telling their stories. Thus, I created Small Business Storyteller.Q: Your Website includes the acronym “T.R.U.E. Stories.” Can you elaborate on that concept?
A: The acronym is my philosophy for successful business storytelling. I chose the word, “true,” because I wanted to convey the idea of a compelling story being meaningful. I distinguish between truth and fact in that truth actually matters to us where as facts may or may not be relevant. The acronym lists the four components of stories that matter. A “true” story must be: trustworthy, relevant, unique, and enduring. If these qualities are present in the story that is told, it is infinitely more likely to be successful. I use this acronym as a measuring stick for success with my clients.
A trustworthy story is one that is credible and consistent. A business can have “holes” in its story just like a film can and it takes away from the audience’s ability to believe. A relevant story is one that is focused on the audience. The customer must be able to identify and empathize with the story the business is telling. A unique story is one that is different from the others. An organization or person that is not differentiated becomes a commodity, and no one likes clichés. Finally, an enduring story is one that creates a legacy. It is memorable enough to withstand the test of time and find a permanent spot in the audience’s mind.Q: Who has been most influential to you in your story work and why?
A: Two names come to mind. The first is Seth Godin [pictured at right]. Seth is the artist of the marketing world. He actively promotes concepts in business that thinkers before him would consider too abstract but are now considered vital to business success: dialogue with customers (Permission Marketing), storytelling (All Marketers Tell Stories), non-conformity (Purple Cow), employee empowerment (Linchpin), and risky innovation (Poke the Box). I’ve learned more from Seth about helping my clients tell their stories than I have from all other thinkers combined. If you haven’t read anything by Seth Godin, regardless of what industry you are in, read it now. It will revolutionize your perspective.
The second thinker that has influenced me in storytelling is Anthony Iannarino [pictured at left], sales superstar and author of The Sales Blog. The vast majority of my digital network can be attributed to referrals from Anthony, and he has taught me the power of the Internet as a platform for storytelling. He is a world-renowned speaker and sales trainer with all of his businesses coming to him as a result of his blog. He is a testament to the fact that, if you have a powerful story to tell, there are people out there that can benefit from it. I learn from Anthony daily and use him as an example for all of my clients of what can be accomplished through the power of the Web.Q: Watch the TED Talk by Tyler Cowen about the trouble with stories and react to what the speaker says are the problems with stories — especially as it relates to your mini eBook, An Introduction to Storytelling in the 21st Century: A Resource for Small Business Owners and Independent Professionals [Editor’s note: Visitors to the preceding link can get Doug’s ebook by subscribing to his newsletter.] The speaker would probably characterize the kind of storytelling you discuss in your ebook as manipulation. How would you counter that characterization?
A: I highly respect Tyler Cowen as an economist (my undergrad is in economics) and agree with much of what he has written. However, I find his arguments against storytelling to be perplexing. Storytelling is inescapable; it is hardwired into the way we think. Even if we think we are making rational decisions, those decisions are based stories we are telling ourselves. A judgment is merely a story about the facts that we’ve gathered.
To characterize storytelling as manipulative, though, would depend on the definition of manipulation. If any attempt at persuasion is considered manipulation, then I would have to agree that it is manipulative. But, given this definition, I also believe that it is impossible for human beings to communicate with one another at all without being manipulative. Everything we say to each other contains some element of “spin” in that we are expressing our judgments about what we are speaking. But there is nothing wrong with that. It’s just the way we are.
Literally, to manipulate is to alter an outcome. But I think that most of us understand it as lying or cheating in order to alter an outcome. Merely trying to persuade another is not something we typically view as manipulative. It’s tricking them that we frown upon. Tyler Cowen mentions companies that use slick advertising to trick us into buy things that aren’t what they’re cracked up to be. I do not condone this kind of storytelling.
At the same time, I don’t believe that this is the only kind of storytelling there is. I believe there are companies out there that take such pride in what they do that the advertising is merely descriptive of the value they have to offer. Do they want customers to buy the products? Absolutely! But, are they lying to get the sales? Absolutely not! Just as there is a distinction between fiction and non-fiction in the world of literature, storytelling for business can be either a lie or a truth. I think businesses can benefit greatly from a little more truth in their stories.
Q: How important is it to you and your work to function within the framework of a particular definition of “story?” (i.e., What is a story?) What definition do you espouse?
A: A story in general can be defined as an account of events in the lives of characters — real or imagined. I think it’s very important, though, to understand a particular definition of story in the context of business. Many people rightly have ethical reservations about the term when they equate it to lying or “making something up.” When I help my clients with their stories, I am not helping them create works of fiction. I am helping them frame who they really are and share it with the world. It’s more like a memoir. While some level of interpretation is necessarily involved, the point is to convey their true identities — not to create fairy tales.
Another distinction I would like to make is between discovering the story, crafting the story and telling the story. Whether the entity be an individual or an organization, the story itself is not only something that is created; it is also something that is revealed. I start the process with my clients by helping them understand their back stories — why they are in business, what they sell, who they serve, how they operate, and their industrial settings. What is in the past is something to discover and not something to construct. I would never ever encourage a client to manufacturer a history that isn’t there.
But the past isn’t the only part of framing the story. For a business, each and every decision shapes the future story. The story is an eternal work-in-progress. The present is the point at which you transition from discovering the story to creating it. The past is the past. It cannot be changed. But, going forward, the person or organization can always choose a better story. Crafting the story has to do with deciding what comes next.
The final component of a business’s story is actually telling the story. In business, this is called marketing. It’s the person or organization sharing what it has learned from its discoveries and what it intends from its creations. It is only lying if it is inconsistent with the business’s history or plans for the future. Otherwise, it is a wonderful thing to share a valuable story. That’s what I help my clients do.