Jim Signorelli Q and A

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I first encountered Jim Signorelli through my Scoop.it organizational storytelling curation and having been following him in several, social-media venues. I’m excited about his new book, StoryBranding.

StoryBrandingBookSmall.jpg Bio: [in his own words, from his LinkedIn profile]: I’ve always had a passion for advertising. My favorite class in grade school was “show and tell.” As a paperboy, I would add subscribers by copy testing leaflets (“If you buy from me, I promise not to throw your paper in the bushes,” out pulled “You need the news, I need the money.”)

After receiving both a B.A. and M.A. in advertising from Michigan State University, I started my adult career in advertising in nearby Chicago. I later worked in New York, Los Angeles, and Baltimore, amassing experience on a wide variety of major accounts like Citibank, Kraft Foods, Burger King, General Electric, Toshiba, Arby’s, and many others.

JimSignorelli.jpg In 1999 I started my own agency back in Chicago that today goes by the name esw StoryLab. Our agency has been named to the Inc. 5000 list of fastest growing independent companies in the U.S., three years straight. In that time I became a story buff, as I set out to understand why stories are so powerful and how advertising can benefit from the way they are structured. My book, StoryBranding: Creating Stand Out Brands Through the Power of Story, is the culmination of three years of research on the subject.

When I’m not working or telling a story, I am an avid golfer, tennis player, drummer. And my weirdness finds its expression in a prized Pez collection. I live with my lovely wife Joan in Evanston, Illinois.


Q&A with Jim Signorelli:

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’m asked this question a lot. I’ve often thought it would be wonderful if I could offer up an awe-inspiring story about that big moment when I realized how branding can benefit from the power of story. There were actually many Aha! moments along the route to completing this book, and their effects were cumulative. I talk about some of those in the book, but I can tell you about one of them here.
A few years back, I was observing my two young grandchildren as they were watching a TV cartoon show. I was interested in seeing what they were going to do when the commercials came on. Would they remain attentive? Start talking to each other? Yell out that they wanted what was being advertised?
They both remained engaged through the first commercial shown. Upon hearing the commercial’s tag line, “we love to make you smile,” the youngest turned to her older brother and asked, “why do they say that they’ll make me smile? They don’t make me smile.”
Her brother responded with his now typical boy-I-got one- dumb-sister look and said, “that’s ‘cause it’s advertising stupid.”
This experience raised two questions. First, if little kids disregard advertising promises, how must adults? And second, having spent my entire academic and professional career studying advertising, why haven’t I asked this question sooner?
I’m not good company when it comes to watching TV. While my wife will want to fast forward through the commercials, I’ll want to hit replay. The experience with my grandkids made things worse as it gave me something else to critique. I now started to see that many ads were like the ad they commented on, puffed up, self-adulating statements about what one should expect from the brand being advertised. It’s what we’ve become used to and expect from a lot of advertising, regardless of how little proof there often is for its claims.
Eventually, and in search of a solution, I came around to see how the power of story could help solve this problem. Stories are one of the most persuasive tools in our communications arsenal. I’m sure this needs no explanation to readers of your blog. There are many reasons for this, but for me, the biggest, most important one is that, unlike outward efforts to sell something, stories persuade without getting in their own way. They resort to pulling influence rather than pushing it. They welcome us to decide for ourselves what’s being said without trying to force feed us opinions. Unlike advertising, with all their hype that we have grown to resist, stories can powerfully resonate with what we already believe is true. And it was this realization that influenced my desire to deconstruct stories; one that ultimately revealed a way in which brands could benefit from story’s influential power.

Q: What inspired you to write your book, Storybranding: Creating Standout Brands Through the Power of Story, especially at a time when books about storytelling in business and branding are proliferating? What makes your message unique?

A: As I began to read about stories, my fascination with them snowballed into an avalanche. My questions found answers that raised more questions. Intuitively I knew that brands could benefit from story, but articulating how became a major challenge. It took three years of starting and stopping, backing and forthing, and a lot of paper. How I finally got to something I was satisfied with will also address the other part of your question, as your observation is astute. With so much buzz about storytelling in business and branding, any insights I might be able to offer risked a welcome similar to one given the newest passenger on a crowded bus.

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Try as I did, using storytelling as an advertising technique was often a force-fit. Everything was starting to look and sound like a clich├ęd testimonial, i.e., one day John had a problem (dramatize problem) and found the solution (big smile goes here) with brand XYZ. Logo/Tag line. Music up and out. The End.
After much trial, and mostly error, I came very close to giving up. Reluctantly, I had to admit to the fact that storytelling, albeit a powerful technique for speakers, salespeople, leaders or anyone engaged in persuasion, was not workable in the various constraining forms of the media we typically employ. On the other hand, there could be no denying that story’s purpose was something worth emulating. It was the lightning I needed to bottle.

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Then, I was introduced to Kendall Haven’s book Story Proof, the outcome of some 10 years of research on what stories are and how they are structured. Borrowing from Haven’s model of story, I crafted something similar for brands while casting them as heroes trying to overcome obstacles in its quest to establish a relationship with prospects.
Rather than a messaging technique, I had arrived at a strategic-planning technique, one that requires looking beyond what we call their “outer layers” or their functional advantages and benefits — and one that includes a clear understanding for what the brand stands for and how it can better align its unique worldview with targeted prospects. Besides requiring a high degree of empathy for the prospect, staging the brand as a story character helps identify the brand’s underlying beliefs and values, or the brand’s “cause” beyond its profit motive. Applying what we know about our interactions with people, shared beliefs and values contribute greatly to reasons we form and maintain certain relationships.
So you see, StoryBranding is not just another trumpet on the storytelling bandwagon. In fact, StoryBranding is very different from storytelling. Rather it defines both an approach and a process for giving brands the kind of meaning that resonates with prospects. And by doing so, it displaces advertising’s natural inclination to hit the prospect over the head with the brand’s puffed up image of itself.
Why it became a book finds reason in the fact that anything less would have given the subject short shrift. Plus, after three years, I had to do something useful with all that paper.

[Editor’s note: You can download an excerpt from StoryBranding here.]

Q: You use a slightly modified version of Kendall Haven’s story definition (the one that also opened my eyes). How did you arrive at that one, and how important do you think it is to define story?

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A: Let me say up front that I will be forever thankful for Kendall Haven and his work. Storytellers, writers, teachers, leaders and now branding specialists owe him a huge debt of gratitude.
Anyone familiar with Kendall Haven knows that he is a NASA scientist turned story theorist. In his seminal work Story Proof, he details his 10-year quest to prove the power of story as a learning tool. He amasses some 300+ studies that had been conducted prior to his writing. For me, the biggest take away was his insightful working definition of what a story is. tory is a word that we use very casually. But try to define it in a way that withstands debate? Hard to do.
Kendall pokes holes in many of the definitions that are often given for story, i.e., the very popular “something that has a beginning, middle and an end.” As he points out, this also defines a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. After taking a few stabs at a workable definition, Haven arrives at a brilliantly simple definition for story that stands up to the hard questions: “A story consists of a character overcoming an obstacle to achieve some goal.”
“Of course,” I thought.
But as I began to work with that definition, I was faced with a slight problem. It was with the words “overcoming an obstacle “that are part of Kendall’s definition. As I later discussed with him, the word “overcoming” suggests a positive outcome. Sometimes what makes a story meaningful is the fact that the character does not overcome his or her obstacle. Shakespeare called these tragedies. So, and with limitless respect for Haven, I took the liberty of tweaking his definition. I replaced the word overcoming with the words “dealing with.” This just seems to fit better for me.
To an outsider my quibble may seem like dancing on the head of a pin. But if I was going to construct a planning model based on story structure, I had to have a definition that worked in the absolute. With this slight change in wording, it did. And regardless of the tweak, Kendall has graciously offered up a wonderful forward to my book.

Q: What has surprised you most in your work with story?

A: Of all your questions, this one can be answered most simply: Everything and nothing.
First the everything part: Writers like Kendall Haven, Annette Simmons, Doug Lipman, Stephen Denning, and last but not least, Robert McKee, helped me to understand and fully appreciate the power of a communication tool that I’m regularly exposed to while awake and yes, even while dreaming. Their works have given me a whole new perspective on human communication in general and persuasion in particular. Theirs has been a gift that continues to excite me about the value of authenticity in human exchange and how I can better contribute to it.

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The nothing part stems from the lack of awareness and appreciation for story’s power in my chosen profession. However, I can’t allow myself to get too frustrated when I’m barraged with brag and boast, meaningless advertising. After all, it took a few epiphanies for me to give up my old ways. And furthermore, I’m optimistic. Soon I think advertising, as we know it, will change. Bob Garfield and Doug Levy wrote a groundbreaking article that appeared in AdAge titled The Dawn of the Relationship Era in Marketing. This article put a new stake in the ground for the advertising profession. It suggests that the old days of telling and directing consumers to think one way about their brands is giving way to the need for building relationships with consumers that are founded in shared values and earned trust. I am in heated agreement with these guys.
Telling must eventually give way to showing. And we the persuaders as well as those we set out to persuade will all be better for it.

Q: Watch the TED Talk by Tyler Cowen about the trouble with stories and react to what Cowen says are the problems with stories.

A: Yes, many who know about my interest in stories have sent me this video. I’ve had plenty of time to watch and study it.
Tyler Cowen’s TED speech has been the subject of a great deal of criticism. The most vociferous of the naysayers are wondering why Cowen uses stories to talk about why we should be suspicious of stories. Others are complaining that in his warnings about the ill effects of stories, he offers no remedy. And still others state that until Tyler Cowen can define what he means by stories, he’s hardly worth all the attention we’re giving him.
I subscribe to all three points of view.

Q: If you could share just one piece of advice or wisdom about story/storytelling/ narrative with readers, what would it be?

A: My one piece of advice, whether it relates to story, storytelling, or narrative is to be true.

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I love the answer that Stephen King gave when he was asked to critique someone’s story. “No, it’s not a good story,” he said. “Its author was too busy listening to other voices as closely as he should have to the one coming from the inside.”
For brands this means to avoid manufacturing an image. Rather it means to find and amplify values and beliefs that already exist. For storywriters, being true means writing from one’s own voice as opposed to all those voices that direct us to be something we think audiences want. To some this may sound self-centered. But to me there is nothing stronger than one’s true convictions. Easier said than done. It not only takes courage, but it takes constant introspection and relentless honesty. And it always puts the appreciation for meaning over money.
Over and out.

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