Michael Margolis Q&A
Michael Margolis was one of the facilitators (along with Madelyn Blair and Steve Denning) of the first Smithsonian Storytelling Conference I attended in 2005. I’ve followed his work and his firm THIRSTY-FISH since.
Bio: Michael Margolis is a pioneer in the fields of brand storytelling and constituent relations. As the president and founder of THIRSTY-FISH, Michael provides strategic story solutions to clients including AARP, Coty, Ernst & Young, Marriott, NASA, The Nature Conservancy, and YWCA. He offers more than a decade of experience across the realms of story-based marketing, organizational change, and cultural innovation. Prior to launching THIRSTY-FISH in 2002, Michael was a social entrepreneur and co-founded two successful nonprofits in the areas of public service, workforce development, and business technology.
Michael is a contributing author to the leading compendium on strategic storytelling, Wake Me Up When the Data is Over: How Organizations Use Stories to Drive Results (Jossey-Bass, 2006), author of the blog PopAnthropology.com, and a traveling keynote speaker.
An outspoken proponent of the Talent Economy, Michael has had his work recognized by Fast Company Magazine, Silicon Alley Reporter, Los Angeles Business Journal, and Hawaii Community Television. In 2001, the American Society for Training & Development’s T&D Magazine, profiled Michael as one of “Training’s New Guard” for the new millennium. Michael’s formal studies include a bachelor’s degree in cultural anthropology from Tufts University, a business certificate from Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Management, and a certificate in organizational storytelling from the Center for Narrative Studies. Michael was raised in Switzerland as a child, before moving to Los Angeles, Boston, and Washington, DC. Currently living in New York City, Michael is an advisor to local organizations including NYU Stern Business Plan Competition and Eco-Africa Social Ventures (a Zimbabwe Artisan Collective).
Q&A with Michael Margolis:
Q: The storytelling movement seems to be growing explosively. Why now? What is it about this moment in human history and culture that makes storytelling so resonant with so many people right now?
A: Humans have always been hard-wired for storytelling. In my opinion, storytelling is the evolutionary leap that led to the growth of culture, commerce, and civilizations. It just so happens we have reached a new inflection point in our collective evolution.
The implications of Web 2.0 and technological innovation on humankind are staggering. As I like to describe it, “the means of story production have become democratized”. Consider that just 10 years ago - email, cell phones, websites, blogs, digital cameras, Facebook, video cameras, etc - either didn’t exist or certainly weren’t ubiquitous part of our everyday lives. Now, anybody who has a story to tell can choose from countless affordable, sophisticated, and easy-to-use platforms to get their story out to the world. Now getting people to listen to your stories, that’s another matter.
In a complex, interdependent world where worldviews and value systems collide, we naturally turn to storytelling as our most basic coping mechanism for making sense and meaning of everything around us. We are swimming in a sea of stories, trying to find our way in a universe and commercial marketplace of infinite choices. Have you counted lately how many types of toothpaste you can choose from on the supermarket shelf? That’s a lot of competing storylines from the most mundane to the sacred.
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: I approach storytelling as a management philosophy - a lens through which to examine business challenges and discover breakthrough insights. If you want to learn about a culture, listen to the stories. If you want to change the culture, change the stories. Every business today is in the culture-creation business. I call it the study of Pop Anthropology (which also happens to be the name of my blog) and it deeply informs my consulting business which works with companies in the midst of strategic shifts. Our focus is Brand Storytelling, Constituent Relations, and Change Leadership.
There is the official message your company puts out, and then there are the stories that people tell about you. This complex web of perceptions is what informs your brand’s equity and your standing in the marketplace. Brand Storytelling is king - even in enterprises that are not consumer-centric such as nonprofits or community-initiatives.
The most ubiquitous innovators like Google or Apple ultimately transform the everyday habits of our society. The most creative marketers use stories and cultural happenings to embed their brands as a cherished part of our lives. If you are interested in this growing phenomenon, check out Rob Walker, the New York Times Magazine contributor who writes the weekly column Consumed, and recently published the ground-breaking book, Buyin-In:
This cultural perspective is vital as organizations find themselves in perpetual cycles of change. Change Leadership is ultimately about telling the right stories that people can relate to - whether that is your customers, employees, members, or donors.
Q: What future trends or directions do you foresee for story/storytelling/narrative? What’s next for the discipline? What future aspirations do you personally have for your own story work? What would you like to do in the story world that you haven’t yet done?
A: The future of storytelling resides in Generation Y, otherwise known as Millennials. This important demographic, aged 18-29 and numbering over 60 million in the United States and 120 million in Europe, represent what I call the “Story Generation.” (Keep in mind, the numbers and age boundaries are still being debated, but these are simply conservative estimates). In our youth-obsessed culture, this generation has assumed the role of trend-setter and taste-maker, far eclipsing the reach of Generation X and even challenging the uber-dominance of Baby Boomers on our collective culture.
For these children of the Internet Age, storytelling is a multi-layered, choose-your-own adventure, narrative cornucopia, where one’s identity is ever morphing and adaptable to the presiding context. Not to mention, almost everyone in this generation is a budding designer, artist, writer, technologist, and entrepreneur. In my opinion, you’ve got the makings of a cultural and creative renaissance, assuming we don’t get lost down the rabbit hole of the storytelling metaverse.
I’m not sure you can appropriately call storytelling/narrative a “discipline” because it knows no boundaries. You can apply storytelling to just about any pursuit or activity - from marketing to social media, from coaching to management training to movie-making and videogaming.
Personally, my goal and aspiration with storytelling is to see it embedded at the heart of change leadership and management training. Every organization can find greater relevance through a story-driven approach. There’s a greater need to integrate the creative worlds of branding/advertising (always a story-driven medium) with the more strategy and people-driven disciplines of organizational change and innovation. Playing at this exciting intersection is my greatest passion, and we are always looking for new partners to play with in this sandlot.
Q: In an interview with you on the site of the 2008 HANO Conference, at which you were the keynote speaker, you said: “Look at any organizational challenge through the lens of narrative; I guarantee you will discover new insights and solutions.” Can you give an example in your own work/experience in which you’ve gained new insight into an organizational challenge through this narrative lens?
A: One of our clients is the leading membership association for women in Hawaii. Even with 100+ years of proven legacy, the organization was struggling to maintain its relevance. Now this is a common problem facing almost every membership organization today. The old storylines no longer hold up to the complex modern world we are all trying to reconcile. Our client decided to adopt a radical new business model that would require both change and innovation.
In order to identify the new Brand Story, we conducted a set of narrative-driven focus groups with women who represented the target “new member.” We didn’t ask questions about our client’s services, but instead listened to these women and their life stories. We wanted to know how they integrated the various identities of work, family, community, and self into a cohesive whole. The insights that we gathered for our client gave them the confidence to break out of the mold. Through continued consulting we helped our client reposition their flagship facility into a Downtown Women’s Club, with a mission. The new Brand Story is opening up countless new opportunities and growth for the organization.
Q: In the same interview on the site of the 2008 HANO Conference (and elsewhere), you say that “Your story is only as ‘real’ as the stories that people tell about you.” Do you find that organizations (or even individuals) tend to be blind to the kind of stories being told about them? Or do they have a distorted view of these stories? How do you go about guiding them to tell the stories that strengthen their brand and constituent relations?
A: Perception is King. Never confuse a story for the absolute Truth - although every great story offers a kernel of truth. For brands today, the perception that people hold about you is embedded in stories based on one’s experience, assumptions, or judgments.
For too many organizations are afraid of facing the music - to make themselves vulnerable to actually knowing what people think about them, and why. Instead, it’s easy to delude ourselves into comfort that “business as usual” is okay. But only through an intimate understanding of your customer or target audience can you succeed today.
At a process level, we work with the senior leadership of an organization or division to help them find alignment around their Brand Story. It begins with a cross-functional WorkGroup determining areas of consensus and open debate regarding the strategic story. This WorkGroup owns the process and represents key voices from across the organization.
We then conduct narrative-driven Focus Groups with key audience stakeholders to identify the perception gaps and opportunities related to the Brand Story. We have developed a Brand Story Audit methodology that helps to organize this conversation. We then go back to the WorkGroup and use our findings to help them focus and build consensus.
The client ultimately receives from us a Brand Story Blueprint, which serves as an organizational compass-point. It includes a combination of strategic positioning, messaging, audience profiling, and specific marketing strategies and tactics. This process takes 3-4 months, and we sometimes then support on the execution of the strategy.