Steve Spalding Q&A

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Steve Spalding, who calls himself “chief storyteller” at his firm, initially caught my eye because he’s based in one of my all-time favorite cities, Gainesville, FL, where I met my husband, married him, and had my first child. Then I became intrigued with the work he’s doing in digital storytelling, Web design, branding/imaging, social-media strategy, advertising management, SEO, and education/coaching, as well as his interesting blog, How to Split an Atom. Finally, I marvel at his unlikely background as an electrical engineer — and how it led him to storytelling.

steve_spalding.jpg Bio: Steve Spalding is the founder of How to Split an Atom, a blog about the intersections of web technologies, small business and culture. In his ample free time he also acts as managing partner at Crossing Gaps, a marketing and design firm that specializes in helping brands and creative professionals find innovative ways to match their business strategy to their web strategies to increase revenue, brand awareness, and overall communication quality.

He has experience building start-ups, working at them, tweaking, fixing and developing campaigns for them as well as speaking to dozens of their Founders and CEOs. He has acted as an adviser for startup entrepreneurs and a host of creative professionals. His work has been cited by the LA Times, Forbes, Mashable, RWW, as well as Geoff Livingston’s marketing and new-media book, Now Is Gone.




Q&A with Steve Spalding, Question 1:

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 took a roundabout path to the “story” industry. I started off as an electrical engineer, primarily because I loved the idea of putting things together from scratch. There is something about being able to look at a problem and solve it from first principles that has always excited me, and being able to do that with robots seemed like a pretty solid bet.
As I was finishing up my graduate work, what I realized was that the things I really enjoyed doing would not be the things that I ended up spending most of my time working on in industry. There is a frightening amount of cubicle work in engineering, and my temperament doesn’t do well with whiteboards and testing documentation.
Long story short, I came to a few conclusions to go along with this revelation.
They were as follows: I loved to write. I loved entrepreneurship and business. I knew how to create systems. I liked working with people. After a few detours working with startups and puttering my way through projects, I finally landed on Crossing Gaps, the company I started and have been working on for the last two years.
What has been absolutely fantastic about this latest venture is that it has given me the opportunity to take all of the digital communications tools that are being turned out, the technology that I utterly adore and use it to help companies tell meaningful stories about their products and have real interactions with the people who they are trying to sell their wares to.
As for how this all relates to what I love about storytelling, I’ll save that for the next question.

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: Every marketer worth his [or her] MBA is calling himself [or herself] a storyteller these days. There is a really good reason for this beyond the fact that it’s a fashionable little buzzword.

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The Internet that we all know and love has brought us to a point where the only thing a company can sell effectively is its story.
Whether you produce blog posts, music, or calendaring software, there are about 10,000 other people who are doing precisely the same thing you are. Most of them are doing it pretty well too, and since your average consumer doesn’t have the time or desire to figure out the subtle differences in your software’s color scheme versus your competitors’; the only way you are going to stand out above the noise is if you have a story to tell.
You have to break through the layers and layers of distrust and apathy that we have all built up around ourselves and find a way to transform a cold transaction into an emotionally charged experience. That’s really hard when you’re selling productivity software. Even if you aren’t selling anything, you still have to find a way to beat out the tens of millions of videos of cute cats and sneezing bears that people would much rather spend their time looking at. Advertising just isn’t cutting it anymore and traditional marketing techniques are becoming less effective and more expensive on a cost per eyeball basis. For the marketer without a big Hollywood budget and a huge team ready a rearing to do quantitative user segmentation and SWOT analysis, all you have are the stories you tell.
People are starting to learn this, and they’re realizing that if they are going to survive in an information-rich world, they better get pretty good at it.

Q: The culture is abuzz about Web 2.0 and social media. To what extent do you participate in social media (such as through LinkedIn, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Second Life, blogs, etc.)? To what extent and in what ways do you feel these venues are storytelling media?

A: Everything is a storytelling medium.
A blog is a vehicle for stories. A greeting card is a vehicle for stories, and so are Aunt Ethel’s home movies. Social media is where I live, and if it has taught me anything at all, it’s that if you give people the tools they will use them almost exclusively to tell stories.

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Sometimes these stories amount to little more than screeds about taking showers and going to dog parks, but in some cases you hear some really gripping stuff, like when we learned about the geopolitical crisis in Iran during the election on Twitter or the hundreds of videos about cutting-edge research that find their way onto major universities’ YouTube channels.
We live in a world where we have, for the first time, turned the camera on ourselves and given everyone the ability to tell the world every, little detail about their lives. It’s really no surprise that so many of us are using these tools to tell stories. We do well to recognize this fact and take notice.

Q: Are there any current uses of storytelling that repel you or that you feel are inappropriate?

A: Advertising can be storytelling, but a lot of times it’s not. I think we’d all be better off if people who are pure marketers stopped casting themselves as storytellers.
Don’t get me wrong. I love advertising. I love marketing, and I love those who create new and interesting ways to sell products. It’s what I do, and if I didn’t like it I would have become a doctor or a used car salesman or something.

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What I am saying is that I think those who do commercial storytelling well are brilliant and are raising the bar and setting the standard for the rest of us. However, since it is so utterly fashionable to cast yourself as a storyteller these days, the result is that everyone with a Twitter account and a dream thinks that they are Kubrick and worse, they think that their particular brand of seminar-shilling wisdom represents that future of narrative.
What that does is that it destroys the trust in “storytelling” as a viable form of marketing and it makes everyone else have to work that much harder to convince people that this isn’t just the snake oil of the week.
I never fault anyone for trying to make a buck, but I do take exception when those attempts hurt the industry as a whole.

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

A: Find the essence of the thing.
If you are telling your own story, you must “find your voice.” No, not the thing that your writing teacher told you to find in the eighth grade when she was making you write persuasive essays about capital punishment. I mean the thing you use every day to talk to your peers, the thing that separates the way you behave and the way you see the world from everyone else on the planet Earth. That is your voice, and before you can tell a great personal story, you have to tear away all the artifice and get in touch with that.

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If you are trying to tell someone else’s story, that’s even harder because finding the essence of a product or service often means cutting through the great, big pile of nonsensical business jargon that is standing in your way. It’s the hardest thing in the world to figure out what makes a thing tick, because most of the time even the people who designed it don’t really know. People don’t buy products for their features. They buy them for the feelings they evoke. You buy a $1,000 DSLR or a $1,500 MacBook because it makes you feel a certain way, because a carefully crafted narrative is there and that narrative speaks to something real inside of you. If they tried to sell you on the shutter speed or the hard-drive size, they’d never see the inside of your wallet. Which makes most companies incredibly sad. Canon and Apple know this, and if you are going to tell stories for companies you have to know this, too.

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Kathy Hansen, PhD, is a leading proponent of deploying storytelling for career advancement. She is an author and instructor, in addition to being a career guru. More...

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