Trey Pennington Q&A
Trey Pennington and I have been social-media buds for a few years now. He once chided me for not engaging with him very much on Twitter. I explained that I’m much more of a Facebook gal, and we’ve been much chummier ever since. I admit that I thought of him as a social-media expert with a passing interest in storytelling — until last summer when he launched (with Sean Buvala) a social story conference. That’s when I knew I wanted him to participate in this series. Trey Pennington is a professional speaker, storyteller, radio talk show host, as well as Twitter, blogging, and marketing expert.
Bio: [in his own words from his LinkedIn profile]: Advertising legend David Ogilvy insisted his clients give him products to sample before he would create ad copy to sell those products. No doubt he had a blast sampling the product while he dreamed up the classic headline “Should every corporation buy its president a Rolls-Royce?”! To sell in print, he had to be sold in person himself.
A good story to illustrate a good point: If you’re in sales, you should love your own products if you expect to woo others with them.
Stories give facts or thoughts not only context, but life. We all love a good story. We’re alert for the next good one. Companies who weave the drama of story into everything they do will get the attention of their marketplace and gain the opportunity to connect.
Finding those stories (I like to think of them as hidden treasure) and putting them into print and getting them in front of people who care, is what I do for fun (and for a living, too).
Q&A with Trey Pennington, 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: How human beings interact with one another has been a lifelong fascination for me. Over the last 25, I’ve studied everything I could find about the nature of man, how man perceives and interprets the world around him, and how he conveys that meaning to others. That study started with business biographies and psychology then morphed to advertising copywriting and theology. Getting an MBA didn’t quench my thirst for understanding, and so I studied education. The master’s in education wasn’t enough either, so I completed yet another 30 hours of post-graduate study toward a doctorate in education. It was along the journey toward the doctorate I discovered Milton Gregory and The Seven Laws of Teaching, which in turn lead me, maybe somewhat surprisingly, to Doug Lipman and August House publishing.
What I saw in Doug’s work resonated with the longing in my own heart — I longed to be heard, to be understand, and to live a life of significance. Doug beautifully paints the storyteller as one who facilitates that journey. As I read all of Doug’s books, and then Annette Simmons’, and Ruth Sawyer’s, and everything else I could find, I concluded that storytelling captures the essence of what it means to be human.
Q: Why Social Story Conference?
A: After attending 30 or so social-media conferences, I realized there was an opportunity to bring storytelling to center stage for people who really wanted to leverage emerging media to make something good happen. I had a hunch that storytelling would add substance to social media.
We put together an outstanding team to launch the conference. I scheduled the first one for Denver. I have quite a few friends in the area, consider the area to be a wonderful storytelling canvas, and wanted to put the Soiled Dove Underground to good use (it’s a perfect venue for a storytelling/social media conference! Love the set-up).
I overreached in Denver and just couldn’t pull it off (couldn’t get the money to work out). I tried again in my hometown of Greenville, South Carolina, was able to keep the expenses down (mainly due to the non-stop diligence of Kathryn Hardaway and Aaron von Frank).
Social Story Greenville sold out and was a wonderful event. People drove from as far away as Birmingham, Alabama, and Greensboro, NC, to be a part of the event. The cast of characters was splendid — we started off with an “alternative artist” in Tim March who had the entire audience beating cadence on trash cans, hub caps, bowling pins, and a cadre of misc percussion pieces. The rest of the day was equally non-traditional. In the end, about 150 people got a fresh look at what human communication can be.
Yes, indeed, I would enjoy hosting more Social Story Conferences. The focus on storytelling and social media seems to be a good one. One of our keynote speakers, Rick Murray, president of Edelman Chicago, said the world of commercial communication is dying for people who can use media to tell a good story. Sounds like Social Story would gather those storytellers together under one roof.
Q: On the site for the conference, you said, “We’re now in an age where the story you tell, the relationships you build, and the technologies you use to connect to and communicate with your constituents will determine your organization’s success.” Without giving away all your secrets, can you offer a few over-arching guidelines for best practices in telling the story, building relationships, and choosing technologies? And do the same principles apply for individuals, for, say, job search and career advancement?
A: “This is the age of the consumer, the age where every individual is a publisher,” or so the headlines proclaim. In such an era, it seems the old fashioned art of LISTENING is more valuable than ever before. The explosion of media does make it simple to publish something — it also makes it easy to listen in on what people are saying. To leverage the proliferation of media, one must apply discipline to pay attention to what others are saying. The ultimate goal of that listening is to figure out how one can use his/her/their treasures to help other people accomplish whatever it is they want to accomplish. Peter Drucker summed up this thought beautifully over sixty years ago when he defined the purpose of a business: “The one and only purpose of a business is to create and keep a customer.” The best way to fulfill that purpose is to listen to those customers to hear what it is they want.
Here’s a checklist that might be a helpful “guideline”:
- Be alert.
- Pay attention.
- Acknowledge others.
- Affirm others.
- Advise to help others.
- Connect people with the people or content they need to accomplish what they want to accomplish.
I realize that doesn’t sound like “storytelling,” but I’m thinking such a discipline would be the necessary prerequisite to storytelling in business.
As a final thought, it seems to me storytellers model well Zig Ziglar’s famous, and essential, worldview: “You can have everything you want in life if you’ll just help enough other people get what they want.”
Q: What people or entities have been most influential to you in your story work and why?
A: Annette Simmons and Doug Lipman are two storytellers who’ve shaped my thinking about and understanding of the craft. I discovered Annette when she released The Story Factor. Her practical approach to story, especially her six types of stories, seems to make storytelling accessible to people of all walks of life, including business people. Annette seems to be one who bridges the world of art and the world of commerce, (which is something you do exceptionally well, too!). Doug also makes storytelling accessible. His The Storytelling Coach presents a refreshing worldview that not only empowers effective storytelling, but also helps people adopt the mindset essential for successful engagement through social media. Even though his book came out long before Facebook’s founder was even driving a car, Doug’s book should be required reading for everyone hoping to use the platform for commercial purposes.
I’ve also enjoyed working directly with Sean Buvala, who is @storyteller on Twitter. He made the journey across the country from Phoenix to Greenville to join us for the inaugural Social Story Conference in 2010.
One more storyteller, possibly an unexpected one, who has shaped my thinking for nearly 25 years is the legendary Tom Peters. I’ve purchased all the digital recordings I can find of his live presentations. Though he doesn’t specifically teach storytelling skills, he aptly demonstrates effective storytelling in what he says and does.
Here’s a link to a post I wrote about Tom Peters and his assertion that “story is more important than brand.”
Here’s a link to a post I wrote about Annette’s six types of stories.
Q: What future aspirations do you personally have for your own story work?
A: One of my tweets was quite popular last year — “we’re all newbies at something.” In a craft so filled with accomplished practitioners, I feel like a new-newbie in the world of storytelling. Time spent with folks like Connie Regan-Blake and Sean Buvala both inspire me and challenge me. There’s so much to learn. I would absolutely love to learn more by pursuing a master’s in storytelling from East Tennessee. What a thrill it would be to immerse myself in the culture there!
I would also love to merge two disciplines into the river of commercial communication dominating the corporate world — ethnography and storytelling. For more than three years I’ve said, “DON’T hire a social-media director! Hire an ethnographic researcher!” My work with politicians lead me to encapsulate the challenge in one phrase: during one meeting with a whining wannabe politician, I heard him utter the phrase, “If we can just get our message out” three times. I just let it go. But when he said it a fourth time, the dam broke. “No. No you don’t. Stop saying that!” I burst out. “You don’t need to get a message out; you need to get a message IN!” I told him to stop talking and start listening.
As I grow in understanding of and effective use of the craft of storytelling, I would love to help the corporate world embrace the heart of the storyteller and abandon the self-aggrandizing, self-promotional idolatry of commercial communication.
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: On my blog and in recent speeches, I’ve speculated that storytelling will be one of the two big trends for 2011 (the other being a perpetual cry to “get back to the basics”). There is a danger of storytelling becoming yet another throw-away buzzword of commercial communicators in search of the next hot thing. I shudder when I see or hear someone getting excited about storytelling as a way to “sell more” or “get my point across.” I can’t imagine Jay O’Callahan ever uttering such thoughts.
Both trends (storytelling and getting back to basics) are fueled by a sense of being overwhelmed and of being frustrated. Over the past five years we’ve experienced an explosion in media creation and distribution options. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Blog are now commonplace words. Human beings just can’t handle it all, so we all return to the simple things — like stories — to help us make sense of it all. Indeed, Annette Simmons says “we don’t need more information; we need someone to help us make sense of it all”.
It may also be that, in a world shrilly shilling the suffocating silliness of the shiny new thing, story is the familiar, safe, simple thing — we were comforted, amazed, enthralled by story as children and we secretly long for those feelings once again.