How to Tell a Better Story: The Red Thread Theory

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As a business you always want to be building loyalty and trust from your clients and prospective clients. The best way to do that is by telling stories that they can relate to personally.  You should think of storytelling as tribe building.  And if you put out your story, you’re going to attract like-minded people for your products and services. And the clearer you are with story and the better you can tell that story, you’re going to continually attract the kind of people who are going to grow your business.




Rich: Part idea whisperer, part message strategist, and part presentation coach, she helps people and organizations like Verizon, State Street Bank, Eriksson, Johnson & Johnson, and Disney, find and communicate the power of their ideas. For four years she was the Executive Producer of TedX Cambridge, one of the oldest and largest locally organized Ted Talk events in the world. In former lives, she’s worked in both agencies and at nonprofits, heading up brand marketing and fundraising communications strategies along with a brief but enduring turn as a Change Management Consultant. She was a reluctant marathoner – twice – is a winning ballroom dancer – in her mind – and everything she knows about people, speaking and change, she learned at Weight Watchers. I’m excited to introduce Tamsen Webster.

Tamsen: Hello! Hi Rich, how are you? 

Rich: I’m doing well, so good to have you on the show.

Tamsen: I’m delighted, thank you.

Rich: So what’s the deal with the fact that you’re only a ballroom dancer in your mind?

Tamsen: Well I’m trying to get to a point where I can be a legit champion, but right now the image in my head of how I dance isn’t quite matching the reality. But I’m working on it.

Rich: So do you have a favorite dance?

Tamsen: You know, I’m a fan of the mood dances generally. Foxtrot, waltz, tango, but I kind of love all of them. I think the only ones that I don’t have an innate attraction to are some of the latin dances.  So cha-cha for instance doesn’t do much for me.

Rich: Really? That always was my favorite one when I was taking ballroom dance lessons was the cha-cha. It ended up Foxtrot was the one we went with., but cha-cha was one that I always like. And swing is good because every blues band basically you can dance swing to.

Tamsen: Absolutely, and that’s the fun part. I think the ones that Tom and I like dancing together the most are foxtrot and rumba. It’s funny, my teacher the other day said was is it that you want to do. And I’m like, I want to win at dancing, I just want to win. But I really want to get to a point where I just want to feel a sense of ease and that I’m doing the music justice. That I’m able to move without thinking of it in a way that suits the music that I’m hearing. I’m not quite there yet, and I’m certainly not at a point where I win at anything doing that. But I sure as heck enjoy it.

Rich: Well for years all I could do is just basically the white boy Bar Mitzvah shuffle, which was just back and forth from one leg to the other leg. It wasn’t until I actually took classes that I realized you could stitch all this together. For a while I knew what I was doing. I was like a wedding dancer. It wasn’t like I was going to go out and be competitive at it, but at the same time I could go up and be better than 90% of the people who were drunk at weddings.

Tamsen: Yes. And that is a goal in and of itself. When Tom and I started that was our joint goal. We just want people to go, “Oh, hey, they know what they’re doing.”

Rich: Absolutely. So now that we’ve covered all of the dance questions I had for you, we should move into some marketing questions. Since this is an episode about storytelling, let’s start with your origin story. How did you get to a place where you’re helping other people turn their messages into compelling stories?

Tamsen: I was always interested in it in one way or another without realizing it. I love other people, I love figuring out what is it they they love to do, and from a pretty young age I wanted to do something where it was easier for other people to do that. So when I was much younger in high school, I wanted to be a museum director, I wanted to do something that made it easier for artists to be successful. I had this dream at what I thought was the ripe old age of 50 – which is not far away from where I am now – that I’d be running artist sales and things like that, and it would just be very elegant and great. That didn’t happen. But I did continue to love figuring out what it is that people love to do and really love to be known for, and figuring out how I can help other people connect with that.

So it meant that I ended up going into marketing. It wasn’t that I really wanted to pursue business, per se, but when I went to undergrad it was a time in the economy where getting a job out of college was not a guarantee by any stretch. I said I just want to be employable, and amusingly my sister had gone to college and she had gotten a theater degree – which I thought what the heck are you going to do with that – let’s fast forward to her and she’s now an award-winning screenwriter and all sorts of stuff. Everybody finds their own path and it works out. But I kind of really started with storytelling. I wanted to, without knowing that’s what I was doing, find the story of ideas.

So that took me all sorts of places. I still thought I wanted to be a museum director so I worked in museums for a while. And then that started to kill my love of visual art, and I didn’t want that to happen, so I decided to move over to performing arts college. So I was the head of marketing for the Boston Conservatory here in Boston, Massachusetts. Then decided I wanted to understand how you could turn that story into a way to raise money, and I had worked in nonprofits for a while, so I thought how can we get people to give us money for this story. So I started doing fundraising communications and I did that at Harvard Medical School.

And then I was trying to figure out, well I really love how this trying to figure out the story is, and I’d like to do this more. So I decided to leave the organizational side of things and go to the agency side. I started first as a brand strategist and social media manager, right in the early days of social media. I realized that the typical way that we approached branding didn’t lend itself to the day to day storytelling of content, so then went to work for an advertising agency to build out their social media content practice so I could try to figure that out. And then that led to me saying I have the message piece but not the channel piece and how can I do that. So I worked for a boutique firm for a few years, and then two years ago I said I’m just going to do this little idea piece all on its own because it looks like I can sustainably do that as a business. And it turns out I could.

Rich: Well that’s good, and good for everybody you get to work with. Why do you think storytelling is so important? Why do we keep coming back to storytelling in marketing and in business?

Tamsen: Well I think we come back to it for two reasons, one positive and one negative. The positive reason is because it’s how people actually code information. One of my favorite examples of this is not mine, it comes from an author who wrote a great book on this, Kendall Haven I think is the author. And he explains how even an infant starts to figure out a story. So an infant before they can speak realizes that if they feel a certain way – which later they’ll come to realize is hunger – and if they make a noise that they’ll later identify as crying,  that a person who they’ll later identify as mom or dad will do something for them that produces and satisfies this want.

Another friend of mine, Ron Plouff, has this wonderful definition of a story. A story is the result of people pursuing what they want. And if you think about it, even a baby really does get that into their head. They can get character and motivation and all of those things, and we never lose it. And there’s so much research that shows that this is absolutely how we code information. We will turn even unrelated information into a story in order to try and make sense of it. So that’s the positive reason.

I think the negative reason we keep coming back to it is that we haven’t cracked it yet. Or we haven’t cracked an easy way to teach people how to do it. And that’s a lot of where when I started my business two years ago it was almost a side project. I wanted to learn how to be a better storyteller and all the information that was out there wasn’t satisfying me, I didn’t feel like it was teaching me how to do it. It was just kind of showing me the outside of a story but not the inside of a story. So I think we keep coming back to storytelling because we know how valuable  it is, we can see how effective it is when it’s great, and yet we come to it again and again because I think we just continually struggle with how to take information and put it into that universal code so that other people understand it.

Rich: So you just said something interesting. You said something like you were learning the “outside of storytelling”, but not the “inside of storytelling”. Did I get that right?

Tamsen: Yes, you did.

Rich: What does that mean to you, that you understood the outside but not the inside?

Tamsen: I think a lot of times if you’ve done any reading up on stories and storytelling and you’ve read Joseph Campbell and The Hero’s Journey and all that, a lot of times all the information is basically describing what a story is. And somehow feeling that if we can identify the components and we can tell you what the components are that somehow you’ll be able to put those components together. And I’m sure that’s true for any number of people, unfortunately my brains doesn’t work that way.

And the equivalent I could make from my experience was seeing all the people who wrote books or would put together programs on TedX Talks on how to develop one, and all the information was basically it has an “a-ha” moment or a deeply personal thing. But nothing told me how to get there or why those things were in play. And so I really wanted to understand what was an easier way to build a story from the inside out, how can we do that.

And one thing I realized was with stories, a lot of times we’re trying to tell people what happened, We have a beginning, a middle, and an end, which is really unhelpful because a sausage has a beginning, middle, and an end, and that doesn’t tell you anything. It’s one of the reasons why I like Ron Plouffe’s definition so much, that it’s the result of pele pursuing what they want. It’s very difficult to satisfy his definition of a story without creating, let me set up things for you in an Act 1, let me create conflict because something is happening and you’re not able to get the thing that you want, that’s Act 2. And then the resolution is whether or not you got that thing that you wanted or not. And so that kind of people pursuing what they want , layered in with that three Act structure, that really started to help me think about it.

And what happens is when we tell people a story has Act 1, Act 2, Act 3 – setup, conflict, resolution – I think what we try to do is we try to put all the right components in. But it’s almost like trying to build a person from the outside in, it’s never going to quite work that way. But I had this realization one day. If what’s really important in a story is the switch between the acts – which it is, by the way, that’s where all the big stuff happens is between the acts – the thing that takes you between Act 1 to Act 2, is the discovery of a problem that make sit so that you can’t stay still if you still want that thing that you want.

And the next one is ok, here we’ve passed the point of no return, and now we need to figure out what happens from here. That’s the break in Act 3, what does it all turn out to. I started to realize well what if we identify what happens there, at the endpoint of the acts. So I started to figure that out and I was like ok, if a story is a result of people pursuing what they want, then the first thing we have to know is what do they want. And if you think about it, it matches up with the Hero’s Journey stuff which says that every great story has a quest, that’s somebody pursuing something that they want. That’s the what they want.

And I said ok, what’s the break into Act 2, well that’s the problem. And in any great story the problem usually isn’t a known problem, it’s a problem they didn’t see coming. And there’s all sorts of examples from that, Star Wars is of course the classic example of the Hero’s Journey. You obviously didn’t see coming the fact that R2-D2 would have a message from Princess Leia, but you also didn’t see coming the fact that his aunt and uncle would be killed and therefore any reason for him to stay on Tatooine went away.

Then there’s the midpoint of the story which is still in the middle of Act 2, what’s the big crisis, the big decision, what’s the big realization that someone has to come to. Then there’s the end of Act 2 which is what is the thing that they’re going to do differently in order to figure that out. And then at the end there’s a check on whether or not they did or didn’t get the goal. So if you just look at those endpoints, and I started to figure out if I could just get…in this case I started working with individual clients and companies to try to find their stories. I found that if I could just get them to fill in those blanks of the goal, the problem, midpoint idea, a change, and the actions that they took to get there, all of a sudden a story was revealed. And they didn’t have to do any work, they didn’t have to figure out who the protagonist was or the antagonist was. It was just, there was the story. And when I discovered that it felt like I had found the holy grail. I was like, oh my gosh, look at this, it works! And I continued to test it for a couple years and put it through its paces and it just works every time. If you fill in the blanks, you will find the story.

Rich: So that sounds really easy. But at the same time – obviously you used Star Wars as an example and that’s an epic storytelling that most Americans know – but then it’s like but how do I tell a story about the fact that I’ve got a bathroom remodeling company, what’s the story behind that or a gluten-free muffin or whatever it may be that we’re trying to sell to our audience. How does something as mundane as mundane as that work when you come up with the structure for storytelling?

Tamsen: Well the easy answer is that there was a reason why you decided to craft that particular kind of gluten-free muffin when there are already gluten-free muffins out there. There’s a reason why you decide to start a bathroom remodeling company when there are already other ones out there. And each of the reasons why you did something is a result of people doing what they want. If you can figure out what you were trying to do you can oftentimes reconstruct the story that got you there in the first place. And it may not be something that shows up in your everyday marketing, but at least it helps you understand what is your worldview that produced that.

So an example I use oftentimes when I’m working with clients or giving talks on this, is that I oftentimes will use an example that’s really well-known to all of us and that’s coffee. If I’m trying to sell coffee what’s the different way that Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts have each built up that story for themselves. And that first place is they’re starting with what people want, not what do they as companies want, but what do their customers want. And even if we take the very specific case of somebody wanting to get their morning coffee, we’ll see how very quickly those two companies start to tell a very different story around getting different coffee.

If you think about it, if we’ve got the goal the next thing we’re trying to find is that problem. What’s the problem that people didn’t see coming or I like to describe it as the incomplete perspective. How is it that your potential customers or other providers are already looking at the situation that you feel doesn’t quite capture it all or that you see it from a different way?  So I would describe Starbucks as looking at coffee and getting coffee in the sense that a coffee break is just about as much of the break as it is about the coffee. For Starbucks they’re really saying we know you want your morning coffee but you’re getting your morning coffee actually represents to you a break from  everything you’ve got going on at home, everything you’ve got going on in the office, so we see that it isn’t just about the coffee it’s about this break in the routine.   

Now contrast that with Dunkin Donuts where it’s almost like they’re still about getting coffee as part of your routine, but Dunkin Donuts takes the perspective in a lot of ways that coffee isn’t just part of the routine it’s on the critical path of that routine. In other words, if anything doesn’t go the way you need it to in the morning getting your coffee, it’s going to throw off your entire day.  And so we can start to see how these things build up.

So from Starbucks we’ve got somebody who wants to get their morning coffee, Starbucks says our perspective is that a coffee break is where the break is as important as the coffee. And then we answer that question with, “why?”.  This is the midpoint, this is the idea, this is the thing that people can’t unhear, the point of no return. And that’s because as far as Starbucks is concerned, they really believe that the experience of getting the coffee, flavors the coffee itself. And that’s actually objectively true because in a blind taste test people regularly say that Dunkin Donuts has better tasting coffee than Starbucks. And even Starbucks customers will do that in a blind taste test.

Rich: I’m going to hear complaints from people outside of New England forever just for that one comment.

Tamsen: I know. It’s science, though. But you can see that then that leads to what most of us know Starbucks for and what they will openly say their mission is to do, is to create the third place between home and office.

So you see we’ve got a goal, get the morning coffee. We introduced a problem of perspective, that the coffee break is just as much about the break as it is the coffee. We’ve got an idea, which is kind of a belief statement on the company – a company truth as it were – that the experience flavors the coffee. Which is why – this is the break in Act 3, this is the change that they represent in the marketplace, we create the third place between home and office. And how do they do that? And then you can think of all the things that build that experience for people, comfy chairs, WiFi, snacks that meet their customers dietary needs in a lot of ways all day long, and you get that. 

Dunkin Donuts has its own set. Again, same thing, they’ve got their morning coffee but now they look at it from the perspective that coffee isn’t just part of the routine, it is the main most important part of the routine. Because with their belief, their company truth, their idea, that coffee is fuel. Which is why they build their business they way they do. Actually if you look at their mission statement it says “we prioritize what you need to get you on your way, that’s what America runs on”.  And that’s where their “America runs on Dunkin” comes from. So they’re all about speed and reliability, streamlined stores and drive-thru’s, one-handed foods. Have you ever notices that? Nothing at Dunkin Donuts requires a fork and knife, everything can be eaten while driving, while walking, while there’s coffee in your hand.

And so while those are known brands, I use those because it can help to understand how your bathroom insulation company can do that. Because what do people want, well they want an updated bathroom. Well what’s the perspective that we take on that. If you’re a refitter company you can say the speed is as important as the looks. If you’re a high end place you can say that most people focus on the looks, we focus on the quality, we don’t want it to just look good now we want to make sure it looks good 15 years from now. That could be another perspective where you’re trying to say most people focus on looks, we focus on looks and lasting effectiveness. And then that’s going to lead to a company to say why do we believe that. Well, because we believe that quality now dictates quality in the future, which is why we prioritize and really focus on quality that lasts. How do we do that, here’s our process.

But now all of a sudden you’ve got something that at least starts to identify why you do what you do in the marketplace. And it doesn’t have to be fancy, it can be really basic.  

Rich: Now a lot of what I’m hearing though is about me as the business owner telling this story. But so often I’ve heard that we need to make the customer the hero. So I guess some of my question is around, ok, Starbucks tells us that they’ve created the third place – the break place – and Dunkin Donuts has told us that they’re the fuel for getting us through the day. Both of those can be true, subjectively true if not objectively true. But how are they and how do we identify the customer in this? Because it feels like so far it’s been very much the perspective of the company.

Tamsen: It is. But remember that the whole story actually starts with the customer’s goal. So if we talk about Dunkin Donuts customers getting morning coffee, then yes it’s getting morning coffee, but it’s getting morning coffee so I can do X as a result.

And then when you think of it from that perspective you realize that then the customer succeeds in being the hero of that story. The customer has to battle through this morning routine and has to slay these dragons and has to make sure that in order to accomplish this thing that coffee will enable for them, that they have to get their coffee and find the best way to fo that.

And the thing is with that company truth, it needs to be a shared belief, a shared idea that your customers also have. Which is why fundamentally Starbucks people and Dunkin people are different types of people. The person who says my experience with the coffee is more important than the fact that it’s got caffeine in it right there splits that person. So basically when the company says we believe coffee is fuel, what they’re really saying is, don’t you believe this too. What you’re doing is essentially serving almost that Obi-Wan Kenobi role and saying here is this thing, you believe this, too. Which is why if that’s true, then wouldn’t you say, person that wants their morning coffee, that they can get their day accomplished and they can keep running. Now it’s up to you to decide what’s the best option.

So while we may be from a company perspective explaining what our view is, it really does allow the customer to self select and self identify within that story, and they make the choice. They say I can either go with something that’s really prioritizing the streamline because that’s who I am, or I can go with somebody that’s experiential because that’s who I am.

Rich: What I’m hearing from you is, storytelling is tribe building. And if I put out my story, I’m going to attract like-minded people for me. And the clearer I am with story and the better I can tell that story through all the different channels, then I’m going to continually attract the kind of people who are going to grow my business.

Tamsen: 100%, absolutely. Because the secret here is the way to answer these questions is easier if you actually start with a different set of questions first. And the first question I always ask myself, my clients, businesses that I’m working with, is who are you for. And I don’t mean a segment of people. I mean a mindset of people. What do they want, what do they value that you also value, what do they struggle with that you can help them with. If you don’t know that then you’re not going to get anything that you’re looking for. That story isn’t going to resonate with them because it’s not for them. It’s amazing how instinctively we know that a story does or doesn’t apply to us.

And it really starts with you have to understand who your tribe actually is. This is important, it’s not necessarily who you want it to be. It can be who you want it to be if that mindset exists given what you produce, but if it doesn’t, you kind of have to give that up.

So as an example, I was working with a company that they produce scientific products. When I asked the question, “Who are you for?”, the first thing they said was these people want to publish, these are scientific products and scientists are going to buy these because they need to do experiments with these products and they need to publish their papers. And then I asked what it is they value that you also value. And they came up with this great answer of credibility. I thought that was interesting because I’m going to guess there are people out there who are willing to publish and willing to do it to do it, where credibility isn’t as important to them. I asked if those people exist, and they said of course. I asked if those people would ever buy your products, and they said “no” because the products are expensive. And I pushed them on that and said isn’t that interesting, how much of your marketing has been trying to talk to people that don’t value credibility.

And they started to realize they’ve been spending a lot of time trying to convince people who would never be convinced, because really it was about credibility that they were the right company for them. But they could suddenly see that by focusing on those people who wanted to publish and value credibility, now there’s a whole wealth of information and messages they can go for and go to that become so clear to those people – that tribe that shares that value – that now they say those people recognize that company this is our company because they also value this.

Rich: You know what’s also clicking for me as you’re talking here, is the fact that in my mind storytelling is a very set thing and you’re telling a story. Maybe you’re telling it through a blog post, or a podcast, or on stage, but it’s a story. And yet as I’m thinking back on you talking about how Dunkin Donuts treats coffee as fuel, I immediately remembered all those commercials that I’ve seen recently with Dunkin Donuts where no matter what’s going on, the person will not respond to anything until they finish their coffee. Now that may not be a story in and of itself, but it’s like these little fragments of stories start to put together a whole story that then tells the coffee as fuel story for Dunkin Donuts. 

Tamsen: Absolutely. Here’s what happens. I think a lot of times we use storytelling when we actually need narrative building. And here’s what I mean by that.  So narrative is a little confusing as a term because it also can means something that’s less than a story, like “let me just tell you what happened”. But that isn’t necessarily a story that meets Ron Plouffe’s definition, for instance. But a narrative is also something bigger than a story.

And the best example that I can give your listeners for that is the American Dream. This narrative of the story that’s collaboratively built, it isn’t over, we’re still in it, it has an overarching drive to it, there are values that we know are part of it – come here, work hard, realize the American Dream – and within that narrative to support that narrative, we have all sorts of stories that validate and further explain that narrative.

So everything from the story of Andrew Carnegie at the turn of the century, to the stories that we hear daily about the amazing contributions that even recent immigrants and refugees have had in this country. So those stories all add up. And I think what happens a lot of times when we think about storytelling in the context of business, is that we try to find the little story when in fact we have yet to define the big narrative.

And once you understand that big narrative that’s collaboratively built, that’s where these little tells, where you’re talking about the  Dunkin Donuts commercial, that’s a little snippet that feeds into that larger narrative. And each of us has individual stories that associate with that that help build that. But I think understanding that there actually is a difference that, yes, we need to understand storytelling. But I think the big missing skill that we’re kind of overlooking in marketing is narrative building, and that’s different than brand building.  

So it’s just that there’s this whole universe of stuff that we’ve kind of been missing, but once we understand that narrative, once we understand why we as a company do what we do in the way that we do it, then we’re much better able to communicate that to our potential customers that are out there or that don’t know yet that they’re out there, so it draws us to them.  It also becomes much, much easier to find the stories that we need to tell.

So it’s kind of a thing if we can really start to move people’s attention beyond storytelling to what’s the narrative those stories are building, and what’s the narrative those stories have already built, which is what I’m particularly interested in. Then we have this enormously rich ground from which to make a pivot if we want to, or to really capture that piece of the market we’re looking for.

Rich: I’m almost envisioning if you really get your narrative down, then all of your marketing is kind of like this scrapbook – whether it’s a Facebook post or an Instagram photo – all lend itself to telling that overall narrative. But you have to be much more clear, I think, than most businesses are today in what is that narrative, who do you stand for, what tribe are you building, what story are you telling, and then it’s easier for the pieces to fall into place.

Tamsen: Absolutely. And it’s that that makes it easier. One of the reasons I wanted to explore the advertising agency content/digital marketing community building, is I wanted to see how to make it easier to some up with that day to day story. And what I realized is a tagline you cannot generate the day in and day out crush of content if all you have is a brand positioning statement. You just can’t.

But if you understand the layers of why of the company – and it’s more than just one big “why”, because that oversimplify it as well – if you find those things, and they do group in this pattern, that we see and want to use more effectively in the marketplace. What are our core beliefs, the core truths of the company that we operate on and that we share with the people that we work with. And therefore what are the differences and approaches we take.

Then what we find is it’s a lot easier to go, well this picture is consistent with that narrative, but that one’s not. And this approach to how to respond to this particular situation is consistent with that narrative, and this one’s not. And I would go further and say that anytime there’s been a spectacular brand fail – take the Pepsi Kendall Jenner ad for instance – it’s because all of a sudden there’s a story put out there that didn’t fit the pre-existing narrative in the public’s mind. And worse, it co-opted a narrative that didn’t belong with Pepsi. Because at that time it was co-opting Black Lives Matter movements and things like that.

So this is why I think it’s so important for us to really understand it, and I know there’s probably people listening that say they can just barely figure out their brand, don’t tell me now I have to figure out the narrative too. And I would say, actually you’ve already built the narrative and all we’re doing at this point now is revealing the code and commands in your operating system that have produced it. So it really is already there. And because – as we talked about before – we code everything in these terms of story, if you just find those key elements of that narrative that you‘ve been building, it’s already there. And it really is just about throwing the sheet over the invisible man and we’re going to see it.

Rich: That’s a very good image. We should wrap there. This has been great and very helpful. If people want to learn more about you, Tamsen, and your business, where can we send them?

Tamsen: has it all. I’ve got a weekly video blog there where I spend 4-8 minutes a week in a video going into depth on one of these areas of messaging, narrative building, and storytelling. But you can also connect with me there and find out a little bit more about what I do for individuals and with companies.

Rich: Awesome. Thank you so much for stopping by today and sharing your story with us.

Tamsen: My pleasure Rich, thanks so much.


Show Notes:

Tamsen Webster excels at helping individuals and businesses learn to tell their personal stories that attract the right followers to help grow their businesses. Check out her website to see how she achieves this, and to find out her tips and strategies for converting followers.  

Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine. He knows a thing or two about helping businesses grow by reaching their ideal customers, and to prove that, he puts on a yearly conference to inspire small businesses to achieve big success. You can also head on over to Twitter to check him out, and he just added “author” to his resume with his brand new book!