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Graham Brown on "The Power and Psychology of Storytelling" - The SmarTalks Show

Welcome to another episode of our Self Mastery newsletter! One year ago, I launched my business, the T1 Growth Academy, my Self Mastery & Transformation program and my Podcast Breaking Through. One year of giving value to the world.

On March 16th, I had a wonderful birthday gift: “flying” to Singapore and recording the special edition of the podcast with Graham Brown, Human Storyteller, Author of “The Human Communication Playbook”, and Entrepreneur.

Graham is also the founder of an award-winning podcast agency, Pikkal & Co – an AI Powered, Data Driven, B2B Podcast Agency in Singapore.

In this SmarTalk, Graham shared invaluable insights on “The Power and Psychology of Storytelling

If you have been following my LinkedIn articles for a while, you might have read “10 tips to rock the stage as a public speaker” and “Five techniques to become a master storyteller”. While these articles explored storytelling skills, Graham dived into the Mindset and the Psychology behind Storytelling and the Power of Influence.

Graham is a professional Storyteller.

You know when you were a kid and your mom used to say ‘Don’t tell stories!’, it was almost as if you were making stuff up. But actually when we go into the world of business, we realize how powerful Storytelling is. I help business leaders, authors, start-up founders, coaches tell their story on bigger stages. And I also help Corporates tell their human story. We want to know who are the people inside those companies!

What is Storytelling?

Here is an Italian analogy: you can lay down one brick and build a wall, or you can build the Sistine Chapel of Michelangelo. Same brick, same action, but different result.

Storytelling does not mean you are doing more, it does not mean you are using more resources; you are simply presenting it differently, and in doing so you are changing the outcome. When you understand that mindset, you realize this could influence your sales messages, pricing strategy, hiring, fundraising, everything you do in business. All the results you have are downstream of an upstream story that you are telling.

Graham has always been passionate about stories. He did not immediately realize, however, that storytelling was a powerful tool in business. He graduated with an AI degree in 1995, when AI was not cool, he went to a career’s library for advice and they did not have job openings for students graduated with an AI degree. In 1995, he took a plane and flew to Japan where he started teaching English, and that for him was the beginning of Storytelling.

"Think about that teacher in school who really inspired you. For me, it was physics. For you Matteo, it was history and philosophy. I bet that teacher was a good storyteller. I can now teach bullet points, or also tell a story which is way more effective".

Ready, Fire, Aim!

Everybody’s stories are constantly refining, constantly improving. I never had a book before I could tell my story, you must always get on stage and practice first! Then you can become better at the craft. To all our listeners, don’t find your why, just get started! Get on stage, get on podcasts! Speak to people! Start a podcast! That makes you a better storyteller.

Ready, Fire, Aim! This is the secret recipe. Instead of Ready-Aim-Fire, fire first! Tell your story, see how it goes, how people perceive it and then improve along the way, rather than waiting to have the perfect story! That stops people, because they are waiting for the perfect story.

Have you got a great Story?

The Mindset pain point is the Imposter Syndrome: we believe we do not have a good story inside us.

"I am not Elon Musk, I am not Steve Jobs"

Who am I to tell my story?

"Why me? Why would anybody listen to my story?"

Overcome the imposter syndrome! Getting over that resistance is a big thing.

"It is like comedy. No comedian was born funny! If you see Kevin Hart, Jerry Seinfeld, their craft took years to perfect. They look effortless, they look calm, but what you do not see is all the times they got on stage and told a joke and it didn’t work. You don’t see that, you don’t see the unfunny parts, that’s what I call “Agile Storytelling”. Aim later, fire first!"

Get on stage, face the moment of truth, get feedback, and improve constantly refine your narrative. People don’t even take the first step! 

Let’s take your story as an example, Matteo. You said “It’s my birthday. It’s a year since I left the Corporate job”.

Every single person reading this article has a scene in mind: the departure scene.

When you left the Corporate world against the advice of your friends, or your family who tried to stop you “Matteo you have a good job, you have a very good career, why are you leaving, why are you sacrificing everything?”, you left because of a burning desire in your heart that told you, you must go.

Isn’t that the same as every great movie? Harry Potter leaves on the train, he goes across the bridge, the crossing is the departure. In Lord of the Rings, they cross the river. In the religious texts, the Buddha leaves the palace. Luke Skywalker from Star Wars leaves his planet in search of a mentor. In all Greek myths there is always a departure scene.

This departure scene defines us all. When somebody asks you “Tell me about yourself”, I would say that a great way to tell a story is to start where you ended. If you were directing a movie, the first shot is going to be a dead body on the floor, a woman drops the gun and runs away. And then we are like “Why?!”. And then you have to go back to the beginning, when they met in College, etc.

The way most people tell stories is that they start at the very beginning, which is not interesting! If you tell me “One year since I left my Corporate job”, I get an idea of what you had to give up and I know wat is important to you, where you are now and where you are going on this journey. That departure scene in every movie and in all our stories (ex. AI degree, going to Japan) defines us!

How to give away? Think like a Director of a movie when you tell your story: everybody here has got a great story! Everybody has left a Corporate job, moved to another country, or gone against the advice of somebody, the smart people around them, to do something that was not considered wise, and that makes your story interesting and worth telling. Everybody has got it inside us!

Start with the end in mind and grasp people’s attention, so that they want to find out what happened at the beginning! Why did Matteo leave the Corporate job? Us humans always assume there was some rational thinking behind our decisions, there must be a good reason behind our actions. I indeed have lots of people asking me “Why did you leave the Corporate world? What happened? Did you find your Purpose? Your higher Self?”, and this gives me the opportunity to share my story.

And by sharing your story you invite people to become part of the journey! People can see themselves: "Ohh I have been there too!" 
Big brands want us to see ourselves in the story of the company, to see our values mirrored by the values of the company, to see our journey in the journey of the company. Connection leads to friendship. 

Connecting through storytelling is very powerful; it is almost beyond the world of logic. We connect at an emotional level.

Why are our brain wired for Stories?

The reason why people love stories so much is that our brain are wired for stories because of survival reasons. Our ancestors did not have pen and paper, or a laptop, so they had to share the stories in an interesting way so that the stories ingrained themselves in the minds of the people in the tribe. That is why storytelling is so powerful!

There is a lot of research done on the “Evolutionary Psychology of Storytelling”. Researchers call us the storytelling ape; we are different from the great apes because we tell stories.

It is interesting when you look at it from the scientific angle: we are ~98.8% similar in our DNA to a chimpanzee. There is more similarity between us and a chimpanzee than there is between a horse and a zebra!

We should be the same as a chimpanzee, so why is it that we evolved exponentially when the chimpanzees and the apes haven’t? Stories.

We could go all the way back to the cave paintings in the South of France, beautiful cave paintings 20000 years old. We see paintings of the buffalos, and these are stories. Ancestors did not have pen, iPad, so they painted the stories there.

Why did human beings develop storytelling and other animals didn’t?

It has a lot to do with the agility, the agile nature of human beings. If a zebra is born, if a giraffe is born, it’s functional in hours! It has to get up and move around because the lions are going to it. A human baby is useless for months, if not years! Babies don’t do much apart from crying, eating and needing a diaper change. But that’s the advantage, because the human brain is very agile and it can absorb more information.

In computer terms, the hardware is not so good, but the software is very powerful.

If you look at evolution, what happened is that we had to evolve and get better but our biological hardware is limited! We still have the same digestive system as we did 30000 years ago; we still digest food in the same way. If we want to evolve in iPads, iPhones, and rocket ships going to the Moon, we need some way to get beyond our physical frame.

What’s happened at some point in evolution is that we have learned effectively to decouple from the hardware, we have learned to upload culture and information into the cloud! Storytelling is the cloud, if you think about it. I can upload information and say “Do not eat those berries, those are poisonous!” If that was done biologically, it would have had to rely on trial and error. But we can pass this information generation on generation, we can influence people.

Another interesting concept is the Phenotypic Evolution

The storytelling nature in our brain actually drives evolution! If, for example, a tribe is more responsive to storytelling, then that tribe will outperform another tribe. And therefore, the children of that tribe who are more responsive to storytelling will survive and do better. That’s where we are 20000 years later! Today, you and I have brains that are very responsive to storytelling because that has helped us grow, survive, thrive, influence people and lead small tribes, which is where we are today in the world of social media and business.

Great pitch men, great business leaders, great marketers are storytellers. Steve Jobs is an example. When he sold the iPod, he did not say “This is the world’s best MP3 player”. He said “This is a tool for the heart”. Steve Jobs succeeded in getting to our subconscious level of understanding.

Storytelling can be a sentence. It can be a word. It can be a chart. It does not have to be a trilogy of books!

When a client hears about your product, when they hear about you and your service, they are scared that you are going to make them look stupid, that you will make them lose their money, that they will get fired if they make this decision. They are afraid. We are fearful, humans are wired for fear, that’s why we are around still today.

Storytelling comes in handy because our brain cannot distinguish between past, present and future, the brain just experiences! If you remember a bad thought, it is like you having it now! It is like you experiencing it now.

What a storyteller like Steve Jobs could do is that he could paint an unknown future, this product, this idea, and connect it to a known past, a known experience like the heart, music. Good storytellers can connect the unknown with the known; that’s as simple as that!

What Steve Jobs used is a storytelling technique Graham calls “the short form story”: a very simple analogy used in all kinds of religious texts, frequently used in business: you are the Uber of …, you are the AirBnB of… That’s a short form story, it helps people understand where you fit in the world. That’s why you see really good start-up founders pitch using this technique, maybe unconsciously picking up from people like Steve Jobs.

Naïve realism

I was wondering, as Graham was talking, that there is no doubt storytelling is powerful and effective. I asked Graham “I realized that people learn storytelling techniques but they have some sort of mindset blockage when they need to go from knowledge to action. Why do you think so many of us are afraid to tell a story? From a psychological perspective, what is preventing people from sharing their story?

  1. We have already talked about the Imposter syndrome: I do not have a story worth telling.

  2. The other part is what psychologists call naïve realism, a cognitive bias:

"I help start-up founders tell stories; after one session, a start-up founder came to me and said: “I do not want to tell a story, I want to tell the truth”. And I said to him “If you don’t tell a story, I won’t know what the truth is!

He thought that using storytelling meant lying about his story or creating a false story!

Are humans rational or emotional beings?

We believe that we make decisions on logic, facts and data. Our world looks rational. Yet the reality is that’s not how we make decisions!

There has been some powerful neuropsychological research on how we make decisions. Antonio Damasio, Portuguese-American neuroscientist, studied what happens to decision-making if we have damage to the emotional cortex of the brain.

Most people would think that if you do not have emotions, if you were just a logical being, you would probably be like a robot, you would probably be quite boring, maybe really good at chess, you would make very good investment decisions. That’s the bias!

But Damasio found out that patients who didn’t have any real functioning emotions could not make very very basic decisions about their day to day life! They could not choose between tea or coffee. They could not decide “How do I go home? Do I get the bus or do I go by train?”. They could not decide what to buy their wives for their birthday! The reality is that we make so many of our decisions based on emotions.

Why are we scared of telling stories?

Because we are scared of going there. We are scared of opening up! We are scared of being vulnerable. We are scared of the “I screwed up”, or the “I don’t know”, or “Maybe I didn’t get it right!”. We are scared to say “I am scared!”.

Your story is not always going to be perfect. But that’s the fascinating part of the story! To tell that story, you have to open up, you have to be vulnerable. You have to open yourself up to criticism! If you do that, people will love you, because they will see that you are not perfect, “You are like me! You are human! You bleed. You are scared. You have fears. But that makes you more interesting!

If you think about every single hero movie, Superman, etc., they always have a weakness, right? Think about Achilles in the Greek myths. That’s the main difference between heroes and Gods. Heroes are mortal, heroes have weaknesses, heroes are vulnerable. It may seem a small thing but it’s a big thing because they inspire us and we identify ourselves with them. Exactly because of their weakness. Otherwise, they become plastic. We can’t connect with them.

Summing up, fear stops people from sharing their stories. We are scared of opening up and being vulnerable. Those who dare to be vulnerable, the modern media landscape is very beneficial for them. Leadership is being vulnerable.

We also find this in Behavioural Science. If there is one commonality between radically different personality styles, it is the importance of leveraging emotions in the science of persuasion. This is probably why, as Graham said before, us humans make emotional decisions and then rationalize and justify them with logic.

And in the Business world?

If we look at the world of marketing, let’s take soda as an example. Soda is basically water with caramel and caffeine. Coke vs Pepsi? It is the same product! But we buy more Coke than Pepsi. Why is that? Because Coke tells a better story!

What is even more interesting is that neuropsychologists researched that Pepsi tastes better! When they do blind taste tests, people affirm that Pepsi tastes better. But when it is branded, people say that Coke tastes better! How is that possible? The emotions are shaping the experience at the brain level.

It is very important that in business, whether we are working with data, a programmer, start-up founder, we understand context. Content is what we make for people, but the context is the package around that! What does it mean to them? What problems does it solve for them? How does it make them feel better? How does it connect with them at an emotional level?

It is really important that we understand what we do. We are not selling stuff, it goes beyond that. Maybe you are making people less fearful about themselves, or more confident. It is the emotional level you need to get to!

Even if you look at data, and COVID data in particular. At the beginning of COVID, we were shown a chart, “flattening the curve”. Hundreds of millions of people saw that. That’s the story that appealed to us at an emotional level! The story had heroes and villains, it had past-present-future, like in any good Shakespeare. There was a clear action: we wanted to get out of it.

Even if we talk about data, it is very emotional for people to understand it. And if we reduce it just to the level of logic, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. It’s the 99% below water that we really have to understand and work with.

What is an advice for people who would like to be better storytellers? Is it to become a little more vulnerable? Embrace their emotions, their heart, gut and feelings rather than being in their head all the time?

It’s practice, really. In particular, practicing on stage. When I help people in Podcasting, I break it down to: Stage, Story, System: Stage being the podcast, Story being your narrative, and System being the workflows you build around that.

If you want to get better, you have to practice. Practice is not posting on social media! Practicing is facing rejection, because the more you face rejection, the more you learn that getting on stage and facing rejection is not fatal. You don’t die. You become so much better!

If you are just posting on social media, you will not get better in storytelling; knowing is a form of storytelling, but you are not facing the rejection necessary to become better at this. It’s a very agile manner, but you have to get on stage, you have to face the moment of truth if you want to improve! And every time you do it, you join the dots. This is the beauty of practice!

If you are an entrepreneur, the biggest problem you are going to have is that your life doesn’t sometimes make sense. You did this, and then you did that, and then you moved here, it’s like you have got lots and lots of scenes in your life! It’s not like “I was 5 years old, I had a Vision from God about what I was gonna do for the rest of my life”. It wasn’t that easy! It was very very messy! It’s probably 99% of people’s lives.

It’s very hard to look at that and say “Wow, where is my story in this?”. But when you get on stage, and you jam ideas, you get feedback, inside your brain all these connections are happening. You come away, and then things start to make sense. Things start to come together. You join the dots.

I graduated with an AI degree. What the hell has that to do with storytelling?” After lots and lots of practice, I found the answer: “Actually AI and storytelling are two sides of the same human experience. The more we move into the world of AI, the more people will demand human stories that connect us!”. But that has taken time!

The point is to get on stage, practice, get feedback, refine it. Think of it as a new stand-up comedy: practice new material, change it, did the audience like that? Refine it, build up small sketches, etc. Every part of your life is a small sketch. There is the sketch when you left the Corporate world: refine that, practice it! That’s a small vignette of your life.

With these tiny bricks, you are building the wall of your story. That’s how you get a comprehensive narrative that flows. But it takes a lot of practice. A lot of bravery, because you are putting yourself out there.

A very important Leadership quality is the ability to influence people. I asked Graham if he could share with us a few insights on the psychology of influence. How can leaders use stories to influence people? How can leaders communicate to influence people?

Leadership and storytelling are intertwined. You can’t be a good leader if you can’t tell stories. It does not have to be political Leaders, it can be business leaders as Steve Jobs! The latter, when he launched the iPhone, used a storytelling structure called the “hero's journey” by Joseph Campbell.

The Monomyth is a term coined by Joseph Campbell. Commonly referred to as "The Hero's Journey," it examines the stages of the hero who goes on an adventure, faces a crisis and wins, then returns victorious. 

In the context of leaders, this is the mind-blowing aspect of how powerful storytelling is. We need to go back way before our time, to the '60s, and more exactly to 1963, when John F. Kennedy stood up before his American people and said “We shall land a man on the Moon and bring him home safely by the end of the decade”.

Bear in mind that this was a world of black & white television, Internet hadn’t really been invented then, we certainly did not have blockchain. Very different world. The iPhone in your pocket has 200 thousand times more computational power than in the whole mainframe of the NASA computer for the Apollo 11 program. The Apollo 11 program computer had 4 Megabytes. 4 Megabytes! Not Gigabytes! On Internet we can find the picture of the lines of code on stacks and stacks of paper. Millions of lines of code handwritten. With all of that, they got mankind to the Moon and back. That’s a phenomenal achievement!

That is the power of Story. When people argue that we need more technology, we need more resources.. we don’t. We don’t need better data, we just need better stories. 

Stories got us to the Moon. Think about how powerful that was, given the constraints of technology at the time. Stories connect people. They give people Purpose.

There is a great anecdote of John F. Kennedy walking around the NASA command and he bumps into a janitor in the hallway. There were hundreds and hundreds of people working at NASA, including 400 thousand engineers working on the program across the country. Kennedy bumps into the janitor and he asks “What are you doing here?”, and the janitor replies “I am helping put a man on the Moon”. That was the power of the story told.

That’s what Leaders can do! They can give people the promise land! “We are going to the promise land! It is not going to be easy folks, we are gonna have to leave the comfortable world and cross the river, there may be troubles ahead, but this is where we are going”.

That’s what Leadership is. It is not a popularity contest by any means. It’s about taking people where they need to go.

If you want to get deep into the world of stories and understand how leaders do it, just learn from the best! Lots of great people out there have given us templates on what works.

Leadership, Influence, Mindset, Psychology, Neuroscience, Storytelling... Thanks to Graham Brown who gifted us his precious time and valuable insights. I could not have hoped for a better birthday gift than learning and being inspired by his knowledge and stories!

It is our hope that our reflections and stories plant some seeds, inspire and influence some readers to put yourself out there and tell your stories! Water these seeds, watch them grow and blossom. Take the first step and improve along the way. We have a role to get our stories out there because we do not know who is listening and who might benefit from them!

Make your life a masterpiece, see you next week, we appreciate you and we hope you have an amazing day.

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