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!