Tall Stories – the importance of storytelling

Here’s a summarised narrated version of a talk I gave to an entertainment company in NYC on the importance of storytelling in our life, work ,and culture more broadly.

On the day itself we got into a bunch of other topics, from how to communicate stories on someone else’s behalf, which other type of story we can utilise, where we add more conflict or tension, and why this really mattered for their business.

This is (somehow) the first time I’ve done a narrated presentation like this – the lack of body movement and bad jokes definitely feels stifling but hopefully there’s some useful stuff here for you in this abridged version. Enjoy!

Overview:

  • A story of a Citroen 2CV
  • A brief version of my story
  • A history of stories
  • Why you can can be a great storyteller
  • Types of story
  • Elements of story
  • A trip to the barbership
  • Why this matters

 

Jiu Jitsu, Influence, and Persuasion for creative businesses

This summer I’ve been working with Hyper Island as part of the program team running the AMP NYC accelerator for media & entertainment entrepreneurs in the city.

It’s been a fun ride, designing and delivering a unique curriculum for a diverse group of 22 founders growing businesses ranging from music PR agencies to documentary filmmaking, 3D data visualisation to pop-up improv events.

In our most recent class we got into marketing and sales, with a core focus on influence, trust and (micro) networks.

We framed the first part of the day around Robert Cialdini’s CLASSR model before jumping into an exercise I called ‘Jiu Jitsu’ – thinking about the persuasive jiu jitsu moves the group have already performed to acquire, retain and grow the clients and customers they work with.

The CLASSR model goes back to Cialdini’s classic book ‘Persuasion’, but we added a contemporary spin on each element which I’m sharing here.


In business, particularly in B2B situations (but far from exclusively), we usually want the customer to acknowledge we’re the expert.

We can get to this point purely through a display of expertise alone, but more effectively  when that expertise is combined with a feeling of alignment and trust.

Influence (1)

How do we get there?

As Dale Carnegie famously suggested;

Influence (2)

Or if we’re thinking in terms of funnels, we should build;

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Robert Cialdini’s ‘CLASSR’ model covers 6 areas of persuasion that lead to influence and trust. It’s worth noting we approach these areas in a positive and mindful way; there’s certainly opportunity for more Machiavellian tactics but that’s for someone else to think about 🙂

4These 6 elements are everywhere – we’re affected and impacted by them almost every single day. It’s worth taking some time to consider where these appear in our daily lives – subway adverts, interactions in a retail store, hiring a new member of our team, going for dinner with friends; they really are everywhere we look.

First up:

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People feel a strong urge to be consistent with things they’ve done or said in the past. That urge can be triggered by seeking commitments – usually small ones at first.

Cialdini cites the example of a doctor’s surgery reducing their patients’ missed appointments by asking patients to write down the next appointment details on an appointment card rather than the surgery staff doing it.

Writing is often a very powerful way of getting commitment and thus triggering the urge to be consistent, but there are other methods that can be used too.

One of the reasons companies give out stickers is to gain a small commitment. Putting a Supreme sticker on your laptop or bag triggers the urge to be consistent. If Supreme later suggest a larger commitment you’ll be far more likely to comply if you’re already sporting a sticker on one of your possessions.

It’s worth remembering that to get the consistency you desire you need to get the other person to make a commitment in that direction, even if very small to begin with.

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In June 2018, 28 year old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won the congressional primary in New York’s 14th district, coming seemingly from nowhere to beat one of Washington’s powerful political figures.

How did she do it?

It would be reductionist to suggest there was only one reason, but a significant contribution was probably that simply she is well-liked.

We prefer saying yes to people we like. That’s pretty obvious. The 3 factors that lead us to liking someone are having an affinity with them, a feeling they are co-operating with us to mutual goals and that they pay us compliments.

While it’s harder to speculate on the third factor in Ocasio-Cortez’s case, the first two look to be strong indicators towards why she was so successful.

And this photo of her worn out (and affordable) campaign shoes probably added to it.

We may not find it easy to feel similar to everyone we come into contact with, or immediately pay them compliments without feeling insincere, but there are likely common goals we can get behind, as well as just being a decent human being of course.

Third, Authority.

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These gentlemen work at Compass, a rapidly growing real estate company.

When I moved to NYC one of the biggest tasks was to find somewhere to live. I tried a bunch of realtors – some were focused and attuned to my needs, others less so.

On phoning Compass I was starting to feel a little jaded and also mindful of getting done over by net effective rent, brokers’ fees, guarantor fees and the various other hidden costs that are seemingly part and parcel of New York real estate.

The assistant in the Compass team I spoke to made me very aware of the specific experience of her team members – years on the clock, their interest in working with people with circumstances like mine, and examples of some transactions of a similar nature.

I felt more comfortable immediately. Why them? Because they made me feel they were an authority on this specific area of real estate.

Cialdini notes that we react strongly to people in positions of authority or expertise – whether policemen, doctors or established real estate brokers. Again, when combined with other CLASSR elements through jiu jitsu the effect is even more powerful. For example, the lawyer with 15 years experience doesn’t usually have any problem with displaying her certificates proudly in the office for all to see.

Footnote: On meeting one of the team, he showed up in some very natty sneakers, with a big smile and a bunch of Dad jokes. I had an affinity for him – I liked him.

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Here are Supreme again. This is their store (or rather than line to get into it) on Lafayette Street in Manhattan.

Supreme excel at managing scarcity, and getting people to want more of what they (nearly) can’t have.

They control supply of product via ‘drops’, with product lines, sizes, colors, times and locations all planned meticulously.

They also control demand – the line outside the store looks like it stretches around 2 blocks even when it doesn’t. The line is split up into pieces so whether you’re coming from Broadway, Prince, Crosby or Lafayette it looks like something’s happening.

One of the challenges with scarcity is making the proposition unique. Some people are put off by scarcity tactics so make sure to extol the unique value proposition and also the downside for them if they pass up on what you’re offering.

Onto number 5, social proof.

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Social proof is probably the most omnipresent of all the six areas of influence.

Simply, to decide what we should do we look at what other people do .

Examples are everywhere – from joining the line at Supreme, to avoiding the empty the empty subway car, and ordering the same drink as your new acquaintance when you visit a bar together.

The shaving company Harry’s launched their product with an ingenious scheme closely tied to social proof. Before the actual product was even available, prospects could sign up and share a referral code with their friends. The more friends signed up, the more products the original referrer could access. On top of this, the friends could see the original referrer has suggested they join. If it was good enough for their friend, why wouldn’t they sign up?

Again, the effect is particularly powerful when combined with other elements – scarcity and reciprocity in particular.

Other forms of social proof we see in business include client testimonials, influencer endorsements, accreditations and client logos.

The last of the six is Reciprocity.

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My pal Brian is a respected creative director in the media industry in NYC. He also knows a thing or two about hospitality and reciprocity, having run a successful bar.

Brian told me the story of the napkin.

When you visit a drinking establishment, the bartender may put a napkin on the bar by way of greeting. This says ‘I see you’.

The next time you visit, a good bartender will say something along the lines of ‘good to see you again’. This isn’t just moving towards Reciprocity, it’s also building up the Like element of persuasion. This says ‘I know you’.

If you start going to the bar more regularly, the bartender will have your favorite drink ready to go almost as soon as you take a seat. This says ‘You’re home’.

At this point, the power balance tips – this gesture makes us want to reciprocate in some way.

Finally, when the little mint is placed on top of the check, the bartender’s influence over you is complete. The mint says ‘Now you owe me’. And you watch yourself tip generously.

The thing here is not the mint itself, it’s the way it was delivered – with care, over time.

Another type of gift adds the Like element. A consultant I met told me how he discovered a prospective client was a lover of Gil Scott Heron’s music. The consultant, completely unprompted, sought out some rare Gil Scott Heron records and sent them to the prospect’s office.

Feeling a need to reciprocate, a lunch meeting and a project followed soon after.

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Lastly, the concept of presuasion.

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It’s not just about the message you deliver, it’s about the timing. `As Cialdini says;

This “privileged moment for change” prepares people to be receptive to a message before they experience it. Optimal persuasion is achieved only through optimal pre-suasion. In other words, to change “minds” a pre-suader must also change “states of mind.”

The rather brilliant Rory Sutherland uses the example of the airport bus to explain this concept.

Imagine you’re on a plane that’s just landed. The pilot says there’s no air bridge and everyone will need to take the bus to the terminal. Cue everyone signing in frustration.

However, if the pilot informs the passengers that rather than the air bridge there’s a bus that will take everyone directly to the terminal, right next to the arrivals halls with no walking needed, suddenly everyone feels…well, pretty good.

We’ve been presuaded.


Following this session on CLASSR we jumped into thinking about our own jiu jitsu of influence – where we’d succeeded but also considering occasions where someone else may have leveraged the weight of their CLASSR against us.

And just like real jiu jitsu, combinations can be powerful. We may have used Authority, Like and Scarcity all together, or led with a Commitment before leveraging Scarcity.

Looking backwards and tracking the history of how we got our clients and customers allowed us to see certain tipping points, trends and also a few missed opportunities.

Taking those trends and insights we then looked into the power of networks, how to extend those we had, what marketing to them really meant, and make decisions on who we prospect and when.

This is just a small taste of the AMP NYC class and broader program; we’ve created dozens of ideas, provocations, exercises, reflections and workshop sessions.

if you’re interested in learning more about the program then drop me a line or head over to the landing page here.

The California chef’s foundations

It was a sunny Sunday afternoon in early March and we were on the open road, driving south down California’s 1 highway.

My wife and I were out on the west coast taking our first vacation after spending the previous 6 months getting up and running in our new lives in New York City.

That day we were heading from Santa Barbara to Venice Beach, and to its most famous street, Abbot Kinney Boulevard, upon which resided a restaurant called Gjelina.

I’d heard about it a couple of times; a cosy but stylish place with an eclectic menu, a highly desirable wine list, gently lit patio, and an effortlessly chic vibe in that way only a California eatery can have.

Operated by head chef Travis Lett, Gjelina has become something of a culinary institution, with its cuisine being dubbed “new California”.

Our dinner that night at Gjelina was tremendous, but I’m not here to write about that part – I’ll leave that to the food prose pros.

Instead I’m here to write about the Gjelina cookbook we picked up on a bleak winter’s evening in NYC a couple of weeks later.

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The first thing that struck me was the layout.

The entirety of the first section (more than 70 pages) was made up solely of confits, sauces and reductions (I’ll call these ‘foundations’ for the sake of this post), with not an actual ‘meal’ in sight.

Many of these foundations were surprisingly complex and time-consuming to put together. Inevitably it also took a sizeable amount of produce to get down to something pretty small and seemingly unremarkable.

However, after that initial toil and time, the newly created foundations often had the capacity to be topped up easily, and just a small amount could go a very long way.

It didn’t take long for our fridge to look like a science lab, with the shelves being taken up by my various concoctions and their thin skins of plastic food wrap.

Some of these only lasted a few days of course, but others endured for weeks or even months. A couple of those very first experiments are still going in fact.

The second surprise was the cooking of the meals themselves. Despite my initial trepidation they were invariably pretty easy. Gjelina focuses mainly on vegetable-based dishes and although many recipes require a rapid-fire and very specific batch of steps to be followed, most of them are ready to be served in only 10-15 minutes.

But the secret of these delights wasn’t in the cooking of the ingredients. It wasn’t in the individual ingredients either (although good fresh produce definitely helps – somewhat of an expensive luxury here in NYC).

The secret was in those foundations used at the base of the dishes. Shallot confit, tomato reductions, garlic sauces, and plenty more. They featured almost everywhere, and without them nothing really worked properly.

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Garlic confit. Photo: Chic Eats

As I was prepping another vat of oil and rosemary-infused garlic goodness it dawned on me that this process of combining, boiling, reducing, expanding, applying and mixing is pretty similar to the way ideas work in our minds, and particularly when it comes to making something new.

Around the same time I started my Gjelina experiments I was developing a talk on biases and mental models.

The various models to analyse situations and make decisions were my range of foundations.

Sometimes they weren’t perfect, but still useful enough to apply in small quantities to get a decent result.

On other occasions they gave me an entirely new way of experiencing and thinking about something.

My repertoire of foundations when it comes to both mental models and my cookbook is still quite small. I could probably spend the rest of my days creating new ones and never perfectly hone them all.  The same applies to designing, programming, just about any creative endeavour really.

But I do know two things to help get some successful results: have a decent stash of foundations on hand; and always be ready to test out something new.

Add them to a recipe, situation or an idea and you may create something wonderful.

Just remember to keep your fridge replenished regularly, and if you’re trying Gjelina’s foundations make sure you buy plenty of olive oil.

Origins, Beliefs and Declarations

A few weeks ago my friend Michelle featured me in her weekly newsletter that goes out to a community of execs in the music and entertainment industry.

My piece in the newsletter was very simple as she asked me to give her just 3 things;

  • The reason why I started
  • 10 things I believe
  • A declaration

It was an interesting exercise to tackle.

Origin stories are powerful and can tell us a lot about someone – even when they’re seemingly unrelated to what they do now there’s often a strong theme, trait or desire that runs from that start point.

Beliefs open us up. We spend a lot of time adhering to the rules of whichever game we’re playing; thinking about what beliefs are allow us to go past those rules and see other ways of looking at the world and our place within it.

A declaration is a great way of putting a goal or an intention out into the world, with public accountability and personal vulnerability.

 

I deliberately didn’t think it through too much, I just shot from the hip and decided to stand by whatever came out. 15 minutes and a minor edit or two and I was done. I’ve already referenced back to this a few times in the last month – it feels like a very simple and effective way of keeping anchored to where I came from, where I want to go and how I want to get there.

Give it a try yourself – you may be surprised at the themes you see appear.

 

The reason why I started

When I was 15 I got a Saturday job in my local record store, in a small suburban town in England. I was paid about £3 per hour plus as many 12” records as I could fit in a plastic carrier bag. I spent every Saturday there for the next 3 years until I left for university.

I learnt about Chicago house, Bristol drum & bass, Belgian techno, and New York hip hop.

I wired plugs, bought lunch, and cleaned the windows.

I borrowed the shop’s sound system to run all-night parties in the woods.

I learnt what makes people love music so much.

 

10 things I believe

– Storytelling is still an underrated skill

– The long game wins out in the end

– Exciting things happen at the Adjacent Possible

– You can learn more from other industries than you realise

– Your gut instinct is usually right

– Small teams have big impact

– Teachers are the next celebrities

– Resumes are usually a terrible indicator of ability

– Everyone has a hidden superpower

– People are fundamentally good

 

A declaration

Education is fundamentally broken; at school, university, and in the workplace. A new breed of lifelong learning providers will appear and do things in completely different ways.

I’m compelled to design and deliver solutions to help people thrive and follow the paths they want to explore in their lives; no matter how long, short, winding or steep those paths may be.

There’s a small collective of smart creatives out there for work with me on on this, and as of now I’m seeking them.

We’ll fulfil this mission through engaging professional development programs, building amazing digital products, connecting diverse talent, and opening up IP in new ways.

This path is fraught with risk, tough conditions, and no guarantee of success, but it’s a path worth taking.

 

Why teachers are the new DJs

Three years ago I made a fairly unorthodox career transition; moving from booking bands and DJs to building learning and education programs (amongst a couple of other things).

Those who know me are probably aware I like to look at seemingly disparate disciplines and explore the connections between them. I like it so much I run a podcast series on it.

But other than the obvious and slightly contrived lines of DJs ‘telling a story’ and ‘taking a crowd on a journey’, I hadn’t really seen any parallels between these two paths – until now.

A couple of weeks ago I had breakfast with the founders of a company running professional development courses with a number of prominent brands and corporations.

As it was our first time meeting they asked me to tell them my story. When I mentioned my background in music, and specifically electronic music, one of them lit up with interest.

He’d lived in Germany for a while and had arrived there with a deep loathing of electronic music. A year or so later and he found himself a huge house and techno fan.

I asked what caused the change.

As he explained we looked at each other and realised we were thinking the same thing. (And no, not drugs).

One of the main things we loved about electronic music was what we loved about facilitating and teaching.

 

Placing and Pacing

One of the albums that shaped me in my teens was the Sasha Global Underground San Francisco compilation. I’d try and copy the mixing style; these gradual transitions from one track to another, perfectly EQ’d and aligned in key. I didn’t make a great job of it.

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I remember reading a comment Sasha made in the liner notes [1] on his move from smaller clubs to playing both longer sets and at bigger venues. The main shift was having to place the big records really carefully and pacing the set based on lots of variables that changed each time and weren’t that predictable.

 

I’ve noticed the same thing when building a course or running a series of activities with a group of people.

The hard stuff isn’t necessarily knowing the material itself. This in itself isn’t easy, but it’s a baseline. [2]

The hard stuff is allowing space.

Being able to pace it right.

Drawing attention to that one specific thing you want people to notice, even if it seems small or inconsequential.

Making smooth transitions from one to another.

Reading an audience, and connecting with one that looks like it couldn’t care less.

Bringing in heavier or more leftfield material at the right time.

Knowing when to freestyle and when to stick to the plan.

Making the choice to cut your losses and move on.

Knowing what to do when you’re running out of time and the flow’s starting to ebb.

Dealing with technical problems when they inevitably happen.

Having a solid backup plan when you get caught out.

Picking up the baton and then handing it off.

 

They said DJs were the new rockstars.

Then they said they were the new celebrities.

I wonder if teachers may be next. And not just school teachers, but anyone out there who’s sharing knowledge and connecting and empowering people to learn and level up.

Does this sound grandiose? Maybe.

But aside from the shared skill sets, it’s worth looking at the second and third order effects of the rising profile of DJs and electronic music.

Just like only the top 0.1% of DJs headline festivals, a whole new generation of passionate and talented people can now build their skills and hone their craft through a creator ecosystem powered by tools like Mixcloud, Splice, Soundcloud and Ableton.

I believe we’ll see the same for teachers, knowledge sharers, facilitators and connectors.

And just as electronic music has evolved, grown and accelerated with a plethora of internet-driven tools, services and communities built to support its ecosystem, a similarly huge opportunity is going to appear for the new generation creating and delivering lifelong learning for passionate people around the world.

It’s really exciting.

Time to get in the mix.

 

 

[1] These were great pieces of work in their own right; really visceral and colourful, and just a touch pretentious of course. Most of them were written by a journalist called Dom Phillips.

[2] Great DJs are able to make average material good, good material great, and great material…blow your socks off. Carl Cox has long been a master at this, taking seemingly average techno tracks and somehow making them sound incredible.