This episode continues the conversation on classing storytelling frameworks that can be used in firm marketing. Jason and Jeff pick up where they left off last episode and discuss the last four story types, including The Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth.
About the Episode
In this episode, Jason and Jeff pick up where they left off and discuss the last four (of seven) story types firms can use to market themselves. The content for this episode comes from Rattleback’s article, Improving Your Thought Leadership with Storytelling, which shares all seven classic storytelling archetypes and how to apply them to thought leadership marketing. The article was inspired by Christopher Booker’s book, The Seven Basic Plots.
The four story types shared in this episode include:
– The Voyage and Return (5:13)
– Comedy (9:02)
– Tragedy (14:57)
– Rebirth (18:37)
Resources mentioned in this episode:
Jason Mlicki: Hi, Jeff, so last time we talked and like any good storyteller, we left our listeners on a cliffhanger.
Jeff McKay: Did you plan that? You planned that.
Jason Mlicki: I did. It’s an old fashioned ’50s serial, right? Is the hero gonna make it over the well or not?
Jeff McKay: We’ll see you next week. Same bat time. Same bat channel.
Jason Mlicki: Exactly.
Jeff McKay: Half our listeners don’t even know what that means.
Jason Mlicki: We all were introduced to it in Toy Story 2 if nothing else, right? So we left our listeners on a cliffhanger. We went through the first three of seven basic plots or story archetypes that can be used in marketing a firm or developing a firm’s thought leadership or developing its marketing agenda. And so today we’re going to tackle the other four. We’ve got to do it in just under 20 something minutes. So let’s jump in.
Jeff McKay: Hey, before we jump in. The thought occurred to me being the introvert that I am, I always have an idea after the meeting ends and the phone call hangs up.
Jason Mlicki: I relate to that. Here’s what I should’ve said. Why did I say that?
Jeff McKay: Well, we talked about that this concept, this storytelling concept that Rattleback is discussing is applicable at the brand level, at the marketing and thought leadership level and at the sales level.
And the last one that we talked about was the quest and we had a robust discussion about that. I was going to say Lord of the Flies.
Jason Mlicki: What kind of archetype is that one? Definitely not a quest.
Jeff McKay: No. The Lord of the Flies is probably the quintessential professional services story, which made start thinking-
Jason Mlicki: All the partners try to kill each other?
Jeff McKay: Is that the quest never ends. That is very much is a brand positioning story. And I was thinking about that from a Prudent Pedal perspective and am I kind of pushing of prudence, which many of my marketing friends said don’t go down that route. But I chose to go any way. But that is one of those concepts where you believe in it wholeheartedly and its importance and you’re going to be fighting that battle for good for the rest of your work life or firm life or whatever. And that quest very much comes out of who you are as a human being.
And the thing that was really cool about that storyline is I think if you get to that very innate and very human driver, the quest can be very, very powerful for how you position your firm and its thought leadership. But it takes risks.
Jason Mlicki: I don’t want to get too far down the path because we won’t have of time, but at are Profiting From Thought Leadership event 2018, we had a senior thought leadership marketer from Fidelity there and she was talking about how they’ve applied design thinking to their leadership programs. And the big takeaway that she had on that was this idea of falling in love with a problem. And it’s the idea that most firms fall in love with the solution. Right? So, we have a solution to a problem. Maybe we haven’t even defined the problem, but we want to produce thought leadership around this great novel solution we have.
And her point was that the thought leadership is all about the problem and the quest essentially is we are on an endless quest to elucidate a better solution to the problem. And that quest will probably never end, because there’s always a better solution to the problem. We just haven’t found it yet.
Jeff McKay: Wow.
Jason Mlicki: So that to me is, is actually, in a way, it might be one of the most quintessential governing aspects of thought leadership. You know, if you’re gonna invest in thought leadership, that’s the lens by which I think you should approach it is just this recognition that you’re in pursuit of the problem.
Jeff McKay: Once again.
Jason Mlicki: You said wow.
Jeff McKay: Once again, Jason Mlicki floors his co-host with his insights. I love that. If our listeners take nothing else away, changing your firm’s view to fall in love with the problem, which will make the hair on the back of your partner’s neck stand up, that would fundamentally change your firm and how it communicates with the market. I love that. I love that. Fall in love with the problem.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, I can’t take credit for that insight. Still, but I can take credit for applying it.
But yeah, Jeannie Thompson at Fidelity brought it out in our event and it was probably looking back, you know, the event has a story and I think about the arc of the story of the arc of the journey in that event over the day and a half. That was like the quintessential moment that came out where we were like, wow, there’s the a-ha, there’s my price of admission for two days being here was, you know, getting this great insight.
All right, so you want to talk about archetype number four here, story plot number four?
Jeff McKay: If you would stop meandering around and get to the point, our listeners want to know four through seven. So, hurry up Jason.
Jason Mlicki: I’ll get moving here. So, voyage and return is sort of plot number four. And what I love about the voyage and return is to me that the right example is the Wizard of Oz, right?
You know, so the hero or the heroine finds themselves in a strange place, a strange land. They’re maybe feeling lost or feeling uncertain. They don’t understand where they are. They have to get their bearings and eventually they have learnings while they’re there. And then when they come back, they sort of see the whole world differently. So that voyage, that experience takes them on this journey of discovery that brings them back and they see the world from a whole new light.
I love this archetype for research. So as the framework for how to think about research and how to publish research findings for thought leadership. And so what I mean by that is that layer one is I believe strongly that research should not be driven by the hypothesis. The research should be driven by the discovery.
So you don’t necessarily want to go into new thought leadership research saying, “Well, our hypothesis is this, now let’s go prove that we’re right.” You want to go into it saying, “I think this is how this problem is solved, now I want to go see if that’s a true statement or not and see if I can discover a better way to solve it than I previously realized.”
And that’s sort of the lens on how research should be done. And then of course when you tell the story of the research you did, you use that same lens. You say, “Hey, we went on this voyage of discovery, learned this, here’s what we come back and here’s what it means.” And that’s a story that clients can get excited about and get behind.
Jeff McKay: And that really reinforces what we were just talking about. When you go out with a kind of a spirit of discovery that because you’re in love with the problem versus the hypothesis, which would be I’m in love with the solution, and I get the reality that you need a solution because your client wants to fix a problem and you want to make money. I love that hypothesis in discovery. It’s a great way of of looking at just the words themselves can shift how you think about what you’re doing. I really like that.
You said a couple of things that were interesting to me and it’s that the hero returns, that it’s not a one way trip. It is a return. So you take your client out, but you have to get them back.
Jason Mlicki: Yes.
Jeff McKay: I’m working with a client now that is using a metaphor for climbing a mountain and helping their clients reach the top of the mountain. And most people think, yeah, that’s the goal, is to reach the top of the mountain.
Well, no, the goal isn’t just to reach the top of the mountain. The goal is to reach the top the mountain and get back down safely. And I think that’s an element that sometimes gets lost. I really like that. And then the other thing, I don’t think you said this, but I remember reading it because it resonated with me, is that the hero discovers that they’ve always had within them this gift, this talent, this courage or whatever it is that they didn’t know they had. I think that’s an incredible gift that firms can give to their clients to say, it was you. You could have done this all along. Sure, we did it together, but it was you and you had it all the time. You know, like Dorothy clicking her shoes in the Wizard of Oz saying there’s no place like home. I think that’s, those are the cool elements of this story type.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah it’s interesting, because as you know in the evolution of consulting, that’s certainly more and more of consulting work is becoming about knowledge transfer, really. So there’s certainly a desire for clients to get more of that. I think they don’t want you just to come in and solve the problem, then want you to come in and build up the capabilities of the internal team and solve the problem all at the same time. So there’s a big piece to that.
Jeff McKay: Yeah. All right, the next one.
Jason Mlicki: All right. So the fifth archetype is the comedy archetype. And this one’s probably the most challenging to really wrap your head around and understand, at least in my experience, because when we think of comedy, we think of, you know, Will Ferrell doing silly things or, I’m just back from a family trip to Europe. So I’m, you know, having to think of, you know, Clark W. Griswold and all his experiences in Europe, right, that I just lived?
Booker describes it and I think if you go back to, like you said before, Greek mythology and really look at the comedic archetype, it’s really more about the characters sort of experiencing conflict and confusion, getting a little bit lost, struggling to understand what’s happening and then kind of all comes together in the end with some level of clarity and happiness. It’s kind of got that classic happy ever after ending.
And in that sense, it’s more like that sort of romantic comedy where you’re not necessarily laughing out loud the whole time. You’re kind of smiling while you watch the characters stumble through a bit of chaos and then you’re pleasantly rewarded with them coming together in the end with a happy ending.
For us, where we’ve seen this as a valuable archetype is in delving into really fuzzy, hairy, difficult thought leadership topics. The big themes of our day that clients are struggling to really understand. It’s a great archetype to use there. So you think about things like Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, blockchain, you know these, these big, heady topics that are big topics of conversation. But people really struggle to understand what it is they are and what it is they mean. It’s a great archetype to use if you’re developing thought leadership to bring clarity to those types of topics to say, “Okay, we understand there’s a ton of confusion out there. Now let’s bring you some clarity on what it really means and what it means to you.”
In fact, we’ve sort of coached a lot of our clients on some of these big topics. Sometimes the most valuable thing that we as firms can do is take these big, broad, complex topics and just make them relatable and understandable to a very specific type of client we want to attract and apply it to their world. And that’s incredibly valuable thought leadership for clients.
Jeff McKay: I love the way you describe that. It is about providing clarity. And I just realized this as you were saying that, and there may be an opportunity here for me in Prudent Pedal, but it just goes to show you how you can always be learning something.
I’ve had multiple people say to me, prospects and clients, that when I visited your website and I saw your home page and you had this line in there that said, stop trying to figure out if your marketing needs to be more strategic or more tactical. The answer is yes.
They’re like, “That just summed up exactly what we’re thinking, we don’t know where we’re chasing our tail. We’re all lost with that,” and I’ve never liked built it out as a story type, but I just related to the anxiety and the confusion, the comedy of it that you just described because I’ve seen it so often in firms, but I’ve never built that out in a story type. But there are elements of that in the type of thought leadership that I create. But people like just the fact that I’ve nailed what it is they’re confused about. So I mean, maybe you don’t have all the answers, but just saying, “Hey, I see what you’re confused about,” is an opportunity for our listeners.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, I think that’s a really great example and a really great point because I think the notion of a comedic archetype is a little bit off-putting for most firms because they don’t really see themselves as necessarily providing humor and the things that they’re doing are so complex and difficult that they then that makes them very uncomfortable. But to some extent, one of the things that I like to say is just this idea that your job as a thought leadership marketers to educate and inform and one of the best ways to educate and inform as to entertain, so you’re entertaining your audience when you say that, right? They get a laugh at it and they go, “Yeah, you hit the point. That’s what we’re struggling with. We don’t know. And you’re speaking to that,” and that’s valuable. It’s valuable to entertain someone. It’s valuable to educate them. It’s valuable to entertain them in order to educate them. My sense is that thought leadership marketers very rarely will embrace that.
Jeff McKay: Which means there’s a huge opportunity for people, there’s so many other firms are not doing it. You’re going to stand out by doing it.
Jason Mlicki: And most importantly, you’re going to enable the client to learn. You’re going to enable the first stage of the buying process for them, which is really what it’s all about, right? It’s about enabling them to have success, understand the problem they’re trying to understand, which ultimately will lead them to your solution, eventually. Making it memorable.
Jeff McKay: I like that one. I would’ve been just like all the others that you mentioned. Ah, I don’t think I want to go down that path, but actually I think that’s a great path to go down.
Jason Mlicki: I think it’s one of the best opportunities, because when you find that rare piece of thought leadership that both educates you and entertains you all at the same time, the memorability of it goes up dramatically and the applicability of it goes up as well. So, anyway.
Jason Mlicki: All right, so in the interest of time, I’m going to push us along here. So, so the sixth archetype then of course is the inverse of that. It’s the tragedy archetype and we don’t need to explain that a whole lot.
Jeff McKay: Hey, in the spirit of time. Let’s just jump over this. I hate tragedies. I can’t watch them. My wife loves to watch tragic movies and I’ve got to get up and leave. So for the sake of time, can we just move past this?
Jason Mlicki: No, we can’t.
Jeff McKay: I tried.
Jason Mlicki: And here’s why we can’t.
Jeff McKay: I tried.
Jason Mlicki: So, here’s the thing about the tragedy is that our biggest personal lessons are always from failure, right? Think about your own experiences in life. You learn more from failing than you ever learn from success. So any chance you have as a firm to share failures, it’s in your best interest. Now, you can share them as lessons learned when things don’t go well.
I know for a lot of our clients in the architecture/engineering community, I always tell them every single project you touch is going to have failures. The client knows that. They’re not stupid. They’re seasoned buyers. They know that it’s going to be chock full of failures. What they want to understand is what failures should they expect? What are they going to look like? How do they overcome them? How do they deal with them when they emerge? And how are you going to help them in all that?
And so we coach them all the time, bring your failures forward, bring them forward as lessons learned any chance you can because it’s just so much more valuable to the client from their learning perspective, and also their trust perspective. It just increases the level of trust that the client has in the firm.
Because anytime you see a firm presenting a nicely-wrapped solution to a problem, you don’t truly believe it’s going to go the way they’re saying it’s going to go. So, now we can skip over.
Jeff McKay: You know, what bothers me most about the tragedies is when you know, the character just cannot get out of their own way because of that flaw. And I think there’s perhaps another marketing lesson in this storyline in terms of how we select the clients we work with.
This is why ideal clients are so important because you want to stay away from the tragic clients that can’t get out of their own way and you can’t convince them otherwise. So I think your point is a good one. A lot to learn from failure.
Jason Mlicki: And I think, I will say it’s difficult to apply, right? Because it’s very rare that a client will let you talk about their failures, right?
I mean, they don’t want to share their failures. Of course not. Why would they? Totally understandable. But any chance you have is going to create a ton of value.
Jeff McKay: These are kind of postmortems stories, you know, Anderson, Bear Stern, if you go out and attack a competitor’s thinking. I remember the In Search of Excellence or Built to Last, where people said these are the quintessential companies because of these attributes. But when you do a retrospective on them, you go back and say, oh no, they weren’t because of these fatal flaws. So I think the way to use a tragedy is maybe not for an existing client, but somebody else’s client.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah. And I also think that sometimes there’s lessons to be learned that you can just write about, you know? The failure of XYZ Company, Kodak, for instance, or whatever. You know, what could they have done differently in the situation they were in? And there’s probably a whole litany of thought leadership to be developed around those types of topics.
All right. So man, we’re running out of time again. Man, we just talk too much. But I guess that’s the point of the podcast.
Jeff McKay: Yes, you do.
Jason Mlicki: So the seventh and final archetype is the rebirth. The rebirth is sort of just this idea that in their everyday life, the protagonist essentially has a chance to be redeemed. They have an opportunity to sort of rethink the way they look at the world and they sort of experience some level of redemption.
The classic example of this of course is “A Christmas Carol.” Dickens’ novel about Ebeneezer Scrooge and sort of his discovery through his learnings with the ghosts and all that.
In terms of applying this to firm marketing, to me it’s stories of change management. It’s stories of rebranding. Any window in time when a company has to go through any meaningful significant reinvention of itself, repositioning. If the firm is sort of forced to really rethink what it is they do, why they do it, how they do it, then this is a great archetype to explain what’s happening and why it’s happening.
So that can be done either from the firm’s point of view, here’s what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. Or it can be done from the consulting firm’s point of view saying, “Hey, here’s why we led this client through this rebirth and here’s what it looked like and how it works and here’s how to approach it.”
Jeff McKay: I like this story line. What I like about it is it’s a second chance or maybe a third chance, but it’s about redemption. And redemption without a doubt is my favorite story theme. And in America in particular, the culture likes to take down leaders and find something wrong with them, knock them off their pedestal. I don’t know why we do that. It’s horrible. Whether it’s a politician, an actor.
Jason Mlicki: You know why it is, don’t you?
Jeff McKay: Why?
Jason Mlicki: Because it’s the first archetype: overcoming the monster, right? We love the Cinderella Story. We love to see the little guy win. We love to see … it’s NCAA Tournament time, we love to see that 12 seed knock out the five. Oh my gosh. You know? The 16 seed took out a one. Oh my God. Right?
Jeff McKay: Yeah.
Jason Mlicki: People love that and that’s really what it is. We hate monopolies.
Jeff McKay: Yes, I get that. I think there’s a fine line here in terms of brand and positioning and marketing of the redemptive story. One is the repositioning of a firm because of outward conditions and then there’s the reposition because of inward conditions. Sometimes both. But I think in you know, modern world of social media and the social media stocks if you will, where you’re locked in and everybody comes by and throws tomatoes at your head.
You give a, “I made a mistake, I’m going to go to some kind of sensitivity or training,” and then I’ll get right back to where I was. That’s not, to me what this is about. This is about really being given mercy, if you will, and a chance to begin again. And I think this one should be used wisely because I think there’s a lot of, what’s the word? Responsibility that goes with a rebirth story and telling that story in a in a meaningful way, again so it’s relatable is really important, but I think that could be a very powerful one.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. I mean, there’s probably very limited instances when a firm would be a situation where they would need to tell this story and certainly, I think they would also want to step lightly on telling their clients’ stories in this way, because obviously their clients don’t want to be portrayed as having failed and needing to be reborn. But in the instances where it’s clear, obviously there’s a lot of value in telling the story in that way.
Jeff McKay: All right, so we’ve been through all seven, so you have overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, the voyage and return, comedy, tragedy, and we just talked about rebirth. So if I’m a marketer or practice leader, I’m finding myself going, okay, how do I choose the right one? How do you choose the right one, Mr. Mlicki?
Jason Mlicki: That’s a really, really hard question. I mean, I think it’s ultimately situational. The way I’ve looked at it is that as you know, we’ve got sort of our model for how clients buy, right? And there’s four stages to that model. And so there’s the learning stage, the vetting stage, the discussing stage and the hiring stage. And the way I look at it is if I’m looking to guide a client through those four stages of buying, what I want to do is I want to start looking at what are the emotional states I expect them to have at each phase along that journey, based on whatever problem it is that we’re proposing to solve.
And then look at those emotional states, look at the type of problem you’re solving and look at which story archetype most closely aligns with it. So perfect example being okay, it’s fairly easy to recognize when maybe our solution is one that is all about changing conventional wisdom. So conventional wisdom says this is how the market should be thinking about this topic and our research says otherwise. Okay? So, we can apply the overcoming the monster framework to that, and we might do that because we want to lead clients down the emotional journey that comes with that story archetype.
So that’s how I tend to look at it, is say what is the relationship between the emotional states you want the client to feel where you expect them to feel and what archetype is going to do the best job of doing that? And then what are you most comfortable with?
Jeff McKay: I would think those are really helpful and it’s important as you said, it’s situational. And I’ll go back to something you said earlier. The hypothesis versus the discovery approach in your thought leadership kind of presents the situation. I would think that there’s also kind of elements of your firm’s strengths and market position might dictate which storyline you use, who your ideal client and in terms of worldview or buyer profile could be, one story might resonate more based on who they are, which industries they’re in, what their function or level might be.
White space in the market might be another thing to look at. Where has this not been done? And we talked a little bit about that around the comedic storyline. Most aren’t using that. So maybe is there a way that we could tell a comedic story that could make us stand out?
And then I think another important element would be the results that your firm has been able to deliver that become proof points to substantiate what you’re already saying, where you say, “Hey, we’ve seen this in real world terms. We’re not just talking pie in the sky. We’ve made it happen.”
Jason Mlicki: I really like your notion of white space because to your point, so many of the big topics that most firms want to stake out a point of view on these days are just well trodden by so many voices and how are you going to cut through that noise?
So obviously, having a new and compelling point of view is sort of central to that, but then how are you going to tell that one of you in a compelling way, in a way that cuts through the chaos and lets someone say, “Wait a minute, I want to listen to these folks over here,” for one reason or another. So it’s really a good way of looking at it.
Well, we are squarely out of time. In fact, we’ve probably run over, so I’m going to say we call it a day and I appreciate you going on this journey with me over the course of the last two episodes. I’m not sure what story archetype we just took people on, possibly a voyage and return. I suppose.
Jeff McKay: Or number eight, anarchy.
Jason Mlicki: Lord of the Flies?
Jeff McKay: Lord of the Flies.
Jason Mlicki: I hope nobody’s gonna cut me with a bottle.
Jeff McKay: Oh, goodbye, Jason.
Jason Mlicki: I’ll see you, Jeff.