Podcast: Tell convincing stories

This is episode 9 of the Wholegrain Leadership Podcast.

My guest Kai-Jürgen Lietz has written a book about storytelling called “Storytellity”. He explains the power of telling stories. Although it goes back to the stone age, you can easily apply it to modern-day (business) contexts.

We talk about different basic structures such as the “Hero’s Journey” and the “Man in the Hole”. Kai explains simple tricks to build up a repository of personal, authentic stories you can use in work or business contexts. He also reveals why it’s better to watch daily soaps rather than movies to become a good storyteller.

Kai-Jürgen Lietz

Kai-Jürgen Lietz is a professional speaker and an internationally published author. His topics are decision-making and storytelling.

In the pandemic, he started a daily video challenge on YouTube, “365 Speeches in a Year Challenge”. His latest book is called “Storytellity: 30 Storytelling Answers”.

Matthias Catón: If you are a leader and you have a message to tell the best way to do this is through telling stories. This is something that we have addressed before in one of the other episodes. But today I have a real expert in the field, Kai-Jürgen Lietz and he will explain to us how you can become a professional storyteller. Stay tuned

Welcome to another episode of the Wholegrain leadership podcast. My name is Matthias Catón and today I am here with Kai-Jürgen Lietz Kai has done a lot of things in his life. He was an employee at two big corporations. He had his own media agency back in the era of the first Dotcom boom. He was a consultant and he is now a self-employed freelance consultant and coach primarily in the field of decision-making. So he helps managers, executives to make good decisions and implement them. He has written a number of books on this topic. But today, I want to talk about something else. We leave the decision-making for another time. Today, I want to talk about storytelling. Kai-Jürgen has written a book which is called Storytellity. It was published last year, unfortunately, if I’m not mistaken, only in German so far, but maybe that can change in the future. Welcome to the show, Kai-Jürgen!

Kai-Jürgen Lietz: Hello, Matthias! I’m glad to be in your show and just a correction. There’s also an English version of the same book.

Matthias Catón: That’s even better so everybody can of course it buy the book. I’ll put a link to the book in the show notes so you can know exactly where to find it.  Let’s begin with a title “Storytellity”. What does that mean?

Kai-Jürgen Lietz: It was the idea to have a marketing campaign with this hashtag “Storytellity” and at that time I thought it is storytelling and vitality. If you tell a story, you should do it in a way that your stories come to life. After having that marketing campaign, I thought all of those content of this marketing campaign is so much better than the book I was marketing before. So I said, okay, I’m just producing a book from this content .

Matthias Catón: So the ideas are in a certain way crowdsourced, is that what you could say?

Kai-Jürgen Lietz: No, not really. It was just a that I thought I needed to simplify the original ideas from my former book that was called “The Story Metrics”. I had to simplify it for social media and in that way, when I did that, I thought that’s exactly what people need nowadays. They don’t need, to go into all the depths of everything.

They don’t need an explanation for everything. They only need something that says how is it done? This book that we’re talking about, Storytellity, contains only chapters that are five to seven minutes long when you read it. If you need something, for example, how to make your story more compelling, more exciting, then you can look into the book and see, ah, there’s a possibility for dramatization with classical dramatization instruments, like “Man in the hole” or “Cinderella”. You just read that little part and you know what you have to do to make your story exciting.

Matthias Catón: If I m A manager or a leader of an organization. Why do I need stories? Isn’t that something that is maybe for actors or others? Why would I need to know about storytelling and stories?

Kai-Jürgen Lietz: Stories are really something where people listen to. It is the way people learned in the stone age. When people gathered around a fire and listened to the elders, what they had to tell, they didn’t tell you have to do that. Then you have to do that. And then you have to do that. No, they told a story.

In a business context, you have so many people telling you things and you have to select which one do I want to listen to. Even if someone is knowledgeable but very boring, it is very difficult to listen to that person.

Matthias Catón:  If stories are so powerful, why, especially in a business context, do we use them so seldomly?

Kai-Jürgen Lietz: Our education wipes out storytelling. If you go to school, you almost never hear a story. Teachers teach facts. They don’t teach stories. We are living in a system where stories are more for entertainment and facts are for business.

Matthias Catón: My students will often tell me that that’s all good and true, but I am in a serious business and in my context, my bosses or my peers, they will expect a dry PowerPoint presentation and I cannot really come with a story because that will make me look not serious enough, not knowledgeable. How do you counter these criticisms or these fears that people have when you talk to them about storytelling?

Kai-Jürgen Lietz: I understand these fears. It’s clear you want to adapt, you want to be part of your culture. It is very difficult to say, I want to stick out, but on the other hand, we are living in a society where we have to stick out in order to become leaders. If you don’t stick out at all, how will you manage to be successful?

Matthias Catón: Let’s talk a little bit about the process of storytelling itself. In your book Storytellity, as you said, you lay out a series of criteria or concepts that people should heed. To somebody who’s new to this whole thing and has to prepare, let’s say a presentation, how should the person approach this topic of storytelling? What are the most important parts that one should to bear in mind?

Kai-Jürgen Lietz: A story is always something that you experienced yourself. Everything in your life is a story. There is a certain logic to every story. A story is never told as it is experienced. You have to cook it down to a certain dramatization.

There are certain dramatizations that are very good when you want to tell it in a narrator form when you are in a presentation or when you’re giving a speech. The dramatizations we usually find in films is the hero’s journey, a very complicated form. You need an easy dramatization that works. That is the “man in the hole”.

There is a normal world where the hero lives in and then comes a crisis and now you have to explain why the hero goes into a crisis. When you can explain that usually through a problem that is not solvable for the hero in that situation then he plunges from his crisis into an abyss.

And the abyss is a place of no hope. The hero doesn’t know what to do. Usually that’s where most people make a mistake and they say, okay, I have found the solution. If you do that, it’s not very good story, much better it is when you find a mentor, someone from outside that gives you the input and that shows the hero is a normal guy.

Desperation doesn’t lead to solutions, but inspiration leads to a solutions.  This inspiration can be other in another person, it can be your dog, it can be weather phenomena, it can be a book, whatever, but it must come from outside. And then you see, oh, there is a solution.

And then    there’s the next scene, the climbing where you test your solution and you show this solution works.  Then you go back into the normal world. You learned something, you are transformed as the hero.

This is the one of the easiest storytelling plots.  People will really sit on the edges of their seat and want to listen how this ends.

Matthias Catón: In a business context, would you say it is legitimate to invent a story or do you always have to have a story that is real?

Kai-Jürgen Lietz: If you are selling a solution, everything is about credibility. You can’t just make up.

Matthias Catón: What it work to tell you a hypothetical story about the client, how a story could unfold with the client as the hero, if he or she were to use the product that I have to sell, or does that not work?

Kai-Jürgen Lietz: That you can do, but that is making you audience your hero. That’s always something especially those leadership types want to listen to. You have to be very careful with exaggerations.

Matthias Catón: You mentioned the man of the hole, as one of the basic plots that one can use to tell a story, what are some other plots that would be interesting for listeners to know about?

Kai-Jürgen Lietz: There are two others that are really good for different scenarios. There is Cinderella. We all know the story of Cinderella. In comparison to “Man in the hole” Cinderella    does not start in the ordinary world. There is no ordinary world for Cinderella because she lost her mother and she has a step mother that is very mean to her.

It starts really in the lower section of happiness, because there’s nothing that she can do. She’s mainly the slave of her sisters. Then there is this great ball where the Prince should meet his bride. Everyone is excited about that, but Cinderella may not go there because she has no clothing for that. She has not the means to go there. And especially a stepmother doesn’t want her to go there. But then happened something. There’s that fairy .   She helps her with the magic that she gets a nice dress and that she has a carriage.

And so she can go to this ball. That means from the abyss she goes up to something that is outside of the normal world. She is going to the palace where the ball is. On the ball, she dances with the Prince and the Prince falls in love with her.

That is absolutely outside of everything that someone can expect. Then it is 12:00 PM and she has to run because the magic will stop to work. So she runs from this ball and she plunges back into the abyss. That’s very important because this is about something where there are no easy solutions.

This is a nice story that we can believe in because nothing ever works out immediately. Then this dramatization really works out very well. For example you might know the world championship speech from Dananjaya Hettiarachchi, “I I see something”. It’s one of the best speeches I know. And this is one of the best examples of a Cinderella dramatization I know.

Matthias Catón:  I’ll linked to it in the show notes for listeners to watch for themselves, but maybe you can give them an idea.  What’s the purpose or what’s the key message that he uses to make it become a bit clear? Because I think most of us will probably know Cinderella, but we’re not so sure. maybe how we could apply this to a normal nowaday life situation in business or somewhere else.

Kai-Jürgen Lietz: For example, you are telling about the development of your product and you tell your customers, yes, we thought we had the solution when we started, with no product at all, nobody believed in us and, but we said, we will find this solution that we need. And then you worked on it and then you found someone who really helped you and you thought, yeah, this it is.

Unfortunately after a situation where you thought yeah, that worked out very well you find yourself again in growing troubles. For example that you have the product and you get all the prizes for the product, but you still don’t have the financing.

Matthias Catón: You mentioned the word abyss a couple of times, which is a big word . Does that mean that a story always has to have a low point and the crisis to be interesting?

Kai-Jürgen Lietz: Usually yes, because you find those stories where everything is positive and everything is nice only in children books because children don’t want to have too much excitement.  But from a certain age, this is boring. everything is totally fine. You often listen to those stories when someone tells his own success story and he never tells anything bad that would have happened to him. No mistakes he did. Everything was just one street up, then you say at a certain point. Okay. And why should I listen to that?

Matthias Catón: Yeah, it’s also a bit unrealistic probably.

Kai-Jürgen Lietz: Yeah, it’s unrealistic. Everyone knows, we always have challenges every day. There is not a day without challenge.

Matthias Catón: So a good story needs  a low point and a crisis, which is the point where the hero overcomes this obstacle. Would you say that every story also needs a happy end or would you also use a story without one?

Kai-Jürgen Lietz: It depends. Those abyss and bliss points, this is about contrast.  You want to have a lot of contrast because otherwise people won’t see the differences because it’s only words.

The better you are in making contrasts people are able to understand what you want to convey. The happy end depends what you want to achieve. If you want to warn people, for example you want one your people to accept change, it might be a good idea to tell a story about change that didn’t happen and with a negative outcome, but then you have to find at the end the contrast for it and say, okay, this is the bad story. Now it tells you the good story, what we will do.

Matthias Catón:  So that would still be some kind of a happy end as an outcome to the story.

Kai-Jürgen Lietz: Yes. You never leave an audience on a sad note. You want people to do something and sadness just makes people sad.

Matthias Catón: The second most common objection that people voice when I talk to them about storytelling is I don’t have any stories to tell. I don’t know any stories. What do you do?

Kai-Jürgen Lietz: Everyone has stories, but people don’t record them. I usually have a journal where I write down everything that’s a story. The thing is, if you want to convey something you start with your message.  You tell a story, the story should support the message. Why else should you tell the story? Often you see that people tell the story and then they bend everything in that story, until it matches the message they wanted to have, but the story doesn’t really feel original anymore.  I’m collecting all of those stories with messages in mind.

Matthias Catón: Does it make sense if you go to the movies  to look at it from a conscious angle to try to understand how stories are set up by professional storytellers? is that something people can learn by trying to decipher the way something is constructed?

Kai-Jürgen Lietz: You can do that, but it’s difficult to bring that into your own storytelling because in 90% of all movies, you’ll see the hero’s journey and the hero’s journey has 12 steps, eight different characters. What you could look into are daily soaps because all of those daily soaps,  especially comedy, Friends How I met your Mother, Big Bang Theory, are every time a man in the hole.

They are simply enough to be workable blueprint for your own stories whereas a full Hollywood movie may be too complex to emulate in a normal situation?

It depends how much time you have and how much patience your audience has.  These soaps have 22 minutes for their plot, 22 minutes and in TV, this is really a short time. So they would use the simple form, but you will see that there is not only one hero, there are often three heroes and they have their own man and the hole stories entangled with each other.

Matthias Catón: The message that I get from you is make sure that it is simple enough for your audience to be able to follow it and also for you to be able to tell the story. Because if you have a lot of different plots and subplots and people who play a role, you might simply trip over it and not be able to tell your story yourself in the correct way.

Kai-Jürgen Lietz: That might be also a danger. That’s right.  We have all our flaws and sometimes we just lose our thread and tell something else. If you have a complicated stories, you will never  find the attention of your audience again.

Matthias Catón: Is there something you can do to get into a habit of storytelling so that you’ll eventually do it automatically?

Kai-Jürgen Lietz: People give me the feedback that I’m always telling stories . So it might come with the vocation a little bit. But I have to tell you that the idea why I started to look into stories was because I was a really bad storyteller. I gave speeches and people always said, yeah, you’re really giving good speeches, but your storytelling sucks.

This is not something that you want to hear, especially in the professional setting.  I learned step by step to become a better storyteller. Everyone can do it, but you have to be serious about that.

Matthias Catón: And now you’ve gotten to the point where you’ve even written a book yourself about how to tell good stories. We’ve spoken about storytelling a lot from the context of an oral presentation or a speech. If we think about someone writing in a business context, would storytelling also work there?

Kai-Jürgen Lietz: I don’t think so. Usually people that get a proposal don’t want to read a story, or if you get an email, you don’t want to read a long story, you want to have the facts and you will act on it.  Storytelling has a different idea. In an oral context you want to be remembered and storytelling is one form to be remembered, but if it’s already written down, you don’t need to be remembered.

Matthias Catón: So keep the facts for the written part and then use a speech or a presentation to tell some stories, convey emotions, and convince your counterparts of the merits of your idea.

Obviously we have not been able to cover everything there is to say about storytelling, but for that people that have your book Storytellity. Details will be in the show notes. In this book you have a 30. Rather short, concrete tips and topics that you address for people to become a good storyteller.

So everybody who wants to dive in more deeply into this topic, they should definitely look into your book. Thank you very much for being on this show, Kai.

Kai-Jürgen Lietz: I thank you for having me here.

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