Discovering the taxonomy of stories.
An interview with David Hutchens about crafting stories to engage an audience and create emotional connection.
With that in mind, how can a thought leader tell stories that bring your ideas to life?
To answer that question I’ve invited David Hutchens to join me. David is the CEO of Mythos Global, the home of the Storytelling Leader program. He is also the author of Story Dash: Find, Develop, & Activate Your Most Valuable Business Stories… In Just a Few Hours! David has built his career around storytelling for business, and he’s come on our show to share some of those insights with our audience.
Our conversation starts with David’s story; going from copywriter at advertising agencies, to attending the ASTD Expo with his portfolio, seeking an opportunity to write about the things he really cares about – innovation and leadership.
David’s story gives us an immediate connection to his ideas, and helps him illuminate how others can use tools he’s created (like the Taxonomy of Stories and Story Deck) to find the stories they should be telling. These tools were crafted through many years of conversation, hearing the stories of business leaders all over the world. David realized many of those stories had common themes, and could be organized into categories that would give sales, strategy, innovation, thought leaders and more the ability to share stories that motivate and illuminate their audience – stories that they need to tell.
While storytelling is important, David also cautions that a leader must also use other tools as well. He shares how his research into highly successful leaders indicates that 30% of a leader’s communication should be story-based, while the other 70% can encompass slides, data, didactic lecturing, and other modes of rhetoric and persuasion.
Three Key Takeaways:
- Build a team. If you want to go fast go alone. If you want to go far, take people with you.
- Brilliant ideas don’t spread on their own. They need advertising.
- Attention is the new precious resource. You have to be thoughtful about how you’ll break through the noise and keep the attention of your audience.
If you need a strategy to bring your thought leadership to market, Thought Leadership Leverage can assist you! Contact us for more information. In addition, we can help you implement marketing, research, and sales. Let us help you so you can devote yourself to what you do best.
Join the Organizational Thought Leadership Newsletter to learn more about expanding thought leadership within your organization! This monthly newsletter is full of practical information, advice, and ideas to help you reach your organization’s thought leadership goals.
Bill Sherman One of my favorite parts of thought leadership is that’s deeply connected to storytelling. It’s not just good enough to have an idea. You need to embed that idea within a story if you want it to spread and generate momentum. And that’s why I invited David Hudgins to join me today. David has focused his thought leadership work around storytelling for businesses. You’ll hear more of his origin story in just a few moments. But for now, David is the CEO of Mythos Global, which is the home of the Storytelling leader program. In this episode, David and I explore types of stories we investigate. Framing an idea within a story and we even explore how much story is needed to make an idea sticky.
Bill Sherman I’m Bill Sherman and you’re listening to Leveraging Thought Leadership. Ready? Let’s begin. Welcome to the show, David.
David Hutchens Bill, I am delighted to be here. Thank you very much.
Bill Sherman So I’m going to ask you a question on two levels. Everybody has a story of how they get here. Right. What is your story of how you got into thought leadership?
David Hutchens That is a perfect place to start. Because when I work with leaders, you know, we talk about story as a strategic act. There’s it’s selection. There’s lots of stories you can be telling and we can talk about that. And you’re starting with the great when I call it the Why I’m Here Story, The Why I’m Here story or the origin story. Right. And I actually have a lot of origin stories. I’ll give you one. I actually began my career as a copywriter. I worked in advertising agencies in Dallas, Texas, and in Atlanta, Georgia. And I did that for about three years when I was a young guy in my twenties. And I loved the creative process. I loved creating ads. And what I did not love was I was spending, you know, 50 or more hours a week working really hard, writing about things that I didn’t care about. You know, I was writing about hamburgers and credit cards and cellular service. And again, I love the creative process, but I was just stressed out and I thought, this is this is not what I want to do all day long. I want to write about ideas and I want to write about leadership and innovation. Those were the things that I cared about. So I left the advertising business with the idea that I was going to write about innovation and leadership, and I was actually kind of naive guy. I didn’t know how to get in that business, you know. And so I was living in Atlanta at the time, and I had a colleague who was in H.R. with a company, and she said, Dave, you know, here in Atlanta this year, there’s a huge con convention of a group that at the time was called a study, right?
Bill Sherman That society now it’s 80.
David Hutchens Now it’s 80. Yeah. So it’s International Exposition was in Atlanta that year. And she said, those are the people you should be talking to. I didn’t even know what it was. Right. So I bought a ticket, you know, the Expo floor and we’re all doing these have booths and you can walk around me training companies. I didn’t know how to sell myself as a 23 year old, so all I had was my portfolio of advertising of ads that I’d created. So I brought that with me and I went from table to table at the at the at TD Expo, showing the learning professionals my advertising. And I said, Could you use this kind of thinking in the work that you do? It was kind of a weird way to sell myself, but it’s all I need to do. I One of the few people who did not blow me off was a guy from IBM who was intrigued by this, and he said, This is interesting. What? Why don’t you come into IBM? Let’s talk. And so that was the beginning of my career in organizational learning and leadership development started with advertising. I actually still tell people at art. I still think of myself as an ad guy. But now, instead of selling Coca-Cola, now I help ideas move through organizations.
Bill Sherman So stay there for a moment. Right. You know, the idea as something that needs advertising. Right. That ideas. Brilliant ideas don’t spread on their own. I think is something that I’ve advocated for a long time. Of It’s not the genius insight. It’s the effort it takes to get it out to the world.
David Hutchens Right. I’m right there with you. And. And it’s not even a hard case to make, because every one of my clients just about seems like they have important work that they want to move through the world. And every one of them, more than ever, is coming up against this. This world of noise where it’s, you know, attention is is the new precious resource. You know, it’s really hard to get people’s attention. Everyone I work with is feeling this and doing important work. Nobody knows what I’m doing. Nobody’s listening. And do you have a way to help me move this work forward? And so I’ve got some ideas about that. Absolutely.
Bill Sherman And in some ways, the idea becomes almost table stakes or even a commodity where we have no shortage of ideas. We can go online and we can find hundreds, if not thousands of ideas relating to something that we want to apply or problem we want to solve. We need to make that idea visible and signal relevance to the people that we’re trying to reach. And I think that is a huge, huge opportunity in the land of story. Right.
David Hutchens So I help my clients tell stories about their big ideas. And you’re right that especially with chat, you know, as you and I are recording this, it’s still a brand new phenomenon. You know, the world is trying to figure out what to do with this. And I wonder if if artificial intelligence is going to further devalue ideas, if it’s going to further devalue content. Because now if I want to write a paper about resilience or creativity, I can go to air and say, Hey, create a six point model of characteristics of resilience for me. And now I’ve got right. So now content is becoming more and more commoditized. And when I work with my clients about creating connections, human connections, we talk about empathy, this human connection that can happen. People don’t feel human connection to abstract ideas. We feel an empathy connection to other human beings. So I’m helping my clients tell a story not about the idea. Tell me about you, because you are the embodiment of the idea. We connect with the idea when we see how it’s alive in you. So we need story language. We, you know, later give us the six point model with the six behaviors. Fine that that comes later, but it starts with the story.
Bill Sherman And it starts with a person is what I heard in that phrase about people.
David Hutchens Tell me about you. So I just got back a couple of days ago. I was in Utrecht, the Netherlands, working with a big financial institution, a bank, innovation leaders at a bank. We’re talking about this. They’re doing all this complicated technology work and they’re all brilliant, you know, financial people. And the idea of telling stories with people in them, you know, especially for Europeans, sometimes that’s even more challenging. That was an intriguing idea, and they didn’t know what that looked like. So so one of the story types, I call it the the Eureka story or the discovery story. Right. We have this idea that we’re bringing forward to the world. That’s great. The Eureka story would suggest that we feel the curtain back on that idea. And again, stories are people, right? Tell us about a moment of discovery when you when you realized something about this idea, when you had an insight or an aha. Tell us that story. And now we’re connected to you. And then the you know, the story. We say who? Tell me more about your body of work that you’re doing. And it engages us and pulls us.
Bill Sherman Well, it’s the going back in terms of culture. Even before writing, we would tell stories to each other. And there’s an oral tradition of storytelling in almost every culture in the world. And those are stories of people, of challenges, of success, of failure. And what I like that you’ve done is from an organizational perspective, you’ve created a taxonomy of different stories that people in organizations can tell to get an idea across. So let’s talk about the taxonomy for a little bit there.
David Hutchens Yeah, So. So the taxonomy actually takes the form of a really cool product, an offering that I bring in when I do skill building programs. There’s a product called the Leadership Story Deck. It’s a deck of cards. It’s what it sounds like. It’s a deck of cards with dozens of ideas of stories that that you could be telling in your listeners could be telling, including I bet there’s someone there that they’re not telling. If they went through these cards one at a time, they’d go, Oh, wait a minute, I’ve got I should be telling a story like that. Right? So where this taxonomy of stories came from is, you know, I’ve I’ve heard leaders tell thousands of stories all around the world and in not every culture, but, you know, India, Asia, South Africa, Europe, all across the U.S., I started noticing that leaders were telling similar stories depending on the context. So, for example, when I work with sales teams, there are certain stories that sales leaders I noticed kept telling. I started noticing these patterns, capturing the here’s some good sales stories. If we’re doing innovation work, there are some stories that are really good for that. If you’re doing strategy or change or transformation work again, there are certain types of stories that are good for that. If you are a thought leader, if you’re a solopreneur, if you are bringing messages forward to the world, I think are some stories you should be telling about yourself and who you are, some individual stories. So those are in the story deck as well. So that’s the origin of that, that offering. And it’s one of the more popular parts in the program. When we open the deck of cards, you see people get excited and they start playing and sequencing the cards to build messages. But that’s the idea of the story taxonomy and the story deck.
Bill Sherman Well, and I think for many people the prompt of tell me a story on its own can be a little bit of scary. Right? But you say tell me a story about a time or tell me a story that had this type of challenger, this outcome. Then you start putting a little bit of a constraint on it, and all of a sudden the creative juices start flowing. Because most people, there’s a moment of hesitation, or at least what I’ve seen on storytelling. Oh, no, no, no. I used to do that. You know, kids are better storytellers than we are as adults, sort of like. Kids are more willing to call themselves artists and draw pictures than any adult will. Right.
David Hutchens That’s exactly right. Yeah. I’ll put one little limitation on your statement. Yes, there is resistance. What I do is I put people into, you know, a classic structure of the story circle. You know, human beings have been doing this, you know, tens of thousands of years, sitting in a circle and telling stories to each other. And what I see over and over again is the awkwardness happens only with the first person when they first sit down and I say, okay, go. They look each other in the dark. All right. I guess I’ll go first. Right. There’s this awkward moment after the first person tells a story. There’s this one thing that happens every time where everyone else goes, Ooh, ooh. I’ve got one. Let me go. Next. Right. We see this when we go out for beer with our friends. Right. So.
Bill Sherman Right, right.
David Hutchens So hearing a story. Yes. Generating a story is difficult. Until we make this a social experience, we can create an occasion for them to come forward. And then it’s the opposite. Now, you can’t stop the stories. They come Rapidfire.
Bill Sherman And I think that’s a good point. There’s almost a story inertia that you have to overcome to get that first movement right. And we’ve made work in some ways a limited story place. We tell stories of products, we tell customers success stories. But there’s we limit the framework of types of stories we can tell. And if you ask us to tell a story, we look at go, But that’s not what I usually do here. Like you said, I’ll go and I’ll have a conversation with my friends at a coffee shop or a restaurant or something like that. But just sitting or maybe even in the break room. Right. But sitting and telling stories with clients. I’m not used to that in the same way I.
David Hutchens Used to that. Yeah. It’s weird. This like we said, this is humanity’s oldest technology for knowledge transfer and sense making and identity and community building and tribe and moving the group forward. And we’ve been doing this for tens of thousands of years, sitting around a campfire. But there’s something that happens when we walk into the workspace. People stop doing it for some reason. Maybe it’s because, you know, Hey, pay me presumably good money to be smart. And I want to get to the point fast and I want to show you what I know. So I put all the data on a slide and there’s something about telling the story that the other reason people don’t do it is they’re scared, honestly. You know, when we use this language that is narrative, we it’s like we open ourselves up and we reveal more of who we are. And some people aren’t used to doing that. And so there’s this vulnerable feeling that comes with it. But the trade off is you get the engagement and the connection. So yeah, we’ve got some challenges with doing this in the workplace.
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Bill Sherman So you talked about the PowerPoint presentation. That’s all data all the time, right? And it produces sort of that numb death by PowerPoint experience where everybody just tries to hang on looks and goes, Is there a refill of coffee that I can get here because I’m just trying to survive through? Yeah, You’ve made some observations about what’s the right sort of balance of story and presentation. I’d love to talk about that because I think it gives people a framework to think about how much story should I be adding and where into a conversation.
David Hutchens So when I do the skill building experience with groups, we’ll be in a room together for four, 8 hours and it’s intense and fun. We’re moving around, we’re telling stories, and by the time we get to the afternoon, people are going, Oh my gosh, this is powerful. Okay, I get it. Yes, I can do this. And then often there’s a question that comes what people say. Dave, I love what you’re saying at one board. Yeah, we should be telling stories. And then they’ll say, But let’s get real. We can’t only tell stories. Right? That’s I mean, is it possible to overdo this stuff? And they almost ask like they’re ashamed for asking. Like they don’t want to hurt my feelings. And I’m like, yeah, obviously, yes, you can overdo this. You know, in your tool kit of rhetorical persuasion, there’s lots of structures in there. And we just we’re spending a day talking about this specific one, which is a narrative, but it’s not the only one there. There is still a place for data, There’s a place for visual thinking, there’s a place for didactic lecturing. There’s lots of modes of rhetoric and persuasion. And so the question you’re asking, Bill, is, in my book Story Dash, I actually have an experiment that I did where I start with a hypothesis that I believe about 30% of effective leadership or entrepreneurial communication is stories 30%, and then the other 70% can be other stuff. You know, it can be your slides and your data and didactic. But 30%, I think, should be stored. And so I’ve actually done a series of analyzes on highly effective communications, including TED talks to test and validate this hypothesis. And I’ll jump to the end of my process where I’ve concluded I think 30% is about right when you look at the most effective messages. And I actually crunched the data like I get a track, a transcript and I label the sentences, right? Is this a story or not? So now I’ve got a data measure. The best ones usually land right around 30%. So if you’re a leader, you know, hopefully this is free to you. You know, to me, a lot of people are at 0% or 1%. The idea is not that, oh, I have to jump up to 30%. It’s to give you permission to say you’ve got lots of room to play with this. You’re not it. I don’t think most of us are in danger of overdoing this any time soon.
Bill Sherman So many of the people who are listening. I think we’ll feel some relief on that. Right. That it doesn’t have to be all story all the time and a little bit more story to get towards that. 30% is a good thing. What advice would you give someone who wants to start putting more effective storytelling into communicating their ideas? Where do they start?
David Hutchens So start with one. And what I tell people is that the work that I do is I don’t do presentation skills. I don’t teach people how to be a better public speaker. So you don’t have like change your voice. You don’t have to become a performer and you.
Bill Sherman Don’t have to be Ian McKellen.
David Hutchens Right, Right. Which is good because I’m certainly not. Right. You just have to sound like you. And if we’re telling a story about an idea, okay, we talked about story taxonomy. One great story type for thought leaders is the eureka story. That the process story. Tell me how you discovered this thing that you’re working on. Tell me about a moment when you noticed something or realized something. I mean, I’ve got one like that. If if, if you place. So when people come up to me and say, How did you get into this work? David of storytelling. One of my eureka moments is this is back after I left the ad business. I was still living in Atlanta at the time. I’m in Nashville now, but I was working with Coca-Cola, the Coca-Cola Company. This is back in the 19 late 1990s. And Coca-Cola was early in this process, this system wide transformation to become what was known as a learning organization. At the time, Peter Singer, the business author, had a bestselling book.
Bill Sherman The Discipline.
David Hutchens The Fifth Discipline. Right. And so Coca-Cola was fully on board saying, we’re going this direction.
Bill Sherman And to be clear, fifth discipline, if you haven’t read it as a listener, is a wonderful book on systems thinking. But it is not a light book. It is long, it is dense. You have to sort of sit with it and digest it to be able to get the benefit from it, right? So some people would make it through the book and go, Oh my gosh, this is the most brilliant thing I’ve ever read. Other people would stop. Chapter one, Chapter two. Right. And just go, My head hurts.
David Hutchens And that’s what the Coca-Cola system was saying, that.
Bill Sherman Exactly.
David Hutchens What the company was or, you know, the challenge they brought to me is, David, nobody understands what we’re talking about. And so I’m looking at, you know, I’m doing corporate communications. So this is my challenge to create a communication solution that will help people at the Coca-Cola Company understand what are we talking about when we say we’re going to become a learning organization? And so I, I created this this crazy solution where I wrote a story and I did it because it’s the only idea I had. I didn’t know how to write a simpler version of systems thinking, right. I wrote a story. I wrote about a flock of sheep that outwits a pack of hungry wolves, and in the process they become a learning organization. They displayed the capabilities. And I had a buddy who is a children’s book illustrator, and I said, Hey, Bobby, can you draw me some funny pictures of some sheep and some wolves? And I dropped it into this manuscript, which I titled out Learning the Wolves, Surviving and Thriving in a learning organization. And this manuscript ended up getting picked up by a publisher and very quickly was translated into 12 different languages and a quarter million copies. And it in that book is that was the late 1990. It’s the book is still selling. It’s still out there. And that was really caught me off guard, you know, because I was just creating a solution for my client. Honestly, it was so weird. I thought, you know, there’s a chance Coca-Cola is going to fire me because of this. You know, that’s how weird it was. Really goofy humor and crazy pictures, right? I thought maybe I’ll get fired. Instead, it went all over the world. And that was really the moment that made me say, all right, what just happened here? What was it about this crazy solution that seems to be engaging people not just in the USA, but, you know, I started hearing case studies of the chief of police in Singapore, put on a puppet show with wolves and sheep to his officers as a way of inviting them into this conversation. I started hearing these crazy stories. What is happening here? That’s the moment that said, all right, I’m going to look at this phenomenon that is story and try to understand why is that working as powerfully as it is. So that was the beginning of this journey, and I’ve been doing this since. Early, late 1999. Early 2000. 23 years now.
Bill Sherman What I love in that moment of Eureka is also an element of. Risk taking. Right. So you said, okay. I suppose I could do a distilled version of the book and write the cliff notes to a book or a summary of core concepts. But how do I bring this idea, these ideas, to life? How do I make the idea of a learning organization memorable and sticky? And you use a story with the sheep and the wolves, right? And someone could have said, Well, that’s not very corporate. You know, could we have, you know, a more corporate example or something? But instead, it landed. And I think one of the things we often sterilize ideas in corporate world trying to make them more. Palatable for our reader. Rather than making them memorable.
David Hutchens So what I could have done. And where a lot of leaders and thought leaders go is I could have just made a series of statements. Hey, I think storytelling is a powerful technology for creating human connection because there’s a science called neural coupling and something is happening between us. I could have done this kind of didactic thing, right? But you’re calling out where I told a story about me. And you’re right. There is a risk in there. Now, what if I get fired from Coca-Cola? If you know where we go next when I’m working with leaders is how do you build a story to land with impact? And if there’s a tension or a conflict or risk in the story, that’s the part that makes it stick in your body. Who You wrote a crazy story with crazy pictures you thought you could get fired from Coke. Wow. What happened? We’re automatically interested. So again, instead of making a bunch of statements about your thought leadership, tell us a story. It has a person. It has emotional content, you know, who are scared. What if this doesn’t work? There’s a risk. There’s a satisfying conclusion. Oh, it went all over the world. Wow. It’s a success story. Wow, That feels really good, right? So all of those pieces I put into the message for the purpose of engaging our audience in this conversation that we’re having.
Bill Sherman So as we begin to wrap up, David, I want you to look back on your journey and you’ve told us some of the pieces at the origin story for you, but I want to ask you where you sit now. What advice would you give your younger self? And the reason I ask that is there are many people listening who are just starting out on a thought leadership journey, whether inside an organization or on their own, because they’ve got a story and an insight that’s in their head that they want to get out. So what advice would you give your younger self?
David Hutchens You’ll actually like my advice to my younger self that the thing that took me much too long to realize is that I need a team. I’ve done. I’ve been working on my own for 23 actually longer, 25, 28 years now, and I’ve actually been proud of the fact that I did it all on my own. You know, I do my own production and graphic design, I do my own marketing. I do it all too cheap to hire people. Maybe. But here I am now. I’m 56 years old and gone. Wow, I’m kind of lonely. I’m doing this work. I don’t have a team and I wish I had built a team around me sooner. Now, what’s the old saying? If you want to go fast, go alone.
Bill Sherman Alone?
David Hutchens Yeah. If you want to go far, take people with you. Well, I’ve gone fast. And now I’m ready to go far. And it. And so reaching out to Thought Leadership Leverage and partnering with you, Peter Winick has been one of the coolest things I’ve done. It’s improving the work. I’m having more fun. I’ve got friends and colleagues to test ideas with and you kind of kick my butt and tell me what stuff isn’t going to work. And I went too long without that. So that’s my advice to my younger self in specific.
Bill Sherman Thank you, David. But in expanding on it, I think one of the things you touched on is to share ideas early and be willing to get that feedback right where you say, Hey, I got this idea. It’s not in final form. I’m not saying there are three steps to dot, dot, dot. It’s like, Hey, I think there might be three steps. Take a look at this. Give me some feedback and let’s sharpen it together. Right. And that I think often the leadership gets packaged as the answer is in final form when it’s a work in progress. Right. And this is what we see as of today. And we keep trying to see the world or see the pattern that we’re studying more clearly year after year.
David Hutchens Right? Yeah. And I’m curious how many of your listeners, since you do attract a thought leadership audience, I wonder how much of this resonates, you know, because we. We don’t just fall in love with our ideas. We we identify with our ideas, our ideas, our meet the ideas meet right.
Bill Sherman And people, they get a feel with the ideas as well. Right.
David Hutchens Yeah. And so to bring other people into that, maybe. Maybe that’s one reason I resisted. Maybe that felt too risky or I don’t know.
Bill Sherman So I want to thank you very much, David, for joining us today for a delightful conversation on story and thought leadership.
David Hutchens I can’t believe the time’s already over. I wasn’t looking at the clock. That was fun. Thank you, Bill, for Absolutely. And also for being a team member.
Bill Sherman And David, if someone wants to find more out about how you focus on telling stories, where do they go? What do they look for?
David Hutchens So the website is storytelling Leader Dotcom Storytelling. Leader dot com. When you go there, you’ll see the program, you’ll see me, you’ll see the books, the cards, the frameworks. There’s lots of stuff you can download for free. To get started telling your own stories.
Bill Sherman If you’re interested in organizational thought leadership, then I invite you to subscribe to the OrgTL newsletter. Each month we talk about the people who create, curate and deploy thought leadership on behalf of their organizations. Go to the website. OrgTL.com and choose, “Join our newsletter.” I’ll leave a link to the website as well as my LinkedIn profile in the show notes. Thanks for listening and I look forward to hearing what you thought of the show.