Storytelling Goes Hollywood
How to harness the power of history, culture, and the mind to get what you want
Welcome back, Storytellers.
Ever wonder why a poignant movie or TV scene can give you goosebumps? This week, we take a look at how Hollywood crafts their heroes and how storytellers always end up on top. When you can do this as a founder, you will move investors to fund you, talent to join you, and customers to love your brand. Plus, I’ve got a great set of resources for you that will inspire and keep you in the know.
It’s been a pleasure having you on this ride. Let’s keep the train rolling.
DEEP DIVE: Exploring Parts Unknown
One night in 2019, I was sitting on my couch in Dallas with my loyal companion Roxie (my english cream golden retriever), watching an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. He was in Tokyo, wandering the narrow streets and issuing his unique brand of wonder and reverence-filled commentary.
I’d been a fan of Bourdain since I read Kitchen Confidential, and his storytelling and artistry had lifted him to hero status in my mind. But for some reason, this particular episode stirred something new deep inside of me.
When the episode finished, I booked a flight to Tokyo. No plan, no friends in tow—just this strange desire to go and experience it for myself.
Shortly thereafter, I found myself walking the same narrow streets Bourdain had on the show, and I loved every minute of it.
For those who knew me back in those trial lawyer days, I was a pretty measured and methodical guy. So for me to book a trip across the world because of a television show was very out of character. What would spur me to do such a thing?
Because Bourdain’s mastery of storytelling grabbed me. Proving once again that storytelling matters—for A LOT of reasons.
Stories can prompt us to experience the world from a different perspective. Think about some of the greatest moments in cinematic history: Jimmy Stewart refusing to yield the floor in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Gregory Peck fighting against racial injustice in To Kill A Mockingbird. Mel Gibson rallying his troops in Braveheart. Even Bob Saget made our hearts swell on Friday nights with his fatherly advice on Full House. But most of us are not politicians or Southern lawyers or Scottish warriors. So what about these scenes affects us so deeply?
We identify with the characters we see on TV because of shared experiences.
Part of it’s that we identify with the characters. We see ourselves in them, and those shared experiences help us better tether ourselves to reality and each other. “We’d have no way of processing a character cognitively if we didn’t have experiences with people outside of the fictional world,” said Howard Sklar, a researcher in the English Philology Unit at the University of Helsinki. “The experiences with … characters resonate with us because of the fact that we’ve had deep experiences with people throughout our lives.”
Brilliant storytellers understand this human inclination. In an interview, director Robert Zemeckis said he called upon his childhood experiences of being bullied and teased when he shot the “seat’s taken” scene in Forrest Gump.
We also aspire to BE the characters. When characters in a story embody an attribute we value, it makes us feel good. We admire Sylvester Stallone’s scrappy persistence in Rocky and Tom Hanks’s bravery in Saving Private Ryan.
One of my all-time favorite characters is Sam Seaborn from The West Wing, a lawyer who became a speech writer and advisor to the president. Played by Rob Lowe, Seaborn always believed the best in people and valued relationships, but wasn’t afraid to be snarky or playful either. He had a passion to serve people and inspire them with his words. He was obsessed with getting it right, always learning and growing as a person. In short, he embodied everything I aspired to be.
Sam Seaborn is a badass.
These aspirational tendencies are also wired into our brains. A University of Exeter study found that humans evolved to be heavily influenced by their neighbors. The result? Our thoughts, our motivations, and our decisions are invisibly and profoundly influenced by those around us.
This explains why heroes are such a large part of our culture. “We largely define our ideals by the heroes we choose, and our ideals—things like courage, honor, and justice—largely define us,” Scott LaBarge wrote in an article for the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. “Our heroes are symbols for us of all the qualities we would like to possess and all the ambitions we would like to satisfy. And because the ideals to which we aspire do so much to determine the ways in which we behave, we all have a vested interest in each person having heroes, and in the choice of heroes each of us makes.”
But heroes don’t have to wear Spandex or live on the silver screen. We likewise ascribe to emulate real people for the same reasons. Business leaders like Steve Jobs, change leaders like Malala Yousafzai, or political leaders like Nelson Mandela demonstrated the ability to shape our world—creating, building, and inspiring us. They understood that words and ideas could incite change.
MLK told the story of a dream he had. A future that would exist. On the steps of the Lincoln Monument he told a story that changed the course of American history.
What does all of this have to do with you, a budding founder, securing funding for your company? By leveraging our natural inclination to identify with stories, we can prompt anyone to do just about anything.
Billionaire and Partner at Sequoia Capital, Michael Moritz said in a 2020 interview that storytelling is weirdly the most important skill for a great founder. He went on to say that "if people can't tell stories, I don't think they succeed as leaders."
Because storytelling is how humans capture attention. It’s how they inspire action. Storytelling works if you’re a founder raising venture capital; it works if you’re a CEO implementing change at your firm. It works if you’re a leader challenging the world to tackle massive problems. “Entrepreneurs who make a difference relate to and interact with other people,” Richard Branson once said. “They are, in effect, professional storytellers.”
When I meet people for the first time, I often find they misunderstand the name of my company, Performative Speaking. They assume it’s some kind of Toastmasters training course, helping people gain confidence to give talks in front of a large audience.
I have to explain to them that I chose the name for a much different reason. The word “performative” means of or relating to performance art. “Performativity” means the ability for words to bring about change.
Art plus change.
That’s what we’re about at Performative Speaking and why I founded it. I want to help you see that there’s never been a more important time to solve the massive issues our world is facing, and you can do so through the power of storytelling. You can rally your country in the face of an alien invasion, spur meaningful change by having a dream, or prompt a thirtysomething Texan to get off his couch and see the world.
How can you harness that power into your business? Become a storyteller. History, culture, and the brain are all in your favor.
RESOURCES for Founders and Storytellers
Asking a colleague to introduce you to someone can be an awkward affair, but the truth is that unless you learn to get good at it, you’re leaving a lot of potential on the table. Luckily, my good friend, multi-time founder, and former VC at Greycroft Jason Yeh has this great, quick article on how to kill those intro requests. Check it out here on his blog, Adamant Ventures. One thing to also check...your email deliverability. Many times founders wonder why they aren't getting responses when the answer is it went to spam.
If you’ve only dipped your toe into the vast ocean that is Anthony Bourdain, it’s time for you to dive in. Yes, he cut his teeth as a chef and travel host, but you’re not going to get any Rachael Ray-style cake frosting tips from him. Bourdain explores culture and humanity in a gritty, thoughtful way that’s unparalleled. Check out Parts Unknown on HBO or No Reservations on Discovery+ to watch the master at work, but if you want a real sense of his genius—and the darkness that took him too soon—I can’t recommend Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain enough.
I often cite Steve Jobs as one of the most brilliant business storytellers of all time. It’s one of the reasons his likeness is featured on my company’s logos. What made him so great? In this LinkedIn article, Spotify Global Advertising Brand Safety Director David Byrne explains why. The article breaks down the success of Jobs’s 2001 iPod marketing campaign. He also reveals Jobs WASN’T always the storytelling juggernaut he became, as evidenced from his attempts to market the failed Lisa personal computer in 1978. Great read and good inspiration.
I can't thank you enough for spending time here learning with me. Storytelling has been my passion for a long time, and I love getting a chance to not only share what I've learned about it with you, but also hearing what YOU think about it.
Send me a message if you've got thoughts or questions about the storytelling craft and how it can help you to secure funding for your passions. Or just tell me about what characters or storytelling heroes inspire you—I'd love to hear about them (seriously...who's your favorite storyteller).
If you haven’t subscribed already, hit the button below to get the next issue of the Storyteller’s Playbook sent right to your inbox.
Know someone who might enjoy it? Please pass it along so we can help more founders win.