Storytelling is hot right now. Both unicorns and corporations are prioritizing their narrative alongside profits, audience size and other metrics. In his TED Talk, AirBnB co-founder Joe Gebbia even said that storytelling is the key to their success.
Group SJR CEO and new Hill+Knowlton U.S. CEO Alexander Jutkowitz talks about harnessing narrative power in his new book, The Strategic Storyteller. He shares why you shouldn't underestimate your audience, what history teaches us about storytelling and how empathy is your strongest tool.
Inc.: You've founded multiple businesses over the course of decades. Why write a book now?
Jutkowitz: [Laughs] I didn't think it was Manifest Destiny to write a book. The context of storytelling is talked about a lot, but it is often looked at as frivolous. Also, today we're focusing on creative and data, and with me starting as a data person and becoming a content creator, I've been straddling the two worlds. It is a good time to talk about it and how one can leverage it, not from a corporate and branding perspective, but how it has been handled historically. The book is about how we process information and take in the world.
I have some perspective: I started [the PR firm Group SJR] in my bedroom and, as of two months ago, assumed the new role at WPP [CEO, U.S., of Hill+Knowlton Strategies]. I've changed my filter based on the size of the organizations I lead as well as thinking more globally, so it is kind of the perfect moment for me to talk.
I enjoyed you pulling on classic examples of strategic storytelling, from Socrates arguing about writing, which I talked about in my own Our Virtual Shadow book, to the French leader Tallyrand using food as a narrative.
Yes! It's why we used food in the book trailer - and it is all relevant. Part of the thesis is that we pretend that everything has been invented today, but that's simply not true.
Like myself, you've moved quite a bit in your life, originating in Chile and eventually settling down here in the United States. You write that it gives you an outsider perspective, but how can others cultivate fresh eyes?
The most important thing is empathy. I don't think you have to physically travel, but to travel in other people's shoes. Entrepreneurs tend to focus just on themselves. As a consultant, I've always worked toward adapting to people and corporations: Look at their ideas and their stories.
This is particularly important for CEOs and entrepreneurs, since they are often busy being themselves and doing what they do when, frankly, they really need those empathetic skills when they are scaling or exiting. We don't just scale products and ideas, but ourselves, and a big part of that is empathy.
It's like the popular Wayne Gretzky quote, 'I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.' We want to use the Lean Startup methodology, but often forget that it requires us to grow much faster on a personal level, too.
You emphasize that outsiders are not competitors, but collaborators. Can you give an example of how you discovered this philosophy?
There are too many to count. It's not life or death, but an ecosystem where everything plays off each other. I'm not looking to move myself at the expense of everything else.
Every smart person in the world doesn't work for me. You don't know where the next great idea will happen, and it's not only in your endemic group, but somewhere else. I never focus on people just in my world or my industry, since that is incredibly limiting as well.
You champion asymmetrical thinking, almost using the David vs. Goliath situations to your advantage. As an independent, bootstrapping entrepreneur, how can someone take advantage of asymmetrical strategy?
You have to be willing to get out of your own limited view. People say, 'I'm right brain' or 'I'm left brain', but unless you had an injury, you are an all-brain thinker. We may lean towards a certain way, but combining the forces ultimately help us make the best decisions.
Entrepreneurs should understand: It isn't just logic. We make more faulty decisions working with just logic.
Lastly, you emphasize avoiding stereotyping your customer. How do you get a better picture of your potential audience?
If you are going to develop as a product or an idea, then you have to leave space for tomorrow.
What you are as an entrepreneur today isn't what you will be tomorrow, and neither will your product or your audience. We spend so much time focusing on our bootstrapping lives today, but it is equally important to work towards tomorrow and the audience you want. It is about reverse engineering the outcome. If you become reductive too soon, you cut out your eventual audience.