February 07, 2022
What do you do for a living? Have you ever asked this question and been met with an answer that left your ears ringing and your mind still wondering, what do they do for a living? The key to distilling complex information and creating an engaging elevator pitch is great storytelling, author and screenwriter Michael Ashley shares. In this episode of The 19 podcast, he discusses the art of writing attention-grabbing stories that steer conversations and capture hearts.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:00:00] This is The 19, a podcast that delivers marketing insights from Orange Label in 19 minutes or less. This year, the agency is celebrating 50 years of working with established brands that are driven by a fearless entrepreneurial mindset. What does this mean for you? It means enriched conversations and stories with marketing and leadership experts aimed at improving lives.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:00:30] Hello and welcome to the 19: Entrepreneur Edition, I’m Rochelle Reiter, President of Orange Label. The Super Bowl is quickly approaching and no matter how you feel about the teams that are playing, there’s something else about the game that captures audiences attention year after year. The ads, of course! With about 40 minutes of commercials that occur throughout the Super Bowl, the ones that tend to be the most memorable are the ones that focus on story. Whether emotional like Google’s Loretta or funny like Old Spice’s “I’m on a horse,” these 30-second ads stand out because they appeal to our emotions. Here to share more about what makes stories such a powerful business tool is storytelling expert Michael Ashley. Michael’s experience spans from being a playwright and Disney screenwriter to a four time best selling author and branding consultant. Michael, welcome to The 19!
Michael Ashley: [00:01:19] Thank you for having me.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:01:25] So glad you were able to join us today! Can you first start by telling us about your background in storytelling?
Michael Ashley: [00:01:31] Yeah, absolutely. So I guess my background began professionally when I was in college. I was a playwright at the University of Missouri, and after I graduated from the university, I worked. I had my own company for a couple of years, and then I transferred to Chapman, where I got a master’s degree in screenwriting. And while I was still in school, I had a movie optioned, and as soon as I graduated, I began working for Creative Artists Agency, the top talent agency in the world, and my job was to read screenplays for directors and for screenwriters. And around the same time, I got accepted into a special program at Disney. I was one of six screenwriters that got to work with Gary Marsh, the President at the time. They were looking for their next big movie idea. And at the end of the week, they bought one treatment, which was for the treatment I wrote called Girl vs. Monster. It became a very successful movie for Disney starring Olivia Holt. It launched a kid’s clothing line and more importantly, more importantly, it got me an agent, and I was able to quit my day job and to focus on storytelling full time as a writer.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:02:38] That’s so amazing! What an adventure! And I do know the movie. My daughters watched it and I watched it too! How exciting. So let’s switch over to the business side of it and why storytelling is such a powerful tool in business.
Michael Ashley: [00:02:55] Absolutely. So I just gave a speech last week about this very topic. And so for one thing, storytelling is a way to communicate ideas. It’s no accident that we tell parables to children to help them make sense of the world. And if we want to convey something, especially something complex, storytelling is a great way to do it anyway. The presentation that I was giving last week was about the subject of pain, and it surprises people. But I say that’s really the secret weapon when it comes to Hollywood and storytelling, it’s pain, but maybe for not the reason people think, What I mean by that is, you need pain, you need conflict in a story to gather people’s attention to hook them in. And as a business owner, you want to tap into that. What are your clients or your prospects pain? What are their pain points? What are their problems? And if you can tell a story about how you successfully helped to reverse that problem. It’s a great way to show, not tell the value that you bring others.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:03:54] Right, right. Well, how can storytelling be used as a force for good in the world, improving lives and going beyond making money?
Michael Ashley: [00:04:04] Absolutely, well, I think right now, especially when it comes to technology, we have a glut of very dystopian bad stories. So I happen to write about technology for Forbes and for entrepreneur specifically around AI and big data. And I grew up loving science fiction and those kind of stories, but unfortunately, we tend to hear only bad negative stuff around technology. And that’s not to say that there aren’t scary things out there. I’m not suggesting that, but I think we need to begin telling more positive inspirational stories, especially in the technology realm. But really, in all realms of life, if you think about it, everything that we’ve ever created as a species or culture began with a thought. It began with an idea, and that idea became a story that we told. And so if we tell negative stories, what’s going to happen, we end up having negative outcomes. But I believe if we begin to tell more positive stories about what’s possible, we can also steer the conversations through the direction of our culture and really humanity by telling those better stories.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:05:11] Do you have some practical examples of those types of stories?
Michael Ashley: [00:05:15] Yeah, absolutely. So at the beginning of the pandemic, I wrote an article for Forbes about what if we were to tell a different story about COVID 19? And it’s been about almost, I guess, two years since I wrote that article. But what I try to do is, if you can imagine back at that time period, there were so I mean, even now, there’s so much fear and negativity around COVID. But instead, I try to create a story using the show and tell approach that I’m talking about how people were to seize this moment and use it to fix problems that happen in the past. For one thing, this unfortunately didn’t happen, but there are a lot of people right now that don’t have access to quality health care. And so this would be an opportunity for us to recognize that that’s an issue and to help people and to protect especially our most vulnerable people. So I would say that’s a good example of it. I think another one right now would be to tell a story about how AI and big data can be used to benefit people to get past the natural differences. Too much of us get hung up on and realize that we have more in common than what separates us. And so I see a place for positive science fiction.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:06:31] That’s amazing. So why do you think positive storytelling is so needed today, I mean, you talk about COVID and some of the negativity going on in the media. Why do you think it’s so needed?
Michael Ashley: [00:06:43] Well, I didn’t get into this much, but my background is also in media and journalism. And so at the same time, I was a playwright in college. I was also a newspaper reporter, and I’ve also been a columnist with other publications beyond Forbes and entrepreneur. And I know very well firsthand that their business model is built upon fear. And I think right now we’re living in an explosion of fear. There was another similar time like this in my lifetime, right after nine eleven, where it seemed like all the time we were being bombarded with stories about terrorism. And that’s pretty much disappeared from the conversation, for the most part. But now it’s been replaced with fears around health and medicine. And so I think that the other reason we need to tell better stories is we’ve got to help, especially our young people feel like there is a positive tomorrow for them. I happen to be reading an article yesterday. It’s called The Kids Are Not Alright and talking about this culture. And unfortunately, many young people who have witnessed so many important milestones in their lives from proms to graduation, they get canceled and they just live in this really difficult state of uncertainty that I, you know, you and I, I don’t think we can really appreciate because we’re not high school or an adolescent. And so I think it’s really important for us as responsible adults to paint these better visions for young people, especially to give them a sense of hope that the things will get better and that life is worth living.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:08:11] Yeah, I completely agree. So let’s talk a little bit more about storytelling and what makes up a strong story. What’s your opinion on that?
Michael Ashley: [00:08:21] Sure. No matter what kind of story it is, you want to begin with a good hook. If you go back to, let’s say, a novelist like total story back in the time period that he lived in, there wasn’t a lot of entertainment options like we have today. There is almost the whole catalog of any book you could ever imagine available on Amazon, right? You can go into any bookstore and you have access to so much great content. Likewise, there’s so much online. You know, you can go and tick tock, you can go on YouTube, you can access all these articles online as well. So you need to have something that’s going to draw us in. One technique that I recommend for storytelling would be in media spreads, which just means in the middle of the action. And so if you can put people in the middle of the action, just throw them into the story. That’s a really good way to hook people in. The next thing I would say goes back to what we talked about earlier. When it comes to pain, what you want to do is storytelling is you want to have a lot of conflict in your story. So if you think about your favorite movies or stories, I’ll just say Star Wars because it’s so universal right now. We have a character of Luke, and he begins an ordinary world and then conflict ensues. And so what happens is there is an external problem in the story. In his case, he has to fight the empire, but it could be anything, and that external problem forces an internal change. And if you think about it from a business perspective, it’s not until when a prospect or a customer has had enough problems and enough pain they’re willing to seek, perhaps your help. And so they’re willing to have an internal shift and internal change. And so what I would say is in storytelling, you want to dramatize the conflict, you want to play up the problem, whatever the challenge is and you want to make it as hard as possible as you can on your character. Because what really all of your characters, but especially your main character, so that people are pulled into that story. We want to see somebody that’s that’s struggling, that’s suffering, not because we’re sadists, but really because for whatever reason that we’re wired, we’re drawn to the stories of high conflict. And then of course, you want to pay it off eventually with a really good ending that provides closure.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:10:38] So relating that because the Star Wars example is perfect. If I was to relate it to business, how could business owners use storytelling to really grow their bottom line, grow their business and grow their impact?
Michael Ashley: [00:10:52] I think there are several different ways you can do it. The first is probably the easiest and the most informal would be getting better at elevator pitches. That’s also something I give presentations about how to say what you do in 30 seconds to a minute. You may have had the experience you were in a networking event or just meeting somebody and you ask them what they do and they go into this long discussion and you’re like, I don’t even know what you do. How can I refer new business? So I think it’s extremely helpful to be able to encapsulate what you do in a pithy yet powerful way if you can say it in 30 seconds to a minute. It’s a really good shorthand and then people know how to refer you or business. But I also think there’s another really helpful way you can do this, which is the case study. If you can demonstrate through story the value that you bring others. Not only can that be compelling to get captured people’s hearts and minds, but it allows people to remember you better. And they think to themselves, Well, I know that this person had this success with their client. Maybe I can refer them in this business. This goes back to the idea I mentioned earlier. Storytelling is really just a very effective technology to deliver information, and perhaps it’s one of the oldest technologies of all. But it is a really effective way to convey information, especially when we’re dealing with complex concepts. If we can whittle them down into a pithy story, then it’s very it’s a lot easier for people to connect with that story.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:12:18] Awesome. What are some resources or ways to get better at telling your story if you’re a business or a brand?
Michael Ashley: [00:12:26] And there are a lot of different ways, first, I’d say the easiest one is practice. I happen to have been in a networking group when I first started my company in 2015 and we would meet every week for breakfast. And so we would have to do an elevator pitch to each other. There’s about 40 to 50 people in the room. And so you couldn’t go past 30 seconds or they cut you off. And so I remember I lived about fifteen minutes from this destination and on my way there in my drive, I would just practice my elevator pitch over and over and over, and I would do different ones every week. And so I just got used to that rhythm, and I think that’s really important. When I teach people how to do this, I tell them that story. I say, look, it’s not as if this came naturally to me. I had to practice it a lot. The other thing I’d recommend is if I had to say one really good book about writing, would be On Writing by Stephen King. What I really liked that Stephen says, is that writers are storytellers shouldn’t wait necessarily for inspiration to strike. True professionals just get up and do it. And so it’s not going to be the case for everybody that you’re just going to be inspired and have that story whenever you want it instead. It’s a function of just getting out there and doing the hard work, and I think that’s how you grow as a storyteller.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:13:40] Awesome. If you had one piece of advice for marketers out there on on building a brand and telling their story, what would you say?
Michael Ashley: [00:13:50] The one thing I would say is try to be a value to somebody else. Try to make the conversation about them and not you. So Dale Carnegie has a really good book about this, How to Win Friends and Influence People. And it was a big impact on my life. And I think so much of our culture unfortunately tends to emphasize the idea of, you know, selfishness and making it all about us. But if we flip that and we think about ways that we can be of value to other people and make that our North Star, if you will, I think that things will come our way. I think that when you act in that way, certain synergies begin to appear different challenges in your life open up. And I think if you truly are thinking about other people, it’s really the best way to be successful, both in business and in life.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:14:35] Thank you so much, Michael, great insight today! We’re so happy to have you on The 19 and look forward to hearing more about storytelling from you in the future.
Michael Ashley: [00:14:45] Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:14:52] Thank you for listening to The 19: Entrepreneur Edition with storytelling expert Michael Ashley. To learn more about Michael’s services, visit MichaelAshleyPublishing.com. If you have additional thoughts on the topics we discussed today, send us an email. You can send questions, comments and more to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:15:21] A special thank you goes out to our contributors, Senior Studio Manager Kelsey Phillips, Micah Panzich, who edits our show, and Ashley Ruiz, Senior Content Writer. Be sure to subscribe to The 19 on Apple Podcasts, Google Play and Spotify, and if you like what you heard today, leave us a review!