The Content Formula, Tell A Story Of Success with Michael Brenner

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TSP 150 | Content FormulaEpisode Summary:

In the digital world and in its marketing space, consistency is key. And from that consistency comes the ability to tell stories to win clients. But like most speakers who are just starting up, we get butterflies when we speak in front of people. The trick is to not get rid of the butterflies but make them fly in a formation that will work for you. One other technique by Michael Brenner is to tell a story that seeks to help people instead of promoting your product or service to them. He also developed the Content Formula that’s been used by Pixar Movies to tell their stories. Michael shares his stories of overcoming his fear of speaking by speaking in front of many people and telling them great stories.

Our guest is Michael Brenner who shares the formula that Pixar movies uses to tell their stories, and lets us see how we can tell our own story using that successful formula. He said, “Fear are just stories that we tell ourselves, so if you want to let go of your fear, tell yourself a different story.” He said, “The way to be successful in your communication is to help people versus just promoting. That’s how you get a good return on your investment.” He has specific examples of how to do that with your content marketing, where you are tapping into both the knowledge and the humanity of the people on your team. Enjoy the episode.

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The Content Formula, Tell A Story Of Success with Michael Brenner

Our guest is Michael Brenner who speaks, writes and consults on marketing, leadership, customer experience, and even employee engagement. He’s been recognized as the top business speaker by Huffington Post and he’s a top CMO Influencer by Forbes.

TSP 150 | Content Formula

The Content Formula: Calculate the ROI of Content Marketing & Never Waste Money Again

He speaks on leadership and culture, but what he does is he helps companies engage and convert new customers by getting the employees engaged in my favorite topic of all, storytelling. He’s co-authored the best-selling book, The Content Formula. He has written over 1,000 articles for companies like The Economist, The Guardian, Forbes, and many more. He’s championed a customer-centric approach at big organizations and small. He delivers workshops and keynotes for Fortune 500 brands, and now he’s the CEO of a marketing insider group believing that strong leaders are those that champion the teams. Michael, welcome to the show.

Thanks for having me. Good to be here.

I always like to ask my guests if they can take us back as far back as you want. You can go back anywhere in your childhood, high school or college. Where did you start to think, “I want to learn how to be a storyteller and a keynote speaker?”

I was always into stories and was a pretty avid reader at a relatively young age. I was an English Lit major when I was in college. Understanding the fine art of storytelling was something that I was interested in. I enjoyed college. I didn’t think it was something that I was going to be doing professionally. I thought I’d get into business and do sales and marketing or whatever, and sure enough I’m now doing marketing and speaking around storytelling. It was something that from a relatively early age, I geeked out about the process of telling a great story. The keynote speaking part is interesting. I talk about this in my seminars when I speak to executives who have a desire to become better speakers, that I had to navigate myself through a tremendous amount of stage fright, physically debilitating stage fright. In my seminars, I go through the six most common fears and how we’re more afraid of public speaking than death and we’ve all heard that. What I help my clients and my workshop attendees try to understand is that we all face those fears, but we can overcome them. Myself as an example, I tell the story that I physically passed out in fourth grade on stage when I had to do a recitation of the Gettysburg Address. I had similarly crazy stories even as I got older. As I became a professional and started working for other people, I realized that my career was going to suffer if I didn’t figure this out. It was a journey. It took me a long time. There are a few tips and tricks and things like that that I try to train people to use that can allow the story that’s inside all of us to emerge. That’s what I try to help people understand.

I love that you gave an example of the vulnerability, a little fourth grade boy passing out. Your system basically shut down. Now as adults, we tend to get butterflies in our stomach, and what I like to tell people is the goal is not to get rid of them, but to get them to fly in formation. That’s my little tip. What tip do you have to help people get over their stage fright?

There were a few very specific things that helped me. The line that I use is “Fears are just stories that we tell ourselves.” When I stopped to focus on that and started realizing that, there’s something inside me, in my head, some knowledge or experience or some story that I need to tell, that the audience I’m speaking to needs to hear, and it could change their life. Maybe it only changes their life in a small way, it will help them do their job a little bit better or whatever, it’s not life-changing stuff, but it’s something that they need to hear. As soon as I started thinking that I was giving a gift of knowledge or experience or stories to my audience instead of making it, “I’m afraid. Am I going to go through the right words?” and all those kinds of things, as soon as I made the focus outward and not inward, my whole approach changed.

[Tweet “Fears are just stories that we tell ourselves. “]

Fears are just stories we tell ourselves, so we can tell ourselves a different story. From the fourth grade boy who got nervous, to overcoming your fears by re-telling a different story, to getting named a top business speaker by Huffington Post, I bet there’s another story in there that I can ask you to tell us. Was it a goal you set? Did it just happen? People are always fascinated by that kind of accomplishment, because obviously people want to get recognized. It’s always interesting for me to hear, “I just did my thing and I was discovered,” or “This is what I did to get there.”

There’s no one story. I never set out to become a recognized speaker. It’s probably around the same time that I figured out that the digital world we live in is something that you can take advantage of if you commit to being consistent about it. Twitter came out and I signed up and got a Twitter account. I didn’t get it for a long time. Then I started blogging and I realized that when you add content, you create to an audience you’ve nurtured on the social platforms, the combination of those two things can be powerful. That led me to being asked to do things like podcasts, webcasts, webinars and things like that. As I overcame my fear of public speaking, I found that I love it. In the digital world that we live in, it’s consistency. I wrote a mission statement for myself that I didn’t want to just sponge knowledge out of the world, I wanted to give back. As soon as I made that commitment, that meant writing and speaking and taking requests from great folks like you to have conversations like this. It emerged and I feel so fortunate to be able to do what I do. The recognition was never something I sought out, but obviously it’s great to see.

What I hear is that the shift from worrying about what you’re going to do and getting it out to the world in your speaking helps you overcome the fear of speaking, and then the same thing is you don’t want to just take knowledge, you want to give it out. Your purpose is what drives you. I hear that time and again from successful people like yourself, who tell me, “My bigger purpose is, and that’s what drives me, and then the results come from that,” as opposed to, “My purpose is to get recognized as X, Y and Z.” Would that be a fair summary?

Absolutely. To the question you asked, I didn’t seek to become a public speaker, let alone a recognized one, but public speaking was an extension of that mission of trying to share what I know and what I love to do with others. Speaking is one of the platforms that I use to do that.

One of the things you and I share in common in addition to both being keynote speakers is we both have been in the shoes of our audiences because you have this background of working for companies, so you know what it’s like to have a quota and meet deadlines and get promoted and all that stuff. That brings a whole other level of credibility and authenticity. For me, my purpose is to help as many people as possible get off the self-esteem rollercoaster of only feeling good if their numbers are up because I was on that rollercoaster and it wasn’t fun. I love what you’re doing of helping people figure out a way to take the content they’re creating and get a return on investment, which leads us to your great book. If you haven’t seen the cover of Michael’s book, I highly encourage you to go to and look up The Content Formula and buy the book. Tell us where the cover image came from because that’s a great image.

I don’t know if there’s any great story behind it. The frustration that led to the book was all around the massive amounts of money that I see companies wasting. There’s not a single company out there of any size that isn’t wasting 40%, 50%, sometimes 60% of either marketing budget or even the time and effort they put into marketing. I tried to dumb it down and simplify it. For your audience who haven’t jumped over to Amazon, it’s an image of a piggybank. It brings you back to those days when you were a kid and you were saving the quarters that grandma gave you in your birthday card. The answer to the question, “How do you stop wasting all that money?” is simple. The frustration that I feel is almost juvenile. It makes me so crazy I want to bang my head against the wall. The goal of the book is to try to shed some light on the simple answers. For example, we’re all storytellers and there are experts inside every company. We had the Super Bowl and you see $5 million spent on a 30-second ad and it’s easy to see why our egos lead us down paths to creating communications in our companies that don’t resonate. Yet, our companies are filled with great people who have real stories to tell, that can help their customers, and we have to expose that. If we do, we can achieve the ROI and the growth in our business that everyone’s looking for.

There are two big takeaways that I have from your book and I’m sure there are many more, but the first one that you alluded to is you can spend a lot of money on a 30-second spot, but how engaged is the audience? That’s the differential between content marketing and just the commercial that puts something out there. Is that a good take away from The Content Formula book?

The main one is that if you seek to help versus promote, you’ll see better results. It’s counterintuitive because almost every executive in the world thinks that, “I work for this company, I love this company, and so I need to tell people all about it.” It’s our natural business instinct to want to tell stories that way. Those are the exact stories that we tune out. They’re self-serving. If you reverse that thinking into, “I have this company filled with amazing, professional, and smart people. If I ask them to tell the world what they know and how they help our customers solve the problems that they have,” that’s how you can, not tell, but show the world how great your company is. We have to put mechanisms in place that allow our brain to think in that different way.

[Tweet “If you seek to help versus promote, you’ll see better results. “]

Let’s talk about two of the commercials that have gotten some buzz, which is one of the goals. If you don’t capture those millions of people at the Super Bowl, the ideal is that there’s maybe some pre-chat before the Super Bowl now, with the commercials being aired on YouTube and getting conversations, as well as post Super Bowl conversations and sharing. The two that I saw and we can maybe have a conversation about is the Amazon one, where they had all these celebrities pretending to be the voice of their Alexa. What did you think of that? Is that engaging? Has it got the help versus promote element to it or is it just entertaining?

It’s just entertaining. What’s the value of that entertainment? There’s another commercial that my family and I, we always laugh when it comes on and then we always talk about it that we forget who the actual advertiser is. Is it achieving its goal? I doubt it. I read in AdAge that the Dilly Dilly Budweiser commercial is the most of viral ad campaign in years, and yet sales of Budweiser have not just gone down, they’ve accelerated the decrease in sales. It’s a great example of having a very entertaining, even memorable advertising experience, but you can’t turn Budweiser into craft beer. It is what it is. I’ve never been one to ask for advertising budgets and I don’t want to necessarily criticize the hardworking and creative folks in that industry, but I choose to focus on content that helps. The book, The Content Formula, shows how in marketing, we don’t always know what the return on investment is, but with content marketing, you’ll always know. Every time I’ve worked with a company that has looked at it, they’ve seen increases in their return on investment by factors of two and three and four. It’s not just visibility to return on investment, it’s significant impact increases. That’s where I choose to focus on.

Do you have an example, Michael, of someone you’ve worked with that’s okay with you sharing or maybe even a great example you’ve seen of content marketing versus the old school of pushing your message out that you hope will eventually get awareness up? Even that it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to translate into sales.

In almost every one of my keynotes, even when it’s not about content marketing, I tell some content marketing success stories for different reasons. I’ll just mention two. One of them is Cleveland Clinic, who’s not a customer or client of mine. Amanda Todorovich runs the content team over there. I have a huge respect for what they’ve done. They went from just as a hospital system five years ago to a content provider today that outranks WebMD and Wikipedia for most of the healthcare search terms that people use. They’re a top fifteen website in the world. They get 5 million monthly visitors. What Amanda has done is she said, “We’re not just a hospital system. We have doctors, administrators, nurses and folks inside our organization that care deeply about our patients.” They have so much knowledge that they could share that, “If we start to share that knowledge, we can grow the awareness of Cleveland Clinic, but we can help a lot of people. Our core mission is to improve patient outcomes.” Their content mission is to improve patient outcomes, whether you could become a patient of theirs or not. Basically, they’re sharing what they know with the world and in doing so they’ve created essentially an online magazine, a healthcare website, that generates revenue in the form of Google Ads. It’s unbelievable that three times a week they interview a doctor or a specialist inside the company, they share some interesting piece of health information, and it’s creating tremendous results. That’s one example.

This is the first time I’ve ever heard of a company creating content that’s their employees telling stories, in this case doctors, that they’ve been able to monetize. It’s a whole other source of revenue. That’s revolutionary.

My second story is Capgemini. I started working with them about four years ago. I was so overwhelmed by the story. There were three people in their corporate marketing and communications organization who decided, “We’re trying to market our products and services. We’re the number four after Accenture, Deloitte and KPMG. How does a number four player break through the noise?” They started highlighting the knowledge and expertise of their practice leaders, their consultants basically. They created a site called Content Loop. It’s everyday consultants talking about blockchain and cloud computing, the technical stuff that they consult around. They don’t do a lot of branding, there’s no super hard call to action on it. It says, “If you liked this article by Joe, connect with Joe on LinkedIn.” In a program that was only intended to raise the awareness of the folks inside their organization, after a year they found that they generated $1 million in sales via the LinkedIn platform, because people said, “Joe was smart and he wrote a great article that helped me. Then I connected with Joe and when I had a project come up, I thought of Joe. I reached out to him and we sold $1 million.” What’s interesting is when Capgemini realized what they had, they focused on sharing the stories of their people and the humanity of the people that they have. They generated $24 million in sales in the second year by almost doing nothing else but focusing on the connections that their readers were making with their authors.

It’s such a great example of an organization that tapped into the knowledge and the passions and the humanity of their folks inside their organization and generated significant returns. I don’t think any Super Bowl commercial is going to generate $24 million in sales. I asked a bunch of consultants to write an article and they were able to achieve that. That’s that counterintuitive nature that storytelling could be the results that it can provide for organizations.

[Tweet “Tap into the knowledge and humanity of your people. “]

The interesting thing about that story for me, Michael, is that the call to action is so easy and not asking someone to go from first date to getting married. It’s like, “If you liked this, do you want to connect?” It’s very low risk, very easy, “Why not? There’s no downside to doing that.” That starts to build the relationship, so you’re not asking someone to make this huge commitment from reading a blog article. That’s a valuable insight that you shared. The other one is not just sharing your knowledge, but the humanity of the people. On this, do you work with people to try and put in some personal story? How do you bring the humanity into the blogs or the content that they’re creating so that it’s not just like you’re reading some boring article?

The analogy I always use when I talk to folks is everyone has that initial fear of “I’m not a good enough writer.” A lot of companies want to over-engineer the editorial process with brand standards and tone of voice and all this stuff. I always tell people, “From a company perspective, you’ve got to let go.” From an individual perspective, the analogy I use is it doesn’t matter if you love cats. You share a story about cats because you love cats and maybe it’s GIFs of cats riding on Roombas or whatever silly things cats do. The interesting thing is it doesn’t have to have anything to do with what your company sells, because there’s a potential customer, employee or investor of your company that might also love cats. When they see, let’s say Capgemini, people writing and sharing funny stories about cats, they’re going to realize, “What a great organization that allows their people to do that, to share the things that they love, no matter how nerdy or funny that might be.” Obviously I’ve never seen anybody write an article about cats or sharing cat videos on a branded content platform, but I try to highlight that it’s okay to be human. It’s okay to even be a little personal. That’s the stuff that we like to read and share.

When I work with clients when they are pitching to get a new client, I tell them, “People hire people they trust and like. You’ve got to tell some stories about you and why you’re so passionate about working here, or how you got to become an architect,” if you’re an architectural firm, whatever it is that makes it so human. People get confused and think, “If I give enough information, then I’ll get hired,” as opposed to people are going to emotionally connect with your stories. If you’re pitching and other people are pitching before and after you, stories are the best way to be memorable. What you’re doing is taking that and putting it into not just the story when you’re in front of a client to get hired, but also when you’re putting your messaging out into the world on websites and blogs, etc.

A lot of people that do keynote speeches, a lot of times you’ll see lesser trained speakers stand up and they might go through ten stats. I always try to tell presenters that stats can support a point, but fear is what drives us. It almost sounds like a manipulative thing to say, but I start almost every one of my conversations with folks in the professional setting by identifying and almost spending too much time on calling out the fears that we all have. We started talking about the fear of public speaking when we started, that I almost passed out on the stage when I was in fourth grade. People feel that fear, and that’s the only way to drive change. It’s okay. It doesn’t mean we have to create fear, it just means call out the fear we all have, that we all face every day and be the solution to it. We call that the villain in the storytelling formula.

Are there any other tips that you have about what makes a good story that you can share?

I’m a big fan and believer in the Pixar storytelling formula. Pixar is now doing a massive online course that I think is for free. It’s an extensive course. I can give you the cheat sheet of it. Pixar, for those of you who don’t know, is owned now by Disney Animation Studios and was bought by Steve Jobs back in the ’80s when he was let go from Apple. He bought it from George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, for a very small amount of money, a couple of $100,000, and sold it to Disney for billions and billions of dollars. It’s the most successful production studio in Hollywood’s history. The reason for that is their storytelling formula. One of my favorite business books is Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc. For those of you who are interested in getting an understanding of how to scale creativity inside of business, he does a great job in that book. The answer is leaders that inspire their teams and allow their teams to do the work that they want to do, that’s the trick there.

The Pixar storytelling formula is, “Once upon a time,” and then you introduce the hero. “Every day,” so it’s what does the hero do every day. “One day,” this is the big thing that drives somebody to take a step forward in their life. “Because of that, because of that, until finally.” “Once upon a time, every day, one day, because of that, because of that, until finally.” That’s the Pixar storytelling formula. You could use it like, “Once upon a time, there was a fish named Nemo whose father was scared that he might go out into the open ocean and die. Every day, he warned his son Nemo about the terrors that could happen and the bad things that can happen out in the open ocean. One day, Nemo, because he’s a teenager, decided to rebel and he went out into the open ocean. Because of that, he was captured. Because of that, Marlin, his father, went on a journey to save him until finally they were reunited and learned these great lessons about facing your fears and going out into the world.” Every Pixar animated movie follows that exact same formula. Once upon a time, every day, one day, because of that, because of that, until finally. Write that down and try to think about how you can tell your story or tell your company’s story or even present your product or solution in that storytelling way.

TSP 150 | Content Formula

Content Formula: Call out the fear we all have, that we all face every day and be the solution to it.

What I love about it is there was some fear, which you said is one of the things that makes a good story. There’s the fear of “Don’t go out into the ocean, it’s not safe.” That fear element to a great story but into this formula is fantastic. How else can people follow you on social media? What’s your Twitter handle and all that good stuff?

My company is If you head over there, you can get a PDF version of my book for half price, The Content Formula. I also offer some training courses and even some free videos there that you can subscribe to on activating your team for success and how to put together a business case for doing content marketing and storytelling. You can find me on Twitter, @BrennerMichael, and also in LinkedIn. Those are my main platforms.

Michael, any last thoughts or bit of advice?

Keep in mind that storytelling is the key to being able to communicate in today’s world. Hopefully, we shared some tips. I love helping people to see the light when it comes to inverting their pitches and resisting that natural tendency to want to talk about yourself. If I can help in any way, please feel free to reach out to me.

Thanks again for being such a great guest.

Thanks for having me.

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