Winning The Story Wars with Jonah Sachs

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TSP 109 | Story Wars

Episode Summary

TSP 109 | Story WarsToday’s guest is Jonah Sachs, the author of Winning The Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell (And Live) The Best Stories Will Rule The Future. Jonah talks about the difference between inadequacy marketing and empowerment marketing and how to story to get people engage with your vision. He goes into great detail on whether or not we can use myths to our advantages or not; the myths that we’ve had around for years in our story telling. The more digital we become, he says, the more important storytelling becomes. He said, “If you want to get people to trust you, tell them a story of why you’re so passionate about what you’re doing.” Most importantly, he said if you want to be interesting, he has some real secrets on how to tell an interesting story that makes people want to learn.


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Winning The Story Wars with Jonah Sachs



Today’s guest is none other than Jonah Sachs, who is the cofounder and Chief Storytelling Officer of Free Range Studios in the San Francisco Bay Area. Jonah is internationally recognized as a storyteller, an author, a marketer, a designer, an entrepreneur himself. He’s got a column coming out in Fast Company. He’s written a wonderful book called Winning the Story Wars and has a new one coming out later this year that he’s going to give us a sneak peak on. He literally has helped hundreds of brands and social causes break through with this empowerment marketing approach that fuses storytelling techniques with digital media. That is really the secret to what he’s doing.

For the past sixteen years, Free Range Studios has brought key social issues to the attention of millions with really funny viral videos like The Meatrix and The Story of Stuff. He’s worked with big brands like Microsoft and Green Peace and American Civil Liberties Union. His book, Winning the Story Wars, has won all kinds of awards. He literally talks about drawing case studies from his own body of work. Jonah, welcome to the show.

Thanks for having me, John. I’m glad to be here.

When I first heard about you and first started reading the book, you instantly pulled me in with your story of how you got to play a version of Darth Vader. Would you mind sharing that story? It just made me instantly like you, remember you, and make me want to read the whole book.

TSP 109 | Story Wars

Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell (and Live) the Best Stories Will Rule the Future

I was seven years old. I had just met a new friend at school who had a video camera at the time back in the early 1980s. I’ve never seen a video camera before. He told me that if I wanted to, I could be in his shot-for-shot remake of Return of the Jedi. Nothing could have been more thrilling than doing that. We joined on. We looked at masks. We scouted locations. We dreamed up of how we’re going to shoot every scene. Then, lo and behold, one day, I was cast as Darth Vader, which is, of course, the dream part. Then, when we got to shooting, he pulled me aside and said that while I was doing a great job on the set, he was going to have to dub my voice because I was too squeaky to be Darth Vader, a very crushing piece of information.

At that time, I thought about ending my relationship with this new friend. But strangely enough, we wound up forming a business together fifteen years later. That became Free Range Studios. We’ve been working together on and off ever since. That was a first experience actually with the power of storytelling, because what kid didn’t want to live in Star Wars? I would later come to find out that Star Wars is based on these ancient myth templates that still move people today, in terms of stories that make us care.

The fact that this was going on when you were a young lad, and now you’re certainly not old but a lot of time has passed and it’s still more relevant than ever. That really shows the timelessness of it, doesn’t it?

Yeah. Nobody could have obviously predicted from the 1980s to today what would have happened to our media landscape. It is so different. In some ways, because people have this ability to communicate with each other directly, with brands directly, and decide what media they take in and what they share and what they comment on, in some ways we’re returning to a much more oral tradition-type society; the way we used to communicate. We’re back to everyone owns ideas. Everyone passes them along. They change along the way. That’s how human beings have always communicated. When you go back to our roots of communication, you actually move back towards storytelling and away from some of those broadcast mentality that grew up over the last hundred years, which is really a perversion of the way that people love to communicate. The more digital we become, I believe the more stories become important.

[Tweet “Story Wars: The more digital we become, the more important it is to tell stories.”]

It’s great because you intuitively might think the opposite, but to really be connected to people digitally, the storytelling doesn’t. In fact, in your book, The Story Wars , you talk about Winning the Story Wars, that all wars are story wars, which is such a clever play on words with Star Wars, Story Wars. What is going on in Story Wars? You talk about people have this belief that they want to be part of something, that we’re all in a quest. Is that really the essence of a story war?

The idea is that while we may fight over policies or land or ideology, really what draws people together to give us a sense of us are the stories that we share and the stories that we tell. The stories are these amazing tools for transmitting values, for teaching our children, what do people like us do, what do people like us think? Anthropologists across time have been able to say that the key stories are really what define of tribes or a group sense of us. Without an “us,” there can be no “us versus them.” Then we come up against other groups who have other sets of values, and other stories that they live by. When those stories come into conflict, that’s when we can both feel righteous. We can both feel like we’re on God’s side and yet get into conflict with each other.

TSP 109 | Story Wars

Story Wars: Marketers should realize that there’s a battle out there for ideas.

I mean that literally. People have gone to war over these core stories of what our great nation means, who our enemies are. I mean it a little but more figuratively. We fight it out at the ballot box. We fight it out in our brand choices based on, what kind of person am I? What stories do I want to live by? How then can I take actions that make me feel like I’m living that story every day? I think that without a story, it’s pretty hard to get people to go to war. I’m certainly not advocating that we start more wars with stories, but I am advocating that marketers realize that there’s a battle out there for ideas. If you want to win that battle, you have to understand the story that you’re telling.

That battle continues, if you want to get hired, if you want to get your customers to pick you versus all the other choices, or if you want to get investors to pick you to fund your startup. This concept of storytelling and pitching is intricately tied together. We’ve established the need for being a good storyteller a little bit. Can you break down? You talk about peeling away the layers of things to avoid, you call them “story-killing sins,” that you need to really be tangible, relatable, immersive, memorable, and most importantly to me, emotional. Anything you can talk about as it relates to those things, I think would really help people start to understand how they can craft their own story when they pitch.

I think that we have gotten it into our heads, because we have all grown up in this broadcast tradition, or most of us have grown up at least in this broadcast tradition mentality, that if you had the money to be a professional communicator, if you have the money to get on the radio or get on the TV, then you had some authority over the audience. You’re above them. You could spout a bunch of facts at them. You could tell them what to think. You could make claims about what was so great about your product. They figured, “If that guy’s on the radio, he must have some credibility.” That type of communication gets us to talk about the facts and the features and big proclamations. Nobody really gets drawn in to believe that.

Storytellers have always known that if you just get up and yell the moral of the story at people, that’s not going to make it stick. You actually have to put it into a scenario. Show what it’s really like on the human scale. It’s harder work for sure, but really bring it down to that human scale. What emotion is involved here? If you want to rely on your own sense of puffed up authority or just using a little bit of humor to get a cheap laugh, that’s a real 30-second spot broadcast mentality.

If you want to hook people in and make them feel like, “I know this person. I trust this person. This person is someone that I want to do business with.” Telling your personal story, telling the story of how your product came to be, telling stories of how your users will actually come to ultimately engage with the product is all incredibly powerful. For my new book, I’ve been studying. Actually investor intuition is one of the topics I’ve been studying. There are some amazing studies that are pretty new now that are coming out about how much investors make decisions based not on financial data, market data, industry trends, but just on this one question of, “Do I trust the entrepreneur? Is the entrepreneur someone I want to do business with?”

[Tweet “Story Wars: If you want people to trust you, tell your personal story.”]

There’s a lot of data that shows that. That trumps even when the market data goes the other direction. How do you make someone think that you’re someone you want to do business with? Of course, you dress nice, you smile, all that kind of stuff. You show them your resume. Tell them a story that they can relate to, that they can put themselves into. That’s going to create a huge bond. I think that information really backs up this idea if you want someone to invest in your business. You certainly need to tell a story.

What’s the title of your new book?

TSP 109 | Story Wars

Story Wars: How do we actually change the way that we behave to adapt to a changing world?

It’s called Unsafe Thinking. It’s about how in changing environments, old ways of operating no longer work. How do we actually change the way that we think, change the way that we behave to adapt to a changing world? So, no particular methodology. I invested in this storytelling methodology quite a bit. I traveled around the world talking about storytelling. One of the things I learned is that becoming an expert in something is awesome. It’s fun. It gives you something to talk about. You meet a lot of people. But it actually slows your learning down. It gives you this idea that if you got a giant hammer, suddenly everything looks like a nail. Storytelling is a great tool, but in some ways, I actually got stupider by becoming an expert about storytelling.

At some point, I had to realize I’m less curious. I’m less interested. I’m growing less because I’m only thinking about one thing. That led me to this idea of, “How do we simultaneously invest in our brands and who we are in the world and our footprint and our expertise, and still remain beginners and learners?” That’s caused me to investigate all kinds of stuff, like the fallacy of expertise, the failures of experts, like intuition and counter intuition, like ideas about values, who are we willing to communicate and collaborate with? Who do we call outsiders and how does better products come from working with people that we find somewhat repugnant? All those things. How do we get out of safety and into that unsafe zone so that we can really succeed?

Expanding our comfort zone is what keeps us growing, yet maintaining our expertise. It sounds like what you’re really saying you can do both simultaneously, not one or the other.

That’s definitely a part of it. There’s this myth that the beginner comes in and changes the field. That actually is a myth. You need to build up. You need hard work. You need deliberate practice. You need to get those 10,000 hours in what you’re doing to really change a field that you’re in. At the same time, there’s this huge trap that you face. That the better you become at something, the less able you are to adapt when the landscape changes. Of course, the landscape is changing. If you’re just playing chess, where the rules never change, you just keep practicing. But life is not like chess. Certainly, the technology market is not like chess. That’s what I’m working on now.

This intuition of investors, making a decision with their gut emotionally and then backing it up with the left brain logic, I love. One of the key ways to get anybody, whether it’s an investor or potential customer, to trust you is to be able to tell a story of why you’re doing something or why you’re so passionate about something. That is where the emotional component comes in that most people don’t know how to do. Is there any tip you have on how to generate a story? You have this really great chapter in your current book, where you’re talking about, “For God’s sake, be interesting.” What are some key tips we can do to at least be interesting when we tell a story?

TSP 109 | Story Wars

Story Wars: Put characters in situations on the surface that played that story out in real life.

Let me answer a couple of ways. First of all, a story is really constructed by taking some truth. Something that you know is going to teach your audience something; that your audience is going to say, “That’s what I believe too. But I never thought to say it that way.” It’s some kind of core truth or moral of the story, but illustrate it not just by saying it, but by having characters on the stage that are playing out a drama. At the end, you’ll realize, “That character succeeded because cheaters never win. That character failed because greed always leads to failure. We believe in the power of hard work. That’s what this story is about.” Know what your story is about. Put characters in situations on the surface that played that story out in real life.

If somebody is saying, “That story really comports with my values and my world view,” you’re going to make that hard connection. You’re going to make that emotional connection. How do you make that story interesting? The problem with so much professional branded corporate storytelling is that we don’t want to take chances. We want to go from “the world is bad” to “I use this product and the world is good.” That’s so boring. If you went to a Hollywood movie that was just climbed up on a gentle curve to betterness all the way, you think it’s a horrible movie.

If you want a story to be interesting, how do you set it up so it’s not obvious? You expose mistakes you’ve made along the way. You show some amount of fallibility. You don’t make it so that the solution is obvious. You need some level of surprise, some level of twists and turns, the non-obvious to make it stay interesting. That’s one thing I always coach people on: No one’s going to listen to your story if they know where it’s going from the beginning. Sometimes, that means starting your story in the middle. Don’t just start at point A and go point Z. You’ll start at point M and then flash back, talk about the real trials that you’ve been through, get a little bit vulnerable. Those are some tools along the way. I think definitely, keeping people guessing is what keeps them tuned in.

[Tweet “Story Wars: No one will listen to your story if they think they know where it is going.”]

No one’s going to pay attention to your story if they think they already know the ending. The element of surprise is what keeps a story interesting. Let’s give some examples. You have so many great ones in your book of different campaigns that people have probably heard about. You’re talking about Listerine, the moral of that story is bad breath makes you undesirable, but there’s a core need that’s being celebrated there by being desirable and having good breath.

I use that Listerine story because it’s one of the first examples of where marketers learned to stop just talking about their products and start telling compelling stories around them. In the 1920s, the story behind it is there was this pharmacy antiseptic that was Listerine. They didn’t know what to do with it. They called Madison Avenue and said, “What could we do with this product? We want to sell a lot of it.” They said, “This is good for halitosis.” They’re like, “What’s halitosis?” No one even knew what that meant. They’re like, “Halitosis is bad breath.” They’re like, “Is that even a problem?” “Yeah, we can make it a problem.”

They ran these ads. They’re called the Sad Edna ads where you have this spinster. She’s old and unmarried. At the time, that’s 27 years old or something like that. She’s never going to be married, why? Because she has a problem that she could never know she has. No one’s going to tell her she has. It’s bad breath. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride. There she is looking lonely and sad. This was an enormously successful advertising campaign. Women all over the country reading Ladies’ Home Journal started wondering if maybe they had bad breath. Suddenly, a multi-billion dollar beauty industry was launched on this campaign. I point out in the book that an approach like that is very traditional though. It’s a story. There’s a hero. There’s a damsel in distress. The hero is, of course, the product. The damsel in distress is the consumer. That works when you are flipping through by yourself at home, a magazine, and feeling who do you talk to about how you feel about this?

Imagine sharing on Facebook, a message to all of your friends, “I think you guys all have bad breath.” No one would go for that. This idea of, “You suck, you consumers suck. This product can make you acceptable,” was what I call inadequacy marketing. It’s just the basic underlying premise of most marketing for most of the broadcast era. What I call empowerment marketing is really flipping that script. Instead of saying, “You suck, this brand can make you better,” you say, “You, customer, can do great things. You have a great potential. It may be hard. You might have to fight to get there. It might not be convenient and easy, but you have a great destiny. We can help you get there.”

TSP 109 | Story Wars

Story Wars: Don’t make people feel bad. Make them feel good.

That is the change. Don’t make people feel bad. Make them feel good. Don’t tell them how much they lack. Tell them how to reach for those higher values, not just fitting in or making money, or gaining convenience, but having a meaningful life, transcending values on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. That’s the kind of work that I did to tie in patterns of ancient myth that really do that with the new marketing landscape. Perhaps a little bit theoretical, if you’re just sitting down to write your next tweet. I find it very inspiring to think about the difference.

We can absolutely take away how to use that right off of that, because if you’re pitching an investor, let’s say, to fund your startup and you’re painting a picture with your story of what your vision is, that not only is that investor going to make money, but there ideally might be some social impact, making the world safer or better or somehow, that there’s a reason as opposed to just focusing at all the problems you’re solving. Once we get this, for example, if we can prevent drunk driving or if we can keep the schools safe or whatever the problem is that you’re solving with your startup, then the investor’s saying, “I’m making money but I’m also making the world better.” That’s a much more emotional connection that we talked about earlier that good stories have.

You can do that for sure; make the investor feel that they’re a potential hero. You can show how your product makes your everyday users heroes. That means not that just they’re able to get their laundry detergent 25% cheaper but that they’re actually able to better care for their kids and live their higher values. I often liken it to this: imagine you’re at a party and you’re standing next to somebody who basically the subtext of everything they’re saying is how great they are. How long would you stay in that conversation? Imagine you’re standing next to someone, and after five minutes of talking to them, you start to feel really good about yourself. How do you feel about that person? Very different.

You talk about this concept of the myth gap, do we have not anymore myths? I really want to do a little dive into that because there are four elements to a good myth. You talk about there’s an explanation, there’s a meaning, and a story, and most importantly, the ritual of how do we take that into our life. Can you tell us about the myth gap and is there a gap in today’s society? Do you feel that there is still a way to use digital connections with keeping the myth alive?

The basic idea of a myth is not to think of it in terms of fact versus myth. It’s not a lie or a misconception as we often think of it. The first idea is that myths are meaningful stories that all societies have always lived by. Without myths, we don’t really know what we value and who we are. That’s what anthropologists, including Joseph Campbell and many others have said, if you look at a society, you want to understand it, you look at its myths.

Now, these myths combine four things, as you said: explanation, this is how the world works. God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. That’s how the world came to be. Meaning; it doesn’t just tell you something, but it makes you understand your place in the cosmos, your place in the tribe, your place in society. God made the world, so it’s his world. I should obey him. Story; it doesn’t take place yesterday or in your neighbor’s backyard. It takes place in some mythological other symbolic, creative realm, where anything’s possible. Ritual; The Garden of Eden story, of course, takes place in this forgotten time that you can never go back to, in this lost Garden of Eden. This ritual; how do I live this story out in my life? These stories are not useful if we can’t enact them ourselves. That’s what a myth is.

TSP 109 | Story Wars

Story Wars: In our hyper-rational, scientific, technological society, we don’t share those myths like we used to.

In our hyper-rational, scientific, technological society, we don’t share those myths anymore like we used to. We don’t all believe the same thing. We don’t all share these same meaning stories. Carl Jung in the 1920s and 30s started to really worry that we would be the first society without myths and that world war and violence, and all these things that were happening around him were the result of man losing that meaning based on myth. There’s been a clear belief that we are this first society not to have shared myths. I wrestled with that in writing the book. What does that mean? I came to believe actually that we do have myths. But hose myths are now being created by marketers.

Example that I use is the Marlboro man. The Marlboro man came along in the 1950s. Classic storytelling marketing campaign. Philip Morris wanted to introduce a filtered cigarette for men. That’s an entirely new product. Filtered cigarettes used to be only for women. What do they do? They talk about that it’s more healthy. Did they talk about it tastes better? Did they talk about, it’s cheaper? No. They picked a symbol of basically a broken myth. They picked a symbol of this cowboy. At the time, Americans were really wrestling with American identity. Are the cowboys the good guys? Maybe America isn’t good. We’re in the middle of all these conflicts. The way that we’ve treated Native Americans, how do we see ourselves? This is broken myth of the American West. Marlboro comes along and shows us this cowboy smoking a Marlboro cigarette, reinvigorates that exciting myth of the American Frontier.

What does he do? Give us an explanation. There’s a new way to smoke filter cigarettes for men. Meaning; you don’t have to be a cowboy to take on this identity. When someone pulls out a pack of Marlboro Reds, we know what that means about them. That they’re rugged and rebels and all that stuff. Story; nobody walked by those billboards and said, “That guy is not real. He’s just an actor.” We know he’s not real. It’s okay. We still buy it. Rituals are some way to live this story out. Of course, we just go to the store and we buy a different kind of cigarette. These kinds of stories really fill that myth gap in a lot of ways for people. It really said maybe we don’t have legends anymore like we used to, but we can express our identities and ourselves through the products that we buy.

I made the video series, The Story of Stuff, which really talks about how problematic that is to just spend money and consume things as a way of deciding who we are. It is an enormously powerful tool if you can create new myths to get people to do anything from take more pro-social actions to buying your product and using it in a way that makes their lives better, to identifying with an online community. If you could help create new myths, and right now, a lot of our myths are broken. We saw in the last election how the death of the myth of the American dream really opened up a lot of space for new stories to come through. Donald Trump spectacularly capitalized on people’s feeling that that myth is falling apart and offered to bring a new story in its place. You see how powerful it remains to this day.

That, again, may seem overwhelming. But if you break it down into four pieces, am I offering people a real explanation of how life can be better lived or how the world works? Am I giving them an identity, a community to be part of by engaging with this story? Am I using story? Am I not just talking about the rational here and now, but setting it in a fantastic, exciting world, where more is possible? Ritual; is it clear for them how they can get involved and do something that makes it part of their lives? Any marketing effort or pitch can be better if you think along those lines.

You have, at the very end of your book, a whole graphic, you give people a story strategy map. Can you walk us through that very quickly so that people can start to figure out? Obviously they need to buy your book, but if they can start to say, “I understand I need to tell a story when I pitch. It’s going to build up trust and credibility with the people I’m pitching. I know that my story has to have some myth and emotional involvement in it. Now, the basics of storytelling, you’ve given me, but how do I start?” Your three things at the top there would be really helpful from who’s the brand hero etc.

TSP 109 | Story Wars

Story Wars: The core insight is your brand is a story.

I build the five-part model essentially that helps people start to figure this out and how do they build their brand as a story. The core insight is your brand is a story. It’s not being told at a single YouTube video. It’s a story; every chapter is being written every day by your audience, by you, by what you say, what you do. You don’t get to control that story but you get to create the coherence for it, the ideas for it, and then let it play out in the world. What I ask people to do is think, at the heart of all stories are core values, what are the values that your company stands for and lives out and that you want to communicate and share with your audience that will matter to them? Don’t just pick the most basic values like the need for convenience or safety or security, but values that can help people live their best lives.

What’s that moral of the story? If your brand is a story, what’s the moral? What’s that core truth that you’re standing for in everything you say and do? Figure that out and you’ve got some real good consistency in your messaging. The other three pieces are, one, don’t think of yourself as the hero in this grand story that you’re telling. Really think about how are we making heroes out of our customers? Two, if we’re not the hero, who are we? When you think of yourself as the mentor, we haven’t really spoken too much about the hero’s journey today, but I use that model. You’re not Luke Skywalker, you’re Obi-Wan Kenobi, inviting someone on an adventure. Obi-Wan Kenobi doesn’t just tell people what to do. He speaks. He creates connection. If we’re a mentor, what’s our human voice? We use brand archetyping, like many people do, to figure out. If we were a person, what kind of person would we be? Whose voice do we speak in?

Finally, the thing that the mentor always gives the hero to bring him on this adventure is some magical gift. What is that gift that you’re giving to your audience, that innovation, that differentiation, that new thing, that makes this interesting, exciting journey actually seem possible? You think of those five things. What are your values? What’s your moral of the story? What’s your brand gift? Who are your heroes and who are you as a mentor? You could maybe not read the book and just go right at it. The book obviously gives lots of tips and tricks for not only how to build that strategy for what your brand is but also then to tell stories to implement it.

You’ve certainly given us a magical gift on how to become great storytellers and the importance of it. I can’t thank you enough. You’re going to be writing a column for Fast Company soon. People can also follow you on Twitter. Would you mind giving us your Twitter handle?


Obviously, if people want to engage you professionally, let’s let them know about your agency and who your ideal clients are that you like to work with at Free Range Studios.

You can find us at Anyone who’s got a world-changing vision and wants to do purpose-driven communications or innovation, we’d love to connect. Let us know if you want to help figure out your new story or how to live that story in the real world.

Thank you so much, Jonah.

Thanks, John.

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