How’s your storytelling? In this podcast, Harvard professor & author Jerry Zaltman shares his expertise on what makes for great storytelling, the power of metaphors, and how, in addition to reading, writing and talking (yes!) can also be powerful modes of discovery.


References & Links

Professor Gerald Zaltman Harvard Professor Jerry Zaltman

“Unlocked: Keys to Improve Your Thinking” Book & Donation Program

Stories and Storytelling

Talk About Talk


Interview Transcript

AW: Let’s get into it. So I know that you’ve written over 20 books. I think it’s 23. Is that right?

JZ: That sounds about right.

AW:  Okay. So you’ve covered some themes in your books, such as consumer research, metaphors, consumer psychology, but your most recent book entitled, “Unlocked: keys to improve your thinking,” is a little bit different, right? Maybe you can start by telling us a little bit about the book and why you wrote it.

JZ: Okay. It didn’t start out as a book per se. I didn’t plan to write this book. The way it began is about two, three years ago, I began to worry a lot about the information world that my grandkids were growing up in. A world that we now call fake news or a period of truth decay. Especially a period of time where opinion seems to determine fact, what we accept as a fact, as opposed to a fact determining what our opinions might be. And as I thought about that problem for them, and began writing little exercises, to sensitize them to the problem in conversation, I began to appreciate more and more that so much of our attention in daily life goes to WHAT we think in comparison, we give relatively little attention to HOW we think – to various complex and often hidden forces that determine what it is we think. And I have some explanations for that. But I was concerned increasingly that these young adults were not being instructed much in terms of how they think. They would be given things to think about, but not the all-important factor of how they get there, how they arrive at it. So I would do these exercises and, you know, share them in writing or verbally, as I mentioned, with them at different times. And as friends and colleagues began to hear about what I was doing, they started encouraging me to write a book for people of all ages, kids of all ages, as it were. And it turns out that so many of the exercises I present in the book are actually ones I’ve used with executives, with MBA students. And I began to appreciate more and more how much thirst if there is for reflecting inward about how you think. Not just what you think.

AW: Right? So it’s like a different level of consciousness. You have the WHAT versus HOW. It’s almost like a meta consciousness of what’s going on between your ears.

JZ: Exactly. I think so much of how we think is largely unconscious and we’re only aware of the product. That is, what we think when we’re actively reflecting or speaking, talking about what we think. And that’s a little late in the game to be exercising quality control over the content of thought.

AW: I love that “quality control over the quality of our thought.” The only example that I can really think of that’s occurred in the marketplace you know, in terms of books or other material that encourages this level of thinking is, awhile ago, there were a lot of books being published by economists about heuristics, and then more recently, and even in, you know, the current culture of fake news, etc. as you mentioned, people are complaining about it, but they’re not doing anything about it. So I applaud you for doing something about it.

JZ: Well, do you know part of the challenge is because HOW we think is largely invisible to us, it’s a little scary to go there ,to probe that. The picture we might see isn’t always you know. The picture who would like to see we might find ourselves more often than we would like to think, using opinion as a screening device for what is a fact and changing what we think of a fact based on how much we like the origin of the fact.

AW: I appreciate you offering the WHAT you’re thinking about versus HOW you’re thinking idea of as a kind of a way of summarizing the approach in the book. It makes me think about what I’m trying to do with the TalkAboutTalk podcast. My objective with TalkAboutTalk was to educate myself and listeners about how we can talk and communicate more effectively. I’m thinking about that in a more disciplined way after having read your book because you’re focusing on the thinking about thinking and I’m focusing on the talking about talking so it just works so well and I, again, I thank you for that.

JZ: I you know, when we spoke a while back both the issue of TalkAboutTalk, I hadn’t really framed it in this way, initially. And then as I started thinking as a result of that conversation, many, many weeks ago, I began to see the task in a very different way. In a very fun way. I see writing as a way of learning, figuring out, what it is I’m thinking about, how I’m thinking of something. I think (had I thought about it in time) really, talk and writing are interchangeable for that function. How often do you get asked something and you don’t know you have an opinion or a judgment or a position until you start talking about it?

AW: Exactly.

JZ:  And how often in the course of a day do we say things like, “Well, what I really mean is no, no, I take that back” or “let me rephrase that”. It’s the equivalent of crossing out lines of text that you’ve written,

AW: Right. And another example – I’ve been in conversation, the other person will say, I have a question for you. And then I lay out options or as a scenario with different options. And then I say, “I’m answering my own question,” just through talking. So it’s exactly the same thing.

JZ:   Yeah. So I think talk and writing have an equivalency in many respects, particularly as a mode of discovery of how one is thinking and what the content of those thoughts are,

AW: Right. And then with, with speaking, in particular, you’re over, you haven’t more than just words, right? In terms of the communication, you’re overlaying, tone, and volume and cadence. Whereas if it’s written, it’s you have the font and the words to play with.

JZ: Right. So both are ways of learning your own identity, I think. Who you are is sort of a self-discovery, as it were.

AW: Jerry, you’ve had an influence on me. Obviously, while you’re writing about thinking about thinking, I’m starting a podcast about talking about talking. There’s definitely a link there.

JZ: Yeah, yeah, I agree. It may be totally overlapping. It is not something to be linked. They are one in the same.

AW: So, if you don’t mind. Now, I love to move on to storytelling. Let’s start by talking about storytelling at a very general level. The question is what makes for great storytelling?

JZ:  One element of great storytelling is that it activates the imagination. Now what I mean by imagination is filling in that which is missing. That’s what imaginations do. They create something that was previously absent. So storytelling helps you do that. But it only does so if it’s really an effective story, a powerful story. What really good storytelling needs to do, is allow the person engaging the story, (reading it, watching it, thinking about it) to engage in what I call or think of as co-creation.

AW: Okay.

JZ: Whoever the author is, whether it’s the creator of an ad, a traditional author, musician, it doesn’t really matter. What they have to do is provide just enough material to enable you and to enable me to fill in the missing pieces. And what you will do and I will do is fill them in, probably differently, but in a way that is especially meaningful to each of us. So we might both walk away from engaging the same story, think it was wonderful, but then discover, we think it’s wonderful for very different reasons.

AW: Well, that certainly happens to me when I’m at bookclub. Even two women who adore a novel will have very different interpretations.

JZ:  Exactly that and that, that’s, I think, so essential for any kind of story production, no matter what form it takes, is it allows a co-participation, sort of a co-authorship, of the story in a way that is personally meaningful.

AW: Right. So an author or musician or a marketing agency shouldn’t and really can’t assume that they’re dealing with an audience or reader who has a blank slate.

JZ: Absolutely not. They don’t have a blank slate.

AW: So do you think that the best storytellers are the ones who challenge the assumptions that are associated with that non blank slate? Are they the ones that are not just providing the details to fill-in the missing pieces, as you said, but actually challenging what their assumptions may already be?

JZ: Yes. And I think there’s an artful way of challenging those assumptions. You probably want to be careful not to challenge too many assumptions that a very firmly held. People will just dismiss that the story is: unrealistic, implausible, wrong.  There’s a middle ground of assumption challenging that causes us to say, ”gee, that’s interesting.” They’re not strongly devoutly-held and they’re not weakly-held or ones that we don’t really care much about. There’s a mid-ground of assumptions that you have to engage and question.

AW: So a moderate assumption is one where all else equal this is where I stand. But I’m open to new information that could change my attitude.

JZ: Yes. Yeah, you’re not going to dismiss the person is being absurd or obvious, by challenging that assumption.

AW: With all of this talk about stories is also fascinating I think, at a meta level because we all think we know about stories because we’ve been read-to since probably before we could talk and then we learn to read, and we’ve all been reading stories ever since. You know, I did some basic research on stories and storytelling and there’s so much out there to learn about stories.

JZ: Well, stories are relevant even before we’re read to us as children. I think all of our information gets organized according to stories. Memory itself, it’s argued, is story-based. And if you wonder about that, just think of a situation where a group of people together telling jokes, and one person tells a joke. And another person says, “Oh, that reminds me of the story about..” It triggers a memory. The second story may be far-fetched or far away. But that’s the way we organize our memories. When someone’s talking about an episode in their life, it’ll trigger an episode, a story in your own life.

AW: That reminds me, I believe it was in your book “How Customers Think,” we talked about how there’s no accident here that the root of the word story and store or storage as in storing memories – there’s a link there right?

JZ: That’s exactly correct. Yes.

AW: I was thinking about the quote or the euphemism that people often use, like, “well, that’s quite a story.” And that means really it’s a lie.

JZ: Right? Yeah. Well yeah. It’s also it’s a question of tonality that’s meant is a number a statement of disbelief or total acceptance.

AW: That’s true. That’s quite a story for you. It could be just something that’s seems implausible, but it in fact is true.

JZ: Right in the person will just say it on the stand and admiring sense. Wow, that’s quite a story. Or we might just say, okay, what’s your story? Or what’s your side of the story and showing this a little skepticism expected?

AW: Sounds like something in a court of law, your side of the story, my side of the story, we’re both telling the truth but the stories are different.

JZ: Have you ever seen the Japanese film Roshomon?

AW: No.

JZ: It’s a story about a rape that takes place. And there are people who observe it from different vantage points. And they each tell the story of the rape and these stories don’t correlate at all really. And each one is a very authentic version of the story. It’s just a wonderful film.

AW: Interesting. I will put up a link to that in the show notes. So let’s shift then into marketing, which is the focus of many of the 23 books that you’ve written. Can you share how storytelling is essential to or a part of marketing?

JZ: Well, to begin with, what do marketers try to do? They try ( at least in some of their activities) is to create consumption experiences. And a consumption experiences a story. It may be an uninteresting story or a boring one of short one or a very engaged one. You want to enhance the experience of a client. And that is to enable them to envision a new experience that they could have, which involves creating a story around a product they may not have tried before. But before they’ll try it, they have to do a dress rehearsal in their mind. There’s  a script that gets written as it were, that precedes the purchase of a new product. And what the marketer wants to do is influence that script. So I think storytelling is central to all marketing. But I remember doing a project (I won’t mention the company). It was, you know, a soft drink. And what we were doing, we were having people tell us stories that involved secrets regarding the product. And it was amazing the kinds of secrets that people talked about, in which the product, the soft drink, was a prop, an element. One story, as I recall, was about a little girl who would meet once a week with her grandfather to share a treat. And the secret was that while she would have an ice cream, he would drink this beverage, which he was forbidden to drink because some dietary reason. But it was their secret that he would indulge in this beverage that he was forbidden by others in the family. And this is a not a girl telling us, this was an adult relating this experience as a child. But it was a story really involving a secret that had a huge impact on this woman. And ideally, that’s what marketing wants to do. It wants to create a bonded experience in which the product may be simply a prop, you know, a minor party in it, but nevertheless is a very significant marker or signal of an emotionally, deeply, entrenched set of experiences.

AW: As you were describing storytelling and marketing. I was thinking about the whole if-then structure of storytelling that we do in our minds, right? So if I drink this beverage or you know if I buy this certain product, then I will experience this thing or I will look this way or I will feel this way. Ideally it’s associated with an emotion, but it may be more, I guess, tangible or rational. The other thing that you made me think about, I guess is how word of mouth works that way. So, you were talking about consumption experience is a story and, well, word of mouth is often regarding consumption experiences, right? And there we go. That’s why one of the reasons why word of mouth is so powerful.

JZ: You know that you’re making me think of something, going back to a little bit earlier in the conversation. What’s interesting is what a story includes, and what it leaves out. What it doesn’t say. It may not say some message that you want to convey. And what you need to do is to get the audience for your story to fill it in themselves is a great example of this (and this is a real experiment). If you are shown a video of two cars banging into each other at a street in intersection and I asked you to describe what happened at this accident site. You may not mention a lot of broken glass if I use the word accident, but if I use the word Crash, showing you the exact same film, you’re going to recall the story as having a lot of broken glass. So the words accident and crash activate or suppress the presence or absence of glass. So you have to decide whether you want people to picture broken glass or not. And your communication.

AW: Right, whether you’re, whether you’re an author, you’re writing a novel or whether you’re writing a script for an ad. It’s a little bit scary and and to be honest, I think I told you this in an email after I read your book. I said after I was about a third of the way through, I felt a little bit overwhelmed and helpless, because there are all of these dynamics that are going on. Things like priming, things like metaphors, that typically we are not aware of. And then I thought, No, I think that’s Jerry’s whole point of writing the book, which is we need to be more aware of these things.

JZ: Exactly that that’s …I would underscore that. That’s exactly why I was writing one of the one of the powerful reasons that decided to turn the material into a book.

AW: So you were hoping that readers would feel discomfort and then feel empowered? That’s how I would describe it.

JZ: Yes. You’ve got it, you’ve been able to identify a mechanism that might be used in your best interest or just the opposite against your best interest. But you need to be able to identify the mechanism such as the deliberate use of the word crash, and all the imagery that goes along with it.

AW: You mentioned in the book lawyers do this in court, when they’re questioning people on the stand right? The way they ask a question is interpreted not by the witness but by jurors in different ways. So lawyers often are experts in this.

JZ: Right. Yep.

AW: So back to marketing and storytelling. I’m curious off the top of your head. I don’t mean to put you on the spot. But I know you think about this stuff. What are some examples of brands that you think do a great job of storytelling?

JZ: I think a number of brands really do a great job. I think we see it a lot in the soft drink area. I’ve already touched on that. I think Nike does a great job with storytelling.

AW: One thing that I would identify is that they are categories and brands that typically evoke emotion.

JZ: Every product’s attributes can ultimately be connected to an emotion. The easier you make it to connect for consumer to connect an emotion with a product quality, product attribute, the more effective your storytelling. One of the problems is that managers too often tell a story that is focused on the attribute. And they ignore, perhaps because they don’t fully grasp what the relevant emotion is where they don’t think that’s sufficiently important because they’re competing on attribute characteristics.

AW: Just in their defense, they’re also often being evaluated on that. So, you know, they’ll have an internal market research department that’s literally testing whether consumers understand that they are, for example, the most refreshing or the best tasting or whatever, they’re not typically evaluated on whether they are encouraging or evoking those emotions, right?

JZ: That’s correct. Because you can quantify those more readily.

AW: Yes. What gets measured gets done. So you mentioned Nike, as a company that does a great job of storytelling. And I absolutely agree. And I was hoping to get some of your comments in terms of Nike’s brand story and Kaepernick story. Do you have any thoughts on that?

JZ: I think that was a great choice for them.

AW: Why is that?,

JZ: I think they went to someone who is a hero to many people who were purchasers of the Nike product, who was showing the strength of taking a position of being downtrodden by the league, the owners, the public, you know various political leaders. So that certainly many people who aspire to greatness experience deflation and experience at you know, adversity and may not succeed. And so he was a great example of someone that they could identify with. And to equate that with the product I thought was, was really quite brilliant.

AW:I agree 100% for the reasons that you said and others. I think that Nike storytelling is about heroes and celebrating the heroes that we all know. If you look at the conflict that Kaepernick has, is experiencing. It’s man against society or man against man, but he has strengthened his convictions, and he certainly fulfills the hero archetype to a tee. So, from a brand equity perspective, it was absolutely brilliant and maybe even not brilliant. Maybe it was just so obvious it had to happen. In one of your books. “How Customers Think,” you list seven archetypes are images and something that you mentioned just in a list of the types of archetypes was

One of them is a woman and the female or woman archetype is typically personified in one of three ways nurturer, witch or prostitute, and I thought YOWZA!!! And I started thinking about what’s going on in our culture. Is there an opportunity for archetypes to change. Because I feel like archetypes are very very ingrained. And we talked at the beginning of the of this interview, about the best stories are the ones that challenge us in terms of what we already know. And I guess my real question is: can the woman archetype which is typically nurturer, witch or prostitute, become something more like the female version of a hero?

JZ: I think that’s … I’m not so sure that there’s a new archetype. I think people are going to see women in a sense how they’ve always been seen. But it’s not quite correct. This is an example of sketching my thinking out a little bit and erasing some. But let me continue with that. Let’s back up. An archetype is a sort of a personality.  And what matters is not so much what the personality is a hero a nurturer, witch, prostitute, whatever, it that’s not irrelevant. I’m not saying that. But what really matters is the frame of mind, the way of thinking, that a particular personality type exhibits. So we have to be careful not to confuse personality with way of thinking, I see the changes taking place with regard to #METOO and other activities more in terms of the change in deep metaphors. The deep metaphors are basic frames of thinking that any archetype might enact or possess. Rather, what I see happening is some progression on the hero dimension, away from the hapless victim. But what I see especially is the frame of transformation and control becoming more prominent, whether it’s a prostitute or nurturer, or a witch or a hero or a magician. That’s what I see. And that’s what I’m encouraged to see happening with regard to the treatment of women. Generally. There’s a transformation from an unequal to an equal. There’s a transformation involving another deep metaphor, which is going from a relative lack of control to greater control.

AW: Or lack of power to …

JZ: That’s right. So there’s degrees. It’s not as if transformation has been fully realized or total power has been achieved. But there’s movement in that direction. And I think that’s been especially prominent just recently. So I’d be looking less at archetypes and more at basic frames of mind which are often captured by the deep metaphors.

AW: But the metaphors that are in our minds can also be more easily retrieved or accessible if they’re more commonly told in society. Right.? I wish that we could just go on and on. I’m wondering if there’s any anything else that you want to share with listeners about storytelling or about anything else?

JZ: I believe you’re, you’re absolutely correct in highlighting the importance of storytelling. That’s how we live our lives. That’s how we understand the world around us. That’s what a theory is. That’s what an explanation is. That’s what a relationship is. And I think the more you focus on storytelling, the more service you’ll be doing your audiences.

AW: Okay, I’m gonna go ahead with the five rapid fire questions. My first question is, what are your pet peeves?

JZ: I go through cycles. My current pet peeves have to do with the fake news and truth decay and letting opinion be the arbiter of what’s a fact.

AW: Well, I love that you’ve done something to combat that. My second question is: what type of learner do you think you are visual, auditory, or something else?

JZ: If I had to choose, I guess that say I’m more visual. It’s not a not an accident that I use a lot of visual imagery of my different investigations.

AW: And in your books. I’ve noticed more images in your books in there are in other books that are maybe targeting the same audience and for similar purposes. That’s true. Third question. Are you an introvert or an extrovert?

JZ: Oh, goodness. Can I just be a verte? I don’t know. I don’t like being pigeon-holed you know, as one or the other.

AW: It’s certainly a continuum. But I find if I ask the question that way, everyone says there in the middle.

JZ: They’re in the middle? Well, I’m probably each of those depending on the context.

AW: Number four, what is your communication preference for personal communication? So I’m not talking about sending a formal work email where you have to copy your work partner. It’s more, you know, if you’re making plans for dinner, or something more personal, what what’s your go to?

JZ: If I have a choice go to in-person for all kinds of reasons. There’s more information that gets conveyed through paralinguistic dimensions, either by seeing someone’s reaction or hearing the tonality of their voice, the hesitation or the certainty in their statement and as we spoke earlier, I can always more easily correct myself. You know, you’ll hear me and I’ll say “No, no, no. What I really meant was,….” whatever.

AW: But to play the devil’s advocate on that, you could edit an email.

JZ: I can edit an email, but it’s hard to interpret an email that I’m receiving than it is to interpret a conversation in which the very same words were spoken and in an email, and that would be my next after an in person interaction, face to face interaction, an email, you can repeat yourself, you can have a chance to reflect on what you’ve just written.

AW: Okay, my last Rapid Fire question is, is there a podcast, a blog or an email newsletter that you find yourself recommending often to people?

JZ: Yes, there is actually and it’s by a colleague of mine whose name is James Forr. He does a blog called “the Z files” in which he summarizes provocative articles. He samples from a wide variety of disciplines. So I find his of all the blogs I see and encounter, the Z files by James Forr is my favorite.

AW: Okay I will definitely check that out and I’ll put a link to it. I’m intrigued I’m going to check it out right now.

JZ: Great.

AW: Is there anything else you want to add? No, this has been just a lot of fun.

JZ: Yeah, I’m sorry that I don’t have more time with you Jerry. How can listeners connect with you if they have questions or they want to ask you something about your most recent book “Unlocked” or one of your other books? Is there a way they can connect with you?

JZ: Yeah, just email is a good way:

AW: Okay. That’s great. Thank you so much.

JZ: Okay, thank you Andrea

AW: For your time and your expertise. Jerry.

JZ: Thank you

super by now.

AW: Okay, bye…    Are you still there?

JZ: I’m still here.

AW: Jerry. That was so fun. I miss you so much.

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