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Podcast Guesting Pro founder Graham Brown joins podcast host Ross Swan on the "Soul-Inspired-Leadership" podcast to discuss how storytelling aids leadership. The following is a transcript of their conversation. For more tips on podcast guesting success, go to our podcast guesting resources.

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Ross Swan 00:25

Welcome to Soul-Inspired-Leadership podcast. And today my guest is a fellow Singaporean. Now Graham Brown. Graham is the founder of Pikkal and Co, which is an award-winning podcast agency. And he's involved in many podcasts like the podcast accelerator, and there's a bit of a mastermind thought leadership podcast host. So his whole motor operenda is around leadership and communication. He is a published author on the subject of the digital transformation of communication works, including the human communication playbook, the mobile youth, voices of connected generation, documenting the rise of the mobile culture in the early 2000 in Japan. That would be interesting, How to build and another one is how to build a brand worth talking about, which is also, good leadership, product and learning. He also hosts podcast maps. Be more human podcasts, the Excel podcast, if anymore, the list goes on. His work has been featured in the financial times, Wall street journal has worked with McKinsey's sleep UTI investment bank, air zero, and many more well known organizations. But the bit that interests me is Graham is, without doubt, a communico. His expertise to me is storytelling for leaders, which is one of my passions that good leadership is about how you connect with people. And one of the best ways to connect with people is through storytelling. So welcome Graham 

Graham Brown 02:10

Ross. Great to be here. Thank you for the introduction. Looking forward to this and yeah, a great introduction as well, but let's jump in and do the storytelling like likewise, very much passionate about it and happy to share with your listeners.

Ross Swan 02:23

I just sometimes coach executives, I just get so, when you say passionate, I just get so excited about trying well, some side's probably determined. It's probably a better word is to, how can I help these people be better at connecting with people? And one of the topics that always comes up is tell stories, communicate with stories. It helps clarity. It helps people feel that you're real and you actually exist. Cuz you're telling a story and quite often stories or an emotional experience particularly. And I just think it's just a better way to relate to people about what you're doing. So what's your immediate thought? When we, when we talk, when we say. Leaders should tell stories. 

Graham Brown 03:56

Yeah, absolutely. Ross you're right when you say it's a great way for leaders particularly to connect, think about, you know, back at school, when teacher would read a story, he, or she would always say, gather around. And all the kids would gather around. Right. It had that magical effect, didn't it? And we gathered around and you think about that now, like even today, you know, you can imagine a scene in a bar or a pub and somebody's telling a story and people have gathered around him. They're all sort of standing in a sort of semi circle, listening to this guy, tell a story. And that's the magic of a story and very much. It is magical. There is an art there where there are very much, there's a science in it as well. I'm thinking, you know what I'd like to share with your readers, sorry, your listeners is that, you know, it's not once upon a time that we tend to feel that storytelling's fairytale. But in business, you know, we're talking about some of the greatest storytellers the last century, this century, Steve Jobs, for example, or great leaders look at [name] for example, you know, tell stories and connect with people, or even throughout history like Martin Luther King, how he told stories to create connection and empathy with people. All of these people are fantastic storytellers, and I think we can learn a lot from them. Hopefully we can talk a bit about how and the why today. 

Ross Swan 04:40

yeah. And that's, and actually to me, it is that why is the important thing cuz it helps people then see the why in a, in a story, but you're right. Actually I hadn't thought about that. It's it's that gather around and, and people do, people will immediately stop whatever they do in a way and, and want to hear the story because it's a story because they know it, it has a, has a line to it. It's not just random sentences. Something they could miss out if they don't hear it. 

Graham Brown 05:12 

Well, I just saw Ross today on my LinkedIn. Just before this, I was checking my social media and the chief financial officer of AirAsia had just posted a status update about their new plan. So the backstory is that AirAsia is going through a transformation. Yeah. And it wants to be more than an airline and it's becoming a digital platform. And interestingly, I read, I took a screenshot of it. I read his status update and it said, this is a new Dawn for airAsia. And I was looking at that and thinking how interesting that is. You talk about that structure, you know, the follows a line. And the point is, is that, even that word, Dawn it's like the Dawn of mankind. Its a story. It's an analogy. It's what I call a short form story. Meaning you can use one word to create change, or for people to understand something. This is really important for a leader because you don't have a lot of bandwidth to communicate. So if you pick a very powerful analogy or story, you can help people understand what comes next. So, you know, Dawn, it's a new day. It's exciting. We know what comes next. After Dawn, you know, the day he follows and in the same way, if you use that language to describe transformation. So you're an airline becoming a digital platform. If you can get your audience's onboard with the idea of it being a Dawn, you can also get them on the idea of this transformation and what follows next. It's something they are familiar with. And if you look at the psychology of storytelling, the brain doesn't understand the difference between past, present and future. It doesn't have any concept. So it only knows experience and what powerful stories do. And what great leaders are able to do is take an unknown future and connect it with a known past. So yeah, if you were to stand up, like when Steve Jobs launched the iPod, he didn't launch it as the, you know, the world's greatest MP3 player because people didn't know what an MP3 player really was. Yeah. But he stood up on stage and said, this is a tool for the heart. So he connected an unknown concept with a known, familiar experience, and that's really storytelling in a nutshell. Everything else really is an addendum to that. The point is, if you're a leader, you can use these techniques to create change, to help people understand. And I know a lot of what you talk about on this podcast is about good leadership. You know, good leadership is good storytelling. How do you take this short form story and package the unknown for your audience and that's all, they really want somebody to stand up and say, it's gonna be okay. Yeah. Because, you know, I have a map that's gonna lead us out of this thing.

Ross Swan 08:13

Yeah. Yeah. And that you see one important thing that too is that often work with people and in the sense of, to be conscious of the words they use. You don't just throw out a bunch of words without much thought behind it. And Dawn's one perfect. One, one word says, you can say all about change and it's a new beginning and all these things just say, Dawn, people already automatically know it's a new day. Cause that's what a Dawn is. So it's a new experience. It's something new that's happening and bright it's sort of cause it's a Dawn. So it's the clever use of words that make the, make that extra bit of difference, or probably a lot of difference within, within storytelling or just plain communicating in any form.

Graham Brown 09:01

And yeah, because we, if you think about us as the audience, we have experienced Dawn thousands of times, and it's the same with stories. If you look at movies for example. So the best selling movie of all time is marvel's end game. I think it's done like 3 billion at the box office but the plot line is the same. I mean, you've probably seen it just as I have a bunch of movies with the same plot line. It's Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and the Wizard of Oz. Yeah. It's the Bible. It's every plot line we've ever known. And the point is, is that I, I think as leaders, we're challenged that we have to sort of concoct this fantastic story. So those leaders you work with, maybe one of the challenges they have is that, oh, you know, I have to have come up with this sort of fantasy myth for me, why I'm so exciting. And yet the point is, is you need to develop a new story. You just borrow what works and you know, that has been the gift of storytellers for thousands of years. They just build on these archetypes, these frameworks that, you know, if you read Joseph Campbell's the hero's journey for example, he basically says that every story is the same. Yeah. You know, it has different actors. It's a stage and the actors change. It's like every love song, isn't it? It's the same boy meets girl. He loses the girl. He regrets it. It wants her back. And it's not, you don't listen to a love song and say, wait a minute, I've heard this one before. I'm not listening to this rubbish, but that's the point. That's what human beings want. We consume stories because it helps us understand information through frames, which we are very familiar with and what I find is that when leaders fail in their communication is they don't use a frame we're familiar with already. They don't borrow a framework and they try and create something new. And that's why it just creates fusion in the listener. 

Ross Swan 11:03

Yeah. Yeah. And it's, and there again, then they're accused of accused it's reality that they're not connecting with people. They're, not real. Cause stories that people can relate to makes it real. Because they identify it exactly what you're saying. They identify with it, they understand it better and they're more comfortable with it.

Graham Brown 11:26 

Yeah. That's a really interesting point about making it real because when we were kids, we were scolded for making up stories. Don't tell stories, little Ross. Yeah. Well, let's like you get smacked for that. 

Ross Swan 11:39

That's probably fair comment there. yeah, 

Graham Brown 11:41

I think we all did. Right, but as you sort of grow up, you know, I was taking this, I was working with some startup founders here in Singapore, not too long ago in helping them craft the stories for their pitch decks. And you can imagine for a startup founder, it's all story because they don't have anything apart from a promised land that they're pitching. That's it. And after this session, one of these founders came up to me and pulled me aside and he could see he was upset and he said, you know, I don't want to tell a story. I want to tell the truth. And I said to him, look, you know, if you don't tell a story, I won't know what your truth is. And I think, you know, we're sort of burdened by this what psychologists call naive realism that we see the world as it is, which is, you know, we see it in very logical terms, which is not how it happens. You know, there's plenty of research that says otherwise, you know how we buy, how we communicate influence. You know, it's very different world.

Ross Swan 12:44 

And that's what stories do they connect. You connect with you emotionally. Yeah. Cognitively it's an emotional connection and that's the power, it's any other way of connecting is just not real. It's just, people have gotta feel it and emotionally feel it. And to me, that's where you get buy in and with the story and relate to the story, cuz they, it has an emotional thing. In some whatever way it does to that person and every person, some is quite often different. It's just, as soon as you bring in a story, they connect with it emotionally, not logically.

Graham Brown 13:22

Yeah. You've seen how it's been done the other way when people try and communicate logically. Could you imagine if I think of Martin Luther King in front of the Lincoln Memorial, if you stood up and said, I have a PowerPoint presentation, it's dim the lights folks, that's it, it, it's a very different world that will come out of that. Right. But that's, I feel that in business somehow, when we become adults, we stop make believe because we think it's somehow childish. We think that we need the data and the logic, and yet, you know that you, of course you   need that, but that's not what we're buying into. We are buying in the packaging for that, right. In the same way, you know, like we don't consume soda. We consume the brand of the soda first. You know, it even changes how we experience it by the brands that we see on the can. Right? So this is how the human brain works. And I, you know, when I was thinking about what solve inspired leadership was before this podcast, I really feel like today we're challenged, aren't we as society and as leaders to create connection, a lot of, a lot of the talk is about, you know, what's the future of work? How do we find meaning? How do we create teams in this disconnected world that we live in and how do we create voices or give people a voice of diversity and so on? And if you, you feel like historically stories have been such a powerful way to create connection emotionally. And, you know, even if you go back to, you know, like the American civil war and the slaves and the emancipation of slaves, it wasn't really until the people started writing about slaves and telling stories about the negroes that was called then, people actually started understanding them as human beings. You know, these weren't, Slaves. These were humans that had stories, you know, there's like Solomon Northrop, who there's Netflix now, 12 years of slave. So, you know, these stories created connection between people, regardless of their color. White people connected with black people. And you know, these are the tools which we can use in business today is to create that connection, not to divide, but to bring people together.

Ross Swan 15:42

Well, it brings 'em dead together. It brings the humanness of people together. It's the human aspects of people. It's the hearts, the souls really, cuz we're all souls. We just happen to have different colored skin wrap around the souls. Right. It's like, and, and so people start to realize that the more they do it. And, and so when you're in leadership and you're a CEO of a large company, the more you to me, you connect with through stories. More real as a person you are and the more they feel that you are connected to them as individuals, not disconnected, it's the lack of stories. This sort of creates that disconnected as feeling because people don't know how to connect. That's not emotionally and the stories of the emotional connection. 

Graham Brown 16:36 

Well, if you were to think about, for example, what are the sort of bad guys in movies who, the scariest ones and you, they tend to, they tend to sort of follow this trope, which is that they are formless or they have a deformed face, for example. So I think about Darth Vader as an example, or Sauron from Lord of the rings, I'm sure in every mythical movie. There's an equivalent of this sort of deformed. There's one in Harry Potter as well. And there's a reason why that archetype keeps appearing in our culture and it's because we fear the formless and what we don't understand. And you then think about that in that, who are these people? Who is the CEO? Why do these people have all this data? What are they doing with this money? And I don't trust them and don't understand them because they're faceless and formless. And that creates that, that dynamic, which is negative in terms of, you know, the brand and how we relate to that company. And so it takes its CEO to stand up and become a human. Yeah. And to say in, in real soul inspired leadership is to say, I don't know and I saw, I got an email from Tony Fernandez, the CEO of air Asia ,not long into their, you know, the pandemic. And this was the time, I dunno, if you remember Ross that CEO's leaders were sending out emails that said, dear customer or dear valued client, you know, blah, blah, blah, blah, pandemic, blah, blah, blah, blah. You know, and the end of it, we will continue to deliver outstanding service that you expect of a hotel brand, whatever. Tony Fernandez was different. It's just said Hi and then I remember in the first paragraph, it said, we're not making any money right now. And I thought, wow, that's a big statement for, of vulnerability for a CEO to be. And that, you know, hats off to him, because that, to me, that's soul inspired. That's to say, look, I'm vulnerable. I don't have the answers, but we're gonna find a way. And he signs off, Love Tony. When you sort of read that, and then you obviously, you see the man speaking, you feel that he's done a lot to humanize that brand, You know, a controversial figure, but at the end of the day, you know, how will that change? People's perceptions of that brand over time. Yeah. That's really what leadership is. And we mentioned brand at the beginning, isn't it is that they are the brand, they become the brand and the brand becomes a, some derivative of them. Not the campaign or the, the logo, it's the people, it's the people. Cause that's why we need to give leaders storytelling tools. Yeah. Because that's how they will influence people. 

Ross Swan 19:33 

Well, I basically leadership, they get the culture they deserve. So if you want the culture and the culture delivers the service, it delivers a connection with customers. It's the way people behave at work. Well, you are the influence as a leader in that, in that directly new influence. May not happen overnight, but over time, you'll get the, you always get the culture you deserve. It has a way of working out that way so.

Graham Brown 20:01

Do you think leaders understand that? I mean, you work a lot with leaders. I'm curious, like your take as a coach, do they, do they see that as their domain? Or is that something, you know, are people coming on board with that?

Ross Swan 20:13 

No. The interesting thing is the good leaders do. That's why they, they, some of the others. Oh, really? Like they don't, they don't get that. They think the culture is something else. HR. Yeah. It's it's, that's gotta be that's HR gotta work with that. And, it's all about walking your talk as a CEO and your executive team walk, you talk, and that creates the culture and that it slowly, it goes out, it infiltrates throughout the organization, depending on the size of it, but it's some, don't get it. They're the ones who struggle and that someone else's fault, not theirs. 

Graham Brown 20:55 

Yeah. They struggle because they're managers, not leaders. 

Ross Swan 20:59

That's right. Manage difference. Right. And that's right. They manage a process. 

Graham Brown 21:02 

Yeah. And they optimize it.

Ross Swan 21:04 

Right. And they, and that's it. They're a manager process. I say that. Many times, a nice way to try and encourage them cause I, 

Graham Brown 21:14

but you need managers, right. But they're not, they're not gonna take us to the moon. No. You know, if you gave that challenge to a manager, they'll build a taller tower, right? Yeah. That's it. Yeah. So it's not gonna happen. 

Ross Swan 21:24

I billing a toilet. I do a lot with engineers and yeah, so there again, it's just, doesn't matter what, what industry you're in, what profession you're in, et cetera. It all comes back to, to me connecting with people and you might say, oh, well, we're we're engineers or we're we're in actual resources, analytical,focus sort of operation. The key comes back to you. Can't connect with people on an analytical basis to really motivate them. You can on cognitively to help 'em with a particular task, but to engage them, to get them to wanna be doing things. It's the emotion that drives them. As you said before, that's what drives 'em cuz at the end of the day you are selling them. So, you're selling them the vision. That's why they call it, buy in. And any selling is emotional. We buy on emotion and we don't buy out of any other data. There are people who look at the specifications and read it intently of a car and you can't, but it's the emotional aspect of what that data gives them. Not, not the data. It's that, Oh, I'm in control. I know, I understand this data. It's the emotional response to the data, not the data itself. 

Graham Brown 22:46 

Yeah. That's hard for people to take on board though. I feel it is, it's like an iceberg, isn't it? You know, 10% is the logic. Yeah. The data, right. And 90% below the water is what's happening and what, what you're trying to do. And I guess what we're talking about here is speaking to that 90% that, you can focus on the 10% of the data, the PowerPoint presentation, the logic, but really how you are gonna influence somebody and create change and create connection is at the emotional level. And it's hard because we don't see it. We definitely feel it and we are a little bit scared about talking about it. I feel that that is probably the nub of the matter. You know, if you wanna be soulful, you've got to be vulnerable and open. Even you see, for example, like Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks many years ago, like long before black life matters. stood up and said, let's talk about race. And he got PII for it. You know, like people were like, why, why are you doing this? Like, you're a CEO, what's it gotta do. You're a coffee company. Why? But he was ahead of his time. And that's the problem is that, we fear the public reaction in that way, that it may not be the press. It may be your own people to stand up and be emotional and to say, you know, love Tony, or we're not making any money right now. It's very much a fear driven society and fear driven organization. So a leader really has to get beyond that fear. Yeah, because you know, if we are locked in fear, as they say, there's a Japanese saying like the frog in the,well never knows the ocean, you know, it's comfortable inside the well, yeah. But you know, it's not how we live. Right. We've gotta go out and experience the ocean. It's the same for leaders to, to be, live beyond fear and to be vulnerable in, that is what leadership is now. I really believe that great leadership is measured by our ability to be vulnerable, ability to get on stage, ability to say, I don't know how that's changed. You know, if you went to business school years ago, it was you would've from world entirely. 

Ross Swan 24:58

You would've been ushered out. I think if we made that comment, like, yeah, but to so true, and I think probably the last event to the last few years has brought that a bit closer in reality because it's forced people. Well, it has, it is just, people are now more vulnerable cause I've felt vulnerable. So therefore. And they want people to be connecting with them and, and they, and they wanna feel safe with people, a bunch of data or statistics doesn't make people feel safe. It's just that simple letter that you're talking about there from is it just that, because you're vulnerable, then they feel safer because they think, yeah, he's admitting he can't do it, but he's gonna, he's gonna try and I'll be in that, cause that gives me confidence. Not just PLA strapped data, you know

Graham Brown 25:47

It's Superman and kryptonite and Achilles and his heel, isn't it. We, you know, there's, I think it, there there's studies done in the 60s on students, is it is called the PRAL effect is where they sort of studied actors and they, they had actors read out these lines to students and they got students to rate these actors on their skills and they're all skilled actors, obviously, but the students didn't know, and then they repeated the experiments. But this time the actors knocked over a cup of coffee. So they had this one group, which were measuring actors based on being really skillful. And then another group being skillful, but knocked over a cup of coffee and they found that the students significantly rated the group who knocked over a cup of coffee higher in their skill, even though the actors were the same. Okay. And think about that is, that we significantly rate not only their leadership skill higher, if they demonstrate vulnerability and you can see that. Achilles in his heel is that, if those superheroes didn't have vulnerabilities, they would be plastic and wooden. Can you imagine if Superman didn't have his kryptonite? We don't relate to those guys and you say, it's like, you know, I'll be on board. I'll be with you for this journey. And that's it. That's the power. Okay. You're on board. You get it. You know, I'm doing this journey and gives everybody hope. Because I'm the underdog here. I'm the one, you know, who doesn't have all the answers, but you know, it's not just my journey. It's your journey because that's how we relate to people. We see ourselves in those superheroes. You know, we're not flying around with capes, but we understand that the sort of heroic journey that we're all on. And that's the power that only happens when you open up and show your weaknesses. 

Ross Swan 27:35

Yeah. And I agree. And that's, to me, that forms that, that creates the trust because when you're being opening up and being humble and transparent with your own feelings and talking about where you're challenged, people then gp, he's telling the truth because that's real, or she's telling the truth. That's real. We all have, we all can be vulnerable. So anyone that says they can't, well, you're lying to me. I think cuz somewhere, somewhere you've got a problem, but I dunno what it is. So if I don't trust you, it's just, but when you open up, ah, they're opening up, therefore I trust and therefore I trust and I trust that you are going to do your best. So therefore I'm with you. So look on that note, uh, Graham, anything, any one last word or two to sum up when you're talking about storytelling for leaders. 

Graham Brown 28:28

Oh, there's so much Ross. Yeah. I know that's can, is one word 

Ross Swan 28:32

20, another 20 minute podcast. That's right

Graham Brown 28:35 

Yeah. Like you know, just, I feel there's so much that we can learn through what has been told over thousands of years. You know, you go way back to those cave paintings at 20,000 years old, you know, it shows people painting stories, you know, like in the Southwest of France in let's go beautiful, you know, paintings of animal stampedes. These are stories told to communicate information to people about, you know, where the animals are, when to find them, et cetera. So we're still doing it today. You know, it's Steve Jobs on stage. When leaders are talking to us when CEOs doesn't necessarily need to be a title, either. Even when you know that young, teenage Swedish girl, Greta Thunberg stood up and said, you know, you've stolen my future about climate change. Like we don't need more data folks like climate change. It's been around for 120 years. The data we, you know, Swedish scientists discovered in the late 19th century. There's like 1 billion Google search results about climate change, but it's only when somebody stands up and tells a better story. Do we start to feel and, you know, onboard and sense change and wanna be part of this. Yeah. So, you know I feel that we have a lot to learn and to anybody who's listening, who's interested in storytelling, you know, I'd recommend a good book as a starting point, or even to research, for example, Joseph Campbell's - the hero's Johnny, because you read it. You'll see the hero's journey diagram, and then you'll ruin every movie that you sit in with somebody, cuz you'll say, this is what happens next. And my mom did this to me, but it, you know, even though you know the plot, you'll still enjoy all this. That's right. And it becomes such a power. You'll see it everywhere. You'll sit in every Steve Jobs presentation in every, you know, public address in every successful pitch. You'll see this, this structure that you didn't know exist there. You know, every scene that gets played out like the departure scene or the atonement scene, you'll see these and recognize them. And then with that knowledge, you'll become a much better storyteller because now you'll start to understand the science behind storyteller. And that helps you really sharpen the art. 

Ross Swan 30:59 

Well, thank you, Graham, for being a guest on our show today. And I thank all the people who are listening. So, until next time. Thank you. 

Graham Brown 31:19 

Turn in for chapter two

Ross Swan 31:22

Turn in for chapter two. So thanks for listening.


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About The Author Graham Brown

Graham Brown is the founder of Podcast Guesting Pro. Graham is a published author on the subject of Digital Communication and Personal Branding (Amazon titles include "Brand Love: How to Build a Brand Worth Talking About" and "Mobile Youth: Voices of the Connected Generation). He has produced, project managed and guested on over 2,000 podcast episodes.