Steps to successful communication: how innovators use storytelling to inspire and mobilise
This bestselling author spells out an effective framework for persuasion, and shows how entrepreneurs, scientists, and professionals have become five-star players in their fields. Storytelling is even more important in the age of AI, as this new book argues.
Ideas of entrepreneurs and scientists don’t sell themselves – it is effective communication that makes them irresistible and irreplaceable, according to Carmine Gallo, author of Five Stars: The Communication Secrets to Get from Good to Great.
Carmine Gallo is the bestselling author of Talk Like TED, The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs, and The Storyteller's Secret (see my book review here). He is communication advisor for brands like Google, Accenture, Intel, Allstate, and LinkedIn. He writes for Forbes and Inc.com, and is an executive education instructor at Harvard University.
Here are my key takeaways from the 245-page book, summarised in Table 1 (below) as well. See also my reviews of the related books Unleash the Power of Storytelling, Let the Story Do the Work, Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins, Putting Stories to Work, Stories for Work, and Stories at Work. Entrepreneurs should check out YourStory’s Changemaker Story Canvas, a free visualisation tool for startups and innovators.
Persuasion is no longer a soft skill. “It is the fundamental skill to get from good to great in the age of ideas,” Carmine begins. The era of average or good enough communication is over; everyone needs to find that extra edge to rise to five-star quality.
I. The importance of communications
In a period of tectonic shifts due to the rise of global social media and AI, it is not enough to have technical proficiency or business degrees; communication skills are highly valued. “Persuaders are irreplaceable,” Carmine emphasises. This includes public speaking, written communication, and design of slides and other audio-visual materials.
Communication skills give a competitive edge to people regardless of their domain. They help persuade people to support ideas, launch creative innovations, attract funding, and elevate status and reputation. Communication helps rise from a state of complacency and comfort to become an explorer, innovator, creator, and adventurer. Effective storytellers make us believe that their story can also be our story, Carmine explains.
Machines are better at retrieving facts more quickly and accurately. But the human edge over machines is creativity, imagination, emotional connection, critical thinking, coming up with the original ideas in the first place, handling unexpected situations, effective and motivational communication, creating an element of surprise, and identifying what is unusual, novel or groundbreaking.
“Computers can learn to read human emotion, but they don’t have human emotion. And that’s a very important distinction,” according to Neil Jacobstein, AI track chair at Singularity University.
For those who believe that their ideas matter, communication helps overcome the skepticism of audiences, according to Adam Grant, author of Originals (see my book review here). “Ideas built the modern world and it’s the power of ideas that will build the world of tomorrow,” Carmine adds.
Within professions like engineering, communication skills help rise from individual techie roles to project and divisional heads. Good engineers may be happy producing things and letting others sell it, but innovators clarify, excite and inspire others.
The author traces the roots of persuasive communication back to Aristotle’s view of civilisational success as coming from wisdom and eloquence. Rhetoric (persuasion) is an art and a science. Effective persuasion is built on logos (logic), ethos (credibility, character), and pathos (emotion). Audiences will be swayed if the speaker has virtue and goodwill.
Neuroscientist Gregory Burns defines an iconoclast as “a person who does something that others say can’t be done.” They overcome the fear of uncertainty (risk-taking) and the fear of speaking up and selling novel ideas.
Carmine describes seven key components of effective communication (see Table 1 above), along with dozens of examples across domains and sectors. Impactful techniques are alliteration, anaphora (repetition of phrases), antithesis (contrasting ideas), and combining phrases of similar length or structure.
Many freedom fighters and leaders have framed arguments within a grand purpose and broader theme, as seen by Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King. Kennedy’s moonshot speech focused on one key aspiration, made it tangible, broke it down into milestones, and used metaphors and analogies.
Nike emphasises storytelling as a way of reinforcing its heritage and creating common ground, right from its corporate campfire storytelling programme. Actor Alan Alda created the Centre for Communicating Science to help scientists get their message across more convincingly. WeSeeHope has a creative fundraising tactic: it distributes money in envelopes to potential donors and invites them to keep it, return it, or raise more money.
Jack Ma’s storytelling skills are legendary (“Jack Magic”), with references to Chinese history as well as recent movies. He tweaks each of his stock stories to make them fresh, according to Duncan Clark, author of Alibaba (see my book review here).
Good story themes are humble origins, rags to riches, and triumph over tragedy, Carmine explains. “Humans not only crave stories, we need to hear them. Stories are irresistible, and storytellers are alluring,” he adds.
Walmart shares stories, and KPMG has made storytelling a key part of its management training. McKinsey promotes a three-act presentation structure called situation, complication and resolution. Techniques like track-and-hook and earworms (short melodies) are used in music as well to create the “aesthetic aha,” Carmine explains.
Signature stories at companies like Nordstrom have elements of intrigue, authenticity, surprise, conflict, and tension. Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars has designed a room to capture its signature story when it beat French brands in a wine tasting competition; the room has the actual scorecards and news articles.
Effective stories surprise, delight and inspire. There is drama as the characters face and overcome obstacles after going through “all seems lost” phases. The characters themselves are transformed in the process.
Startups like AirBnB had to go through a tough phase of overcoming customer suspicion and investor skepticism, unlike products like Google which quickly became viral. The company has gone beyond room and home rentals to new experiences like Trips.
Warren Buffet uses metaphors like castles, moats, and knights to explain investing. Reid Hoffman pitched LinkedIn by analogy, comparing it to eBay with networking. History’s most creative genius was Leonardo da Vinci, who saw that everything was connected and drew influences from every field he came across.
Steve Jobs used metaphors like desktops, telephones and even bicycles for computers that are intuitive and simple to use. He drew on fields like art (calligraphy) and companies like Ritz-Carlton (steps of service) and Xerox (mouse).
Reading books improves your own writing, help you find similarities between problems, and unlock your own rhetoric, according to James Stavridis, author of The Leader’s Bookshelf.
The author shows these five-star communications principles at work in five types of people: scientists, entrepreneurs, professionals, leaders, and TED stars. He explains that even in high-tech firms like Cisco, Google, IBM and SalesForce, some of the most influential leaders are those considered the best talkers, such as John Chambers of Cisco, author of Connecting the Dots (see my book review here).
Cisco leaders believe that communication skills are the “lubricant of execution” that gives a competitive edge, and uses technology to make human interaction a much more valuable skill. Clear, concise, crisp and compelling presentations were demanded from all employees by Andy Grove, co-founder of Intel, the company that “puts the silicon in Silicon Valley.”
Avinash Kaushik, digital marketing evangelist at Google, advocates storytelling with data visualisation. He prefers conveying “out-of-sights” or new ideas rather than insights based on more obvious facts.
Angela Ahrendts, Apple’s VP of Retail (and previously CEO of Burberry), explains that customer empathy is at the heart of the stores’ success, thanks to its use of “concierges and tech geniuses,” sharing of customer success stores, and design of townsquares for learning communities. Apple’s philosophy is that it is “technology married with the liberal arts.”
Direct, clear and empathetic communication with patients is key for the success of healthcare provides like Cleveland Clinic, which hears and captures stories of all its patients. “In a world of big data, it’s easy to lose sight of the small things that make a difference,” Carmine cautions.
Geoff Ralston, creator of Yahoo Mail and music site Lala (sold to Apple), believes that storytelling isn’t just a soft skill but the equivalent of hard cash. Accelerator Y Combinator values a compelling story along with the MVP.
Anthony Goldbloom, founder of travel search engine Kaggle, has launched a travel services startup called Lola that brings back the emotional factor of human contact with travel agents. “In hospitality and services, emotional resonance is the single most important factor in standing out,” Carmine observes. The best five-star hotels have staff who are caring, gracious, thoughtful, and anticipate needs; they share stories and best practices among themselves on a daily basis.
Neil de Grasse Tyson grounds complex facts in familiar terms without dumbing things down. NASA extensively uses beautiful animations and artistic renderings; it looks for potential astronauts who are not only domain experts but also persuasive, engaging and inspiring.
Such practices ensure that science is communicated as relevant, important and exciting. This is particularly important in multi-disciplinary fields where clarity and alignment of vision is important.
Rajaie Batniji, Co-founder of Collective Health, believes that communication about healthcare plans should be made so simple that it can be understood by third-graders. Empathy, simplicity and humanity are key for clinical communications.
Michael Dubin drove his startup, Dollar Shave Club, to success by using irreverent, humorous and shareable content to create a conversational brand and disrupt Gillette, the dominant player in razors for 115 years.
“Communication makes the world go round. It facilitates human connections and allows us to learn, grow and progress,” says Richard Branson. “Dreaming is one of humanity’s greatest gifts. It champions aspiration, spurs innovation, leads to change, and propels the world forward,” he adds.
The author includes insights from investors who emphasise the importance of communication competencies in founders. Such skills help with recruitment, media relations, fundraising, business networking, and creating a strong organisational culture.
“The great storytellers have an unfair competitive advantage,” says Bill Gurley of Benchmark Capital (Uber). “Every great founder can tell a great story,” according to Jeff Jordan, partner at Andreessen Horowitz (AirBnB), and former CEO of OpenTable.
Founders should find a unique hook and reel investors into the conversation early on, advises Fred Wilson, Founder of Union Square Ventures (Twitter, Etsy). John Doerr of KPCB prefers “missionaries to mercenaries,” he looks for powerful mission statements from founders. Michael Moritz of Sequoia Capital looks for messages that are clear, vivid and memorable, with a strong element of emotion.
Communication, collaboration and creativity, as well as understanding the importance of coding (‘4 Cs’), are important job competencies to have, according to Tom Friedman, author of Thank You for Being Late.
Interviewers are increasingly looking for candidates who can go beyond resume facts and craft narratives around their experiences. Some even ask for 90-second videos. Communication is not just a soft skill, but a foundation or base skill for professionals.
Business leaders must show empathy by actually using the products they sell to customers, such as glucose monitoring kits and even adult diapers, the author describes. McKinsey prefers consultants who are effective communicators and can convince clients faster and with fewer words. Communication skills can influence business decisions and deals.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai is “one of the smartest technologists on the planet” and an avid practitioner of visual storytelling; his presentations at Google I/O are a “masterclass in public speaking,” according to Carmine. His slides are uncluttered with text, and use photos, videos and animations. Billboards or hoardings don’t have bullet points, and slides should not have too many bullet points either, argues slide design guru Nancy Duarte.
Prasad Setty from Google’s HR department (“People Operations”) showed that successful teams have psychological safety to take risks and speak up, clarity of goals and roles, and know the impact of their work and why it matters. Leaders play an important communication role here by showing their own vulnerability as well, and articulating goals, roadmaps and values.
David Feinberg of Geisinger Health has distilled its communication programme into the acronym CICARE (connect, introduce, communicate, ask permission, respond, end with excellence). Few healthcare companies use words like empathy or love while designing success metrics, but commitment to kindness and humanity are what can make them remarkable.
David Rock, author of Strategy + Business, has developed an acronym for effective communication called SCARF (status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, fairness). Praise for employees’ customer stories improves their self-esteem, and clear communication eliminates confusion. Employees like a sense of autonomy, and empathy is built through trust and respect. Finally, transparency helps meet the cognitive need for fairness.
Leaders must be lifelong learners, urges Pepsico’s Indra Nooyi. Communication must be pithy and to the point, and mobilise and motivate people. She herself overcame her early failure in passing a communication course in Yale, and become an effective storyteller.
Some of the most successful TED speakers have leveraged humour (Richard Turere of Kenya, Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan, educator Ken Robinson) and their own personal stories of overcoming hardships (Dan Ariely, Shonda Rhimes).
They also use clear headlines (Al Gore), the ‘rule of three’ (Pope Francis, Leila Hoteit), and a promise that audiences will learn something new, eg, Simon Sinek (inspirational leadership) and Mary Roach (orgasms).
TED talks are popular because people are hungry for ideas, new perspectives, and something to chew on. The talks help amplify the voice of an individual right across the globe, Carmine observes.
The road ahead
In sum, we are living in times called “The Great Enrichment” (Deirdre McCloskey) or the “New Renaissance” (Ian Goldin), with an explosion of diverse and vivid ideas on a global scale leading to mind-boggling changes in products and services. Industries and professions connected to persuasion account for a third of US national income, according to Deirdre.
It is effective persuasion beyond bare facts that spark movements, inspire, ignite, excite and even intoxicate audiences. “There’s one thing only humans can do, and that’s dream – so let’s dream big,” says Garry Kasparov, who has been reflecting on how machines and humans compare, after he was defeated in chess by IBM’s Deep Blue in 1997.
Stories are effective “conversational sparks” that draw audiences in, according to Vanessa Van Edwards, author of Captivate: Use Science to Succeed with People. “Facts alone are not enough. You have to do storytelling,” according to billionaire investor Vinod Khosla.
Success in innovation comes from excellence, passion and communication, according to Larry Smith of University of Waterloo. Persuasion is an art that should be taught early in school, urges TED curator Chris Anderson; it will help the next generation galvanise, inspire and empower.
Tools like the Readability Index and Hemingway app help evaluate the grade level of content; many effective communicators pitch at eighth or even third-grade level. “Condense, simplify, and speak as briefly as possible,” Carmine urges.
“Stories are irresistible because the brain is hardwired for narrative,” Carmine sums up.