Albert Einstein once said that if you want your children to be smart, tell them stories. But if you want them to be brilliant, tell them more stories. Park Howell is known as, by all accounts, "The world’s most industrious storyteller," and he’s launched a book called Brand Bewitchery: How to Wield the Story Cycle System to Craft Spellbinding Stories for Your Brand. Aside from that, he has his Business of Story podcast where he shares how he can help you and your business grow.
The story of the world’s most industrious storyteller
Park has been in the advertising branding-marketing world for 35 years. Before that, he studied and got his degree in Public Relations from Washington State University. He was in the PR world and worked for a couple of agencies where he found himself in a cubicle writing, which he got bored of. He was lucky, though, because the PR firm he was working for, which was also his very first employer, had a very small, struggling ad department, and they were getting overwhelmed with work, so they asked him to write a few ads. This was something that he discovered he enjoyed doing. So, he then worked in agencies that had both advertising and PR, and eventually started his own firm in 1995 called Park & Co. 2006 is when Park started looking for an answer, and that’s where he found story. That was the genesis of him finally writing and producing Brand Bewitchery, his new book.
He said it was really easy back then, when the brands owned the influence of mass media. They had radio, TV, billboards, outdoor direct mail events, public relations, and no Yelp. In 2006, all of that started to change with the advent of the internet, e-commerce, and blogs. Today, 14 years later, it has extremely shifted. When before, brands used to own the influence of mass media, now, the masses are the media, and they own your story. People are so bombarded with content that the brain cannot remotely digest at all.
When it comes to what made him believe that a story should emerge out of this sea of digital and social media, he says it was around the time that his middle child, his son Parker, had just started film school at Chapman University in Orange, California, which is a prominent film school. His son graduated in 2010, has been in Hollywood ever since, and is a director who does a lot of work in virtual reality and mixed reality motion graphics. With his son being in school, this pushed Park to evolve as a communicator. He said to himself, "My son is going to school to become a competitive storyteller in the storytelling capital of the world, LA. What do they teach him? What does Hollywood know that I should know that could give me an advantage over my competition and help me understand how to communicate with my clients and help them hack through the noise and hook the hearts of their audiences?" That’s where he found storytelling.
How can you be your customers’ hero with Brand Bewitchery?
In Brand Bewitchery, Park writes about the need for the business owner to be a mentor to their customer’s hero. It’s not like telling stories at bedtime. This is really about how you convert your story into a promise, a client, or a customer, and it begins by thinking as a storyteller and thinking through the narrative mind. As Park’s son was going to Chapman, he told his son to send him his books once he’s through with them, since he’s paying for them anyway. He wanted to know what they were teaching him, and there, he came across the hero’s journey and saw it as an amazing strategy that he could in business storytelling, and that was the inspiration for his 10-step story cycle system.
The key to the hero’s journey and the key to every great story, Park says, is always about a single character or protagonist. It’s not about a family or group. It’s always about a single individual and the journey they’re on. That got Park to thinking back in the olden days, before 2006, when brands owned the influence of mass media and were very brand-centric. They were just cramming content down people’s faces and saying, "You have to do it our way. If you want to be cool, you have to buy our product." That changed when people started telling their own stories online, calling brands out, and asking for authenticity and honesty. Now, brands have to make a significant paradigm shift and realise they are not the center of their brand story; their customers are. Once you put your customer at the center of your story, it requires you to understand them, what they want in life, where they are on their journey to get what they want, and how you can be there as their mentor to guide to through that. It’s a total paradigm shift of taking yourself out of being the center of the story and placing your audience there. Doing that will give you a whole new view on how to communicate your brand.
Park alo talks about nine different descriptors in his book, which came about through helping people pull together their brand story strategy using the story cycle system. It was what people started naturally doing, and he calls it the OOOH exercise. The three O’s, your power threes, stand for Organization, Offering, and Outcomes. Then he asks you to think of three one-word descriptors that describe your organisation in general, and then finally, to give me three one-word descriptors that describe your outcome. What do people actually achieve by using your product or service? Once you have those nine, which is divisible by three, the power of three, tell a story. Grab each one of those words, and you’re going to end up with nine different stories. Tell a story about each particular word, about your real world impact, and how your brand expresses itself and shows up in the world.
It’s a beautiful way to prove what you’re trying to do when you’re creating your brand story, because people are so often very aspirational, as they should be, but sometimes, it’s hard to get your employees on board, but then you overlay these stories and realise that it actually is very much like that. Not only does it prove that what you really stand for is true and authentic, but it also gives you amazing content that you can use in public relations, in inbound and outbound marketing, and on your website. It also changes your focus from telling case studies, which are typically brand-focused, to what Park calls case stories, which are, again, placing your audience or your customer at the center of the story, and where you show up at the very end to help them achieve something. But again, the story is about them, not about you.
The Business of your Story
For the Business of Story, Park’s podcast or organisation, he has three words. The first is mage, which is a sorcerer that describes himself to be. His next word is industrious, as the world’s most industrious storyteller as coined by one of his clients, which he liked so much and just ran with it. He also says industrious, because he uses story to build careers, to build businesses, and to build brands. The last word is optimistic, because Park considers himself very optimistic. The Business of Story is about optimism and a true well-told story typically has an optimistic view to it. He says it’s a word about his offering. The Business of Story is primal. That’s the thing about storytelling. It is a very primal way that homo sapiens communicate, as homo sapeisn are the only known being that actually use story, story structure, and problem-solution dynamic. In his offering, what he demonstrates is how primal this is and how people can move from being intuitive storytellers to intentional ones.
Park then mentions this excerpt from his book, "The various narrative frameworks you can use to tell a story have a rich, proven history of effectively connecting with people and moving them to action. In fact, they are primal to us storytelling monkeys. In the fall of 2018, I was working with 60 engineers and executives at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in Phoenix. They were a smart and very logic-driven crowd, so I shared with them how our minds are hardwired for story by telling them a tale of Fog, the caveman, which is one of my favorite tales to tell. One evening, Fog returned to his cave looking a little worse for wear. His plump cavern roommate, Larry, grunted, ‘Fog, you don’t looks so good. What happened?’ He explained, ‘Fog go to stream to catch sabertooth salmon for dinner.’ ‘Uh huh,’ grunted Larry, ‘But saber-toothed tiger show up. Fog give tiger salmon. Tiger like salmon better than Fog, so here I am safe in cave with you.’ ‘Aha,’ said Larry, nodding at the end sight.’" And there you have it. Park says it’s a perfect three-act story structure delineated by Larry’s ‘Uh huh’ setup, ‘Uh oh’ conflict and ‘Aha’ resolution. Its story structure is so basic, even a caveman can do it.
It’s setup, problem, and resolution, and then he goes on to teach people how to use the "And, But, Therefore" framework which is the exact same story dynamic, but this can be used in public relations, marketing, and branding, and it is extremely powerful. He’s also got different stages: heroes, stakes, disruption, antagonist, mentor, the journey, the victory, the moral, and the ritual part. To make sense of that, Park brings back to the 10-step story cycle system that was inspired by Campbell’s hero’s journey, which is anywhere from 12-17 steps, depending where you read on it. This is mapped to business, and you can think of it in the three-act structure.
Act one of Brand Bewitchery
Act one is simply setup, and those are the first three steps of the story cycle system. As you’re thinking about your brand and the narrative framework, the setup is your back story. What he means by that is, what is your number one position in the marketplace? What do you functionally do differently and more distinctively than your competition? This, by the way, in the 10 steps, is the only time one thinks about function. Everything else is humanised.
Step two is heroes, and people say, "Well, people aren’t really heroes," which is a metaphor. Park wants you to identify your top three audiences and prioritise them, because these are the heroes in the journey. You may have four, five, or six different audiences as most companies do, but Park only wants you to focus on the top three, because he finds that once you get those dialed in, the rest of the world flows through your audiences. Take one of those, take your backstory as the brand, and now, here’s an audience that wants to do something, and that takes you to step number three, stakes, which Park breaks down into two different things: what do they wish for and what do they want? What do they wish for means emotionally, e.g. they wish to look smart, they wish to have optimism, they wish to get rid of that fear. What emotionally do they wish to achieve in their life? And then what do they want physically to buy to fulfill that wish?
For instance, in Park’s world, people wish to become better, more confident, and compelling communicators. They want a proven system that they can deploy and measure the outcome of, so it becomes very physical, and the only reason why they do it is to fulfil that wish. Make no mistake, every business is in the wish-fulfilling business, and it’s the problem everyone tries to solve. So, as you’re setting the stage and the backstory and as your audience is looking for what they wish and want, you are arriving at what problem to use successfully to help them overcome that, and that then launches you into act two, and that is the next couple steps of the story cycle system.
Park Howell talked about storification and the first few steps in his book, Brand Bewitchery. In the next article, he’ll share the other steps involved in getting brands to excel through the stories they tell. Also, listen to Business of Story podcast, as it can also be really useful for entrepreneurs learning to communicate their business story to the world.
Cover Photo from Park Howell