3 Powerful Takeaways Marketers Can Learn from a Master Storyteller

Interview with Allan Heinberg

Episode Description

What’s the most powerful tool in the world for captivating the human brain?

It’s storytelling.

As business leaders who want to captivate our customers, we have so much to learn from storytellers. In fact, the StoryBrand marketing framework I teach to help companies clarify their message comes from the same principles I used as an author and screenwriter. These are principles that storytellers have refined over thousands of years, and they flat out work.

If we want to captivate our customers, we need to understand the art of storytelling.

So this week on the Building a StoryBrand podcast, I’m talking with Allan Heinberg, one of the world’s most accomplished storytellers. He’s written for popular shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Sex and the City, and is currently the showrunner for Shonda Rhimes’ The Catch.

To be honest, I completely geek out with Allan about writing and character development in this interview. So if you have any aspirations toward creative writing, this is a master class.

But there’s also a wealth of wisdom here for anyone who wants to communicate clearly and engage an audience. Here are my three biggest takeaways for business leaders.

PLUS! Don’t miss the BONUS SEGMENT with musician Drew Holcomb. Drew stopped by our office to talk about the business of music and to play a couple of songs for us.


The most important question any storyteller or marketer asks

One of the first things I wanted to know from Allan is where he begins in his writing process. Storytellers have to get the attention of their audience early or else the audience has no motivation to engage with the story. I asked Allan the first thing he tries to make happen in the story in order to catch and keep his audience’s attention.

“The first question we ask,” Allan says, “is what does [the main character] want? That’s where everything starts.”

The takeaway for business leaders: Know what your customer wants as it relates to your brand.

If Allan didn’t clearly tell his audience what his main character wants, we’d lose interest quickly. It’s a critical strategy for winning over his viewers and drawing them into the story.

We have to ask ourselves what our customer wants as it relates to our brand.

And it’s a huge part of what draws customers to our companies, too. We have to ask ourselves what our customer wants as it relates to our brand. They’re the main character in this story, not us. And what the main character wants is the catalyst for any story, including your brand’s story.

When we identify what our customer wants and communicate it simply, the story we are inviting them into has definition and direction. They can immediately see their role in the story, and they begin to wonder if we can help them achieve that desire.

How to keep your customers engaged

Next, I asked Allan to tell me how he builds on what his character wants. How does he determine what happens next? What helps her achieve it? What gets in the way?

The way he phrased his answer surprised me, and I love it. In his words, “Boredom is the biggest wrench in my personal toolkit. I’m constantly putting myself in the audience’s place. If I throw out anything obvious they’re not going to be surprised or they’re not going to feel anything.”

“Most of the time, I’m thinking about what it feels like to sit in the couch as the audience, and I’m desperately trying not to bore them.”

The takeaway for business leaders: Constantly strive to see your business the way your customer does.

Not too long ago, I was sitting in a board room with a bunch of executives for a company in Fort Worth, Texas. They sell heavy machinery at auctions. I’m reviewing their website, and I’m thinking the exact same thing. How can we not bore the person who goes to this website? How can we hook them with something that they would want? How can we define, and identify, and speak to the challenges that they’re facing so they find themselves in this brand? It’s the same sort of technique Allan is describing for television writing.

Allan is a wildly successful storyteller because he is constantly putting himself in the seat of his audience. He knows the remote is never far away, and viewers can get bored and flip to another channel at any time.

If we bore our prospective customers, they can easily “change the channel” and seek out our competitors.

The same is true for us as business leaders. If we bore our prospective customers, they can easily “change the channel” and seek out our competitors.

One of the most common mistakes I see brands make is how they talk about themselves. We think it’s important to introduce ourselves, so we talk about how friendly our staff is and how our new product recently won a big industry award. It all sounds perfectly harmless, but think about those messages from your customer’s perspective.

That information may make us, as business owners, feel good. But for our customers, it’s irrelevant to their journey of getting what they want. It’s boring. They’ll tune us out and move on to someone who understands them.

Unlock the narrative power of your brand

One of the reasons we love movies and novels and stories of all kinds is that they make us feel deeply. When I love a movie, I feel gratitude. I feel gratitude for getting to be a part of the overall narrative we all get to live within. I feel thankful for being alive.

So I asked Allan what he wants his audience to feel when he finishes a story arc or a season. What emotions is he trying to create in those big, climactic scenes?

In his words, he wants his audience to feel “affection for the characters and the world [and] sadness that it’s all over.”

But you can’t manufacture that kind of deep emotion. In order to stir affection and gratitude in his audience, his storytelling needs to come from a place of service. As he told me, “I’m here to serve these characters, I’m here to serve the story, I’m here to serve the audience and to put them on a journey.”

The takeaway for business leaders: Serve your customers and genuinely strive to make their lives better.

When a customer buys your product or service, you want them to feel a certain way about it. You want them to feel the same sense of gratitude and affection we feel after King George overcomes his stutter and rallies the people of England at the end of The King’s Speech.

When you understand your customers’ struggles and how your product eliminates or alleviates those struggles, that is a story worth telling!

That is the narrative power of your brand. It can help people transform and become better versions of themselves. When you understand your customers’ struggles and how your product eliminates or alleviates those struggles, that is a story worth telling!

I think we forget sometimes as business leaders that there’s an element of being an artist here that benefits both our brand and our customers. We get to transform human beings’ identities by selling the simplest of products.

And to do it, like Allan, we’ve got to continually serve our customers, finding ways to understand them and solve their problems.

As Allan said, about both screenwriting and marketing, “We can’t go wrong making it about other people.”

As a screenwriter and an author, I’ve written countless stories. And I’ve noticed that my hobby of storytelling and my job running StoryBrand have so much in common.

Not a day goes by that I don’t call on my storytelling skills in order to lead a meeting, write copy, or motivate my employees. I know this episode will help you be a better storyteller for your business and captivate more customers.

Which one of these three takeaways resonates most for you and your business right now? Leave me a comment and let me know.

Answer a few short questions on our downloadable worksheet and apply this episode to your life and your business. You’ll remember more of what you learned and have clarity for how to put it to use right away.

Executive producer: Tim Schurrer
Additional production and editing: Chad Snavely

*Photo credit: Terence Patrick for Variety

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