How to engage your audience with creative storytelling

Joining us on Brand Storytelling this week is the Founder and Director of Anecdote, Shawn Callahan. We talk to Shawn about how his role at Anecdote, the stories that inspired his book, Putting Stories to Work and how brands are effectively telling their stories.

Before starting his work at Anecdote, Shawn’s experience included working for IBM and as a consultant. Shawn’s book, Putting Stories to Work, has earned him critical praise for his storytelling.   

Download and listen to the full show and read below for a preview of Dan’s insights. 

Subscribe to the Brand Storytelling podcast on iTunesSoundcloud, and selected Android apps.  


Rakhal Ebeli: You say on your website that you published a little insight about how you initially were against storytelling. Maybe this goes to your point around not using the S-word. How have you come around to storytelling in general? What made you change your mind?

Shawn Callahan: Part of it was just persistence on behalf of our customers. The most important part was that we decided to take an approach which was all based on real life experiences in small stories. As long as we didn’t have to craft stories and make stories up, we were happy to help people with their storytelling. The other thing too is we always said, “You have to do it for good, not evil.” I think that was the other thing that was sitting behind it.

Rakhal: That’s a great point too. When brands out there are listening to this podcast starting to dig into their own history books, what tips and tricks could you advise to actually identify great stories in their brand adventure? 

Shawn: I think part of it is actually getting out in the organization. I speak to a lot of marketing and communications groups, and they’re so busy with the business of what they do they don’t actually go and talk to the business. I don’t see them in the business spending time with how people work and what they do. You can’t find good stories by sitting in your marketing and [communications] section hoping a good story will just go past you. I think that’d be the first thing I would do.

The other thing is to be able to have that ability to spot stories. We say to a lot of people, “I have to develop this narrative intelligence where you can say, ‘That’s a story. That’s not a story.'” It’s some basic things that give it away. As soon as you hear someone say, “Just the other day-” or “Three days ago-” … We just call these time markers. If you hear a time marker, chances are you’re just about to hear a story. Of course, “Once upon a time” is the classic time marker, but as we say, “It doesn’t work so well in business.” The thing about it is just tuning your ear so that you can actually hear those stories.

Rakhal: Let’s say that you’ve discovered a few stories. How do you know or forecast which ones are going to hit the mark?

Shawn: There’s certainly a hierarchy of stories, in terms of a sense of what humans care about. It’s very biological. At the very top of the hierarchy is anything to do with death. It’s why we have so many CSI programs and detective stories, etc. Just underneath that is safety of children. Again, we want our species to continue. We have to have our children safe. We know it. As soon as you hear a story of kids being in an unsafe situation, it goes to the top of the new cycle. The third one, and this is a bit hard to build into business content and brand management in some ways, is sex. We’re very attuned to that.

The fourth one, which sits very close to that, is power. Anything to do with power. For example, that could be hierarchical power, money power, celebrity power, beauty power. All of these types of powers are actually great things that we care about and we want to actually know the stories behind it, because usually people with power can affect our lives. That’s why we want to know about stories about those things. I would start looking in those 4 spaces. I tell you what, if you can double them, triple them up, then you’ve got something that’s potentially on a bit of a skyrocket for you.

Mentioned in the show: 

Opening audio sourced from As The World Turns (April 18, 1961) 

5 Key Takeaways: 

1. Don’t use the S-word!    

2. Ask yourself, why are we doing what we’re doing? 

3. No matter the location, culture or brand. Everyone has a story to tell. 

4. Never let up once you have the lead. Just ask Michael Phelps. 

5. Tell your stories out in smaller forums before telling the world. 

Connect with Shawn on social media and visit his website: 

Twitter: @ShawnCallahan

Instagram: shawndcallahan