Cal Fussman: The Rules of Storytelling – Below the Line with James Beshara

Key Takeaways

  • Podcasts allow ANYONE to be a fly on the wall and listen to conversations amongst the world’s experts across a huge variety of topics
  • Every company should find and catalog their authentic stories
    • Without a good story, a company won’t be able to break through the noise
    • Forget mission statements, forget company values… it’s all about the story
  • “If you want to get someone to listen to you and come along on your journey, you better have a compelling story. There’s a big difference between trying to convince someone to do something and compel someone to do something.”
  • Talk to strangers and share your story, you never know where it might lead you
  • A powerful question can get you to the most powerful person on Earth
  • The 3 rules of storytelling:
    • A story has to start with vulnerability (there needs to be vulnerability at the core)
    • Keep moving towards a new place where something unexpected is going to happen
    • Avoid going off to the sides with information that’s not relevant
  • Mastering your story takes PRACTICE – there’s no other way around it
  • Sales tip: People respond to stories that make them lean in, not a pitch where it feels like they’re being sold

Books Mentioned

  • The first sentence of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari is as follows:
    • “Humans think in stories rather than facts, numbers, or equations. The simpler the story, the better.”
  • James recommend Cal read Walt Disney by Neal Gablre
    • “It is UNBELIEVABLE. It’s one of the best biographies I’ve ever read.”

Intro

Be Their Friend

  • Cal has become friends with the great majority of people he’s interviewed
    • “If I made one error as a journalist it’s the fact that sometimes I tried to keep my distance”
    • Many people advise against this
      • Why? – If you’re the interviewee’s friend, you’re less likely to be honest when you write up the story
  • Cal has had breakfast with Larry King nearly every day for10 years straight
    • “He’s been able to make friends with every single person he’s interviewed”
    • Check out the Podcast Notes from Cal’s interview with Larry on The Tim Ferris Show

Times Are Changing

  • “So many things I was taught back in the 1970s just don’t apply now, they have no relevance”
    • Largely because of the internet
    • “We were taught never to self-promote. Can you imagine that in today’s world? Everything you look at is self-promotion.”
  • Way back, people didn’t have access to the vehicles they do today to get their stories out into the world – it was all about newspapers and magazines
    • Nowadays, anyone can self-publish a book, release a podcast, start a YouTube channel, etc. – there are no barriers!
    • “Anything is available to everybody to get their message out now. You used to NEED a newspaper or magazine or some sort of news shows. Now everyone can make their own content, create their own narrative, and put it on their own YouTube channel.”

The Magic of Podcasts

  • Podcasts allow ANYONE to be a fly on the wall and listen to conversations amongst the world’s experts across a huge variety of topics
    • “This is why podcasts are becoming so huge right now and they’re only gonna get huger. They’re really filling a void.”
    • “When something is boiled down to 400 words you’re not getting the complete story. When you sit down with someone and have a conversation with them for an hour plus, you’re going to get to the bottom of things. I think, in many ways, podcasts are replacing magazine journalism.”
  • Podcasts also allow you to access information on the go or while you’re doing chores – the polar opposite of newspapers/magazines
  • “I think podcasts are going to be one of, if not the, biggest trend of this decade in terms of information consumption” – James
  • Cal says his first appearance on The Tim Ferriss Show changed his life
    • It got such a tremendous response that it pushed Tim to encourage Cal to start a podcast of his own

The Freedom of Podcasting

  • James, more so now than ever, feels a huge sense of freedom (Cal too)
    • Having been an entrepreneur for quite some time, James is now focusing on growing his podcast (in addition to some angel investing on the side)
      • “I no longer have a boss or even more importantly, a hundred employees potentially dissecting each thing I say”
  • Cal has also been focusing on building his podcast, a huge shift for him after a long career of journalism
    • Cal adds – “We both felt some sense of being shellacked in the old place, but we don’t feel those shackles in the new place”

Comparing a Podcast Interview to a Journalism Interview

  • Podcasts are more improvement-related
    • People really want to know how they themselves can improve using the strategies, habits, and routines of the person being interviewed
      • “Way back in the day… we weren’t really thinking that was as journalists. We were more so painting or sculpting a portrait of that person”
  • Check another one of Cal’s earlier podcast interviews – his appearance on Finding Mastery
    • The host, Michael Gervias, is quite the expert at finding and dissecting the experiences, habits, and patterns of a particular individual 
      • A journalist would then use that information to paint the person’s portrait
      • Podcast interviewers, like Michael, do things a bit differently
        • They rearrange that information with the main goal being optimization, thus allowing the subject (and audience) to improve themselves
    • Cal adds that this interview, because of realizing the above, also had a profound impact on him
      • “I never had the thought that with the material I was getting as a journalist… that I was still using it to create a sculpture of the person. I wasn’t using it to help the other person get the most out of him or herself.”

Uncovering the Story

  • Cal recently launched his own consulting company where he aims to help companies better tell their stories
  • “You got so much noise out there. How do you get through it all? If you can’t craft a good story, you’re probably not going to.”
  • The sales team within many companies is very often siloed, thus preventing them from accessing the great stories that are happening within other company silos 
    • “It’s really a matter of finding these authentic stories and then making them available so the company can know itself”
  • Companies attempt to write down their mission statement and values… without knowing the story – “But the values are in the stories!!”
  • “It’s kind of hard for me to imagine why businesses wouldn’t make storytelling something that was an active part of everything they did. If I had a business, I’d want to create a storytelling library, allowing me to be able to access the stories of my company whenever I needed them.”
  • In summary – find and catalog the authentic stories of your company and be able to access them
  • “This is a big mistake people in companies make. They just want to show how much they love what they do or how great they are. They just start saying, ‘We do this, this, this, and this.’ The reality is that the story is about the customer and how the product affects the customer.”
  • “There are 22 million companies in America and I want to help them all”

The Best Founders and Leaders Are Great Storytellers | Why does Cal think this is true?

  • The first sentence of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari is as follows:
    • “Humans think in stories rather than facts, numbers, or equations. The simpler the story, the better.”
  • Steve Jobs has famously said – “A storyteller is the most powerful person in the room”
  • “If you want to get someone to listen to you and come along on your journey, you better have a compelling story. There’s a big difference between trying to convince someone to do something and compel someone to do something.”

Talk to Strangers

  • Cal loves to strike up conversations with people he’s seated next to on airplanes
    • “You get a chance to try and communicate in different ways and see what people will really open up to. If you don’t try, well… you’re not going to connect. It’s that simple. The person’s sitting right next to you, why not try?”
  • In a world where people are constantly consuming the latest content on their phones, tuning out the world, it makes it difficult to practice, or try out, sharing your story 
    • “You don’t have those moments on the bus or at the airport or at the coffee shop because everyone’s in their own world of consumption” – James
  • And remember – “Communication is 10% the actual words, 30% your tone of voice, and 60% body language”

The 2 Stories That Shaped Cal’s Life | Story #1

  • Rewind to November 1963 when Cal was in second grade in Yonkers, NY
    • He recalls, very vividly, one specific time where his teacher left the room and came back a moment later with a totally different demeanor after realizing President Kennedy had been shot
  • That night, Cal’s parents explained the situation to him and how our country would handle it
    • Lyndon B. Johnson took over as President and 7-year-old Cal was quite curious
      • Was he finally happy to be President?
      • Was he scared he would get assassinated too?
    • “I’m sitting at the table with my parents and I can’t get a grip over what it was like in Lyndon B. Johnson’s head when he took the oath of office”
      • Cal then wrote the new President a letter address to the White House asking him just that
        • 6 months later, Cal received a response written by the President’s personal secretary
          • “I knew at that moment a powerful question could get you to the most powerful person on Earth”

The 2 Stories That Shaped Cal’s Life | Story #2

  • Cal went on to journalism school and after he graduated got a job (at age 22) with Inside Sports, a magazine in New York which Cal describes as “the best place for a young writer”
    • But…. the magazine soon folded
      • “This was a key moment for me because I didn’t know what to do”
  • Cal decided to take some time off and do a bit of traveling… and did so for 10 years!!
    • “I took off around the world and hardly had any money. I’d get on buses and trains and look for empty seats next to people, trying to find the right person… Once I sat down and the train started moving, a conversation would get started. By the end of the conversation, I NEEDED that person to invite me home with them. Otherwise, I just didn’t have enough money for a roof over my head day after day after day. THAT is where I learned how to interview.”
      • “The deeper the conversations went, the more often I got invited back to stay with them or to have a meal”
    • Later on in Cal’s career – “When I went to interview Mikhail Gorbachev or Richard Branson or Jeff Bezos, they were like the people sitting next to me on that train. I didn’t look at them as celebrities where I had to be careful with my questions. I could be completely relaxed and they felt that.”
      • “Getting people to trust me enough to invite me into their homes…. it wasn’t a very big jump to walk into an interview and get the subjects to trust me”
  • The 10-years of traveling allowed Cal to build his storytelling library, just like he advises the companies he works with to do

The 3 Rules of Storytelling

  • A story has to start with vulnerability (there needs to be vulnerability at the core)
    • “You can’t have a story without vulnerability. Otherwise, the listener won’t want to step into those shoes.”
    • Great stories are about truth – it’s not about making something up
  • Keep moving towards a new place where something unexpected is going to happen
    • The unexpected is what makes the listener lean in
  • Avoid going off to the sides with information that’s not relevant
    • Focus on working towards the ONE detail that the listener cares about
    • “If you go off to the side and start putting in information that’s not relevant, you’re going to lose the audience”
  • Bonus: Lean into the fact that you’re following these rules – that’s what the listener wants!

We Talkin’ ‘Bout Practice

  • Mastering your story takes PRACTICE and REPS – there’s no other way around it
    • As a founder, internalize this advice – don’t schedule investor meetings early on in the process of mastering your pitch
    • “The first version of anything is oh so terrible” – James
    • “It’s sort of like putting out the clay you’re going to sculpt. Every time you work with the clay it gets closer to the sculpture you want.”

Wrapping Up

  • It’s easier to get any message across by telling a story
  • “Anybody who thinks they can tell their company’s story just from a point of strength, ‘We’re great because we do this, this, and this,’ they’re missing the boat”

Additional Notes

  • “My childhood curiosity never dissipated
    • People are most curious at around the age of 4 (it’s been found that children at this age tend to ask their parents 300-400 questions a day)
      • At age 5, kids start school and are taught to raise their hand if they have a question – “Childhood curiosity starts getting chipped away at from that moment on”
  • Cal highly recommends attending one of Tony Robbins‘ live events
  • Sales tip: People respond to stories that make them lean in, not a pitch where it feels like their being sold
    • “It’s the story that grips people. It’s the story that people are going to remember.”
    • Stories have this magical property of grabbing people and pulling them in
      • Go to a movie theater and watch everyone’s posture – they lean forward when they want to know what’s coming 
  • On Stories:
    • “These stories will work. These stories will make you lean in. They will grab your attention. You will remember them and you may even pass them on. They haven’t lost their power, it’s just that people have stopped using them as well as they can.”
  • “It’s routinely said that communication is one of the most important assets for an individual to build out for their career or for any of their pursuit. Yet how many people have ever read a book on writing?” – James
  • James recommends Cal read Walt Disney by Neal Gablre
    • “It is UNBELIEVABLE. It’s one of the best biographies I’ve ever read.”
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