Marketing podcast, PreneurCast, is for entrepreneurs, by entrepreneurs. Author and marketer Pete Williams and digital media producer Dom Goucher discuss entrepreneurship, business, internet marketing and productivity.
This week, Pete talks to Valerie Khoo – A journalist and writer, Founder of the Sydney Writers Centre, and author of the book, Power Stories – the 8 Stories You Must Tell, which is about the use of storytelling in business to get your message across.
Valerie talks about using storytelling in business to get your message across
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Interview with Valerie Khoo
Dom Goucher: Hi, Dom here, and another interview for you this week. Pete is talking to Valerie Khoo, who is a journalist and writer, founder of the Sydney Writers’ Centre and author of the new book Power Stories: The 8 Stories You Must Tell. That book is all about the use of storytelling in business and how to get your message across.
Pete talks to Valerie about the book and about the use of storytelling in business and how you can use it to promote and further your business and your products. So, I’ll hand over to Pete.
[Pete’s conversation with Valerie starts]
Pete Williams: So, Valerie, welcome to the show!
Valerie Khoo: Thanks for having me on the show, Pete.
Pete: Before we get started talking about the book, I’d love to hear your story. What’s your background in your own words?
Valerie: Sure. Well, I’m founder of the Sydney Writers’ Centre, which is obviously in Sydney, and we offer short courses to people who want to write with confidence and who want to get published, or want to write their own book. In addition to that, it kind of ties into my main work as a journalist and writer myself.
I have a real passion for storytelling in my own personal writing, but also I’ve been really heavily involved and immersed in the world of entrepreneurship and small business for some years. I am a national small business commentator for Fairfax. I have a weekly column called Enterprise, which is in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, and Business Day and quite a number of sites.
In addition to all that, I’m a co-founder of a start-up called SocialCallout.com, which is all about connecting brands with bloggers so that the bloggers can tell the story of the brand. So, my whole life is really all about storytelling and small business, hence the book.
Pete: Absolutely, Power Stories. I’ve got an early edition of that from Wiley, which is the publisher of my book as well, which is very, very cool. To give some context of the book, it covers what you call the eight different stories that people should be telling, and it’s more businesses telling as well.
What’s your take on stories in the context of business? We talk about marketing and that sort of stuff on the show here, but how do you describe it and how do you put stories in that context?
Valerie: What I think, particularly in the last few years, is that there’s been a real decline in the use of storytelling in the world of business. I think that storytelling is alive and well, of course, in the world of movies and books and the arts, that sort of thing.
But what’s happened over, say, the last 10 or 15 years is that thanks to the advances in technology and the way we use technology, we’ve become so obsessed with data, with numbers, with statistics.
We always hear the term ‘what gets measured gets done,’ or ‘what gets measured gets managed,’ and it’s so important these days to collect all this data, analyze this data, have PowerPoint presentations full of graphs and pie charts and so many Excel spreadsheets we don’t know what to do, really.
Valerie: Because it’s become so much easier these days to link that data and use that data, and we hear so much that data is king. I don’t dispute that—data is very important in making decisions, business decisions; but that’s only half the story. It’s actually the story framing that data that is the most powerful thing.
The data is just a little bit of content kind of thing, but while the data makes sense to your head, it’s your stories that are going to appeal to your heart; it’s your stories that are going to make an emotional connection with people, and it’s actually the stories that people are going to remember and pass on. They’re not going to remember a pie chart.
Pete: Obviously, it’s more than just standing up and doing a pitch with slides and Keynotes. Throughout the book, you talk about things like the entrepreneur’s story and the hero’s journey, which I’d to get into a little bit later. But it’s interesting, because some of my favorite books are books about story. Robert McKee’s book which is just called Story, is a fantastic book about how to communicate and tell stories.
Particularly if you’re focused on being a marketer (which is hopefully what a lot of listeners are learning and has been kind of been an undertone of all episodes here on the show), it shows that marketing is about telling stories; that’s what it is. It’s about communicating something. The ability to tell an articulate and engaging story is really important.
Valerie: Absolutely, it’s so important. A lot of small-business owners actually forget that because marketing isn’t their area of expertise. For those of us where marketing comes to us naturally or that’s really the focus of our business, then it may be an easier context to understand.
But a lot of entrepreneurs and small-business owners, they haven’t necessarily been born with the marketing gene, and it’s easy for them to tell the wrong story or tell a story with the wrong angle; and basically, it’s not getting as much impact to people. Even things they take as your elevator pitch, where you get to tell your business story.
I was at a networking event and a woman stood up. She was a business coach and she wanted to cater to small-business owners as her client. She got up and she said, “Hi, my name’s Laura, I’m a business coach. I’m in a network of 11,000 business coaches across the world in 67 countries.
I just came back from our international conference in Paris.” It was like I was just watching people’s eyebrows. The thing is, if her target market is small-business owners, they don’t care about the 11,000 other people in her network in the 67 countries; they just want to work one-on-one with her.
So it’s not that what she said was wrong because what she said was factual, correct information; it’s just that she told the wrong story. It’s just so important to identify the right stories so that you can pull them out of your arsenal, ready to go, when it’s the best fit.
Pete: That’s one thing that I really enjoyed, the way you wrote the book. You talk about elevator pitches but you don’t wrap it in that term ‘elevator pitches.’ Because people, again, will see that and go, “Eww, boring, heard it before.”
But as you call it, it’s the business story; and that’s a different way to look at it. Because realistically, if you’re in an elevator, if you’re meeting somebody, networking; everything is fundamentally an engaging story if you do it correctly.
Valerie: That’s exactly right, and really, who has ever pitched their story in an elevator before?
Pete: Exactly. I’d love to hear the context of when that was actually first done.
Valerie: That’s right.
Pete: But one thing I really liked in one of the early chapters of the book—you wrote that it’s the message and not the medium, and I think that’s really cool. So many people think that every medium, whether it’s an elevator pitch or it’s a brochure or a proposal, actually requires a different kind of tonality or story. But you talk about it, that the message is the most important thing.
Valerie: Absolutely. Do you know how many times I hear people ask, “So do you think I should concentrate more on Twitter or on LinkedIn? Or should I focus on my blog?” That’s not actually the question you should be asking. Focus on your story. Regardless of which way you decide to disseminate that story, make sure that the story’s authentic and consistent and really cuts through.
Of course, you do need to pay some attention as to which medium you use because that determines your target market; if that’s what your target market likes to listen to or they’re on Twitter or they’re on Facebook. It’s very much focusing on the story and making sure you tell that story to whichever medium it is.
Pete: You speak about the entrepreneur’s journey or the hero’s story. I’d love for you to kind of explain that to give some people some real understanding of how this actually applies. Again, for a lot of people, even with what we’ve spoken about already, they hear the word ‘story,’ and don’t really get it in terms of how they can apply and be actionable in their plumbing business or their roof-tiling or their accounting practice.
Valerie: Yeah, I think that’s something I’m really excited about because entrepreneurs are really lucky. Entrepreneurs are actually on a very exciting journey, and it’s a journey that catches people’s imagination. Now, this is also in line with what you’ve known in the storytelling world as ‘the hero’s journey.’
Now, the hero’s journey was a term coined by an American mythologist and storyteller called Joseph Campbell who identified 17 sets in a journey, a hero’s journey, that are present in every single story. Almost every single story in the world that you tell—from a fairytale to a horror story, to a political story.
Almost every single story has these 17 steps. I’m not going to bore you with the 17 steps right now, but I can break it down just to five key steps, and I’m going to cluster them into five key steps that are present in every single story.
Now, those five key steps are:  The hero is called to adventure;  The hero faces multiple obstacles and challenges along his or her path;  The hero finds what they’re looking for;  The hero faces more ordeals; [and 5] As a result of her experience, the hero comes back to the world with new insight and new understanding and learning of what they’ve already been through.
And of course, sometimes, that’s not the end of the story, there’s also a sequel. There’s Rocky 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. You see that in movies all the time. This is the kind of thing that’s actually in every story and it’s in every entrepreneur’s story. Usually, you’re called to adventure because you have that burning desire to start the business or start a new initiative in your business.
And then Step 2, you often face lots of ordeals and challenges and obstacles along your way. Every single business owner can relate to that. Then Step 3 is that you find what you were looking for. Usually, when in business, you reach a certain goal, you reach your mark.
You actually start your business. It’s flourishing or you found this customer or whatever it is. But of course in real life and your business, things don’t always run smooth sailing after that; and that is Step 4 which is you end up facing more ordeals. Whether it’s tax office, cash flow, staff—you name it, there’s an ordeal always in your way.
Pete: Always something.
Valerie: That’s right. Then the 5th Step, of course, is that you gain insight and understanding from your experience, and that absolutely happens. As an entrepreneur, you learn from your mistakes, you learn from all the experience that has gone before you so that you can apply it to the next stage, at the next level of your business.
And without a doubt, there’s always a sequel in an entrepreneurial story; either you’re a serial entrepreneur and you start another business or you go to the next level in your own business. But the thing, what’s exciting for entrepreneurs is that people, human beings are (and it’s proven in the research) hardwired to follow this process.
It’s a compelling journey that, in the movies, they take the audience along the hero’s journey. That’s why when you tell your entrepreneur’s story, it’s actually la compelling journey and people are intrigued and people want to know the next step. People follow you.
They don’t just follow your products and services and buy from you, but some people actually want to follow your journey because they want to see what’s happening next in your business and in your life. I think that’s really exciting, it’s a really underutilized tool for entrepreneurs.
They take their time to identify those steps in their own journey, then it’s something that they can tell in a two-minute introduction when they’re meeting someone in a networking event or a much longer, say, article in BRW or in a magazine if you’re being interviewed by a journalist, or potentially something that can be fleshed out in your very own book.
So I’m really excited about the fact that the hero’s journey, something that has been proven through decades, centuries, that human beings love to follow, is really a complete parallel with the entrepreneur’s journey.
Pete: Yeah, and one of the great things about Power Stories, your book, is that at the end of every chapter there’s action steps and a lot of downloads available with the book as well. There are templates and almost like a step-by-step process that people can go through. It’s like a form you can fill out to carve and create your own hero’s story, which is really cool.
People who grab the book should definitely take the time to do that, just to get that clarity in their own mind of what, for example, the entrepreneur’s journey is. But a lot of people will be saying, “Ah, cool. I’ve struggled to get my accounting practice up and running,” or “I’ve got my little website selling an eBook on jewelry secrets or how to make jewelry, and I struggled to get my website up and it’s finally up there.”
But as a person who’s going to be buying my eBook on how to make jewelry, why do they care that I had trouble getting my website up? How do I utilize that story? You kind of gave some examples about media, and that definitely makes sense when you go to the media and get stories about yourself and your successes and things like that. But that’s not a direct story to my target market.
Valerie: Sure. You need to pull out the right stories at the right time, of course. Some stories are going to apply in some situations and some stories aren’t at all. But it’s important to identify them beforehand so that you can pull them out. For example, you gave the example about the jewelry. What kind of story is actually useful for that particular target market?
It may not be, of course, your struggles. Potentially, it could be a couple of things. Number 1, it could be your passion story. And that’s something that some entrepreneurs who’ve been in business for many years, they’ve forgotten. Because there is a daily grind and filling in your bags through doing your tax and all the administrative.
Just all the things that are involved in running a business, you can sometimes get preoccupied with that and forget why you went into business in the first place. So it’s really important to be able to articulate and reconnect with your passion story. Sometimes passion is the thing that’s going to get people over the line.
Passion is palpable, it’s really infectious and it can be the thing that makes the customer buy or not buy if they can identify or resonate with that kind of passion. They don’t even have to share the same passion as you; not only to share the same passion, but what people love is seeing that passion in other people.
I’ll give you an example. I go to a little town in the Yarra Valley, and I tend to go to cafes a lot when I’m there. One cafe I go to; she’s a lovely, lovely girl, but I sort of say to her, “What are you doing tomorrow?” She owns the café. She’ll say, “Oh, I’m working.”
It doesn’t make me that excited to go to that cafe. There’s another cafe which is run by a guy who’s obsessed, passionate with coffee. The cafe is called Essenza, which is Italian, I believe, for ‘essense.’ He’s referring to the essence of coffee. He has an online story called Kafe Kulcha and he has a dog called Macchiato. He’s obsessed with coffee.
So where do I go for my coffee, right? Just because of the energy that that passion creates. Your passion story can be something that’s really useful when you’re talking to your target market. But another really powerful story that’s sometimes neglected is your customer’s story.
Customers love hearing about other customers. They love hearing about other customers’ stories, so that’s your opportunity to cast your customers in as the hero in some cases, by giving to people examples of how other customers have worked with you, by providing customer testimonials, that sort of thing.
Pete: Yeah. And I have to say, that particular chapter in the book is probably the most impactful for me because it was one thing that I really went, “Okay, that was something that I hadn’t really thought about.” The way you use a story in the elevator pitch and things like that make sense and are a great way of framing it.
But the whole customer story thing was really cool. I know you gave the example of Shopify and how they’ve used their customer stories as the core element of growing their entire business fundamental.
Valerie: Yeah, that’s right. They’ve got a fairly complex offering that they’re trying to explain; it’s e-commerce, it’s online stores; and you can talk about the features of your product if your product is fairly complex. But the reality is it’s going to be far more powerful to see how people use your product.
That’s going to speak to your customers, many of your customers, more than a list of features and functionality. So that’s exactly what they’ve done with Shopify, they’ve cast their customers as the hero in their own story, and that’s exciting to other customers.
Pete: Let’s actually break it down a little bit; what they’re doing is their marketing is looking at the actual entrepreneur that they service with their Shopify platform, which is obviously the e-commerce platform, lots and lots of people use to run their online stores, and they’re going to those entrepreneurs and saying, “Why did you create this e-commerce site?
What is your passion? Why are you doing your business like this and why are you going through this nice?” They’re telling that story as a way to get people engaged in the whole idea of online e-commerce, and then just Shopify happens to be the platform that makes it all come together.
It’s actually not at all about Shopify, it’s about the actual end-user and what they’re using and what they’re creating, and then the ability to allow them to create that and produce that and take their ideas to the world through an online store. It’s Shopify that’s the platform.
Valerie: That’s exactly right. It’s all about showing prospective customers how other people just like them use the service, and that’s much more powerful than an instructional video or a five-set blog post or those kinds of things.
Pete: Yeah. In terms of the whole process, just like the Shopify case study, you’ve got a whole bunch of other case studies in their own right throughout each different chapters of the pitch story and the product story and the passion story, and stuff like that. What was the coolest story that you heard while researching the book?
Valerie: I suppose there’s a couple. One I just loved is the story of charity: water, which is an organization based out of New York led by a guy called Scott Harrison who had an epiphany one day and decided he wanted to bring clean water to the developing world. That’s a noble cause, it’s a big, big job.
But I think what’s fascinating is about what he’s done is he’s used storytelling every step of the way, whether it’s to raise funds, whether it’s to get people behind the cause, whether it’s to get people to share the story about charity: water. The absolute core of almost everything that charity: water does is storytelling.
They’ve had big-name celebrities promote their cause, they’ve had a real strategy behind it. But behind that strategy, it’s all about telling stories of the people in underdeveloped countries who really need that water, but also the stories of the people in developed countries like Australia and the US, about how they’ve helped that cause. That’s been really, really powerful in basic service. That is certainly one of them.
Pete: Now, from that perspective, obviously with charity: water, a lot of their growth has come from the media and the exposure of their story through magazines and TV shows, radio, newspaper. Given your experience being a weekly columnist on a number of different platforms, I’d love to get your thoughts on how does storytelling apply to the media?
I know you’ve got a chapter on it in your book. From that perspective, you can talk about it; but also just approaching media as a business, trying to get some exposure and get your story out there. How does that work? If you take your offer hat off a bit and put your journalist’s head on?
Valerie: It’s so important to tell the right story, because you might have what you think is the most interesting story in the world, but if it’s not the kind of angle that that journalist or editor or publication is interested in, then it’s completely irrelevant. What people often do is they spray and pray.
They think of a story and they just chuck it out there in the hope someone bites, or think that it’s the journalist’s job or the editor’s job to then ask them all sorts of questions and extract the story from them. Hey, if journalists had all the time in the world, they would, but often they won’t.
So you’re going to have much larger success, much bigger success rate if you actually just take the time to analyze that publication, analyze the type of angle that they’re looking for, and then tailor your angle accordingly.
That is absolutely the winning formula for success in terms of getting your story in the media. Give them what they want, give them what they’re most interested in, give them the information, the statistics, the useful tips and how-to that they typically feature in their publications.
Pete: It’s about looking at the past articles and getting an idea of who that target audience is, who is the reader of that particular story or column. And then is it like an email? To get a bit granular here, how do you go as a journalist? How do you like to get pitched?
Valerie: Most journalists are pitched by email these days, definitely. But the biggest mistake is people say, “Hey, I’ve got this great start-up, it’s called XYZ.com. I noticed that you write a lot about start-ups. You might like to write about us.” And that’s it. Well, that doesn’t give me any information whatsoever; you really need to provide background information, but also the right angle.
So instead perhaps, it’s, “Hey,” you can start off the same. “I notice you write a lot about start-ups. My start-up is X. We were founded a year ago as a result of when I sold my house so I could live off my life savings for a year. I got the idea when I did this, XYZ. Since then, we’ve grown from two people to 30 people. In our first month, we had 500 users and now we have 500,000.”
I’m just making those statistics up, obviously. But you need to provide a context on why you’re interesting. You can’t assume you’re interesting and hope that the journalist will dig for the information. At least provide the stuff that’s going to show the journalist that you’re interesting, and that really helps the journalist figure out whether there’s something further there or whether there’s an angle there.
Pete: And I think, too, from my experience—because I’ve had a lot of experience, luckily, in the publicity side of things, is that it’s definitely that entrepreneur’s journey that we spoke about at the top of the conversation that the journalists and the media are much more interested in that your business story, so to speak.
Valerie: Yeah, absolutely. Another big mistake that people make is sometimes they’ll come across a journalist who is interested in exploring it further, and they’ll send the information. I’ll receive the information in an e-mail or a press release, and I’ll go, “Oh, okay, that could be interesting.” I’ll email back, and they’ll say, “Oh, I’m overseas for three weeks. Can we talk in three weeks?” No, in two days.
Pete: It’s very strange, isn’t it? You’ve got to play by the rules of the game you’re wanting to play. Let me ask you a question that I enjoy throwing at authors that we get on the show. What’s the chapter or in your case the story that you actually had to leave out of the book?
Valerie: Oh gosh, there are lots of stories. Some of the stories that I’ve told you that have been in this conversation aren’t in the book as well. There are a lot more stories in the book that I decided were appropriate to leave in. But do you know what? I did so much research that I really had to cull a great deal and I couldn’t pick one story—there were lots of stories!
Pete: Tell me the story about the Sydney Writers’ Centre. That’s something that intrigues me just form a perspective of your history, too. This will give people a good idea of how they can model what makes a good entrepreneur’s journey story or passion story. What’s the story of the Sydney Writers’ Centre?
Valerie: The Sydney Writers’ Centre started seven years ago, back in 2005. What it was, was I began life off as an accountant. I was one of those people surrounded by numbers with the .xls spreadsheets. I started life off at PricewaterhouseCoopers, but I had always wanted to be a writer.
When I was at school, I won the English writing competition, five out of the six years of high school, but it never even entered in my frame of reference that I could be a writer. I just thought that’s what poor struggling artists did.
I didn’t want to be poor and struggling, living in a garret, eating ketchup soup. That was a misconception on my part, but that was just my impression at the time because in my household you became a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant.
Pete: White collar.
Valerie: And I became an accountant. But even then, I always had this desire to write. So after accounting, I did study journalism and public relations. But I still didn’t think it was a real career, writing, so I went into public relations for a while. Then one day, I woke up one September, I remember; and I thought to myself I’ve got to give this writing thing a go, because it’s a niggling feeling inside me.
I’ve got to pursue my passion, essentially. So I did everything I could to see my passion and to try and get a full-time job in writing. Fortunately, a month later, I was offered a full-time job in a magazine. And the rest is history in terms of my journalistic career.
I knew that I had found my calling, I knew that this is what I wanted to do, I loved it so much I would’ve done it for free. Seven years ago, I decided I wanted to create a sort of writers’ center that I wish had existed back then. Because I went to so many different courses and festivals and author talks, and this and that, and they were all everywhere.
I learned a lot, but it would’ve been so good if there were a one-stop shop, some place I could go and get all my questions answered. That was the kind of center I wanted to create. We’ve now had over 12,000 students at the Sydney Writers’ Centre and we’re expanding to Melbourne and other states. We also have a whole slew of online courses.
So that 40% of our business is online courses, meaning we have students from all different states of Australia but also around the world from Singapore, Afghanistan, Italy, the US, the UK, New Zealand. People are enrolling from all over the world, which is really exciting. And I must admit, I didn’t plan on that when I first started, but that has been something that has grown organically.
Pete: Very cool.
Valerie: It’s a center that’s grown steadily over the last seven years. The other thing that I’m really passionate about is helping people achieve their dream. I know that sounds really cliche, but it’s the honest truth. I’m just the sort of friend that you might get a bit annoyed at; you can ask my friends, because I’m the one who’s cheering them on, saying, “Of course you can do it.
Of course you can change job. Of course you can do whatever it is that you want to do.” They might call it nagging, I call it encouragement. But I love doing that and I love helping people see their full potential. But I realized that I’m never going to coach someone to Olympic glory.
I’m never going to help someone climb Mount Everest. I complain when I have to climb up a hill. But with my technical skill, that’s writing, so I can help people achieve their writing goals at the very least. I know I can definitely do that.
Pete: Hasn’t one of those goals turned into a Hollywood movie deal?
Valerie: Yes! Well, one of the most exciting things, just very, very recently, is one of our customers, her name’s Jessica. She came to us not that long ago, and she first did one of our online courses because she was traveling at the time, even though she lives in Sydney.
She started writing, she really loved it. Then she did the advanced course, but she came and did it at the Centre and she loved it even more. She kind of fleshed it out to a longer piece like a novel, and she asked for many script assessments, so we gave her feedback on her novel.
She was lucky enough, it got picked up by Hachette, an international publisher. She got a four-book deal with Hachette. And then honest to God, about five weeks ago or four weeks ago I was traveling, and I got an email from my business manager, the course manager.
The email was just, “Oh my God!” and there was a link. I get links, so I didn’t pay that much attention. But I had a break and I clicked on it, and it was an article in the paper. It said that Steven Spielberg is turning Jessica’s book into a television series.
Pete: Very, very cool.
Valerie: So what started off as a tiny little enrollment has turned into an international television series. I can’t tell you how that makes me feel.
Pete: Very exciting. See, making people’s dreams come true. That’s the Olympic glory, that’s a silver medal, at least. Once that wins an Emmy, that’s the gold, but that’s a silver medal, at least.
Valerie: That’s right! We’ve got to wait for the Emmy.
Pete: As a writer, I know what it’s like. So you’ve got Power Stories out now. It’s in book shops, it’s available online. What’s the website address?
Pete: So what’s the next book? What’s next? You’re not going to stop now. I know, as a writer, you’ve got other stuff coming out. What’s the next thing? I’m sure, you’ve got something in the pipeline or at least an idea for the next book?
Valerie: The idea I’ve only started actually doing last week. I’ve been so busy with this book I didn’t have the headspace. But last year, the idea attached itself to my brain and I’m currently letting it sit there for a couple of more weeks to see whether this is it or not. All shall be revealed soon.
Pete: Can you give us a hint? Nothing at all?
Pete: Well, that’s okay. Valerie, thank you so much for your time. It’s always good to get a lot of guests on the show, particularly Aussies as well. We have such an international audience and get a lot of international guests.
It’s really cool to see some Australian people as well doing some awesome, awesome things, and putting together some fantastic books. So, Power Stories it is, eight fantastic key stories people should be sharing around their business.
Valerie: That’s right. Thank you for having me, it’s been great fun.
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