How Contently Uses Storytelling to Build Human Connections

How Contently Uses Storytelling to Build Human Connections

Shane Snow, Founder at Large, and Joe Lazauskas, Editor in Chief and Director of Content Strategy at Contently, join the Content Experience Show to discuss how storytelling can build powerful human connections.

In This Episode:

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Full Episode Details

Building Through Story

For all of history, human connections have been built through storytelling. It’s only been relatively recent in the overall arc of humanity that strictly fact based history has been recorded. From the gods and goddesses of the Greeks to the folk tales of the Appalachians, stories have been used to pass down knowledge and ideas for thousands of generations.

When it comes to your business, why would it be any different? As Joe Lazauskas and Shane Snow show in their new book The Storytelling Edge, there is hard science that shows storytelling is the most powerful way for you to connect with your audience.

Whether you’re building brand awareness, advertising a product, or educating through your content, stories are the key to building real human connections between you and your customers.

In This Episode

  • How to tell good stories that get your message across
  • Why stories are good for more than just marketing
  • How stories help you connect with your audience

Quotes From This Episode

“If you want to connect with people in a real way, to get them to care about what you have to say, storytelling is a very human way to do that.” — @shanesnow

As humans, we share stories to get to know each other and to get to trust each other. Click To Tweet


Content Experience Lightning Round

We want the best personal story that each of you have about each other.

Joe tells a great story about a time Shane surprised him for his birthday by flying the two of them out to Vegas to watch their mutual friend compete in what sounds like a pretty intense costume party.

According to Shane, Joe has a pretty wild character that he plays at their annual State of Contently meeting named Joey Lazer! Let’s just say there’s a pink tank top and a Bud Lite Lime involved…

See you next week!

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Episode Transcript

Anna:Welcome to the Content Experience Podcast. My name is Anna Hrach, and I'm here with the always fabulous Randy Frisch. Today, we're going to hear from two storytellers, Joe and Shane, from Contently, and they're actually going to tell us not just how storytelling is important for brands, but the actual art and science behind us, and a little bit behind their formula for how to be successful with storytelling. In fact, they're even going to preview a little bit about their new book, which gives marketers a guide on exactly how to do that. It's actually called the Storytelling Edge, but before we get into that, Randy, what are some of your thoughts on storytelling? It seems like every brand is out there today talking about storytelling, and we know it's important, but what are some of the thoughts you have on it in terms of the experience it creates?
Randy:Yeah, and I, it was a lot of fun having Joe and Shane come to talk about us, and it kind of reminded me how important storytelling is. I think sometimes we start to take it for granted because a lot of us get stuck in this mindset that as long as we're creating content then we're filling that void, we're filling the role that we've been assigned as a content marketer, content creator, or editor inside of our organization, but not to say that the days of doing that with ease are behind us, it's just it's becoming more competitive out there, right? I mean it's no longer that a few companies have figured out how to create content, and have the blog. It's now every company is creating content. I mean my own LinkedIn newsfeed, these days, I go there and everyone is creating content, everyone is posting content.
I think one of the things that I took from Joe and Shane, I think a lot of people who listen to this podcast now will take, is what are some of the ways that we can kind of set ourselves aside, and like you and I say that's part of delivering a better experience.
Anna:Totally, and I think you hit the nail on the head. I definitely got that away too is you know it's not we know that more doesn't equal better, better equals better, but you know we talk about storytelling a lot, but we don't actually kind of get down into what it actually is or how we can [repitate 00:02:10] it for success.
Randy:I've absolutely. I think one of the things that I don't know about you, but one of the things that I always think about, and I talk about this when we were chatting with Joe and Shane, is this idea of the story arc, the classic story arc. It's kind of what we find in a lot of Disney movies, right? It's you know think about Cinderella, right?
Cinderella was living in despair, life was terrible, evil stepsisters, and then here comes the fairy godmother. She comes, all of a sudden we have hope, and Cinderella's out at the ball, everything is going well, everything is going great, but then she loses the glass slipper, and like everything kind of goes down again. We think life is over, and then all of a sudden we have this second climax where things get even better because the prince finds her with the glass slipper, and everything is healed. I mean it's a classic story arc. It's boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, right, or you know these days mb girl finds boy, but I think that is a very basic recipe for things that we don't think enough about.
We just think about putting up a post, and not necessarily engaging someone through the post, or though all of our content that we have. I don't know. Is that something that you've seen some of the clients at Convince & Convert work with, try and focus more on these days?
Anna:Oh, absolutely. Everybody is really focused on sort of you know what is that reason that people are going to stop and care, how can we actually talk to them, and you know touch on some of the things that they want to hear and some of the things that they want to read from us, and you know it's really interesting to have gone from you know some of the days of you know SEO keyword stuff content now down to this storytelling concept, and really you know putting something out there that people can get hooked into.
Randy:Absolutely. So speaking of getting hooked, I think everyone who listens to the Content Experience Podcast is gonna be hooked after they hear from Joe and Shane, so without further ado let us have you have a listen to the podcast of the week.
So Joe and Shane, thank you so much for joining us here on the Content Experience. I want to dig right into it, and first of all I want to find out how two guys like you who love creating content, how do you work together, and maybe make sure we understand who does what at Contently, and how do you guys get along, assuming you get along.
Shane:So there's this scene in Monty Python, in one of their movies, where there's the kind of the two headed man, like there's the like it's a very big shirt with two heads coming out of it ...
Randy:Got it.
Shane:And so what we do is we put on this big shirt like that, and then we sit at a computer and I get the left hand, and Joe gets the right hand, and we type thinking, and it kind of just flows out perfectly like that. I don't know, Joe, if you have anything to ...
Joe:Yeah, and it's actually a counterintuitive technique because I'm actually lefthanded. We're using our off hands, but allows us to tap into the full spectrum of our brains, and, I don't know, it just works.
Randy:Amazing. I hope everyone listening is now visualizing what the image is going to be that we're going to use with the blog post tied to this, you know, and the podcast is going to be the most amazing artistic interpretation of you know the combination of Contently, the deadly combination, two-headed combination of Contently.
Shane:Yeah. The Contently real story is Joe and I met because I had co founded Contently with a couple of friends of mine, and pretty shortly into it Joe had started freelancing for us, and he quickly kind of took over all of our best clients that were talking about media and advertising, and Joe and I ended up having like a regular ... So I didn't drink at the time, and Joe would ask if we could get drinks so we could talk about media, and content, and sort of nerd out, and so instead because I didn't drink we would get pizza, so we had a monthly pizza date where we would just jam and we'd argue about platforms and this and that, and then eventually we realized that we needed to hire Joe and make him in charge of our content, and so I think kind of a shared love of the subject matter, and a lot of time talking about this stuff, and bouncing our stories off each other is kind of how I don't know this nerdiness came about.
Joe:Yeah, it was good times. I'd walk out of every one of those meetings full of ideas, and also mildly nauseous because I'm kind of lactose intolerant. It was really the gestation of this book was that aftermath. Then I came on.
I'd run a digital news site called The Faster Times Before This, jumped over to the dark side of tech and content marketing, but really because I loved the subject, I was super interested it it, and built our audience at Contently to a few thousand readers and a few thousand subscribers to almost a half million readers a month, and hundreds of thousands of subscribers to our newsletter, and our award winning print magazine, Contently Quarterly, and just had a lot of fun doing what we preach, right, using content, using great stories to deliver value to an audience, to build your brand, to connect with people, and then eventually moved over to start the client side content strategy practice here, trying to take a lot of those lessons that we've learned and preached and bring it to our customers, and this kind of working thinking, you know, writing a book, The Storytelling Edge, coming out February 5th, together was the result of wanting to share those secrets with the world, all the counterintuitive keys to storytelling that we found all the different data driven ways to find exactly what your audience wants and deliver really good stories to them, not just mediocre crap they're going to ignore, and we're super excited.
Randy:That's awesome, and, Shane, let me just give you that feeling from one co founder of a company to another founder of a company, you know, Contently and Uber Flip here, like that pizza has definitely paid its ROI from the sounds of it. You know, there's those things that we look back on and we're like aw, thank God we picked up that bill, you know, because it just keeps giving, and it sounds like you guys have a great dynamic. What I'd love ...
Joe:Wait. Shane was supposed to pick up that bill? I definitely paid for half as a freelancer.
Randy:Even better, better played. Better played.
Shane:Thank you. Thank you.
Randy:Maybe what we could do on this podcast for everyone listening in, a lot of our guests like to come and hear from people who as the podcast has been called in the past Content Pros, listen to pros who have had that experience, understand how to achieve a real meaty part of content marketing strategy, and I think one of the areas you guys have a lot of experience with is not just content creation, because I think a lot of us have figured out how to create, but how to actually tell proper stories. Maybe you can give us some of the formulas that have worked well over the years for the two of you and many of the customers you work with at Contently.
Shane:This is where you know the reason that we, the book that Joe mentioned, The Storytelling Edge, this is where this book that we just wrote kind of comes into play. So over the last seven years as we've tried to educate the market on content marketing and how to do it well, we have also been educating ourselves, and so in the course of learning how to build relationships and make people care through content, you know, the thing that we settled on is the thing that's become the big buzzword, I think, of the moment, which is that if you want to connect with people in a real way, you want to get them to care about what you have to say, storytelling is a very human way to do that, and it's because this is part of the fabric of humanity that we are built to share stories, to use stories to remember, and to convey information, and also to build relationships with others ...
So what we have tried to focus on in our own content marketing is to deliver the information through stories so that people do remember, so they actually care, and over the years we've gotten better and better at it, and tried to kind of in a meta way interview great storytellers and learn their secrets, and then incorporate that into what we're doing, and even though what Contently ultimately is selling is a B2B marketing tech and sort of services product, which doesn't sound that entertaining or interesting on the face of it, we've learned to tell some pretty good stories around that, and kind of become a case study ourselves of how using stories you can make any topic interesting to the right audience.
Anna:On that same note, you guys have worked with some of the biggest brands out there, so like AARP, ShutterStock, Cox Communication, Soda Stream. I mean the list goes on and on. You have been helping them tell their stories. Is there a story from a brand that really sticks out to you, or a favorite one or one that you go back to for inspiration a lot?
Shane:No. One that I think about a lot is in the early days of the company when we started preaching this idea of don't just make content, make stories, connect with people on a really human way, one of the first examples that I remember one of our clients doing was when American Express started working with us years ago, five and a half years ago, they had one of the first stories they produced was about dining in the dark dining, which is basically this trend of restaurants will turn the lights out, and you have to have this food experience where you can only taste, you can't see your food, you can only taste it, and the cool part of this story is they were talking about small business owners who were doing this dark dining thing for events and how it's a good way to get attention for your restaurant, and it's this thing that American Express cared about ...
The cool part of the story is that they talked about how these restaurants were employing blind people as the servers, and as the staff to conduct these dinners, and incorporating that element of the story, and basically telling the story of it's you can't imagine what it's like to be blind if you're not blind, and yet here's a really cool job and in these high end restaurants that are giving blind people opportunities to work, and that was cool, and that was something that I still remember all these years later as a great example of bringing the human element into what otherwise could have been a boring story about using merchant credit card services in your restaurant business or whatever.
Anna:You know what's funny is I actually think I remember that. I remember that being incredibly powerful. That's a really good one.
Shane:It is a cool one.
Anna:Yeah. Joe, how about you, any favorites that come to mind?
Joe:One of my favorites was Marriott's one of our clients, and they want to launch a travel magazine for some of their key markets. They want to create this magazine, Marriott Traveler, and I think what a lot of brands do is say you want to create a travel magazine about New Orleans, they would just publish articles that are like the Top Ten Bars on Bourbon Street, which if you Google it there's probably 350,000 results of that same list to go over it in all over again, but instead they went out and used our network to find really great local influences who knew all the cool like speakeasies and hotspots of New Orleans, and who would go out into like undercover video series talking to psychics, and it was just tapped into the city in such a more real way like it felt like it was coming from a brand that lived there, that spent their time there, that cared about the city, and it's been hugely successful.
They've gone from a couple cities, they launched with New Orleans, Chicago, and Orlando with us, now they're in dozens of cities all over the world with local editions of this magazine, they're in multiple languages, and it's just how they tap into the heart and the authentic culture of every single city is something that's been amazing to see from remembering that project as a pipe dream a few years ago to seeing how it's blown up today, it's just awesome, and that's I think it's been especially rewarding for us at Contently is the ability to work with clients for years and years and see how they're adapting to the different trends and content marketing to different challenges that come in their business and still find ways to tell stories that resonate with people in a real way and are different than the generic crap that the rest of their competitors are putting out.
Randy:I love both of those examples that each of you have there, and what I really want to do is kind of find out the recipe that you've identified that makes each of these memorable, still gets the brand in there, and we're going to do that right after this short break to hear from some of the sponsors who make the Content Experience Podcast possible. Right back here after the break.
Anna:Hey, everybody, welcome back to the Content Experience Podcast. Today we're talking to Shane Snow and Joe Uzowska, from Contently. Now we have been talking to them about storytelling, and it's perfect timing because they have actually collaborated on an amazing book that's coming out next month called the Storytelling Edge, How to transform your business, Stop screaming into the Void, and Make people love you. Can you guys give us a little bit more information about this book, and sort of how you've compiled all of your years of tips and tricks and storytelling information into this great guide?
Joe:Sure. So the book is about the art and science of storytelling, and how to use it to transform your business, but as you [inaudible 00:16:18] to more than that it's us revealing all the secrets that we've learned the last seven years at Contently, building our own company through great stories from just being a few people subletting from a sub letter, hiding in the back of a Google office in Chelsea, while also helping some of the biggest brands in the world, AMEX, GE, Chase, Mint, Marriott, build their content marketing programs.
Shane:One of the things that we really have honed in on over the years is how stories aren't just good for marketing, they're not just good for getting customers for your content marketing, but they're actually a very good way to connect to an audience in any presentation or any sales meeting, any kind of cold outreach.
As humans, we share stories to get to know each other and to get to trust each other, so you think about you meet someone new say at a meetup, or you go on a first date, or whatever, what you do is you sit down and you share stories about your life, or about what's going on, or you talk about the stories that you just saw in the movie theater, and that this is a great way to connect with people. So part of what we wanted to do with this book is infuse all of that, and weave that into also the message that we've preached for a long time about marketing, about stories are great for helping you connect with an audience, but that audience doesn't just have to be at a marketing audience, it can be any audience that your business cares about, your own employees, people that you want to recruit, investors that you want to get on your side, the press itself, and your marketing audience, and so that's kind of how the Storytelling Edge came about, is it's a culmination of all of our research and learnings on around all of that.
Joe:Yeah, I think one of the real catalysts for us was looking landscape right we all have to convince anyone listening to this podcast that content is important or storytelling is important, but still a lot of the content that marketers are putting out and brands are putting out just isn't very good. There's a lot of mediocre content out there, there's a lot of copycat content, the same BS five ways, use social media to grow your small business listicles, and that's why study came out last year that 5% of all branded content gets 90% of engagements. There's a few brands that are doing content really well, and a lot of people who are just kind of mediocre or not very good at it, and they're not breaking through, so in this book we're trying to bridge the gap, teach you the art and science of great storytellings, storytelling and then walk you through how to actually find that ee-deek story that your brand can own using incredible content marketing technology, leveraging your own passion and knowledge, and some of the formulas that the best storytellers on Earth have used for hundreds of years.
Anna:So one of the things that I love that you guys do is you do talk about the art and the science behind it, and one of the things that I really want to ask you guys about is what sort of science you actually used and discovered with storytelling, and were there some huge studies that you used, or any kind of interesting facts that popped up that just kind of blew your minds? I really love that you guys go into the science part.
Shane:I don't want to give away too much, but a big part of the book is drilling into what happens in our brains when we experience a story, whether we hear it or we read it or we see it, and not just sort of the psychology of stories which we do get into, but also the neuroscience of stories, and explain a little bit about that. I can tell you about the last time I cried, if that's okay, if that's not too inappropriate for this podcast.
Anna:Never. Never inappropriate.
Shane:Okay, so not a big crier, but maybe a month and a half ago I cried, and it was watching a piece of branded content while hooked up to a brain scanning device, so I went to, and this is the sort of thing that we do throughout the book is these kinds of studies and even some self-experiments and studies that we conducted, but I went to this laboratory of this guy who's a neuro-economist, who studies what happens in our brains when we make the decisions that we make, and he strapped me up to this machine that measures a neurochemical called oxytocin, which for years and years and years we just thought this chemical was one of many random chemicals in our brain, and that maybe it had something to do with childbirth, and that was it, and what this neuro-economist discovered is that this is the neurochemical responsible for empathy. It was about ten years ago that his lab discovered this, and so then they embarked on this series of experiments to determine what is it that generates empathy in human beings, what causes us to create this chemical, this oxytocin, that makes you care about someone else.
I went to this laboratory recently, and they hooked me up to this machine that measures how much oxytocin you have in your blood, and then they had me watch this YouTube video by HP, and the video, the summary is, you can look it up, it's I think Little Moments is the name of it, but it's basically this dad who he's going to work, and on his way to work he says hi to his kids, and he has this teenage daughter who's kind of crappy, and she rolls her eyes at him, and you know he's trying to connect with his kids, and on his way out the door he takes a selfie with this HP kind of Polaroid camera with the daughter, and she's like eh, dad.
Anyway, so she goes to school, she opens her lunchbox, and there's a note from her dad saying I love you, with this little selfie Polaroid, and she hides it from her friends, and so the dad comes home from work and he says hi to his son who's playing video games, he says hi to his daughter, she's got headphones and he ignores him, and you see kind of the weight of this father's kind of mood on his shoulders, and he goes into his daughter's room, and he looks around at the signs that his little girl is growing up. You know, she has makeup now, she has a vanity, you know, this precious child of his, and you can see that he's kind of sad, and he sits down on her bed and kind of sighs, and then he lays down, he looks up at the ceiling, and she has this kind of bunk bed situation, and when he looks up at the ceiling he sees that she has taped up all of these photos that he's taken with her over the years since she was a little girl, including the photo that they took today, and she's been hiding them on the ceiling of her bed.
At this point, I started crying, started tearing up, and if you watch it you probably will too. It's very powerful video, and what this brain scanning device showed is every time I had a little sort of spurt of either I was paying more attention to the story or starting I had some amount of feelings for this father, you know, every time the daughter was shitty to the dad, you know, there's a little spike in my oxytocin, and at the very end there's this huge spike where I got emotional, and even though I'm not a father, I related to this guy.
I wanted to give him a hug, I wanted to call my dad after this, and it was this very human story, and so all of this, this is one of the things that we go into, the kinds of things that can get you to have that reaction, that can make you care enough to want to take an action, are the kinds of things that we get into, but it's all about getting people to feel an emotion in a strong way, and to feel like they can relate to someone, and so we go through all these principals of what are the kinds of elements of stories that get you to do that, what your brain looks like when you experience novelty in a story, and how to balance novelty with that relatability and familiarity, how tension plays a very crucial role, and you'll notice in the story of the dad and the daughter there is this amount of tension of, you know, is the relationship with in this family going to be okay, is he going to be sad, is she going to be a jerk to him, is she going to grow up and leave the nest and things have changed, and then kind of that surprise resolution.
All of those things that cause us to breathe a sigh or relief, but also cause us to feel a stirring of emotion, those are the kinds of things that make you remember the story and want to tell people about it, and also the kinds of things that make you care about the characters in the story, which in this case it's crazy to think that one of the characters in this story is this little HP camera, but I remember the camera because I remember the story, and then that it was part, it was woven into a story about human beings that I could relate to.
Randy:I love that. I mean I was a little teary there. Maybe that's because I've got young kids, but I think that's the recipe that we fall in love with when we watch Disney movies, is that story arc, as you said, as it builds tension and the resolution, and the buildup that it comes from that, so I think you're dead on there in terms of that being a key part of the recipe, and I think both Anna and I here at the Content Experience would actually call that part the experience, right? It's as the two of you said, and I mean we can almost finish this conversation by just all putting in a thumbs up at the same time of saying listen, it's not enough anymore just to put out a piece of content. We need to find a way to actually connect with our audience in a meaningful manner.
Joe:Yeah. Even just hearing that, I teared up a little bit too, and realized that I did not call my dad back yesterday.
Shane:Oh, no.
Joe:And now I feel super super guilty about it.
Randy:Awesome, guys, so this has been a lot of fun. If you guys have a couple minutes to stick around, we're going to have a little bit of fun and get to know the two of you better personally outside of this. Maybe we'll find out some of your own stories, and then we'll wrap up on this episode of the Content Experience.
All right, guys, so we've got a little bit more time here. We've got about three minutes left, and we want the best personal story that each of you have about each other, all right? Now, we've already talked about the pizza, so we can't go to the pizza, but we're going to get Joe to give a personal story about Shane, and Shane to give a personal story about Joe, one that wants us to learn more by buying the book. All right? Who's up first.
Joe:It's actually a story that starts with a different Joe, this guy Joe Low, who worked on our sales team, so it was October, November 1st of 2014, I went into work on a Saturday, to do some work for the blog, and Joe Low, he's like this very friendly like Italian dude from Jersey, friendliest guy in the world, and he came up to the office when I was there working, and he was like Bro, next year I'm gonna start working Halloween next year already.
I'm gonna get real jacked, I'm gonna grow my hair out, and I'm gonna be a centaur, and he did it, so he worked out like crazy the entire year, he didn't cut his hair, he grew his hair out. He ended up actually opening our San Francisco office, and he hand-built this centaur costume, and wanted to go compete in the biggest costume party, costume contest-slash-party in the world, at Marquee, in Vegas, and Halloween is two days after my birthday, so Shane helped put a trip together for my birthday for us all to go out there to celebrate my birthday and support Joe Low.
Shane:Surprise Joe Low, even.
Joe:Yeah, and surprise Joe Low, and surprise me too. Like I got to the airport, and I had an issue with my ticket, and Shane and the rest of my friends were wearing a shirt with my face on it, and so it's kind of like it kind of shows the guy that he is. So we go there and we have to like drag Joe Low's heavy centaur costume to Marquee, and we get there too late to get in, but then Shane goes and helps negotiate getting like ten people into this pool party so Joe Low can realize his dream, but unfortunately we ended up losing to a giant, 12-foot transformer robot that can turn into a car ...
Joe:Which we just did not just ...
Shane:I feel like they bought that costume. You know, the centaur was a year of taking vitamins to make your hair grow, you know ...
Joe:And love.
Shane:I feel like he was robbed.
Randy:If only it came down to the story you told about the costume, you guys would have had it.
Anna:I mean that is a real personal investment. That's not just like building a costume, that is personally investing in your costume.
Shane:It really is. I'll share a costume story about Joe, but it was really about Joe getting back to his roots.
When contently was a young company, we started this tradition of every new employee, we do a quarterly state of Contently, and if you're new that quarter then you have to perform a talent or tell a story that's a revealing story about yourself, and this is kind of how we get to know people and break the ice.
It's usually pretty fun, and Joe for his debuted a character known as Joey Laser, which is also Joe's unofficial nickname, which is basically I think Joe when he was in high school. He came out in a pink tank top, and a Bud Lite Lime, cracked open the BLL, and gave basically a parody content marketing keynote speech all in his Jersey Shore accent, and after that we just realized that he had to do that every time, and so for years when we do our State of Contently, it was actually stopped now because we have hundreds of people and there's too many talents to go through, but for years the State of Contently, we'd be like yeah, yeah, yeah, the financials, the this and that, but when do we get to Joey Laser making fun of ourselves and our industry.
I think Joe has this talent for keeping things real in a way that makes you want to keep working, and so he's done well at that, but between these stories we realized that we needed to buy several thousand dollars worth of wigs and costumes between us, and just wear them whenever possible.
Randy:Those are great stories, and I feel like right now we could easily make the plug something about coming to work at Contently, just for the Halloween season alone, but instead what we'll do is we'll finish this podcast by letting everyone know that if they've enjoyed some of the stories, they've enjoyed some of the recipes for success that they've learned from the two of you, they can check out the Storytelling Edge. It's available on Amazon, if they simply search on Amazon for the Storytelling Edge, they'll be able to find the book, buy the book, be entertained, and ultimately become a better marketer who thinks about that entire content experience.
On behalf of Anna, I'm Randy at Uber Flip. The two of us have really appreciated everyone tuning in, and we hope that you'll continue to find all our other episodes on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, wherever you enjoy to find your podcast. Thanks again for tuning in.
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