This may be a game changer in storytelling – interview with Alex Glod

About the role of authenticity in brand storytelling. About the chances and threats in storytelling. About staying cool in a World full of hate and trolls. About Mark Zuckerberg, Cambridge Analityca, and about one Romanian beer – with Alex Glod – senior trainer, TEDx speaker, and Udemy instructor.



What is the most common misconception in business storytelling?


There are many misconceptions about storytelling. The one I believe is the most harmful, even though it’s not really inaccurate, is the fact that storytelling is all about communicating something in a more persuasive way, by using a story. This is a feature of storytelling, it is about how we communicate more effectively by using a story. But we’re missing out on a bigger picture – on what is storytelling really about and its role in, not just business, but in society in general. Our societies are built on storytelling. If you look at the money, if you look at our economic system, if you look at the notion of a business, or as a corporation, these things do not literally exist. Rather these are products of our own imagination, there is a story that we all believe in. And when we want to create a business, we have to understand what we are making up – all of it is a story. It’s all a big, grand narrative. And if we don’t have the whole story clearly defined, not just the communication side, but truly understanding what we are creating and the purpose of it, we’re missing out on what storytelling can really do for a business. Because if we manage to create a business that is perfectly integrated into the grander story of a society, and people can identify with it more, then we are using storytelling to its full potential, and our business to its full potential.


Do you often notice mistakes in deploying storytelling in marketing strategy?


Well, if I were to answer with a “yes” or “no” – of course, yes. Often enough. The one that comes to mind, and I believe is relevant for most of us, is the recent Pepsi ad. It had a pretty good idea in mind, I think. They wanted to identify with this new generation, with the current movement of protests. But rather than build upon it, and give them a boost, and rather tell them “hey guys, we support you, and we encourage you”, they just used that to gain their profit and to try to say “hey, we’re cool, we woke as well”. That, I believe, is a big mistake. If you are, to a certain extent, loyal to a certain group of customers, then support them, encourage them, but don’t pander to them. When your strategy is pandering, it might work with a certain group of people, but most likely you’re going to receive a huge backlash.


What should business owners, start-uppers begin with when it comes to brand storytelling?


Well, the most obvious one is to start with “why”. Why are doing what you’re doing? This is basically what Simon Sinek has been promoting in his past years, ever since his TEDx speech has become viral. Why is your business here? Who is it intending to serve? What is the grander purpose that it subscribes to? This is a very vital question not just in terms of brand storytelling, but it’s a vital question in terms of business strategy. Because you also have to choose what you believe in, what you stand for, and then articulate everything about the business in accordance to this “why”. So, that’s where I would focus, and good exercise it to ask the question “why?”, and then for the answer, you will receive, to ask that question again and again for about four or five times. It helps you get to the real source of your motivation. This is helpful for you as an individual to know what really drives you to make this business or being a start-up or a freelancer. And it also helps you communicate more effectively, why you exist, and why should people care about what you do. 


Do you have any favorite examples of effectively used storytelling?


Well, there are many grand examples, but the one that really sticks to me, although it’s not something most of you probably heard of, is a beer brand called Zaganu (in Romania). And the story is, that the founders of this brand realized that in Romania we have a lot of great brands when it comes to beer, but the product has lost its meaning because they’re not produced in the same way. They’re almost mass produced, the taste has, kind of, lost… has not been a priority that much for them anymore. So they created the small brand of craft beer, and they gave it a very nice story – it’s a name of an extinct species of an eagle from the Carpathia mountains. They chose that as a reference to tradition. Even though it is extinct – if you look at craft beer it is almost extinct to a certain extent – you can still keep it alive. You can still honor that tradition, even though we cannot do it like we did it hundreds and hundreds of years ago,  we can do our best to stay clear of the recipe. And not only that – it’s branded on every single bottle that they produce only a certain amount of beer a year. Which, I believe, is a courageous choice, because how often do you find a business that says: “we do not want to grow, this is how much we are going to produce”? And that’s because they are not interested in the general public. They are interested in a specific group of people that they communicate to. People that appreciate good, craft beer.


And that’s the thing that, I believe, is a key insight for whoever starts a business. Your business is not for everybody. Choose a group of people, that are going to be loyal, that you are going to serve. And if someone else comes and doesn’t appreciate you, it’s OK! As long as those people are outside the group of people you want to serve, then you don’t have to worry that much. Because we cannot please everybody, and if we start to be people-pleasers with our brands, most likely we’re going to end up losing our authenticity. 


It’s easier to succeed in business when a company or a product is likable. How to maintain friendly and positive in a world full of hate, trolls, and manipulation?


Uuuu, that’s a good question. Well, the thing is, when you look at the internet, the internet has a certain tradition of being quite hate-oriented or not too empathetic. We just need to get used to it. Sometimes people on the internet due to the distance between themselves and the people they addressing, do not feel the social pressure and do not feel there’s going to be a consequence to what they’re going to say. So, yes, there will be hate, there will be manipulation, there will be trolling, so we just need to accept that. But in order to be truly friendly and positive in the long run, we just have to avoid being fake. From time to time I’ve seen brands that, just because of being afraid of admitting something that is true, have chosen to be politically correct. If I look at the recent example of Mark Zuckerberg’s presentation, questioning in Congress, you see how he’s just trying this positive picture of “we are doing the best we can, we are sorry”. Of course, they’re going to troll you for the fact that you’re not human. That has been a most common commentary on Facebook about Mark Zuckerberg.


And this is something that we need to have in mind ourselves when we promote and communicate to the World. If we mess up, we need to own it, we need to stop hiding behind this perfect language. The thing is, the reason trolling exists is because we see how this Wolrd, from time to time, is just built on hypocrisy and fake imagery. So the point of trolling in general is, kind of, break through the smoke and mirrors, and try to have a better look at the real side of that thing. And what I encourage is that, whenever this happens, don’t try to block it, don’t be afraid of it, trolling will always happen. But if there is a legitimate argument, take it, accept it. And the more you fight back, the more you’re trying to act as if everything is going great, but it’s really not, the more it’s going to blow up in your face and that’s going to feed the trolling and manipulation. Do your things right and really care about your mission, and most likely you won’t have to worry about this.


A product launch. Everything is fine with the product, communication language of the company is energetic and sociable, content is attractive, and all of a sudden a hate shows up. What’s the best thing to do in that kind of situation?


Well, this is a very hard one. Because it very much depends on the context. What’s the purpose of that hate? Why will people react in that way? What could be the reason behind it? What do I recommend? This is the exercise that I usually do in my training of presentations, but it’s a very good one also in terms of the leadership and how you deal in situations like this. It implies that you first ask – who are the people who are upset? Let’s say that there’s a group of people that right now are responding negatively to your product launch. So then, I invite you to think of, what is it these people are doing? What is it they’re saying that upsets you, that makes you feel uncomfortable, and you feel that it really ruins your mood or your work. Then, once you have a clear idea of what they are doing, ask yourself how could a good person end up behaving this way. Make this leap of faith, that people who are spreading this hate are people who are just good at heart, but somehow because of their context, because of their experience, they ended up choosing to respond this way to you. And once you have the answers to those questions, the next one is – under what circumstances have you behaved in a similar way? Or – under what circumstances would you behave in a similar way? This gives you so many insights to understanding what’s happening on the other side.


And once you are in a position of empathy, you understand who these people are, where are they coming from, what could be the reason you have upset them with. That would give a better playing field into understanding how to deal with the situation from this point forward.


How do you see the role of authenticity in brand storytelling?


Well, authenticity is the key. Because right now we are in an era where we are tired of fakeness, of showing us one thing, saying one thing, and doing the exact opposite. These type of brands I’m not sure how long they would last. Some brands are to a certain extent very creative in their communication – Coca-Cola is probably the best example. Most of us don’t agree with what they are doing. Yeah, „open happiness”, but let’s be honest, they are just selling us brown sugar syrup, and it’s destroying most of the health of its consumers. Now, the reason why they are effective is just that they got us all hooked. But I believe authenticity is the key to brand storytelling. You need to have a story that really resembles on a daily basis. What you stand for has to be present in the actions you take every day. And to be honest, it makes your work a whole lot easier. Because if you have to maintain a fake image, is going to be so hard, there’s a lot of investment, a lot of energy, and it doesn’t create a healthy organizational culture. But if everything you communicate is authentic, then it would spread up more naturally, it leaves a lot more room for creativity. And to be honest, it is a wiser choice – always, always be authentic.


What’s the best option for business owners when it comes to creating compelling content? Outsourcing by an agency or freelancers or creating it by themselves?


The best answer, I believe, would be – a bit of both. There is some content that only you guys can produce, and that is beautiful to see to get to have no filter in between what the company is and what they represent and talk about to customers. From time to time it is good to have an agency or a freelancer because they see you a bit from the outside, and they can probably empathize better with the customers, and they can see things that you don’t. So I believe to strike a healthy balance. Do have the courage to create your own content, and also don’t be afraid to ask for guidance, or to outsource to other agencies that have more creative spirit and can better translate what you do to the general public or a specific customer base you are targeting.


Big data, internet of things, artificial intelligence – what are the chances for storytelling here?


Well, huge chances. And right now, since we are in a current scandal of Cambridge Analytica, we’re seeing how access to Big Data gives you an insight into what type of stories can antagonize people, and can make them engage with the content, share it forward. Which I believe is a bit of a double-edged sword. Sure it helps us engage with people that have a clear problem, and connect under a certain idea, and if you use it for the better, to connect people and to constructively push them forward, that could be good. Unfortunately, right now we’re seeing how it’s used for the worst, and this something I’m pretty sure will have implications in terms of how we consume content online. The internet will be regulated to a certain extent.


Internet of things… Well, there could be a great chance for this. I’m not really excited about the internet of things. I do see certain applications… A good friend of mine has this example – imagine that one morning you’ll wake up and your phone has detected an irregular heartbeat and therefore, while you’re changing, it already booked an appointment at the closest hospital, charged your electric card, to reach them in time before it becomes a problem. So I do see these type of applications as very valuable, but I do believe there have to be limit terms of how many of our stuff are connected and how much information is offered to the online. I believe this is something where we need to have a real conversation, and we also need to have a priority, because not everything has to be on the internet, not everything has to be dependent on this system. We can just keep things simple as they are for problems that are already solved.


The last one – artificial intelligence – well, here there are a lot of chances for storytelling. The best stories of artificial intelligence are the humanities reactions to AI. You can look at so many movies that have had this subject and got inspired. I think the real game changer for storytelling may not be AI that much, rather a combination of artificial intelligence and virtual reality. In a sense of, you can craft virtual worlds with the help of AI in a way that it can read and somehow gain information into to how are you reacting to this world and improve it and personalize it as it goes on. Because then you can create these type of games or experiences that are pretty personal. Rather than having a game that has to follow a script and certain steps along the way. You have the thing that develops naturally. The characters that you interact with a game – they’re not scripted. Rather they can respond to whatever question you bring out to them. That’s where I would see an interesting development.


In terms of storytelling, if I think of the future of storytelling, I would like it to stay a bit closer to home. Yes, there are more mediums through which we can communicate, and tell great stories, but it’s also important for us to be ethical about our storytelling. To make sure we use our stories for the better, we use these stories to connect people, and to make sure that the mediums we use to communicate them actually empower our message, are not means of sucking people into… like getting their attention and just keeping there for the sake of compulsively consuming content. I believe we have to be a little more responsible with our work. As bloggers, as marketers, as entrepreneurs, we need to understand these are people’s lives we are affecting. Through our communications, through our everyday actions. And we need to stop fooling around on one side, and we need to really care about our work. We need to invest as much as we can in respecting our mission and be there for our customers. I’m not saying we have to be perfect, but, by all means, let us be authentic, let us make mistakes. But at the same time let’s not go into the opposite thinking ourselves as way bigger than we really are, and falling too much in love with our brand. The reason our brand is powerful is not that of a great story we crafted, but rather because it’s validated by so many people. And, the brand exists and breathes through the people that believe in it, and for the people that it serves. Therefore, if you manage to really articulate, not only your communication but actions in line with a great story that really represents you, then that should be where all of us should go in terms of any industry that we work in.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Alex Glod is a Storyteller, Trainer and TEDx Speaker at TEDx University of Piraeus 2015 and TEDx Bacău 2015. In the past 6 years, he has trained over 1500 people in Public Speaking, Storytelling and Leadership in countries from both Europe and Asia and has taught over 8300 students on Udemy.


Alex advocates for a human approach to Marketing, Leadership, and Education and teaches leaders, entrepreneurs, and educators to use personal stories to connect authentically with their audiences.

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