Transformational Storytelling: Creating Meaning and Metrics

IC_Margolis-01by Brenda Huettner

It’s not surprising that Michael Margolis begins one of his TEDx talks like this: “I’m a junior in college and I’m walking along…” Stories and storytelling are Michael’s business and his passion.

I was delighted to chat with Michael recently by phone to explore what he has to say about the power of storytelling in the digital age. Here’s what I learned.

You can catch Michael Margolis’ keynote talk, Self-Made: Redefining Storytelling in the Digital Age, March 25, 2015, at the Intelligent Content Conference. REGISTER today and save.

A story worth telling

“As human beings, we are experience-seeking, storytelling machines,” Michael says. “We are constantly seeking stories. Think of yourself at the coffee shop with friends. ‘What are you doing? What’s new? What’s going on?’”

What does storytelling have to do with intelligent content and content marketing? A lot.

Michael explains, “The way people respond to any brand is not about the content, but about the story they tell themselves about what that content means to them.”

Trained as an anthropologist, Michael talks a lot about culture and emotions. If we want to create change, whether it’s changing someone’s attitude or understanding or product choice, then we must take the time to understand that person’s existing culture. What’s that person’s story? How does he or she feel about it? Only after we answer these questions can we tell our own story in a way that will resonate and inspire change.

This isn’t always easy to do. “We’re good at being literal, but the moment you move in to emotional content and nuance, the system falls down,” he says.

A story worth telling – a story that can transform the audience in some way – takes listeners on a journey from their starting point to a new understanding. Good storytelling is about more than telling a better anecdote; it’s about how we relate to each other and to what we are creating.

“We want to invite people to think about human elements and factors that show up in the way we build intelligent content because story is all about people and the relationships between them,” Michael says.

Creating a new language of storytelling

“I graduated from college in 1998, right as the new Internet economy burst,” Michael says. “As a social entrepreneur, I felt that there was something missing from the conversation. People talked about social change in a way that didn’t sit right with me. Honestly, I didn’t have the language; I didn’t know how to tell a different story. But I knew that the way we talked about the current story needed to change.”

Michael became obsessed with figuring out how to translate new or different ideas into cultural acceptance. He explored the effects of innovation and technology on social and organizational habits. After years of consulting with large companies, like Bloomberg, SAP, Greenpeace, and others, Michael has developed 15 axioms:

  1. People don’t buy a product, service, or idea; they buy the story that’s attached to it.
  2. Your brand is far more than a name, a logo, or a tagline; it’s the stories that people tell about you.
  3. Every story exists in relationship to everything else around it.
  4. We all want to look back at the story of our lives and know that it made sense.
  5. The stories we tell literally make our world.
  6. The power of your story grows exponentially as more and more people accept your story as their truth.
  7. If you want to learn about a culture, listen to the stories. If you want to change a culture, change the stories.
  8. Leaders lead by telling stories that give others permission to lead, not follow.
  9. Storytelling is our most basic technology, turbocharged through 21st century innovation.
  10. We all seek to experience life in heroic terms.
  11. Nobody likes a change story, especially a change story we have no control over. What people really need is a continuity story.
  12. Our fate as a species is contained in the story. Both tyranny and freedom are constructed through well-supported narratives.
  13. Storytelling empowers because it escapes the need to claim absolute truth.
  14. Reinvention is the new storyline.
  15. Storytelling is like fortune-telling. The act of choosing a certain story determines the probability of the outcomes.

For more on these axioms, you can download Michael’s 88-page book for free at Believe Me: A Storytelling Manifesto for Change-Makers and Innovators. As he points out in the book’s introduction, “The secret to persuasion, influence, and motivation is a formula deeply grounded in storytelling.”

An old story in a new form

Storytelling has been around for thousands of years. Our challenge – and the challenge that Michael will be talking about in his ICC keynote talk – is integrating the architecture of storytelling into the range of digital delivery mechanisms available today.

“We continue to invent technology far faster than we can intelligently learn to use it,” Michael says. “Think of storytelling as a management framework or mindset. Storytelling is the source code to our humanity.”

Michael’s company, Get Storied, teaches people how to build strategic narratives that “translate big ideas and innovation into cultural adoption.” It does this through StoryU, a learning community and leading school devoted to business storytelling. The company also delivers in-house training to corporations of all sizes. It even offers a free course in transformational storytelling delivered via email.

Technology transforms and touches our lives in many ways. As content creators, we translate information for a variety of audiences. If we’re creating intelligent content, we also pay attention to the technology members of our audience are using, and we measure how successful our content is. Creating content that tells a story – whether it is the story of ourselves, our customers, or our products – adds meaning to our metrics. Michael and his colleagues teach workshops that focus on storytelling architecture and ways to translate the corporate (or personal) vision into a story that everyone can embrace.

“We believe in humanizing the process, in encouraging content creators to pay attention to the impact that their content has on other people’s lives,” he says.

Learn more

For more on storytelling in organizations, check out these resources:

Intelligent Content Conference 2015

Want to hear more of Michael’s story? Catch his keynote presentation, Self-Made: Redefining Storytelling in the Digital Age, March 25, 2015, at the Intelligent Content Conference (ICC).

REGISTER for the conference today. Use discount code ICC100 to save $100.

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About Michael Margolis

Michael Margolis photo_revMichael Margolis is the founder and CEO of Get Storied, a learning and education company with a mission to humanize business. The child of a teacher and mad scientist, Michael is obsessed with how new ideas are translated into cultural reality.

Michael has spent 12 years advancing the emerging field of business storytelling. As an adviser and trainer, he has worked with CMOs and marketing teams at Bloomberg, SAP, TATA, Superfly, Greenpeace, and many others. He has spoken at SxSW, TEDx, BlogWorld, Zappos Insights, Ariba Live, and the UN Foundation.

Michael is the author of several books, including Believe Me: A Storytelling Manifesto for Change-Makers and Innovators, which has been read by over 30,000 people. As the founder of StoryU, Michael runs a learning community for coaches, consultants, and communicators.

After 18 years on the East Coast, Michael now lives in Marin County, California. He is left-handed and color-blind, and he eats more chocolate than the average human.

About the interviewer

Brenda_HuettnerBrenda Huettner (@bphuettner) is an independent technical communication consultant who has worked for the past 25 years as a writer, editor, trainer, and manager for software and hardware companies. She’s a principal at, an online encyclopedia of microwave engineering knowledge.

Brenda is a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication, a member of the Usability Professionals Association, and a Senior Member of IEEE (participating in their Professional Communication Society, their Engineering Management Council, and their Tucson Section).

In addition to supporting the documentation needs of her clients, Brenda has published several books and articles. She has presented courses on writing, project management, usability, and career management. She’s also proud to be a space geek, participating in NASA’s volunteer Solar System and OSIRIS-REx Ambassador programs.

Title image courtesy of Joseph Kalinowski, Content Marketing Institute