The Dark-side of Storytelling

Jonathan Gottschall, at Washington and Jefferson College, published an HBR article on the “dark side of storytelling.” It’s a good and needful read. Mr. Gottschall eloquently illustrates what I sometimes call, “stories being a loaded gun.” The takeaway quote is in the last paragraph, “Establishing a culture of honest storytelling is not only a moral imperative for companies and workers, it is better business in a long-term, bottom-line sense. No matter the genre or format, the ancient prime directive of storytelling is simple: tell the truth.”

Theranos and the dark side of storytelling

When I started ArrowHead in 2007, I attended story-guru Robert McKee’s workshop on “Story.” It was an intense three days in San Francisco. When we “graduated” I asked him to sign my book. He took his autograph marker, asked my name, wrote it, then following with a short phrase and his signature. He shut the book, and handed it to me. Back at my seat, I opened it to see the note, “Write the truth.”


As anyone who has worked with me will attest this is why landing on the right hero & ArrowHead is so critical (and hard); the story must be true or possible. Some may cower away from stories when they read Gottschall’s article, when they should embrace it as effective storytelling.

Gottschall said it best in his last paragraph, “Establishing a culture of honest storytelling is not only a moral imperative for companies and workers, it is better business in a long-term, bottom-line sense. No matter the genre or format, the ancient prime directive of storytelling is simple: tell the truth.”

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TEDx Talk – Kevan Kjar on “Why We Use Stories To Persuade Others & Ourselves”


Published on Oct 3, 2016
Kevan Kjar speaks at TEDx Sugarland, TX (August 27, 2016) about the need for a more humane approach to our everyday persuasions for products, ideas and solutions, to give it a warm, human face of a hero with a story. Building upon the principles in Kevan’s first book, he zeros in on the DNA of story in his upcoming book and gives tools, principles, and a framework to a topic that many talk about but few really understand. Join us for this perspective-shifting session in how we use stories to persuade others and ourselves.

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In development… 2nd book in the “Winning Your Story War” series

Send me an email if you would like to be notified when the “LogLines” book is available.
Kevan (

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Spark Session: Finding Stories & Tackling Objections

In the August 2016 Spark Session, Scott Graves (LibertyLab), Kevan Kjar (ArrowHead3 Consulting), and Spark Freedom’s own Nicole Williams tackled a whole sombrero full of viewers’ questions about marketing and communications. This session is so chock full of information, be sure to watch the whole recording or download the audio for your listening pleasure!

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The DNA of Story – An interview with Kevan Kjar

Spark Freedom, an authorized partner of ArrowHead3, interviewed me on one of their recent Spark Sessions (webcast) re: the DNA of Story and storytelling. This is my upcoming book I hope to have out by the end of this year.

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Several years ago I was helping a client in Chicago craft their message for a new product initiative they were launching. Their hope was to land a compelling sales message that would be easily repeated by their sales force and significantly grow their business.

The cross-functional team had wallpapered the conference room with dozens of flipcharts that represented the best of their collective brainstorming. The goal now was to crystallize it down to something compelling to their buyer and unique to their solution.

We began entering the “valley of despair” on day two; a painful but necessary step to the clients “owning” the message they create. We wrapped up the day with a bit of consternation. Then on the morning of the third day, one team member reported a “light bulb” moment she had in the shower. “You know,” she said, “when it comes right down to it, what we do is SEE-ACT-WIN.” She went on, “we enable our clients to SEE what their buyers think of their product, ACT accordingly to adjust the product, and then WIN more business.” It was simply beautiful, and beautifully simple.

I worked with their sales force in helping rollout this new message, and training them in how to tell it. The sales teams appreciated the simplicity, and were able to differentiate themselves in each of the three areas.

Years later, I now look upon this experience as a bigger lesson for life, SEE-ACT-WIN. SEE where you want to go, ACT accordingly and WIN the object of your desire. When we SEE, we have a vision of where we want to go. When the vision is strong enough, it becomes a faith that is the driving force of one’s ACTion. We know that WINning is no accident; we have to do something for a real win.

The key I’ve learned is that you become what you focus on. If your vision (what you SEE) is gloomy and scarcity-minded, your ACTions will emulate that, and your WINs will be as scarce as hen teeth, and empty when you do get them.

So how can you get others to SEE your vision to the point that they want to ACT and WIN with you? Well, that is the nature and purpose of real sales, not to mention motivational speakers, counselors, coaches and parents, to name just a few. Some tips for “inspiring” others should include:

  1. IMAGINE: The word “imagine” enables the other person to paint a picture in their own mind of what you want them to see. For example, “Imagine being able to run faster than anyone else in your track meet. (Pause for emphasis) That’s what interval training will help you do.”
  2. QUESTIONS ABOUT THE PROBLEM: Asking the other person to better describe a problem might just give them a better insight to a problem they’ve ignored or not even noticed. For example, “Are any of your clients return-customers? If not, why not? What would it mean to you to have customers that are happy with your service? How would it impact your sales if you could count on repeat customers every month?”
  3. SHARE SIMILAR STORIES: The other day my 15-year-old and I were riding bikes together. He didn’t want to wear his bike helmet. Dad scoured the mental attic for every story of a brain injury I could find to help persuade my son. Even then it wasn’t until I personalized it to him that he put it on… “Son, I don’t want to have to spend the rest of your life feeding you with a straw.” That seemed to work.

So remember the great message that helped WIN millions in new business for a company in Chicago. Then remember, “You are what you eat” (physically and mentally). SEE where you want to go, ACT accordingly and WIN the object of your desire.

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Leveraging Your Story’s Low Point

Cynthia’s heart sank as she drove by Madison Elementary School on her way to work at the hospital in Jackson, Mississippi. Her ten-year-old son, Will, wants to be an anesthesiologist when he grows up and he’s working hard to get good grades. Sadly though, Will is in a bad school, by almost any standard and next year he will enter the middle school, which is even worse, and where Cynthia’s older son dropped out because of his involvement with drugs. Cynthia wants to send her son Will to a Madison County public school, where education appears to be a higher priority and the kids are succeeding. But she is not able to because Mississippi does not have school choice. Cynthia can’t afford to send Will to a private school, or move into the Madison County Public School District. She fears the same fate for Will that swallowed her older son. She feels trapped, trapped by her own zip code.

Grant Callen of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy uses this real-life story when speaking to civic clubs about Mississippi’s dire need for school choice. Grant told me, “When I use this story, the response is tremendous. People will stay long beyond the allotted time telling me they know a ‘Will’ and asking how they can get involved to help Cynthia and her son, Will.”

Last year I was invited to attend some classes at the Harvard Business School. I was fascinated about their use of the case methodology in teaching. Students would read a case story, which was always incomplete with the chief executive at a professional “low point.” Working in teams the students would strategize how they would handle the case’s business dilemma. When the class would meet together, the Professor would lead a discussion of the various team approaches. The incomplete story and the solidarity they felt for the executive of the case fired the passion of the students. Only in the last 15 minutes of a two-hour class did the Professor share how the dilemma was dealt with in real life.

There’s something about leveraging the low point of a story that makes you want to get up and do something! Whether it is a plea to give money to a family whose father has terminal cancer; a software sales person talking about a plant manager who cannot get his product out on time; or a pharmaceutical rep telling a story of a multiple sclerosis sufferer who cannot afford the $4,700 a month treatment cost. Each one of these stories has a “low point” with potential energy. We as human beings are naturally empathetic to one another, what happens to one potentially could happen to all.

The “low point” is where the hero (the analog for your client) in your story has exhausted all their efforts on trying to reach their goal; the goal that only your solution can provide them. Paradoxically, the “low point” occurs at the height of tension in your story, a type of seesaw correlation, and the lower the low point, the higher the tension.

Imagine your power when you know what “low point” to look for in your prospects. Think how that will affect who you talk to, what questions you will ask, and how you will sell to your client.

Below are seven tips to help you better leverage your hero’s “low point:”

  1. TRY FOR REAL-LIFE: Find a real-life hero and their low point; otherwise create an analog patterned after the ideal client you can uniquely serve.
  2. DON’T EXAGGERATE: Avoid hyperbolic stretches; keep your hero’s low point credible and believable.
  3. PORTRAY FULL IMPACT: Portray the full impact of the low point on your hero both professionally and personally. Many times it’s a small personal impact that tips your hero to action.
  4. MIRROR OPPOSITE: Your hero’s low point should be the mirror opposite of your hero with a “happy every after” ending; poor and friendless becomes rich and popular.
  5. EXHAUST ALL OPTIONS: Make certain your hero has exhausted all options to attain their goal, their back is up against the wall; this is where you want to riddle your competitors with holes. Everything has been tried and nothing has worked… except you and your solution.
  6. START, PAUSE or FINISH: Consider starting your story with your hero at their low point, then go back to show how they got their; or start from the beginning and pause at their low point to create suspense; or finish at your hero’s low point for a very unsettling story.
  7. SERVE, DON’T EXPLOIT: These storytelling techniques are effective persuasion tools. Make certain your intention is to serve your client and make their life better, not to exploit them for your sole benefit.

My experience with sales people is that they short cut the painful part of a story being too anxious to get to the “happy ever after” of their product. I believe there is danger in this. Your clients are in some type of pain; they want to know you understand where they are, and then they will be more likely to explore your solution.

As the great story expert, Robert McKee, said, “conflict is to story as sound is to music.” Leverage your hero’s low point, and you’ll be adding a wonderful symphony to your presentation… and closing more business!

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The Persuasive Power of Polar Questions

Great persuaders and effective sales people know the power of a well-crafted question. The question opens the buyer’s mind to a new potential with the new product or idea. But what many don’t understand is the added power they have when they can uncover the polar nature of sales opportunity: the problem (pain) and the solution (gain).

A sales person stood at the head of a conference table, about to begin her sales pitch to a buying committee of eight people. She had no PowerPoint, just a whiteboard. She knew the client was unhappy with their current software solution. Standing by the left side of the large whiteboard she asked, “What is it you don’t like about your current solution?”

Hesitant at first, each person gave her an “issue” with the current solution. Using a red pen she wrote each issue on the left of the whiteboard and followed up asking for specific examples of how that “issue” impacted them. She was having a productive discussion with her prospect and half of the whiteboard was filled with “pains.”

She paused, looked at the list, then walked to the right side, picked up a black marker and said, “Well, I can see that would be tough for your business. What would you like to see in a new solution?” The responses came more easily this time. She would repeat back what she heard, and then would write it on the whiteboard. Drilling down further she would ask what specific gains they would like to see in the new solution.

Looking at the list of desired “gains” she circled the ones that her solution could provide and asked, “Would you like to see how our solution could help you with these gains from your list?” The answer was an excited yes, and she soon got the deal.

Polar Questions empowered our sales person to do a deep-dive into the prospect’s pains, giving her specific examples that she could refer to later; she was knee-deep in the prospect’s pain! She empathized with a crossover statement and did another deep-dive into the prospect’s desires for the new solution. She helped clarify and amplify the gulf between the prospect’s pain and desired gain; her buyer felt the urgency.

Value lies between the pain and the gain; the greater the gulf the greater the potential value. If the distance is indiscernible, the value will be soft and your buyer will drag their feet.

Polar Questions may help you if:

  • You’re a sales person moving heaven and earth to get a prospect to make a faster buying decision
  • You’re a CEO trying to convince your team to pursue a new course
  • You’re a parent trying to persuade your child to do something that’s good for them
  • You’re a spouse hoping to sway your other half of the benefits of purchasing of a new home
  • You’re a politician trying to win over a voter to your policy change

The benefits of Polar Questions are many, but most importantly they will:

  • Get your buyer to move faster
  • Increase your leverage with your buyer
  • Illustrate how to best serve your buyer

So if you want to improve your persuasive ability, asking effective questions. But if you really want to ramp it up, use Polar Questions to help your buyer better understand the real value of your solution or idea. They will have a greater sense of urgency and you will know how to best serve them.


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5 Reasons You Need An ArrowHead

You’ve probably heard of a “unique selling proposition” (USP) and perhaps ignored it thinking it was something your “marketing” had under control, or perhaps you’ve worked on one and believe you have one.

For me, a USP is like an arrowhead. Without an arrowhead, an arrow will not fly true nor will it penetrate its target. This is like selling with features and functions, and not leading with a unique benefit to the buyer. Your sales message may fly, but it’s chance of penetrating your buyer is low.

Have you ever had a sales cycle that dragged on and on? Have you ever had your sales and marketing teams disagree about your product? Have you ever had to discount your price because you struggled to communicate your product’s real value? If so, then maybe you don’t have a clear and effective USP, or ArrowHead, as I like to call it.

Some well-known USPs would include:

  • Head & Shoulders (shampoo): “You get rid of dandruff”
  • Domino’s Pizza: “You get fresh, hot pizza delivered to your door in 30 minutes or less — or it’s free.”
  • FedEx: “When your package absolutely, positively has to get there overnight”
  • M&M’s (candy): “Melts in your mouth, not in your hand”

I’ll never forget a work session I did with a group from all over the world, where I
would present them with a list of internationally known products, then ask them to
tell me the USP for that product. Each person, one at a time, came to the front of the
room, and unveiled a product name that was covered with post-it notes on the
flipchart, and they were asked to give the USP on the spot. One participant, a man,
unveiled the product “Victoria’s Secret” then without skipping a beat said, “the gift
that keeps on giving.”

There are five reasons why you should have a USP or ArrowHead for your product or service, but first let me share with you my company’s ArrowHead:

As you can see, an ArrowHead has one unique benefit as its point, which is supported by 3 other unique benefits as blades. Now, why is a ArrowHead so important to you, your company and your product? Let me give you five reasons:

  1. Answers the question, “Why should I buy YOUR product?” – Don’t make your buyer think about why they should buy your product. Make it easy for them. Don’t beat around the bush; tell then exactly what your product will do for them, and how it is different from all their other alternatives (your competitors).
  2. Everyone sings from the same songbook – Nothing is more confusing to a potential buyer than to hear different promises from different people at the same company. An ArrowHead gives your team a shared purpose and common flag to march under; it is a common chorus that your team can harmonize to.
  3. Speeds the buying decision – When you force your buyer into an “intellectual exercise” about how your product can help them, it slows down and sometimes stops the buying decision. An ArrowHead empowers them to quickly evaluate your product.
  4. Reduces the “tire kickers” – Without an effective ArrowHead you may be marketing to the wrong buyers, wasting your time and theirs. Increase your closing rate with a clear ArrowHead that helps buyers know that your product will help them.
  5. Gives Purpose & Passion to your sales force – Sales people that know exactly what their product can do (and not do) have laser-focus and confidence in their product. This translates into success with your buyer.

Your ArrowHead does not need to be a catchy tagline or a long mission statement. In fact, it’s best if you can deliver your unique selling proposition in 10-15 seconds. A single idea may be all that you need, as long as it gives sufficient promise to your buyer, shows your uniqueness, and is strong and credible. You will be most successful if your leadership team helps create your ArrowHead so that they own it.

Create a winning ArrowHead, align your team around it, and then learn how to deliver it with passion (not a sterile PowerPoint). An ArrowHead can be a sharp message in your quiver that will create purpose, passion and power in your marketing, sales, business and life.

For more info on the ArrowHead, check out the book, “The ArrowHead: Winning the Story War” available on Amazon.

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It’s Not WHAT You Say That Really Matters

Have you ever been around a great storyteller? They could say anything to you and you’d be immediately drawn in? I was in Portland a few months ago on business and spent the evening with my sister-in-law, Sheri, and her family. Listening to Sheri talk about the daily routine of her dog Scooter can be the most engaging theater in the northwest. She will have me laughing one moment and crying the next.

On the other hand, we all know people that can completely suck the energy out of a conversation, regardless of the topic. Recently I listened to a man discuss a life and death situation of his friend. After a few painfully boring moments it was easy to drift off and think about dinner; not the train of thought you want someone to have when they are discussing your mortality.

The lesson? HOW you say something is more powerful than WHAT you say. Let me repeat, HOW you say something is more powerful than WHAT you say. I like how story authority, Robert McKee, author of the screenwriter’s bible “STORY” said it:

“Master storytellers know how to squeeze life out of the least of things, while poor storytellers reduce the profound to the banal. You may have the insight of a Buddha, but if you cannot tell story, your ideas turn dry as chalk.”

Why is this? Why is the HOW more powerful than the WHAT? Much of the answer lies in research done by Albert Mehrabian (Professor of Psychology, UCLA), on the relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages, in his book “Silent Messages.” It has become known as the 7-38-55 Rule. Although the work was done in 1971, it has been corroborated with many other studies since then. The 7-38-55 Rule states:

•         7% of our communications come through our WORDS

•         38% of our communications come through our VOICE

•         55% of our communications come through our BODY LANGUAGE

Notice that 93% of our communication is non-verbal (38% + 55%), this is the HOW. 7% is verbal, this is the WHAT.

If you don’t believe this statistic, try this little experiment. Next time you are with your significant other, tell them “I love you very much, you give my life meaning and happiness.” But when you say it, never make eye contact, mumble your words, look at your phone like you’re checking for a text, and finally roll your eyes. Let me know who ended up paying for dinner.

Think about your last business presentation or speech, how much time did you spend working on your WHAT? How much on your HOW? Chances are, most of it was on your WHAT and very little, if any, on your HOW. So if HOW we say something is more powerful than WHAT we say, how can you ensure you’re creating the right buzz in your business communications, speeches and presentations? Here are some tips:

  • Show your passion: Let your excitement show; we enjoy watching passionate people talk, even when they’re selling us something.
  • Lose the fluff: Put your words on a diet, and cut the fat. Narrow your communication to a few ideas so they can be easily recalled and retold. Use “coffee shop” (conversational) words, not “marketing” (excessive) words.
  • Find your “magnet words”: Certain words can be highly charged to your listener; find these words and use them. When I speak to sales people I talk about “deal-killers;” or yours might be a unique benefit you provide. Draw attention to your “magnet words” with your volume, tone or speed.
  • Be the mime, but lose the grease paint: Practice communicating your message with your body alone, like a mime, and see if you don’t pick up some “added impact.” But remember, be YOURSELF, or you will scare the children.
  • Discover your WHY: Three men were working on a building site. When asked what they were doing, the first man answered ‘I am laying stones.’ The second said ‘I am making a wall’ and the third replied ‘I am building a cathedral.’ Purpose leads to passion, and passion gives you power. Keep asking yourself, who benefits from my product? How is my product changing the world? Your WHY will drive your HOW for either good or bad.
  • Learn the power of the pause: Few things can draw attention like a pause; it’s the wind-up to a pitch, it’s the silence before the starting gun, it’s the moment right after “and the winner is…” Pauses create suspense, and it lets your audience chew and digest what you just gave them.
  • Don’t be afraid of humor: You don’t need to be a stand-up comedian, but if you have an ironic or humorous element to your message or story, have a little fun with it. A fun comic strip, a story about yourself or a coworker will work if it is pertinent to your message.
  • Read your audience: You’ll be able to see if your delivery style is engaging your audience if you look for it. If they’re drifting, try a more engaging approach; you can tell by their eyes if they are with you.
  • Practice: Poor delivery can neuter your message faster than anything. Practice, practice, practice! But don’t just practice, practice perfection. Practice makes permanent, so have a trusted coach give you feedback until you’re happy with the delivery. If you have access to a 6+ year old child, try practicing part of your pitch to them, if nothing else you’ll have your funny story about yourself.

Whether you’re trying to sell the big deal to make quota, or just looking to not embarrass yourself at the next business dinner, HOW you deliver your message or story can make all the difference. Few things will pay off more for you than improving your ability to be an effective storyteller and communicator.

As the American Poet, William Carlos Williams said, “It is not what you say that matters but the manner in which you say it; there lies the secret of the ages.”

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