We recently connected with Park Howell and have shared our conversation below.
Park, appreciate you joining us today. We’d love to hear from you about what you think Corporate America gets wrong in your industry and why it matters.
Most executives communicate and care but bore. They don’t connect with their colleagues, customers and the communities they serve like they could because they lead with logic and reason when what every audience wants is the emotional pull of a story.
Just ask yourself, when was the last time you were bored into buying anything. This is true for buying into a way of thinking a leader might be espousing. Or buying into a new corporate initiative or mission. Or buying a product or service.
Nobody buys boring.
Therefore, to hack through the noise and hook the hearts of your people, prospects and partners, business leaders must start by turning their non-narrative communications into compelling and persuasive prose by using the ABT (And, But, Therefore) foundational narrative framework. The ABT works because it uses the three forces of story – Agreement, Contradiction and Consequence – that our primal cause-and-effect, pattern-seeking limbic brain loves. By the way, it is here, in the recesses of our subconscious, where all of our real buying decisions are being made. And they are made on emotion and then corroborated by our frontal cortex that uses the numbers and data to justify our purchase. But not before we have emotionally bought in.
Leading with logic and reason in non-narrative and, and, and, communications that do not arouse and fulfill an audience’s curiosity is what corporate America gets wrong daily…make that hourly…in their communications.
Park, love having you share your insights with us. Before we ask you more questions, maybe you can take a moment to introduce yourself to our readers who might have missed our earlier conversations?
“I’m looking for someone who’s got story in their soul.”
That request arrived in late November 2020. Jon, the founder and president of an 18-year-old Minnesota medical device company, sought help developing their storytelling culture to increase sales and create a legacy for his brand.
“I’m your guy,” I said.
You know why? Because I’ve had story in my soul ever since I was a kid.
My storytelling interests actually began with music. When I was in the first grade I watched my grandma Mable bounce across her old upright piano playing a ragtime tune. I was transfixed by how this little old lady was ebullient on those keys. That was the moment I knew the piano was for me. Now I know why they call it “playing.”
I started taking lessons and writing songs in the third grade (see all of those masterpieces on top of the piano?). All that work taught me a ton about persistence, patience, and the calamity of not being prepared for a holiday piano recital. I can still see mom and dad with their heads in their hands.
But when you nail a tune and get the room rockin’, there’s nothing quite like it.
I still feel that exhilaration today through my virtual keynotes, leading a masterclass, and workshopping a bunch of eager storytellers. Believe me, I know the importance of practice, practice, practice.
I graduated from Bothell High School in 1979 and earned two degrees from Washington State University. My first was in music composition and theory.
But figuring I might starve as a composer, I also received a B.A. in Public Relations.
Music and communications have intersected in my life today as I consult, teach, coach, and speak internationally on the applied science and bewitchery of storytelling. Stories, like music, have a way of bringing two disparate worlds together creating a third, more powerful place.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, which I’m told I sometimes do. Ok, often.
I met Michele in 1986, an office romance. She was an account executive and I was a copywriter at Austin Associates ad agency in Phoenix. As we created our family of three kids, I spent those 10 years building my career working with various ad agencies and finally as creative director for Quorum International.
Then, in 1995, I took the leap into entrepreneurship and started my own agency called, well, Park&Co.
We were fortunate to buy our building in 2003, and it remains a fixture in the prestigious Arcadia neighborhood on the border of Phoenix and Scottsdale.
But even though I was named Advertising Person of the Year in 2010 by the American Federation of Advertising in Metro Phoenix, and Park&Co was listed among the Top 10 Impact Businesses in Arizona by the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce in 2011, I needed a change.
About five years earlier, I had realized that branding and advertising as we knew it no longer worked.
While our clients used to own the influence of mass media, the internet leveled the playing field. The masses had become the media and they now own your story. The old way of advertising and marketing had become impotent and I went on a quest to find the answer.
Luckily, in 2006, our middle child Parker, began film school at Chapman University in Orange, CA. While he was there I asked him to send me his books (since I was paying for them) so I could learn what Hollywood knew about storytelling.
To save you time here, you can hear how it all came together on a special episode of my podcast, show #250, where I share my origin story.
Or you can read about it in my book that I published on June 1, 2020, called Brand Bewitchery.
This is when I learned about Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey story framework. I recognized its power for branding immediately. When I studied it I learned that this story archetype is found in everything from the first recorded story of Gilgamesh to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey to The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Lego Movies and everything Pixar produces.
It’s so ubiquitous that Campbell called it the monomyth. We are naturally drawn to this story structure because it mirrors how we experience life.
Each of us is on our own Hero’s Journey daily from small challenges to epic adventures.
Since the monomyth is essentially a template for how we go through life, I decided to map it to brand strategy in the hopes of humanizing business. I fine-tuned it to the 10-steps of what I call the Story Cycle System™, a virtuous narrative spiral that expands customer engagement and brand bonding with every revolution.
The Story Cycle System™ is distilled from the timeless narrative structure of the ancients, inspired by the story artists of Hollywood, influenced by masters of persuasion, guided by trend seers and informed by how the mind grapples for meaning.
The first time I used the Story Cycle System™ for crafting a brand story strategy was in 2009 with Adelante Healthcare. Avein Saaty-Tafoya, who headed the rebranding effort as the community health center’s CEO at the time, details on the Business of Story podcast how they grew by 600% because of their refreshed brand story created through our system.
We applied our narrative spiral process to many brands over the subsequent five years, but…
…then I snapped.
Or at least that’s what people thought. Because in 2016, I transitioned away from my ad agency and into The Business of Story full time. At 55! And I’m not talking miles-per-hour, but a mid-life redefinition.
As digital marketing strangled traditional advertising, creativity died. My new, or should I say revived, passion was for storytelling to humanize purpose-driven businesses, especially challenger brands and their sales teams.
The same curiosity that drove me to study music composition and theory so many years ago was now propelling me into consulting, teaching, coaching, and speaking on the applied science and bewitchery of storytelling.
My goal is to help leaders of purpose-driven challenger brands and their people excel through the stories they tell.
Business storytelling speaker, keynote speaker, brand storytelling workshops and leadership communications.
As Joseph Cambell said, “When you follow your bliss doors will open where there were only walls.” And that’s exactly what has happened.
For instance, recently I spent five days on Richard Branson’s private Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands working with large automotive groups on business and sales storytelling. Other door openers include:
• Five years of creating and teaching the storytelling curriculum for the Executive Masters of Sustainability Leadership at Arizona State University showing business leaders around the world how to advance their social initiatives further and faster through the power of story.
• Four years of coaching U.S. Air Force leadership how to connect with recruits, commissioned officers, staff and congress through story.
• Innumerable in-person and virtual storytelling masterclasses and mastery courses for organizations that include Dell, Hilton, Visit California, Destination D.C., McCormicks (the spice people), Cummins (the diesel engine people), American Express, and Premier Protein plus a host of small companies to emerging challenger brands.
• Teaching executive ed. and story marketing courses at Emory University, Stetson University, Nova Southeastern University, Dayton University, University of Wisconsin, ASU, and of course my beloved WAZZU.
• Featured speaker at TEDxGilbert in 2018: Start Looking For Your Scenes and your Story Will Find You.
Shared the stage with Robert Redford.
• Keynotes and workshops at Social Media Marketing World (5x), New Zealand’s Annual Social Media Conference, Digital Phoenix, Brand Bootcamp, among others.
• Hosting the Business of Story podcast which is ranked among the top 10% of downloaded podcasts in the world which Feedspot just named as the #1 business storytelling podcast for 2022.
• Co-authored The Narrative Gym for Business, a crisp 75-page guide to help you craft compelling ABTs where all powerful and persuasive business storytelling begins.
• Published Brand Bewitchery: How to Wield the Story Cycle System™ to Craft Spellbinding Stories for Your Brand. Thirty-five years in the making and seven years in the writing, Brand Bewitchery guides you through the Story Cycle System™ to not only help you clarify your brand story but teaches you how to tell it.
While showing you the applied science of storytelling with the three primal narrative frameworks I share, my book also demonstrates the bewitchery of story through real-world anecdotes captured within.
Brand Bewitchery is so comprehensive that it caused a client to dub me The World’s Most Industrious Storyteller.
He said the moniker captured how I put storytelling to work to grow the influence of leaders, the productivity of sales & marketing teams, camaraderie among colleagues, and measurable ROI for brands.
I liked it, so I swiped it.
And that’s how I got to where I am today.
Can you tell us about a time you’ve had to pivot?
An excerpt from my book Brand Bewitchery:
I woke up on Monday, September 14, 2015, with my stomach in knots. For the past 20 years, I had relentlessly
worked to build my advertising agency. I’d started out in a little shack behind our first house, grew, purchased a building, added lots of employees, and created a business that I thought defined me.
I built a career I hoped my folks would be proud of, that my siblings would appreciate, that my peers would respect. But I wasn’t happy. Because I realized I wasn’t living into my story. My answer was hiding in plain sight. In fact, I had been preaching and teaching it for five years.
As I mentioned, I was fascinated by storytelling, using it to craft brand story strategies to help our clients grow, and coaching leaders in how to use it for themselves and their teams. In fact, Arizona State University even asked me to create and teach a curriculum around my Story Cycle System for its Executive Masters of Sustainability Leadership program, which I did. What an honor.
The universe was now daring me to live into my most powerful story: to consult, teach, coach, and speak on how to use your unique, personal narrative to make your most profound impact in the world. Which meant a career pivot. At 55. I thought, Boy, this can either end in comedy or tragedy—though I was hoping for something greater.
Because here’s the truth I knew, but then had to learn for myself: Compelling storytelling is always about the moments. Those scenes are composed of the experiences that define your beliefs, which lead to your truth. When you unwrap your truth you find your superpower to nudge the world in any direction you choose, no matter how old you are.
Can you share a story from your journey that illustrates your resilience?
While teaching sustainable storytelling in the Executive Masters Program for Sustainability Leadership at Arizona State University, I had the honor to join acclaimed science fiction novelist, Margaret Atwood, for an intimate storytelling luncheon. The other folks at the table were Ph.D’s, and the topic of discussion was that science fiction had no place in actual science.
There were twelve of us at the table, and I and one other were not doctors of anything. The discussion ensued as the majority of the learned Ph.D’s argued that science fiction just muddled actual science and should be disregarded.
I, finally finding my voice in this intimidating setting, reminded the gathering that JFK was totally telling a science fiction story about sending a man to the moon and returning him safely home when he challenged America to win the space race. His science fiction of placing a man on top of a 30-story rocket not yet designed created of metal alloys not yet discovered, propelled by fuels not yet created, guided by navigation systems not yet developed, and return him safely to Earth in this decade certainly inspired the science behind our space program, I mentioned. Even though Ms. Atwood gave me a subtle nod of touché, I was shunned by the academics from the remainder of the conversation.
They knew I was right. Storytelling is precisely how we Homo sapiens organize and collectively act to create a better tomorrow. Science is simply one of the vehicles to get us there but not without the power of story.