How To Be The Boss of Storytelling

Posted by

Life has a funny way of giving you perspective.

2018 was the year of “books” for me. I decided that I would track and pay close attention to book reading. I was embarrassed, because in prior years, my passion for reading books had waned. I would have none of it this year. I’ve read a lot books (about 70 in total). Part of making the decision to read more was coupled with another decision to get physically healthier. I combined the two forces by taking a very early morning walk (you can see some of my escapades on Instagram) coupled with listening to audiobooks (shout-out to hibooks). I was already doing traditional reading (thanks to my Kindle Paperwhite and Kindle app on the iPhone), but there is something very special about pre-dawn walks listening to someone very interesting read their own work to you. It felt like a secret. I could not believe that I had people like Reid Hoffman, Stephen King, Tom Peters, Annie Duke, Brene Brown and countless others telling me long and powerful tales for hours on end. It felt like a super power. Does everybody else know that for a nominal monthly fee, the biggest brains in the world will read to you their most in-depth thinking? As the year pushed on, I expanded beyond business books into biographies (and even some fiction). The Who’s Roger Daltrey read me his biography, Thanks A Lot Mr. Kibblewhite, which led to me to Pete Townshend’s biography, Who I Am, which brought me to Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run

A biography of massive proportions. 

I was never a huge Bruce Springsteen fan. That’s why I hesitated to read his biography. That’s why I hesitated to spend over eighteen hours listening to him tell his story in audiobook format. But we have history. My best friend is a massive fan. My best friend was the singer/keyboard player in one of the first bands that I ever played in during High School. That band was called Backstreets – named after a Springsteen song. We covered his music. We listened to The Boss. Whether I liked him or not, I was constantly being baptized by his rock meets folk meets Americana meets soul music trappings. For a kid like me (re: metal head) it was a stretch… but his music was real, honest and present (and, as you get older, you realize that’s about as metal as you can get). When The Boss announced he was doing a Broadway run, it felt like a Vegas residency to me. It’s a “bring the fans to me” model that smelt like a high-priced experience for the one percent, and a way for another established artist to avoid the rigors of the road. It works for the few, but is inaccessible to the many. In a way, it didn’t feel like it was part of the pedestrian blue-collar brand that is Bruce Springsteen.

Then comes Netflix

Bruce Springsteen performed Springsteen on Broadway in a 236-date run that ended last weekend. Bruce Springsteen and his management are no fools. The day after his final curtain call, the entire show was made available on Netflix. Over the course of the past few days, I have been watching. It’s an incredible piece of storytelling. It’s easy to get seduced by his stories or by the re-arrangement of his massive hits. Don’t be. As a business professional, I am going to ask you to watch (or re-watch it) with a new lens: Watch it (not just the content, but everything about it) from a storytelling perspective. Bruce Springsteen delivers a masterclass. Not in performance. Not in songwriting, but in how to produce a story that will grab the audience by their shirt collars and never let go (even after it’s all done).

Lessons from Springsteen on Broadway:

  • Honesty. It not just about being honest in the content, but in how it is presented. The production is not slick. It’s raw. It’s stripped down. You can, literally, see the back wall of the theater. He’s wearing jeans, a t-shirt and work boots. Being raw and honest doesn’t mean casual. It means being raw and honest with who you are, what you are about and – most importantly – leaving everything else but the essential ingredients out of it. This raw and stripped down model lets the story flow, and allows the audience to focus in on what matters.
  • Live. So many stories (and pieces of content) don’t emote that the creator has truly lived a life of stories worth telling. Your brand (and the people who tell your stories) must have lived a life. Living means experience. Advice often comes from those who have yet to truly live a life, whose stories are light or skinny. The lines on Bruce’s face often tell a more interesting story than most brands can do with a six figure budget. Whatever story you are trying to tell, make sure the life has been lived first.
  • Appearance. Look the part. Be you. Be honest. Look the part. If Springsteen had a lavish stage show and these wacky costume changes, it might have taken away from the story. What works for Madonna won’t work for Bruce Springsteen. Know who you are, so that when you tell the story, your appearance can match the honest and life well-lived.
  • Act. Bruce Springsteen is acting. The stories are well written and well rehearsed. I know this because a bunch of the content is directly from his autobiography. He is not speaking off the cuff. Those who speak for a living or have done any kind of theatre/film/standup can quickly tell that Bruce is acting. With that, Bruce demonstrates that he’s an amazing performer, actor and storyteller. Is he being himself? Hard to tell. But he is acting a role that he knows well and it works. We all act. Acting well and being believable? That’s where the magic happens.
  • Emotional. Everyone says that a great story (or storyteller) knowns how to inject emotion. Watch Bruce Springsteen weave from stammering to swearing to telling a joke to making you cry. Emotions are a journey. The best storytellers know how to inject the rainbow of emotions with strong pace and structure. That’s the key: emotions through pace and structure. That’s the journey that leaves you filled with emotions and completely empty by the time he takes his final bow. You’re drained while being filled with love – all at the same time.
  • Fans. The story may be about you (or your brand) but the story is really for the audience (fans). The best stories fill in the gaps. They validate what you thought you knew. They inject a new perspective that you never knew. They add an entirely new perspective to a pre-conceived notion. Always create a story for the audience… it kills the self-indulgence. It makes it something worth talking about and sharing.
  • Write. A great story is a well-written story. Pen to paper. Fingers on keys. This was not a concert with some inter-song banter. This was a scripted performance of the highest order. What makes it not feel scripted? Read Bruce’s biography and you will quickly discover the secret. Bruce is a fantastic writer or words. He’s a master of prose. Listening to his audiobook, I would constantly find myself stopping to take notes and write something down. He knows how to weave words, drop common phrases and use unique dialect from his upbringing and generations past to make the idea stick. Anyone can hit “record”… few can write great prose that then turn into something magical on video. Write. Write well. 

There’s so much more…

It’s going to take a few more views of Springsteen on Broadway to capture and unpack all of the incredible storytelling and content opportunities that are brimming below the surface of his performance. They’re there. A lifetime of lessons that any brand (or individual) can use to create, perform and deliver a better story. You don’t have to like his music to appreciate this part of his mastery. You don’t have to even appreciate his art to learn from it. The lessons are there. They’re endless. And, in the end, it made me a bigger fan of the artist… and his music.