Steve Jobs and Johnny Cash Taught This Tech Leader to Tell Better Stories

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“Johnny Cash and Steve Jobs were master storytellers,” Cameron Craig told me during a visit to Polycom’s headquarters in San Jose, California. Craig should know. He’s worked for both men in black and today transfers the lessons he learned to his role as director of global communications for the video conferencing company.

Craig was a tour publicist for country legend Johnny Cash and also worked for Steve Jobs beginning in 1997, watching and learning for the next ten years as Jobs led one of the greatest corporate turnarounds in history. Both Cash and Jobs were performers and gifted communicators in their respective fields. Craig credits both bosses for influencing his communication skills and teaching him to master the art of story.

Johnny Cash and Steve Jobs were master storytellers

As storytellers, Cash and Jobs featured heroes and characters in their narratives. “For Johnny Cash, the hero of his songs was the underdog, the prisoner in San Quentin, the misunderstood youth, the Native-American. He gave the underdog a voice. Steve Jobs did the same thing for another underdog, the ‘mere mortal,’ the person who just wanted to get something done, but the technology was too complicated.”

Craig’s reference to ‘mere mortal’ refers to a line Steve Jobs often repeated. Jobs once told a reporter for The New York Times, “As technology becomes more complex, Apple’s core strength of knowing how to make very sophisticated technology comprehensible to mere mortals is in ever greater demand.” In the Apple narrative complexity was the villain and mere mortals were the underdogs.

Watching his former bosses connect through narrative gave Craig an understanding for the power of storytelling to establish a deep and loyal connection with an audience (music fans or product customers). “You’ve got to tell great, authentic and compelling stories to draw people in,” Craig says.

Steve Jobs and Johnny Cash paid obsessive attention to storytelling to make heartfelt connections with their audiences.

In this second week at Polycom, Craig saw Jeff Rodman, the company’s co-founder, speaking to a group of children at a ‘bring your kids to work’ day. “He had them captivated and I wondered, what is he saying to those kids that’s so interesting?” Rodman told the kids a story about the day he found a 95-cent book at RadioShack, tinkered with an idea for a compact audio speaker, and turned the idea into a $2 billion company with more than 400,000 customers.

The kids—and Craig—were glued to every word. “You have to tell that story a broader audience than eight-year-olds,” Craig suggested. They shared the story publicly and it was picked up by the Harvard Business Review with the title, How I Built a $2B Company by Thinking Small.

According to Craig, “If you search deep enough, we all have these stories inside us.” Craig believes in looking for the hook, the backstory behind a business, service, or invention. Once you discover it, you’ll likely find an audience that wants to hear it.

 

Carmine Gallo is a keynote speaker and author of The Storyteller’s Secret: From TED Speakers To Business Legends, Why Some Ideas Catch On And Others Don’t.

 

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