Storytelling: Learning from Olli Schulz
The man is not a gifted singer, but his album climbed to number four in the German charts. He is not particularly good looking and has a slight speech impediment, yet has a career in television. That’s because Olli Schulz has a talent: He is an amazing story-teller. What companies can learn from the German songwriter.
“Once, I flew to Vienna because I had a show there. When I walked through security at the airport, the scanner started beeping. The security officer asked ‘Got any razor blades on you?’ Look, I have the facial hair of a twelve-year old! I answered: ‘No idea.’ He said: ‘When I go on holiday, I know whether I have razor blades with me.’ To which I replied: ‘And because you’re so smart, you’re standing here checking my bags’.” – Olli Schulz tells and sings dozens of stories like this one. Always slightly anarchical, never boring, often with one or even more punchlines. Sometimes mean, but mostly charming. Like life itself. As Schulz once told German magazine “Der Spiegel”, it “doesn’t matter” whether the stories are true or not. The important thing is to create “magic”. And that even earned him his own TV show (“Schulz in the Box”), a chart-topping album and Germany’s most popular current radio show (“Sanft & Sorgfältig”) together with Jan Böhmermann.
Three keys to good stories
The ability to create magic is what most professional storytellers in companies lack. They tell success stories, in terrible newspeak and without a twist. You know how the story ends as soon as you read the headline. They interview the Chairman of the Board about merger synergies, and he or she in turn answers in the usual self-important, convoluted sentences. There are many YouTube channels filled with corporate videos devoid of dramaturgy. Telling stories well does not telling them as accurately as possible. And just because you call it a story, because you print or broadcast something, does not mean that it really is a story.
Stories need three key elements to be effective:
The storyteller and the story must suit one another, in their working, overall impression, and in the narrative tools used. Olli Schulz has an instinctive mastery of this, even using the Hanseatic dialect at times. Remaining true to yourself means showing emotions too. Audiences can identify with storytellers who appear vulnerable and share their concerns and needs. That is not often the case in business, where showing weakness seems taboo. Why is that, when customers respond with greater loyalty and affinity?
Dramaturgy is the art of telling stories well. First comes an introduction – our example starts with the sentence: “Once, I flew to Vienna…”. The narrator leaves his familiar surroundings. However, he is brought to an abrupt halt on his journey: at the airport, because of the alleged razor blades in his luggage. He stands his ground and faces up to the challenge. The punchline resolves the story, with the hero triumphing over the villain. The conquering hero continues on his way. This character-driven travel pattern, which follows Christopher Vogler’s theories, is one of the classic narrative forms, found in many Hollywood movies and fairytales. There is a crisis and a conflict to be resolved – the hero undergoes a process, he develops and changes. That creates tension, identification and leads to the desired deliverance. You can use this method to tell captivating corporate and product stories.
If you tell a story about yourself, you should always tailor your story to the intended audience and the situation. The storyteller and audience have an agreement, a promise that the story will fulfill expectations of it and the audience will not be wasting its time. If you bore someone for 15 minutes at a party without a punchline, you have lost their attention for good. You have to decide which aspects of a story are interesting for the audience in question, and tailor your narrative accordingly. Companies should bear this in mind before continue to fill their Facebook, YouTube or customer magazines with boring content.
Olli Schulz is a natural master of these principles, and has refined his storytelling in hundreds of shows. I’ll finish with one more sample: “I once heard one cameraman say to another: Is that supposed to be our new entertainer? You know what, Freddy Quinn, now that was an entertainer.” Self-deprecation is another narrative method that generates empathy.