Your Brand, Your Story: Find Your Narrative And Make Your Profit

Photo courtesy of Donald Miller

[The following is the full raw transcript for a LEADx Podcast interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity.]

Kevin Kruse: Welcome, everyone, and thank you. Thank you for coming back to another episode of the LEADx Leadership Show, where we're going to help you to stand out and to get ahead as a leader.

Now, before we dive into today's show, I need you to take one minute and go onto iTunes or wherever you're listening to this podcast and just leave a quick rating or even 30 more seconds and leave a one-sentence review for the LEADx Show. It's the single best favor you could do for me. It helps us to build the LEADx family.

Now, friends, I always talk about how much I love storytelling. I've read a million books on it. I talk about the difference being able to tell a story has made in my life. I geek out on Joseph Campbell and The Hero's Journey, the monomyth. Storytelling is so important when it comes to giving a speech, selling anything, persuasion. Well, today, I talk to somebody who is an expert, a global expert on storytelling and branding, marketing. We talk about aspirational identity, the zero-to-hero story, being the guide, not the hero, and his seven steps to build your brand. Today's quote is, “Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world,” from Robert McKee.

Our guest is the CEO of StoryBrand, a company that helps businesses clarify their message so customers engage. Combined, his seven books have spent more than a year on the New York Times bestseller list. He teaches a marketing workshop down in Nashville, Tennessee. His newest book is Building A StoryBrand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen. Our guest is Donald Miller. Donald, welcome to the LEADx Show.

Donald Miller: Great to be here.

Kruse: Now, we're going to talk about your new book in just a minute, but I've got a tradition where all of the guests get the same first question because I like failure stories. I think failures are stepping stones. There's no win or lose, only win or learn. I'm hoping you'll tell me one of your best failures, one of your best mistakes.

Miller: You can choose from a myriad of stories here, Kevin. I'll tell you one that's funny. I got on an airplane once out of Portland, Oregon, where I live, and I was going to speak in Indianapolis, Indiana that night. When I got on the airplane, the gentleman next to me was reading my book. Now, that had never happened to me before.

Kruse: I'm still waiting for that to happen to me, Donald, so I'm jealous.

Miller: Tell you what, it was really … And what do you say, right? That's my book. I don't know what to say. I wanted to offer reading it to him as the audio book or whatever, but I didn't end up saying anything. I just said, “Do you like that book?” He said, “Oh, you know, I love this book,” and he kind of hemmed and hawed a little bit and talked about it. After about five minutes, I realized it's probably too late to tell him. He didn't realize, so we went the whole two-hour flight to Denver where I had a … was going on to Indianapolis. He was actually flying to Indianapolis to hear me speak, and he still—

Kruse: Oh, no.

Miller: —He figured it out when I walked on stage that night. The failure aspect of it was the more he talked about my book, the less it made me want to buy it. He was a fan, and he really loved it, but he wasn't using language that made me want to buy it, and so I realized I'm great at writing 300 pages. I'm terrible at writing the paragraph on the back of the book. I'm just not good at summarizing things, and that's how you sell things. You sell things by stating something that makes people go, “Hey, I want to know more,” or, “I want to learn about that,” or, “Can we get together and talk? Can I get coffee with you or can I call your office?” I was terrible at it, so that was a complete failure.

Evidence of that was the conference that I was running at the time was half full. I'd sold millions of books, but the conference was half full. I could only get about 350 people to come see me. Well, if you're selling a bunch of books, you got great content, but you can't … You're not a good salesman. That failure, the realization I'm terrible at this is what led me to figure out the framework that later became StoryBrand, and it changed everything.

Kruse: Yeah. It's changed everything in your company. You saw me grab a pen to start taking notes because I thought that was so interesting, even the way you phrased it is you wrote a great book, he said it was a great book, but he wasn't using the language that would sell the person next to him on an airplane.

Miller: He said the worst thing you can say. He said, “You'd have to experience it or you'd have to read him to understand.” That doesn't make me want to buy it, right? I took ownership of that and made some changes, for sure.

Kruse: I think I first heard of you on a podcast almost two years ago. This is the first time we've spoken to each other live. I immediately went out … I was so captivated by what you do and your message, which we're going to explore here, I went out and bought your books. I've been following your online stuff. I've been a big storytelling geek because I'm looking past you over at my bookshelf. I've got a dozen books on monomyth and archetype, even how to write novels, all of that. I'm just a marketing junkie and trying to push my own stuff.

When I came across your work and your focus on using story, the thing that most resonates with humans through forever to get your message across, to build the brand, I mean it just really resonated with me. Your brand-new book is Building A StoryBrand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen. If I didn't already talk about the big idea, do a better job of it, though, so what's the big idea of the book?

Miller: Well, I'll elaborate on what you said. I've got all those books too, Robert McKee and Blake Snyder. My favorite, I don't know if you've heard of it, is Christopher Booker's book, The Seven Basic Plots. It's my favorite. You're going to love it. You'll thank me later unless you've already read it.

Kruse: I haven't read that. I've heard about The Seven Basic Plots, and I haven't read it yet.

Miller: So good. It's a big old thick 800-pager, but it's a good … It took him 34 years to write that book.

Kruse: Wow.

Miller: How would you like that for a deadline?

Kruse: I wouldn't.

Miller: Anyway, and what people don't realize is that stories are actually quite formulaic, that there are basically seven story formulas. A lot of scholars would say that. I would agree with them, seven basic story formulas. What that means is, for 2,000 years, really smart people have studied the best practices on captivating a human being's attention. Your brain spends about 30% of its time daydreaming unless you're listening to a story. If you hear a story, if somebody starts a story in a movie, or in a novel, or whatever, Garrison Keillor on the radio, your brain stops daydreaming. It will stop daydreaming until that story is done. There's no other tool that does that. There's no other method that captivates a human brain like that.

I got started thinking about story from the perspective of writing books, and then writing a screenplay, and then as a speaker. I wanted to use this powerful tool to captivate people's attention. It is so formulaic. It is so formulaic that my wife hates going to movies with me because, at some point, I elbow her and say, “That guy's going to die.” If you know the formulas, you know what's going to happen. It doesn't ruin movies for me, actually, because I still get lost in them, but these things are formulaic.

The question I asked at the beginning of StoryBrand, or at least the seed that grew into StoryBrand was how can I use these formulas to help a marketing filter, to create a marketing filter that will cause people to pay attention to what I'm trying to sell? That ended up being incredibly valuable for my company. We doubled revenue for four consecutive years and then slowly opened it up to other companies. Procter & Gamble was the first company that called us and was interested, and we talked to them and did a few other things. Berkshire Hathaway, and Ford Lincoln, and all those … and the White House called under the Obama administration, so we knew we were off to the races.

It's been kind of shocking, but I wish I could claim myself as some kind of genius. These things have been around for 2,000 years, as you know. There's all sorts of interpretations on them. It is definitely an art form. It's like studying chords. You still have to write the song. You can know all the chords, but you still have to write the song, and a lot of that is intuition. There are some really almost mathematical formulas business leaders can use to get customers to pay attention to them. If they do that, they'll beat the competition. If they don't do that, and the competition does it, the competition will beat them. People don't buy the best products and services. They buy the ones they can understand the fastest.

Kruse: Tell me about this framework. I mean you summarize the phrase as SB Seven. On a short podcast, we won't be able to go deep into each of these, but walk us through them.

Miller: The SB Seven framework, the StoryBrand framework is … It amounts to the seven things that happen in almost every single story. Those seven things are you have a character with a problem that meets a guide who gives them a plan and calls them to action that either ends in success or failure. Those are the seven things that always happen in stories, and so each of those has a bit of a business paradigm shift to it. The character, we have to define exactly what that character wants. What that means is we got to know Jason Bourne wants to know who he is. We got to know it at the very beginning of the movie. If we don't know that at the beginning of the movie, it doesn't posit a story question, and the audience starts to daydream.

How that translates to our business is you have to define something that your customer wants. What is it that your customer wants? You have to talk about that over and over in the same language, making it really crystal clear what it is your company offers. Most companies are too vague, and then a whole other set of problems is companies offer 23 things that a customer wants. If you have a movie that Jason Bourne wants to know who he is, and he wants to lose weight, and he wants to run a marathon, he wants to marry the girl, and he's thinking about adopting a cat, you're going to lose the audience. There's too many things that the character wants, so you have to define something your character wants.

Every customer is coming to you because you solve a problem. That's the only reason they're coming to you, and we want to define that problem really clearly. If we don't define that problem clearly, they don't understand why we matter in their lives, and that's a huge principle, right? Then we want to position ourselves as the guide in their life. The biggest StoryBrand paradigm shift is never play the hero in the story. Always play the guide.

There's two reasons, real quick, you don't want to play the hero. One is the hero is a weak character. They are ill-equipped. They are unwilling to take action. They're not sure they can get the job done. You don't want to position your brand as a hero. The hero's strong in the last three to nine minutes of the movie. That's it. Everything else is iffy.

Kruse: They're getting their butt kicked for the first two hours.

Miller: They're getting their butt kicked or the story's no good, so yeah, you don't want to position yourself as a hero saying, “Hey, I've got a company. I don't know exactly what we're doing. I could use some help. I'm scared to death. Will you do business with me?” It's not a very good pitch.

There is another character in the story, though, that is extremely strong, and that character is the guide. This is Yoda, Haymitch, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Lionel in the King's Speech, the guide. The guide has been there, done that, already conquered the demons in their past and is here only to help the hero win the day. You don't want to position yourself as the hero because the hero is weak. You also don't want to position yourself as the hero because, if you're a hero and I'm a hero, we're in different stories, and you, by playing the hero, you remove yourself from your customer's story psychologically. The guide enters into the customer's story, which is exactly what you want to do, so you want to position yourself as the guide in the story.

It doesn't mean you can't talk about yourself, but you only want to talk about yourself in two ways. One is empathy, “I understand my customers' pain.” You can say that all day long. You can even say, “I understand my customers' pain because I used to be in that pain myself.” That's a wonderful thing to say as a brand or as a leader. What you don't want to do is hem and haw all about your story, and your grandfather started the company, and you're trying to improve your great places to work metric, and you're trying to double your revenue. That's just you playing the hero. Nobody's interested.

The next thing you want to do is demonstrate competency, and that is that you have what it takes to help the hero win the day, so you want to express empathy and demonstrate competency. If you do that, you'll position yourself as the guide in the story, and the reason you want to do that is because the guide is the person that the customer is looking for. They're looking for somebody who understands their pain and can get them out of it, so we want to position ourselves as the guide.

Then we want to give the customer a plan. I get into this at length in my stuff, but you want to given them, basically, three steps to take in order to business with you or in order to resolve their problem. People are looking for baby steps, step-by-step plans. You see it, actually, in movies where Luke Skywalker has to, one, fly his X-wing fighter up to the Death Star, two, go down into the trenches of the Death Star, three, shoot the laser or the photon torpedo through the hole in the Death Star, blow it up. There's a plan.

Kruse: When you said three, you mean three. You don't mean few. You mean three.

Miller: No, I mean three. If there are four steps to your plan, you'll have slightly less engagement, and five will be an … it will be a lot less engagement. The brain really likes three because two represents binary, and three represents eternity or infinity. The brain isn't the most rational, amazing thing in the world. I mean, actually, it is, but it likes to simplify reality. It likes to simplify reality.

We have a mantra at StoryBrand, “If you confuse, you lose.” A 12-step, 9-step, 4-step, all that kind of stuff plan is probably really a little bit too much unless people are going to consider it a lifestyle. On a website, you really just want three steps. For instance, here's three steps you could put … Most business leaders listening to me right now could use these exact three steps. One, let's have a session where we just listen. We listen to each other. I understand your goals. I want to know what you're dreaming about. What are you trying to accomplish here? Two, I'll give you a custom strategy or a report that will help you execute and get what you want. Three, I'll hold your hand, and we'll execute this thing together.

That's a three-step plan, and that's what most businesses are doing anyway, but when you break it down into the three steps, the customer actually looks at that and says, “Well, this is easy. This is not much of a mystery on how this works, and I can take these baby steps. In fact, I'm not even at risk until we get to the part where I execute.” You just do a lot more business that way.

Then you want to call your customer to action. I'm amazed. We interact with 3,000 businesses every year. I'm amazed at the percentage of them, it's double-digit percentages, that don't call their customers to action. They don't ask for the sale. There's no Buy Now button in the top right of their website. That's costing them money. It's costing some of them millions of dollars because they're just not asking for the sale. Your customer can't read your mind. You need to tell them exactly what you want them to buy and exactly what problem it will solve in their life.

Then, finally, the sixth and seventh points are success and failure. You have to tell them what their life will look like of they do buy from you, the happy vision, the smiling people, the resolved problems, and you have to tell them what life will look like if they don't buy from you. They're going to continue struggling with whatever it is they're struggling with, their health is going to decline, their competition's going to beat them in the marketplace, on and on and on. Those are the stakes in the story. If you remove the stakes from the story, there is no story.

Now, I would actually argue that those seven messaging categories are the only seven messaging categories that you should be using, period. If you're talking about anything else in your messaging, you're likely losing sales.

Kruse: I start of by saying we don't have time to go deep on these, but I can't help but go deep on a couple. I've got all these follow-ups. First, I know you talk about, every story, there's a problem that needs to be solved. We need to think about our customers, our potential customers as having a problem. Now, you actually say there's three levels of a problem. Tell me more about that.

Miller: In stories, there are three levels of stakes in the game. There's external, internal, and philosophical. External is usually the physical problem that we're trying to resolve. Internal is the way that physical problem is making the hero feel. The real story is about the internal problem. It's the fact that King George feels like they chose the wrong person to be king. He's got this external problem of a stutter, but it's causing him to wonder whether or not God has chosen the wrong person to … Can he meet up to his father's legacy? That's the story that, if you've never been king, you identify with this story because we've all been there. The internal problem is what the story is really about.

Now, here's the business principle. Companies tend to sell solutions to external problems, but people buy solutions to internal problems. People buy products because it's going to resolve a frustration that they are experiencing, not the physical problem or whatever it is that you resolve. It's the way that physical problem is making them feel. That's what they are looking to resolve, so if we want to make more money, grow our company, expand our brand, we want to start talking about our customers' feelings, their frustrations.

Kruse: Can you give me an example from a client or just a made up example?

Miller: Sure. Think about any infomercial, you've seen. I'll do the most base example. It's not just a woman who is using a frying pan, and the egg is kind of sticking to the … Watch her face. Watch her reaction. It's as though she's found out there's no meaning in the universe, right? They are trying to personify this frustration that we are experiencing.

Let's say a lawn care company comes to me and says, “Mr. Miller, your lawn looks terrible.” Well, if I'm an engineer at NASA, and I don't care whether my lawn looks good, I have no emotional connections whatsoever with a nice lawn, I'm not going to buy from you. The only way I'm going to buy from you is if I'm embarrassed, and I don't have time to get to it, and I'm frustrated. You see, if there's no internal problem, you can't get the customer to buy anything.

We tend to go out and say, “Hey, we can sell you really great product X at half price,” and that's decent, but really, we'd have a lot more luck if we said, “We've got a really great product. And you know that frustration that you are currently experiencing because you don't have that? That will end the day you install this product.” That's going to sell more products, which means we don't have to lower our prices. There's more of an allure. We think people are going to do the math if we just tell them about our product, they're going to do the math and figure out the frustration. They're not going to. You have to actually tell them, “This is what you're experiencing, and it will go away if you use our product.”

Kruse: In my case, with this podcast, so we talk about leadership, management, a lot of young managers are listening in, and so, on a surface level, if I'm saying, “Hey, come listen to this show because we're going to teach you how to give feedback better,” or, “You don't know how to coach your employees. We're going to teach you how to coach employees,” that's a very external kind of thing. What, internally, they want is pride in being a good boss or to overcome imposter syndrome because they don't think they belong in the office as a boss. It's more that we need to address, right?

Miller: That's right, yeah. It's the feeling that, “I'm alone in this,” or even the feeling that, “There's some piece of wisdom that I'm missing out on, and I don't know,” and also the imposter syndrome. There's about 50 directions you can go, but never neglect the internal frustration that your potential customer is experiencing. That's what they're trying to resolve.

You mentioned something really interesting. It's another part of the framework, and that is the aspirational identity. If you want to be one of the world's leading managers, that's an aspirational identity, then you would listen to this podcast. That's another thing that you can actually offer is an aspirational identity.

Kruse: I'm circling this. That's gold. That is gold. Okay, now I want to challenge you on or understand better the idea of you don't want to be the hero yourself. I can't remember who it was, but there was another guest just about a month ago who said that she was giving talks that she thought were going great, but was getting sort of lukewarm response. She credited you with turning it all around because she stopped making herself the hero and started making them the hero.

I didn't say it to her at the time, but see, here's where I struggle with that from just a position of a professional speaker-writer person. I often hear the advice, I often give the advice that everybody, for personal branding, you need your zero-to-hero story. I will say that the hero end of it gives credibility authority to the audience. The zero or the start of the story makes you relatable, “Oh, this isn't just this person was born with a silver spoon in their mouth. They used to be just like me, and I now want to be where they are today.”

Miller: That's right.

Kruse: But you're saying, “No, no, no. Don't cast yourself as the hero.” In a company, I totally get that. What about the solopreneurs, the consultants, the author-speaker people, all those people who live in Nashville?

Miller: Actually, we're sort of saying the same thing.

Kruse: Okay.

Miller: It is okay to share your story as long as you are saying, “I used to deal with the very pain you're dealing with, and now I don't. I resolved that problem.” In a very real sense, that's a zero-to-hero story. In a story, the guide was once the hero in another story, and so, really, what you're doing is you're telling your backstory in the context of the hero's story. That's what's actually happening.

Kruse: That's it. You're right, so you're the guide telling your backstory.

Miller: Right, you're the guide telling your backstory. What I don't recommend doing is saying, “Listen, I'm an architect, and I really want to build your building. I've built a lot of terrible buildings that have fallen down. I still can't get one right, but I really want to try one with you.” That's a zero-to-zero story. You never became the hero. The hero has to be in that backstory.

What I don't recommend, though, is, if you're a speaker, coming to the middle of the stage and saying, “Hi, my name is such-and-such, and it's great to be with you today. 10 years ago, I was blah, blah, blah.” I don't recommend that. I think your personal part of the story is probably only going to be about 30 seconds of the whole talk. What I would recommend doing is not even saying your name.

When I give a talk, I walk to the middle of the stage. I go to the microphone, and I say, “I'm here because we're all probably suffering with the same problem. We're wasting enormous amounts of money on marketing, and I mean enormous amounts of money. You are losing money every day even sitting here because your marketing is so bad, and I want to talk about why.” That's a story because everybody there goes, “Oh, my gosh. I have that problem, or if I don't have that problem, I bet I'm about to find out I do have that problem.”

Kruse: Oh, it's very emotionally triggering, yeah, yeah, just the way you said that.

Miller: Right, and so maybe 10 minutes in I'll tell the airplane story. You asked me to tell a little bit of a failure story. I told a specific failure story about marketing and messaging. It was strategic. I'm not here talking about my wife or the fact that we're doing fun things or … I really want to keep it customer-centric. Now, what's interesting about that is you can give that talk, and people will say, “Boy, that guy was amazing. I feel like I know him,” and you don't know anything about him. He really only told your story, and you thought he was talking about himself the whole time, but he was actually only talking about you.

Kruse: That's great.

Miller: Yeah. You can give an entire talk only talking about you, but there's only two things I would want you to talk about from a StoryBrand perspective: the pain that you used to experience that your customer is currently experiencing and how you got out of it, and how life looks now, and how they can too. In other words, you're telling an aspirational … Even as you said, you're telling an aspirational story about their path that they can follow that you have already taken. I think the way that you explained the zero-to-hero story, that's actually exactly what I would recommend saying in a talk. We're probably just using different semantics. That is the story that they guide tells. The story that the hero tells is wandering and rambling.

Kruse: It takes up the whole movie, which you don't want to do.

Miller: It does. I mean I had to suffer through a day of Ted Talks once. A buddy of mine gave a Ted Talk, and he … The speakers were coming in later and later, and so I got there an hour and a half before my buddy. Speaker after speaker just got up and did … You got 18 minutes. They would spend seven of those minutes talking about themselves. What was happening was these people weren't professional speakers. They'd never done it before. They went to the center of that stage, and they felt insecure, and they had to defend their right to be on that stage. I wanted to go shake them and say, “If somebody put you on that stage, you defend nothing. You have the right to be there. Get on with the talk.”

Kruse: Yeah, yeah, right, own it.

Miller: Stand in the authority that you were invited, that your life story is beautiful enough you were invited to be there. It just didn't come off right.

Kruse: Selfishly, I'm talking about a single speaker-author guy stuff, but let's zoom it on out. When you have a larger company with multiple audience segments, this has to get really hard. Even as I think about LEADx and some of the training stuff, and maybe you're in the same boat, there's a side that's sort of like business to consumers, so there's individuals that could come and learn stuff, and there's … That's one message, but I'm also hoping there's some vice presidents of HR out there who might want the bigger buy, and it's more an enterprise-type thing. Do you just sort of pick like, well, our number-one audience is this audience, so we're going to craft the story to that person or that avatar, or do you somehow segment the message in another way?

Miller: Well, you segment them, and so we would recommend making … You'd take these seven messaging categories, and you create what we call a brand script. You want to create a brand script for your overall brand, the giant brand, and then a brand script for each division of the company and maybe a branch for each product within each division or each segmented audience. We do it all the time. Almost every company has to do it.

Right now, just got off the phone yesterday with Mars Petcare, a global pet care company, about a billion-dollar pet care company. They have Pedigree, and Banfield Hospitals, and all sorts of stuff for pets, but the overall brand script is a better world for pets, so everything that they sell fits under the category of a better world for pets, and you … It slowly gets more specific as you go down.

Most people listening to this podcast will just be greatly benefited by just creating a coherent brand message for their brand, period, and then you almost don't even need to do a whole lot more than that but get those seven messaging categories down and repeat them over and over.

Kruse: Last question for you, this is great. You're letting me wander all over the place.

Miller: I love it.

Kruse: What about the person who's interested in their personal brand, but they're not the solopreneur person? They work in a big Fortune 500 company, they're a mid-level manager, but they want to climb the corporate ladder, so they're thinking about their brand, their reputation, et cetera. How can they take some of this approach or even the SB Seven to think about what they're putting out in their own company environment in terms of their personal brand?

Miller: Absolutely. I would throw away any thought of a personal brand. If you're trying to climb the corporate ladder, what I would do is I would look at the people who are above me, the managers who are above me, the people who really hold the keys to my career. My job is to serve their objective, so I'm looking at my boss, my boss' boss, maybe my boss' boss' boss. I want to create a little list of the problems they are trying to resolve. What is a win in their life, not just their business, their life? Do they want more time? Do they want a better marriage? Do they want to meet their metrics in 10 key points? What do they want? Then I would become an expert at resolving their problems. In five years, I think you're running that company.

Kruse: Well, I think that's great, and a reminder to the audience, I'm looking at the list again, as you're thinking about your boss, and boss' boss, and one level above that, their problems don't just say, oh, they're trying to increase sales by 2%, which is the external problem. They have that emotional problem that they're trying to … so whether it's reduced stress, get a … feel good about their performance, you got to realize what makes them tick on the inside.

Miller: Yep. Yeah, and you've got to realize they're trying to resolve some sort of internal frustration. A lot of times, depending on how they're wired, they're trying to look good in front of their boss, and so what I'm trying to do with my boss is make my boss look really good in front of their boss, and I don't need to be very loud about that. I think 90% of people are incredibly kind, incredibly generous, and they see you serving them faithfully, and they're going to cut you a break down the road. Those are the sorts of people that we're looking for.

Every time I go into a company, I know what my job is. My job is to make that company a lot of money, that's my job, and to ease their marketing frustrations, their marketing budgets, and help them feel less crazy about trying to get the word out about their great product. Those are my two objectives. It is not about Donald Miller. I'm not looking for a standing ovation or a pat on the back. Those are their problems. You get in the business of resolving people's external and internal problems, you're going to have job security for a very long time.

Kruse: Great. On that note, Donald, what's the best way for our listeners to find out more about your work and, of course, your new book?

Miller: Well, I'd love for everybody to buy the book. It's called Building A StoryBrand. You can get it at Amazon or Barnes & Noble, wherever you buy books. My company is at

Kruse: We'll, of course, put the links in the show notes and in the articles. Donald, thanks for coming onto the LEADx Show.

Miller: Kevin, thanks.

CEO of LEADx, and NY Times bestselling author, of Great Leaders Have No Rules and Employee Engagement 2.0. Get a FREE demo of the LEADx platform at