8 defaced Lego Duplo bricks. 3 red. 3 yellow. 2 blue. Each has a single word written in my best ‘medical professional’ handwriting. My weapon of choice was a black Sharpie pen. This act of vandalism happened in late September 2016. I called it the Story Stack. It’s creation almost killed my business. Now, a little over two years later, it’s the thing I’m most proud of. Here, for the first time, is the story of The Story Stack.
In June 2016, I found myself walking in a trance-like state up the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. That morning I was to stand on stage in front of an audience of marketers and business owners. I was to give a ten-minute talk to around 130 people. I’d already had a talk ready to go. It was about the importance of storytelling in marketing. I spent weeks planning it. Then, with one week to go, I ditched it. Instead, I decided to tell a personal story.
The reason I made the shift was fear. Despite having over 20 years of marketing experience, I felt like a bit of a fraud. Marketing superstars including Mark Schaefer, Ann Handley, Amy Schmittauer and Bert Van Loon were delivering keynotes. They had a right to talk about marketing. I, on the other hand, did not. Telling a personal story at a marketing conference was, in hindsight, the right thing to do. At the time though, as beads of sweat raced down my back, it felt like a huge mistake.
Taking to the stage and living to tell the tale was my main goal. But, I found that sharing that story moved people and in some cases helped people. More importantly, it inspired someone to ask me for help. His name is Steve. We talked after the event, and the following week he became my first storytelling client.
I worked with Steve to help him tell his founder story. In Superhero Movies, they call it the ‘origin story’. The final story was a really strong, personal story, but there was something missing. It gnawed away at me for a while. Then I realised what it was. I’d helped Steve create one story, but I hadn’t left him with the ability to repeat the process.
I realised then, that I didn’t just want to help people create one-off stories. I wanted people that I worked with to become self-sufficient storytellers. To do that would mean becoming an educator and not just a creator. I became obsessed with developing my own storytelling model. I spent a fortune on books. I watched videos online of people talking about storytelling. I consumed hours of TED Talks to see people tell their own stories.
One of the most influential books I read was Joseph Campbell’s, ‘The Hero With A Thousand Faces’. It’s a hard read, but it leads me to discover his concept of the Hero’s Journey. I started sketching out the first draft of my storytelling framework. The ‘stack’ concept came to me and I went in search of Lego Duplo. My boys were past the Duplo stage, but a search of the garage revealed a box of Duplo. One Sharpie pen later and I had the first physical version of The Story Stack.
I hit pause on the business to focus on turning The Story Stack model into an online course. I was blinded by the prospect of ‘passive income’ riches. This course was going to be the making of me. As it turned out, it was almost the breaking of me. It didn’t sell. In hindsight, it never had a CHANCE to sell because I didn’t have the audience.
Stopping initially to create the model and stopping again to create the online course meant I turned away a lot of business. So much so, that it put the future of the business in jeopardy.
I couldn’t believe how stupid I’d been. Rule 101 of being a business is to ‘stay in business’. I was beginning to doubt the model. If I’m honest, I couldn’t bring myself to look at it. Then, on the 1st December 2016, an email arrived – the subject line read ‘Storytelling Workshop’. The email was from the Student Association at Abertay University, Dundee.
On Monday 23rd January 2017, I delivered the very first Story Stack workshop. I hardly slept at all the night before. I felt anxious, not only was I under the spotlight but so was the Story Stack model. I enjoyed delivering the session, It went well and the feedback was positive. I spent time that evening making notes to improve the delivery of the workshop.
I’ve now had the opportunity to share the Story Stack Model on more than forty occasions. After each one, I reflect on what could make it better. It’s no longer about large changes, now, it’s all about small tweaks to make the experience even better the next time.
The most significant change was to ditch the presentation slides. Having no slides is so liberating. It’s created a much more engaging experience as a presenter, and, also for my workshop delegates. There’s more space for group work and conversations.
I’m proud of the Story Stack. It almost killed the business and stressed me out in the process, but the time I took out of the business to create it now looks like a great investment. My business is about more than the Story Stack, but it is, unquestionably the beating heart of what I do. It’s the difference between being a business that inspires people to tell stories and the business that helps people practically tell stories.
I’ll continue to teach The Story Stack model, and eventually, I’d love to see other people teaching it. To help that process I’m creating a card game version of my ‘Going to the movies’ workshop exercise. The Story Stack will also feature heavily in my first book, ‘The Client Story Playbook’ which I started writing this week. I’ll be sharing it with the World in April 2019.
One thing won’t change. During each storytelling workshop I deliver, the original 8 Lego Duplo bricks that started this whole journey will be with me.
I'm a storyteller, case study specialist and the founder of The Story Edge. I want more people to tell more stories. I write stories, teach people to do the same and generally encourage people to use storytelling in their business.