Telling Better Stories

Bryan Haley

A compelling story invites the listener to take part in the journey. How can you tell a story better? What does storytelling in communication look like, anyway?

Show Notes

Summary

A compelling story invites the listener to take part in the journey. How can you tell a story better? What does storytelling in communication look like, anyway? In this episode, we talk with Robert Carnes, author of The Original Storyteller, to help us craft better communication.

Today's guest

Robert Carnes | Twitter

The Original Storyteller

Transcript

Jeanette:

As communicators, we're always telling stories. A compelling story invites a listener to take part in the journey. How can you tell a story better? What does storytelling and communication look like anyway? Today, we're talking with Robert Carnes, author of The Original Storyteller, to help us craft better communication.

Bryan:

Hey, church communicator, welcome to the Church Juice Podcast. I'm Bryan Haley, the Producer of Church Juice, and I'm joined as always by my co-host, Jeanette Yates. We are here energizing church communications.

Jeanette:

Yes, we are. And today, we have the famous, he's one of my heroes here, Robert Carnes. He is a writer, a marketer, and an author. His background is in church and nonprofit communications, and he now works as the Marketing Lead at GreenMellen, a digital agency located in Atlanta where Robert lives with his family.

Bryan:

Hey, Robert, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for coming on. It's been a while since I've seen you. So it's actually good to see you on the camera.

Robert:

Yeah, likewise.

Bryan:

Why don't you take a moment, just introduce yourself. So I met you, and you were in a role at the Orange Group. So why don't you talk about your journey and how you ended up at GreenMellen?

Robert:

Yeah, absolutely. Thank you guys so much for having me on. It's great to reconnect with both of you. A little bit about me, I started in church communications right out of college. Never thought that I would work at a church before. That wasn't something that I had planned, which in talking to people I hear is a common thing.

Jeanette:

Yep.

Robert:

Yeah. So I was a Communications Director at two different churches here in Atlanta for a couple of years. From there, moved into a nonprofit marketing role at another organization, Make-A-Wish, here in Georgia. So I bounced around a little bit and then landed at Orange, which is obviously the church curriculum and leadership and events organization that's also here in Atlanta, and worked for them for several years. So yeah, I've had a fun journey through marketing and communications. And during all of that time, I got the opportunity because I love writing and love storytelling, got the chance to write and contribute to several different church communications, blogs including Church Juice.

Bryan:

Of course

Robert:

So it's been so fun to be able to write for you guys. And yeah, that's all fueled me into the role that I'm currently in at GreenMellen, which is a web digital marketing agency here in Atlanta. And I do a lot of things with messaging strategies and email marketing and content marketing and all those different things for all the clients that we get to work for. So it's a little bit different from obviously being in the nonprofit church world, but I get to take the same skills that I learned as a jack of all trades at the church and be able to apply that to businesses.

Bryan:

That's awesome.

Jeanette:

So one of the things that you mentioned just now is how much you love storytelling, and a couple of years ago, you wrote a book called The Original Storyteller, which I read and loved. But I want to hear more about why you wrote the book. What made you want to write The Original Storyteller?

Robert:

Yeah, absolutely. Well, thank you so much for reading it. It's still a crazy thing to hear that people have actually read a book and purchased a book that I wrote.

Bryan:

Yeah, for sure.

Robert:

Yeah, it's still a little bit of an honor and humbling, but yeah, I mean, really, I wrote it because it was the book that I wanted to read. I was curious as to storytelling and the connection between why it's so universal, and you hear all those facts and figures about the research done on storytelling, how captivating it is. And so I was like, "Why is that?" I was just naturally curious and looked for books out there that explain that connection, especially within a faith-based background, and wasn't able to find what I was looking for.

Robert:

So I was like, "Okay, well I'm a creative person. I want to write a book. I'll go write that myself." And so I spent a year or so researching all the data about storytelling and all the facts and things that I could find. And I thought that a devotional was probably a really good format to present that, again, especially to a Christian audience. That was a nice way to break it down day by day and explain one different aspect of storytelling. And so yeah, it was the book that I wanted to read and so I wanted to be able to, in discovering all those things, be able to actually share it with others, which I was, again, very excited to be able to do.

Bryan:

Absolutely. And Jesus was obviously a compelling storyteller and the way that he spoke to his audience is something that I think communicators at all levels can learn from. I think often I'll hear from pastors who relate or try to relate to the way that Jesus communicated. But I think even communication directors and communicators at all levels have something that they can learn from how Jesus communicated. So, what is something that you think a communication director can learn from the way that Jesus communicated or that he told a story?

Robert:

Yeah. Well, I mean, just even to that point, the fact that Christ told stories when he was on the earth with us communicates that storytelling and creativity is an important aspect of God. It's a reflection of who he is and part of the basis of the book is the fact that God created us to be that way because we're created in his image. So in terms of what we can actually learn from how Jesus told stories, I mean, I think the biggest thing for me is the fact that he told stories that were relevant to his audience at that time. And the really cool thing, the reason why Christ and God are so good storytellers, is because not only were the parables of Jesus so relevant to that audience, they connected in a way that was really important then, but 2,000 years later we can sit and open up the Bible and read scripture and still understand and still get new nuggets of wisdom from those stories.

Robert:

So it's working at two different levels that it's relevant back then and it was really impactful to that audience, but there's also just these deep universal traits that can still be found 2,000 years later and probably hundreds of years from now that people can still get new wisdom and insights from those stories.

Jeanette:

Speaking of that thing that links all stories together, there are some things that a compelling story needs to have, and probably more importantly, some things that it doesn't need to have. Can you talk to us a little bit about, what do we need to include to have a compelling story and what do we need to not include?

Robert:

Yeah, yeah. So, great question. Let's take the two parts. So the four things that I think all great stories have, which obviously, I wrote the book, there's 30 different days each with a different principle about storytelling, so there's a wide range of things, but I usually boil it down to the four main points that I look for in a story. And they all start with C, not by coincidence. So they are character, context, conflict, and change. So character is pretty straightforward. It's a person who we can see the story through. It's a point of view that we can view the narrative as it happens. Context I look at as both the internal, the setting of when and where it's happening, but then even the external context of the story is, how it's being told, the medium that it's being shared through, whether that's in person or digital, but then also the audience that's receiving that message.

Robert:

Just like we said that the audience that Christ was communicating to was really, really important, and it's the same for us. We have to really take into account the audience, use those contextual clues to really drive what to include in a story. That's character and context. Conflict is one we often overlook because, obviously, it's uncomfortable, but that tension is really, really important because it's what drives the story. A story without any sort of conflict is just dead in the water and it doesn't really matter. And that actually leads to the last element there, which is change. So a character who's encountering conflict is naturally going to have to try to figure out a way to get around that, and so they're going to have to change as a result of that. So those are usually the four things that I look for in any story, because those are the things that actually identify something as being a story versus just a fun anecdote that you told somebody.

Bryan:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robert:

So the second half of your question was, what don't we include? And that's a little bit of a tougher thing because you can include just about anything within a story, but I think the best filter for what to exclude from your story is anything that doesn't actually help drive the story forward, all those kinds of extraneous details that are distractions for the audience. And, again, that's going to really depend on that context. You're going to have to really take a look and go, "Okay, well, this detail was fun and it was curious and I really like being able to pull that out of the conversation that I had with somebody at church," but it's really not going to matter. It's really going to be more of a distraction when I'm actually sharing this story. It's really something I need to leave out for now. So that's probably the biggest thing that I would say is something you should actually avoid when doing some storytelling.

Jeanette:

Well, and I think church communicators can think about that from, "Okay, I'm going to write a post. Then I want to make sure I include the relevant details." But I think also as we think about the story we're telling as church communicators about our church and what God is doing in the church, I think we also need to think, "Am I just posting this because I post every day and I need to post something today?"

Bryan:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeanette:

"Or is this going to be part of the story we're trying to tell as a church?" And so I think that's something that when I was working with churches a lot, I would say, "Is this event, is this post, is this service activity, is this furthering our mission, pointing to our vision, and somehow moving us along the journey? Or is it just a filler because everybody does this event during this time of year so we have to do one too?" And so I think that's something to consider is, if it's not pertinent to the story, if it's not going to move the plot along, as we say, then it's out.

Bryan:

How do you think a compelling story can help a communication person go beyond just the announcement and really transform? We want to drive to that last C, change. We want to drive everything we do toward change, so how can we stop doing just announcements and really start compelling people through storytelling in how we communicate as a church?

Robert:

Yeah. That's a great question because often just beginning is usually the hardest part. People hear storytelling and they're like, "Yeah, absolutely. I want to do that." All right, that sounds great.

Bryan:

Yeah.

Robert:

It's a buzzword that, again, it's universal, we all get it. We all intuitively understand the power of story. But, "Well, but I'm busy and I got to pump out the bulletin this week and I got to do the announcements. I have things I have to check off my list." So how do you reconcile those two things together? And that's a tough thing. It takes time. It takes intentionality of really sitting down and thinking it's not going to happen automatically. Storytelling is not just a switch you flip on or off.

Bryan:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robert:

It's an intentional practice that you've got to instill over time. So that's the biggest thing that I would just say is, just start small. Don't get discouraged if it doesn't happen right away or even if a story that you invest into doesn't automatically resonate. You need to take some time to invest, to really be intentional, and to get buy-in from your church leadership because they're often the ones driving a lot of those, "Well, we've got to have this event. We've got an announcement. We've got to share this from the pulpit," and all those kinds of things. And so being able to get their understanding and their buy-in even in the long run to go, "Hey, this is why we're doing this." You need to be the expert and the storytelling advocate on your church staff to be like, "Hey, this is why it's worth it. This is why stories can actually help connect people beyond just another event Facebook post or something like that."

Robert:

It really helps you dive a lot deeper, but know that it takes time, know that it takes investment and not to get discouraged in all the busy-ness because every other church communicator understands that. But it is well worth it in the long run.

Bryan:

Yeah, absolutely.

Jeanette:

The Original Storyteller, you published that about four years ago, is that right? Four years?

Robert:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). That's right.

Jeanette:

This is a hard question. What would you change if you could write it again?

Robert:

Well, it's really funny that you asked that and very appropriate because, you guys don't know this, so I'm working on an extended hardback edition, which I am holding up for you guys to see on the camera.

Bryan:

Nice.

Jeanette:

Love it.

Robert:

As I thought through last year, the third anniversary of when the book came out, I was thinking that there were some details in those 30 days of storytelling that I had missed and I was like, "Ah, I wish I'd included this little piece." As I went through the original writing, there were certain topics that I had to cut either for time or I just didn't have any great ideas around it. And so I went back and revisited those last year during 2020 and wrote a couple more entries and then found out that Amazon actually now allows self-published books like mine to be in hardcover form. And I was like, "Okay, well, maybe this is a good opportunity to re-release a second version with a couple more entries." So I am actively working on that now, and one little preview of one of those days, because one of the topics that I didn't get to cover in the original The Original Storyteller was humor.

Robert:

I really also have a passion for humor and comedy, and how can we actually use being funny to communicate the Gospel? So that's one of those maybe less important but oft overlooked things within the church. So, that was just one of the little topics that I wanted to explore a little bit more in The Original Storyteller. So I don't know when exactly it's going to come out even based on the release of this podcast, but be on the lookout for that soon. Yeah, I hope it helps people even more with their storytelling journeys.

Bryan:

Awesome. I'm excited for that.

Robert:

Yeah.

Jeanette:

Yeah, me too. I can't wait to read about the humor because there are so many funny, if you're really reading and paying attention, you're like, "Now, that's funny." Even if it's not necessarily within the story, but just the whole in the Gospel of John, when John is describing how he and Peter were running to the tomb, and he just has to let everybody know he outran Peter.

Bryan:

Who's faster? Right.

Jeanette:

Peter was ahead, but then the other one caught up and passed him.

Bryan:

It's subtle, though.

Robert:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). There's the humor in the Bible is very subtle, but yeah, that is a whole different topic that maybe is an episode for another time for us to dig into. But that's a whole other thing that I've, again, developed a little bit of a passion for and have written blog posts and all that stuff about the humor in scripture and in the church and all that stuff. Yeah, it's just touched on just a little bit in the next version of The Original Storyteller.

Bryan:

That's really great.

Jeanette:

I can't wait. Can't wait.

Robert:

Yeah.

Bryan:

So one thing that we've been asking all of our guests, as we wrap up the conversation, is just asking for some advice for the listener. So what is one piece of advice that you would give to a church leader, a communicator that is listening to this episode?

Robert:

Well, I think it really goes back to one of the conversations we were just having around getting started small and not being discouraged, how to build that. Because, again, you know the power of stories. I think there's so much evidence and so much breadth of knowledge about why stories are important, but, again, it's practically speaking, how do we implement that in the church? And I think one of the biggest ways to do that is by story listening. We talk about storytelling so much, and that's obviously a huge part of it, actually being able to share the stories, but you can't share the stories, especially those within your church, until you actually listen to the stories that are there. Oftentimes, it's hard to find them or, again, we don't know to where to look for the stories, but if your church has people, then you've got stories, right?

Bryan:

Yeah.

Robert:

Every church has got people, hopefully, so you've got some stories that are there to uncover. So you need to actually invest the time and even your own skill in developing story listening. And then as you do that, again, over time, developing a story library or a database, as you collect those, as you have conversations with congregation members and volunteers and kids who are coming to your VBS, all of those different things, you're going to naturally bump into all those different stories and piece them together over time. I mean, usually it can start as simple as an Excel Sheet or a Google Sheet, or something like that where you're logging all of those details, even the little pieces like the photos you grab or the snippets of video or the clips of audio, storing those in one place and collecting them together. That way, by the time you've got that event, that VBS to promote next year, you've got five audio clips of kids you talk to and you've got a bunch of pictures and you've got the testimonials of a couple of parents who you talk to.

Robert:

So you won't be announcing VBS as much as you will be sharing some of the stories of life transformation and change that happened at last year's VBS. That's how you slowly make the transformation from just blasting people with event announcements and actually, again, transition to telling stories about why it's worth coming to that event or joining us for worship or getting baptized or taking any of those actions within your church. It takes, again, an intentional investment of time to collect those things and then you can start actually sharing them out over time.

Jeanette:

That is such good advice. And I've heard it before and I'm just hearing it again, I'm like, "Oh yeah, that's so good." And really there's so much content there, it doesn't all have to be a long blog post or a long video that's a million minutes long. You can just have a photo that tells a story.

Robert:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeanette:

Like you said, an audio quote, a thing like that. So there's lots of different ways to use that content too, so I love that.

Robert:

Yeah.

Jeanette:

If someone wants to reach out to you with more questions, maybe they want to know more about The Original Storyteller and the reboot, or just want some help from you, how do they reach out to you? What's the best way to contact you?

Robert:

Yeah, absolutely. So, originalstoryteller.com is the best place to find out more information about the book, to buy a copy. There's even a couple of free resources that I threw up there. So that's a great place to get started, originalstoryteller.com. If you want to get connected with me specifically, Twitter and LinkedIn are probably the two social platforms that I'm active on the most. So feel free to connect or follow me @jamrobcar, J-A-M-R-O-B-C-A-R, which is James Robert Carnes, for those people. I don't know, I thought it was a really clever name.

Jeanette:

I'm glad you explained that because I'm like, "How do you even say that?" But now I know. I like it. It sounds super cool.

Robert:

It's unique enough to where it was available on all the social media channels and I could be consistent in my handles.

Jeanette:

There you go.

Robert:

So yeah, feel free. I think I'm on all the social channels, but I'm usually more active on Twitter. So yeah, follow me, send me a DM, whatever. I'm always happy to have conversations about stories or church communications in general.

Bryan:

That's great. And we'll obviously add that in the show notes for this episode and give the website for The Original Storyteller too. I think that's important. And I think I've given the book out to a bunch of Church Juice followers and different things throughout the year, so I think it's valuable and I have heard great feedback from it too. So thank you for writing it. Thank you for updating it. Looking forward to seeing the updated version online pretty soon.

Robert:

Yeah, me too.

Bryan:

Yeah, thanks for coming on today.

Robert:

Of course. Thank you guys so much for having me. This was awesome.

Bryan:

We love being able to talk with church communicators from across the globe and we believe every church and every communicator's story is unique and valuable. This week we'll be continuing today's discussion on Church Juices inside our Facebook group. You can join the group as well as get today's show notes by going to churchjuice.com/podcast.

Jeanette:

Church Juice's podcast is a listener-supported production of Reframe Ministries, a family of programs designed to help you see your whole life reframed by God's Gospel story. Church Juice is produced by Bryan Haley, with post-production by audio engineer, Nate Morris, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. For more information about Church Juice, visit churchjuice.com. For more information on Reframe Ministries and our family of programs visit reframeministries.org.