People don’t buy a product, they buy the story behind it, says communication expert Carmine Gallo. He offers his thoughts on how a good story and great connections can help build a brand.

Communication coach Carmine Gallo grew up steeped in story. With an Italian-born father who was held captive for five years during World War II, all young Gallo had to do was listen. Over and over, he heard his father recount the challenges of life in prisoner-of-war camps, and stories of overcoming them. Through these narratives, Gallo realized the power of crafting a vision of perseverance and hope.

As president of Gallo Communications Group, he now helps leaders at companies realize the impact of emotional resonance through storytelling. With his latest book, Five Stars: The Communication Secrets to Get From Good to Great, Gallo follows up on his previous bestsellers: Talk Like TEDThe Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs and The Storyteller’s Secret.

In Five Stars, through insights from neuroscientists, economists, historians and business leaders, Gallo teaches brands and individuals to stand out by mastering the ancient art of persuasion. In a world ruled by globalization, artificial intelligence and automation, Gallo argues that using language to build consensus is more important than ever.

There’s good reason that we’re all wired for story, says Gallo. Citing anthropologists, he points to prehistoric tribes sharing information with the group around a campfire, marking a key milestone in human development. In any group dynamic—tribal, familial or professional—stories inspire progress, and knowing how to craft them is a powerful tool. Expanding on that skill, Gallo breaks down this ancient and especially current competitive edge.

According to your research, leaders who master the art of storytelling are more successful. With so many demands on time and attention, any tips for prioritizing that skill?

Small-business owners of all kinds are obsessed with automation, putting out fires, increasing revenue, attracting customers and retaining employees. While understandable, managing all of that can consume most of their time and energy. It’s important to remember that the story comes first. People don’t buy a product. They buy the story behind it. If you can link your product to your audience’s hopes and dreams through story, you build a strong natural connection.

You have to stand out in some way. You have to layer your core competency with effective communication. Emotional connection is becoming more valuable, not less.—Carmine Gallo, author, Five Stars: The Communication Secrets to Get From Good to Great

What inspired you to build on that idea in Five Stars?

I was reading a lot of Thomas Friedman on globalization. He makes it clear that it’s not good enough to be average anymore, or even good. You have to stand out in some way. You have to layer your core competency with effective communication. Emotional connection is becoming more valuable, not less. I think that’s counter-intuitive but so interesting.

In Five Stars, you highlight Aristotle’s three pillars of persuasion: logical structure (Logos), the speaker’s character and credibility (Ethos), and emotional connection with listeners (Pathos). Pathos is the key element, you say. Why is that, and how does it work?

My first book on communication skills was about the presentation secrets of Steve Jobs. He understood better than any business leader how to take a product and sell it by infusing it with emotion.

Apple’s “Think Different” ad campaign was not about the product. It highlighted the most inspirational people in history and gave you the feeling that you could be that, too. Indirectly, it said: These tools will help you get there.

Over the last 20 years, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has developed the capacity to map brain activity in real time. Citing research on subjects engaged in storytelling, you reference studies that show brain waves syncing up between speakers and their listeners. How does this connection relate to growing a business or a brand?

As Warren Buffet has said, in the Agrarian Age, if you could plow a field faster than the farmer next door, you wouldn’t make considerably more wealth. In the Industrial Age, if you could make a widget faster than the person next to you on the factory floor, you wouldn’t gain considerably more wealth. Now, thanks to the wide reach of technology and its platforms, anyone anywhere who is a little better and faster at expressing his or her idea can connect with others instantaneously and stand out globally.

In Five Stars, you highlight loglines for movies and TV shows. These are the single sentences that sell an idea at a Hollywood pitch meeting. How can entrepreneurs learn from these powerful phrases, where concision is key?

Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin secured early funding largely because of the clarity of their mission: to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” That kind of sentence takes a lot of time to develop. Like Steve Jobs said, simplicity is hard work. It takes a lot of thought and creativity to summarize and condense a complex idea or product, but it pays off. People gravitate to clarity and simplicity.

Also in Silicon Valley, Jeff Ralston—a partner in the seed accelerator Y Combinator, an early investor in Airbnb and Dropbox—says that he and his team look to invest in founders with great ideas and storytelling to match. “Storytelling isn’t a soft skill; storytelling is fundamental,” he told me, which also drove me to write this book. He tells entrepreneurs, “You’re not trying to sell me something. You want me to join your journey.”

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Cara Cannella

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