How I got here: Joel Johnson on the key to excellence in storytelling

Joel Johnson of Johnson & Roy shares his professional motto.

Principal and Co-Founder at Johnson & Roy, Joel Johnson collaborates with Fortune 50 automotive OEMs, governments and oversight bureaus, growth startups, and enthusiast and trade publications across the spectrum of tech and mobility.

 Beyond his role at this global consulting firm, he threads creativity as the visiting chief creative officer at the Missouri Star Quilt Company (MSQC). The quilt company has grown into one of the nation’s largest quilting and fabric retailers, boasting over 400 employees, a dozen retail stores in Hamilton, attracting 100,000 annual tourists, and nearly a million YouTube followers. 

The key to excellence in storytelling is:

An elder statesman of public relations once told me something very important, which I think probably says it best: “If you give your audience something they didn’t know they wanted, in a place they didn’t expect to find it—a bit of wisdom, a funny turn of phrase, a moment of inspiration—they’ll always read to the end of a paragraph even if you made up the story entirely.” He also told me I was smart and handsome, because reader? That elder statesman was me.

‘Storytelling’ is, like ‘imagine,’ a wonderful word creaking under the weight of corporate misuse. Storytelling is ancient, a critical tool of survival, vaguely magical, possibly hardwired into the operation of sapience itself. In the corporate milieu, it’s a word typically used by neophyte illusionists who haven’t had enough therapy to accept that selective eliding of the truth is intrinsic to the art.

The greatest story is that which requires no telling. An excellent story hides in plain sight, beckons but does not coax. It makes the reader feel as if they have become smarter of their own volition; if they share the story as their own you know you’ve done something right.

To tell a story that travels you must know your true audience and intuit the state in which they will find your message through empathy, statistics, or guile.

For example, my audience for this story, by dint of this venue, might be presumed to be professionals in the public relations industry, because they are the people who would read a Q&A with a public relations expert. There’s little direct benefit to me professionally to be known to public relations professionals reading a trade publication, so I can say virtually anything because my true audience is Google’s index spiders.

By participating in this Q&A (for which I am grateful, of course) my name is slightly elevated in Google’s ranking for a few terms that are peripherally related to things for which potential clients might search. Because I simply need to associate a few search terms with my name—things like ‘narrative strategy,’ ‘public relations strategy,’ ‘crisis strategy,’ ‘corporate brand strategy,’ ‘professional dyspepsia,’ etc.—I can even risk mangling a Sun Tzu quote and know that the robots will never intuit that I stole it.

The most rewarding part of my job is:

Meeting modest, clever, hard-working people who hope to make the world—or just their company—a better place but need a little help clarifying how they talk to their employees, investors, or customers. I learn much from them. They usually already know how to tell their story. They just need an editor.

The most difficult part of my job is:

Meeting people who are lying to themselves about what they hope to get out of brand and narrative strategy. There are few reasons people seek attention and almost all of them can be reduced down to the desire for fame, power, or money. People may even have good intentions in seeking fame, power, or money; I know I do. (It’s so that I can make enough money to stop working and putter in my workshop all day creating the world’s first USB-C butter warmer.)

But when a client has fooled themselves into denying their desires, it slows down the work. Unwinding these delusions is slow, painful, and, because of my own impatience (I’m working on it) often infuriating. I would rather help leaders who can say “I need to be more respected in my field so I can secure better capital terms” than those who maintain they are seeking attention because of a selfless, noble mandate to humanity.

The world’s a noisy place; speak clearly.

I stay on top of trends by:

I read newspapers. I read books and the occasional magazine. I read a lightly curated collection of sub-Reddits. I read Hacker News. I have a coterie of obnoxious(ly?) smart friends with varied interests who insert memes and trends into my brain via group chats despite repeated requests for them to leave me alone. I have hard-won good taste and, most importantly, know when to rely on the taste of others.

One way I maintain my work-life balance is:

I don’t. Work-Life balance is a myth in the United States. I do everything as quickly and thoroughly as I can until I periodically melt down. Then I try to learn from that meltdown and extend the interval between the inevitable next meltdown, through better planning or more rigorously applied discipline to exercise, sleep, or rest. There is no way for me to maintain the lifestyle I prefer, one where I engage in my interests and learn by falling down rabbit holes, going on trips, as well as have nice material things like a house and cars and motorcycles, without pushing my entropy-cursed body and mind to its ever-decreasing limit.

Don’t get me wrong: this is by choice. I could make different decisions. But life is so short and there is so much to do, so much to try, so much to learn. And I’m getting better at learning.

My professional motto/mantra is:

“Would you rather argue about it or would you rather test it?”

Isis Simpson-Mersha is a conference producer/ reporter for Ragan. Follow her on LinkedIn.

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