It’s primordial. Humans have been telling stories since we developed language. In fact, we probably developed language just so we could tell stories.
“You should’ve seen the freaking sabre-tooth cat that tried to kill me! But as scraped up as I am, it’s hurting more. I didn’t even see it coming. It jumped on me. Dug its teeth into my arm. Knocked me down. But I grabbed a stone and smashed its face. Wow — what a sound! I know I got it good, because it let go and slinked off into the woods. If that rock hadn’t been right there, I don’t know if I’d be here telling you about it.”
From there, storytelling as a craft developed.
Some of the most powerful people in primitive cultures — up through today — are the storytellers.
After all, what’s priest or other religious leader, but a storyteller? They tell stories that are supposed to tell us how to live our lives.
They persuade through story.
The same goes for any great marketer, speaker, salesperson, or other leader.
They tell stories that try to inspire action.
Now, there’s a big difference between story SELLING — as I teach in my Story Selling Master Class — and story telling. Namely, story selling involves telling story to get someone to take action.
But there’s also HUGE overlap with any effective story telling.
And so sometimes it can pay to dig into any compelling story, and learn its lessons you can use in telling stories for entertainment or persuasion.
My wife and I saw Hamilton this past weekend…
We’ve been fans for a couple years. And we’d LOVE to see it on Broadway.
But it just so happened to be in nearby Des Moines, Iowa on our wedding anniversary weekend, so we snagged up some secondhand tickets, and hit the road.
After two years of loving the story, going to see it live did not disappoint.
It’s an incredible story. Told with unmatched style and energy. It gave me chills — over, and over, and over again.
It’s well on its way to being a billion-dollar musical. On ticket sales alone. Plus there’s all the offshoot revenue streams of album sales, merchandise, licensing, and even potentially movies and more.
It’s one of the most powerful stories of our generation.
It could easily turn into the top-grossing Broadway musical of all-time.
(As of last month, it was #11, a little less than three years after its launch, at $364.5 million gross Broadway ticket sales. In 2016, Wicked earned the title of the fastest Broadway show to hit $1 billion 12-and-a-half years in. And The Lion King has been running for more than two decades, but now sits at $1.48 billion in sales.)
And so I was reminded of an article I wrote almost exactly two years ago, when I was first getting into Hamilton. (It’s also included as an appendix in The Ultimate Selling Story.)
Every lesson holds up today. So I thought I’d share again…
5 lessons learned from Hamilton about story selling…
My whole family has been into the Hamilton musical for at least the last few weeks…
A little late to the game for theater aficionados who knew about it before it opened in New York last year… But we’re in Nebraska. It takes time for news to get here. (Tongue firmly planted in cheek.)
Anyway, we picked up the Original Cast Recording a few weeks ago, and have had it pretty much on repeat around the house, in the car, and in our headphones.
Not only that, we bought the book, Hamilton: The Revolution, too. Co-written with the musical’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, it goes behind the scenes and into his head through the creating and staging of Hamilton, the musical.
It’s an incredible look into the brilliant mind of Miranda, a genius storyteller who deserves all the praise he’s been getting recently.
And, as we’re wont to do when we discover something new we like, we’ve also been scouring YouTube and the internet for stories and clips about the show, its creator, and anything and everything related to it.
(If you’ve ever heard the statement, “a buyer is a buyer is a buyer,” this definitely applies here!)
One of the things that I love about Miranda is how transparent he is about his whole creative process. He tells where his ideas come from. Why he does things the way he does. Where he was failing, and what changes he made to make it successful.
There’s a TON I could go into, and the lessons are many-layered and plentiful.
But I picked out 5 lessons that Hamilton and Miranda embody. These are about story telling. But telling a story in a way that totally captures the imagination of an entire culture. And with those lessons, I’ve included specific insights or reflections — where relevant — on how to use them in story SELLING as well as story telling.
- Follow your inspiration.
Lin-Manuel Miranda was reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. That’s when the idea struck. Alexander Hamilton embodied the hip-hop ethos.
He was an outcast, orphan immigrant with a feisty spirit. He wanted to fight for freedom, fight for the revolution, fight for anything. He talked fast and thought faster. He was a man of ideas and ambition. He was aimed for the top, and he was not throwing away his shot. (He also died in a blaze of glory, in a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr.)
Miranda saw so many parallels between Hamilton and his favorite hip-hop artists, he actually assumed someone had already found a way to tell Hamilton’s story through hip-hop. By the end of Chapter 2 of the biography, he was on his phone scouring Google, looking for any evidence.
When he discovered nobody had, yet, he called the ball. He would create a hip-hop concept album to tell Hamilton’s story. A couple songs written, he got a chance to perform a demo track at The White House. That went over so well, he couldn’t NOT keep developing it. And it grew and grew until it was obvious: this would be Miranda’s second Broadway musical. (He’d gotten a Tony for his musical In The Heights at about this time.)
It all came down to Miranda finding inspiration in a story, and wanting to tell it in his way. So many of my biggest-selling promotions have hit me the very same way. I find a story with a connection to the offer I’m going to make. I follow the inspiration to tell it. And it’s a winner.
- Find your big idea, your concept.
This is so closely paralleled to the previous point that it barely counts as its own. But it does also stand alone.
Miranda was inspired by Hamilton’s story. But that’s because it was such a great story already.
Orphaned and poor, but obviously ambitious and headed somewhere, his community sent him from the Virgin Islands where he was born (a stop in the slave trade) to New York to make a new life for himself.
As an immigrant with a chip on his shoulder, he was always fighting to prove himself.
And it was this drive, this ambition that shaped our early government, and our early financial system.
But all along the way, he faced challenges, toils, and strife. He made a lot of waves, upset a lot of boats, and made a lot of enemies.
And eventually, it was his undoing.
Orphan immigrant comes to America to make a name for himself. He fights his way to the top, even in the midst of political infighting, the consequences of his own infidelity, and personal squabbles. He succeeds in shaping our early government and financial system, before one of his feuds comes back around and ends it all.
Miranda recognized an incredible story line. Then, it was up to him to tell it in the most compelling way.
- Give meaning to what you’re doing.
The concept and big idea are what are going on on the outside. But there’s a whole other level to the best stories, and that’s the inner conflict and narrative. This where a story gets its meaning.
Hamilton’s story was one of the underdog orphan facing the odds and triumphing over them.
This is the most universally compelling internal journeys in all of storytelling (notice how nearly every Disney story is about an orphan, or at least someone who has been abandoned).
What’s the inner journey of the character or narrator of your story? What change takes place in their thoughts and feelings by the time the story is done?
While the big idea and concept have to be compelling in themselves, it’s the emotional sub-narrative that will make the story stick.
For selling, the emotional hook is everything.
Find a way to make your character compelling, interesting, attractive to your prospects. Get them emotionally involved. To overcome adversity and abandonment is a very effective way to do this. Maybe we’re not literally orphans, but perhaps we’ve been orphaned in another way.
It’s been said many times that people buy based on emotion, and justify it with logic. This is what will make people buy.
- Use the most compelling voice.
Miranda didn’t set out to write a hip-hop musical.
In fact, when he decided to tell Hamilton’s story, he wasn’t even meaning to write a musical at all.
But he saw a parallel. Hamilton was a critical part of the American Revolution. He lived it from his formative years until his death.
Hip-hop is the music of a cultural revolution.
In Miranda’s mind, Hamilton was hip-hop.
It didn’t matter that there were hundreds of years between. Hamilton embodied the essence of hip-hop.
So Miranda decided to write Hamilton, in hip-hop.
It evolved into a show.
In hindsight, it’s absolutely a first-of-its-kind.
I read an analysis last night that Hamilton has over 20,000 words. No other popular musical has come close. The speed of ideas, words, and lyrics is off-the-charts for Broadway. The average words per minute is nearly double that of the closest major musical. And at its fastest, lyrics are coming at you at about 200 words per minute.
But, to Miranda’s point, you couldn’t tell this story in quite any other way.
When you find the right idea, and the right inspiration, go with whatever voice makes the most sense. I’ve written in many different voices, to fit the unique context.
It’s all about matching the story to the market to the offer to the media. Find the sweet spot, and go in it. Because to do otherwise just wouldn’t make sense.
- Build tension through struggle and conflict.
The final lesson I’ll share that’s woven throughout Hamilton is conflict.
No story feels complete without conflict. Without fights of some kind. Without having to overcome great odds.
At least no epic, emotionally-moving story does.
Hamilton fights to overcome his poverty. His orphan status. His immigrant background. He fights to overcome getting pegged as a secretary, when he really wants to fight. He fights for the girl. He fights against slavery.
He fights for his ideas, to get them implemented during the war. Then he fights to be a part of Washington’s new government. He’s fighting for the presidency, when he suddenly has to fight to keep any shred of his reputation because of past mistakes.
He fights in his writing, and he fights in real life.
He fights an old acquaintance who suddenly stole his Father-In-Law’s senate seat, then he fights that same acquaintance in a pistol duel over ever-increasing beef between the two.
All along, there is conflict, tension, and unrest. And that’s exactly what makes us root for him.
In selling, fighting against the same conflicts and struggle your prospect faces instantly aligns your interests with theirs. Plus it makes your story more interesting.
Maybe you don’t need to do it at quite the same level in selling as you do in straight story telling (unless it’s relevant)… But if you adopt the mindset while not forgetting that your real job is to sell, you can probably push that line without pushing it too far.
Final thought: Selling is entertainment.
I don’t think I’ve clearly stated this, in this way, before.
When we make a sale, it’s because our prospect gets positive feelings from their interaction with us.
That is, in essence, the goal of entertainment.
Now, I’m not advocating offbeat humor ads that forget their role as a selling tool. But if you entertain while delivering a sales message, you’re going to get a lot more buy-in than if you don’t.
That’s why studying fiction, theater, and other story telling can be such a boon to your selling.
Because when you learn how to capture, hold, and carry the attention of an audience, you’ve gone a long way toward getting that audience to take action and take you up on your offer.
It’s available now through BTMSinsiders — and one of the most powerful and popular courses I offer.
Yours for bigger breakthroughs,