TOA Podcast Studio: Bestselling author Cal Fussman on the entrepreneurial power of storytelling
Cal Fussman has spent most of his life asking questions of prominent people and telling their stories. At age seven he posted a question in the mail to President Lyndon B. Johnson – and got a reply. He would go on to interview the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev, Muhammad Ali, Clint Eastwood, and Jeff Bezos for Esquire’s What I’ve Learned column.
These days Cal spends his time running storytelling workshops for entrepreneurs and hosts a weekly podcast called Big Questions.
As part of Samsung Next’s TOA Podcast Studio series recorded during the Tech Open Air 2019 conference in Berlin, Fussman was interviewed about the importance of storytelling and questioning. He shared some secrets and described how the newest generation of entrepreneurs has inspired him.
Epiphany at 60
Fussman has been writing his whole career, but it was only at age 60 that he realized he could be a mentor to entrepreneurs. He was helping Alex Banayan develop the writing skills that would turn Banayan into a bestselling business author while in his early 20s.
In return, Banayan pushed Fussman to get online, setting up a Twitter account for him and inspiring him to create a personal website. That eventually led to Fussman giving a talk on a boat filled with 4,000 entrepreneurs.
The energy on the boat was “unbelievable,” he recalls, with everyone looking to make connections. It was there that Fussman “started to discover that people in business could use better questions and it was after that I discovered how deeply companies needed their stories told.”
The customer must be the hero
One of the common mistakes companies make when talking to entrepreneurs is that they cast their company as the hero of their own story, Fussman says. A company can’t be the hero, he explains, because the hero is vulnerable.
He recommends that brands search for other ways to tell their story. One option is to cast the customer in the role of the vulnerable character and the company as the mentor that can guide the customer out of their predicament.
For inspiration, Fussman recommends the 1984 cult classic The Karate Kid. The film opens with Daniel, a teenager in trouble with a karate gang. Later, we meet Mr. Miyagi, who mentors Daniel in karate and helps him make the mental transformation from bullied teenager to manhood.
It should be no different when a company wants to tell its story, Fussman says. “The company is Mr. Miyagi, in a sense, looking for the vulnerable character who has troubles. The company’s product is the mentor that’s going to take the vulnerable character through the obstacles, to a transformation.”
Ask the big questions
Fussman continually emphasizes the importance of asking good questions. Asked what an entrepreneur could ask to gauge the passion of prospective employees, he responds, “That’s easy. Just ask the Dr. Dre question.”
He explains that when he was interviewing Dr. Dre, he asked, “What is the longest you have ever gone working on a project without sleep?” Dre answered, “If I’m deep into a project, I don’t even think about sleep. I can’t bear to lose a moment, because something creative might be there that will never appear again.”
Fussman says he honed his own questioning skills during 10 years of travel – a period that began with a life-changing meeting at Oktoberfest in Germany in his early 20s and ended when, on a bus in Brazil, he met the woman he would settle down with and marry.
After meeting a friend at Oktoberfest who had done some wayward traveling of his own, Fussman adopted the habit of boarding trains and buses without regard for the destination. After a while, he became good at identifying which seats to sit in based on the likelihood the person sitting next to him would invite him to their home.
“After a while, once I got into somebody’s home, they would invite their family, their friends, and their distant relatives over, and then those people would invite me to their homes,” he said. “People would want to listen to my stories, or they would want to tell me their stories.”
You have three seconds to connect with someone
Fussman acknowledged that times have changed and people nowadays might worry about their personal business being published online. But he still thinks questioning is the central part of the storytelling equation.
“It may be that connecting is just different now, because we’re getting isolated,” he said. “But, it’s good to know that, generally, you have three seconds to make a connection with somebody. In three seconds, they’re deciding whether they’re going to be open to what you have to say.”
Stay tuned for each new episode of the TOA Podcast Studio series on the What’s NEXT podcast feed. Co-hosted by TOA and Samsung NEXT, these sessions brought together a dozen of today’s leading minds in technology to share the human stories behind their innovations. To hear more, subscribe to What’s NEXT on Apple Podcasts, Google Play,Spotify, or via RSS on your podcast app of choice.