Change Your Questions, Change Your Story with Cal Fussman and John Livesay
Questions and storytelling go hand in hand. In this episode, New York Times best-selling author, Cal Fussman, and top sales keynote speaker, John Livesay, explain to us the importance of queries when telling stories in relation to your brand. Cal shares to us how he stumbled upon the value of asking the right questions from his interview with Mikhail Gorbachev. Going further, John shares the four elements of a great story, giving examples of brand marketing where brands allow people to embrace their messages and put it in their hearts. By understanding the importance of creating quality questions, you can change your story, and soon, amazing results follow.
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Change Your Questions, Change Your Story with Cal Fussman and John Livesay
An Interview With Mikhail Gorbachev
I was looking at this slide that Victoria put up and I asked her about it like, “How did that come about?” She said, “It was a mistake. I did it last night.” She was playing around with a question mark and then something unfolded on her computer that made her see it that way. I said, “That’s not a mistake. That is perfect,” because questions wrap around storytelling. Questions are at the root of storytelling, so if you change your questions, you can actually change your stories. Let’s start with an example. Let me take you back to February 2008, New Orleans. Mikhail Gorbachev was in town to give a speech about abolishing nuclear weapons. This is years after he was the leader of the Soviet Union and I’m sitting in a hotel lobby waiting to meet him. I got an hour and a half to ask him any question I want in order to fill up Esquire’s What I’ve Learned column.
I was well-prepared, ready to go, and then the phone rings. It’s the publicist. “Cal, I’m sorry to tell you, but your interview with Mr. Gorbachev is going to have to be cut short.” I’m concerned. This column that I wrote was not in my words, it was in the subjects’ words. They couldn’t be just any words, they had to be wise words. There was no way for me to fluff this up and fill it out. I need at least an hour to reach into Mikhail Gorbachev’s soul and extract the wisdom to fill up that column, at the very least 45, minutes. I said, “How much time have you got?” They said, “Ten minutes.” I said, “I can’t do this in ten minutes. That’s impossible. You promised.” They said, “Cal, a lot of very important people have joined the list to see Mr. Gorbachev. There’s nothing I can do about it. Do you want the time or not?” I take the time, but as I hang up the phone, I’m feeling worse about this and here’s why. I know I’m going to walk in that room.
We’re going to shake hands, we going to exchange pleasantries. We’re going to be seated and that’s two minutes right there. Plus, my questions got to be translated into Russian and his answers back to English. That’s another two minutes right there. This interview is down to six minutes before I even start, but you can only do your best. The point in time arrives. The publicist escorts me into the conference room. I walk in and there he is. Gorbi looked a little older than I remembered. He was about 77 at the time and I’m looking at his eyes and I know he’s expecting my first question to be about nuclear weapons, Ronald Reagan, world events. I looked right at him right off the bat, I say, “What’s the best lesson your father ever taught you?” He’s surprised in a happy way. He doesn’t say anything. He looks up searching and then it’s as if he’s seeing a movie of his childhood playing on the ceiling.
He starts to tell me a story, a story about the day his father was drafted into the army to fight World War II. The Gorbachev’s lived on a farm, and so he starts describing the trip from the farm to the town with a family who would see the father off. He’s doing it in beautiful detail. I’m sitting there thinking, “This is amazing. I had done all the research, I read the books, magazine stories, everything. I never heard this story.” Another side of my brain screams, “Wrong question. This interview is going to be over before the Gorbachev’s even get to town.” They do get to town. When they do, Mr. Gorbachev takes them into a little shop and he buys them all ice cream and Gorbachev is remembering this ice cream. He’s remembering the aluminum cup that this ice cream was served in. He’s talking about this ice cream as if this aluminum cup is in the palm of his hand.
The more he talks about this ice cream, it’s as if we both have this realization that this cup of ice cream is the reason he was able to make peace with Ronald Reagan and end the Cold War because this cup of ice cream contains the memory of what it was like before his father went to war. It’s the dread of not knowing whether he’d ever see his dad again. He’s looking at the ice cream. I’m looking at the ice cream, we look up at each other and we’re thinking, “This is deep.” Knock on the door. It’s the publicist, “Mr. Gorbachev, time for the interview. We’ll have to conclude.”
Gorbachev looks to publicists, looks at me, the translator and interpreter and says, “No, I want to talk to him.” The publicist is surprised and backs out the room. The conversation continues and it goes deeper. Ten minutes later, another knock on the door. This time the publicist comes in a little more sheepishly, “Mr. Gorbachev, Cal, it’s time.” Gorbachev says, “I want to talk to him.” The publicist backs out the room. The conversation continues, goes deeper. Ten minutes later, another knock on the door. This time the publicist is in full out panic. “Mr. Gorbachev, Cal. Please, the day has been planned to the minute. I don’t know how we’re going to get through it. There’s a long line of people outside to meet Mr. Gorbachev.” Gorbachev looks at me with this shrug that says, “What can I do?” The interview concluded and I got the material to fill up the column. It’s a huge success, and when I thought back on why, I realized if I hadn’t aimed my first question for his heart, I never would’ve gotten that insight.
Question Jukebox: Making Good Connections
If I’d gone in there with a canned question, I would’ve gotten a canned answer. The interview would’ve been over in six minutes and I never would have known what was possible. I could just have come up on stage and say, “Do you want to make a good connection?” Here’s how you do it. Try to aim your first question for the heart, then go to the head, then follow the heart and the head on a pathway to the soul. It wouldn’t have been the same because it’s the story of Gorbachev that you’re going to remember. All the stories come back to a question. I want to give you an idea of how I come up with questions so that you can use them in your own companies. My methodology is what I call the Question Jukebox. Everybody was certainly old enough to remember what the jukebox is, those vinyl records. I look at those records as questions. I do all the research and then after I’m done with the research, I sit down with a pad and I let my curiosity go, one question after another. I can write 200 questions. Right before the interview, I’ve got the questions in a pad. I walk around with my pad. It’s not like I’m memorizing the questions.
I’m inhaling them like taking them in by osmosis. Because when I walk into the interview, I don’t want to show up with a pad that the subject is going to be leaning over wondering, “What’s question number two?” I want to be completely free. I want to be in a conversation. I want the questions to be spontaneous. With that approach, when the conversation starts, I am listening to what the subject is saying as if my ears are satellite dishes because what that subject says is going to hit the buttons on the jukebox to bring up my next question. There are going to be times where I hadn’t thought of the question, but it flows naturally. Several years ago I started to speak and I went out and I told the Gorbachev’s story. I told the story about the jukebox and I came to this realization that going out on an interview with somebody like Gorbachev, Robert De Niro, George Clooney or Muhammad Ali, is very different from working in a corporate setting. I went to do a conference with Frank Blake, former CEO of Home Depot and now chairman of the board at Delta Airlines.Sometimes the bold questions that we ask each other and potential customers can start with a simple, 'What if?' Click To Tweet
I’m interviewing him and he says to me, “Cal, you don’t understand. In a lot of companies, people don’t like questions.” I said, “What?” He said, “Very often in a corporate setting, questions means somebody has failed. Why did you mess up? People don’t want to hear questions.” He had managed to turn the whole culture around so that questions came to the forefront at Home Depot, which is why he was so successful. I put that in my pocket. Two other things happened. All this will allow you to put your own questioning format together. I’m sitting at a breakfast table with Larry King. I had breakfast with him every day for years, and he’s telling a story about Jimmy Carter. If you remembered back in 1979, 1980 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. It was up to President Carter to do something. What was happening was the Olympics were approaching in Moscow. What President Carter did was say, “Please leave.” When they wouldn’t, he basically said, “We’re going to boycott your Olympics.”
This created some turbulence because a lot of people said, “Why are you taking it out on the athletes? They’ve been training all their lives and now they don’t get their moment in the sun.” They went through with the boycott. Years later, Larry’s interviewing him and this subject comes up. A caller phones in and says, “Did anyone ever think that we could have said, ‘Why not send the athletes? When they win the medals, they don’t go up on the podium. They get the medal elsewhere. We would hear the Star-Spangled Banner but see nobody on the podium. That would tell the world how we felt without penalizing the athletes.’” Larry turned to him and said, “What do you think about that?” Jimmy Carter said, “Nobody asked the question.” That told me that there are great questions around all of us. I met this guy at MIT, his name is Howard Gregerson and he’s worked in corporate environments. The two of us getting together was like two lion trackers, one from South Africa and one from Kenya coming together and telling old great stories because we had such agreement on this.
That’s how I know what I’m saying is going to work for you. He has this philosophy that called a question burst. When you have a problem in your company, what you can do is you can get three or four people who have very different opinions, sit them at a table and have a whiteboard with somebody ready with a marker. You can explain the problem to them, very short, two or three minutes. You ask them to ask questions to solve the problem. Blurt them out, nobody answers. Send them out one after another. Nobody criticized them. Let them go and they all get written up. You can do it again with four more people, and then again with four more. After a while, you’re going to have more than 100 questions and then you’ve got your own questions. You can look down the list and you can find the nuggets. Those nuggets will give you the opportunity to prepare to improvise. We’ve seen it time and again, a situation arises as it did for Maureen. She improvised and changed the whole culture. By preparing the right questions, you’re going to be prepared to improvise as Maureen did or like I did with Gorbachev or like John Livesay is going to do because we’ve been going around asking everybody, “What is the biggest problem you would like to see solved? If we can wave a magic wand and solve it, what would it be?” John has some answers for you.
Staying Calm During Crisis And Stepping Into The Unknown
Picture this. I am nineteen years old, sitting on my lifeguard perch in the suburbs of Chicago on a hot July night wearing zinc oxide on my nose, mirror sunglasses, a whistle around my neck and feeling like I was hot stuff. Usually, I would blow the whistle and tell kids not to run on wet cement. This particular day, I saw a twelve-year-old girl on the top of the high dive looking down with a great deal of fear and that alone made me sit up on the edge of my perch. She jumps off and I’m watching and she’s staying underwater about two seconds too long, four seconds, five seconds. She doesn’t come up and I thought, “Do I have to go in?” She gets up and she’s flailing around and I thought, “She’s too panicked for me to even throw her a buoy. I have to dive in.” I dive in, pull her to the side. She’s coughing and choking, but I know she’s going to make it. That event happened several years ago and yet the lesson I learned has taught me everything from my entire career, which is do not panic, stay calm in a moment of crisis.
Kathy opened with a personal story of where she was on 911 and I and Cal have the honor of closing the summit. I wanted to give you that framework for your first takeaway. What if you started your meetings with a story and ended your meetings with your team with a story? You’re going to be memorable; you’re going to tug at people’s heartstrings and they’re going to want to connect with you. I learned this lesson in my career back in 2008 when I’d been selling advertising for Conde Nast for fifteen years and the economy was going down because there was a mortgage crisis and luxury advertising was coming to a halt. Sure enough, I got the phone call from my publisher in New York when I was in LA saying, “We are laying off everybody in the outside offices and 30% of the New York staff and we need you to be out in 24 hours.” Knowing that the CMO joke about being fired, I literally have gone through it, but my lifeguard training kicked in and I said, “Don’t panic, stay calm.” I said, “Don’t you need a status report to know where the ad should run and what page and what issue?”
“That would be great, but everyone else is so angry, that they’re storming out.” “I’m not going to do that. I’m seeing these people get married and have children. I care too much about them.” Little did I know that one decision would impact me two years later. I had to go reinvent myself. I had only been selling print ads. My friend of mine said, “It’s like the silent movie actors. Some of those actors could make the transition from silent movies to talkies and some could not. You have to decide if you can learn how to not sell print but learn digital.” As technology is constantly changing for you as marketers, you have to constantly be saying, “Am I going to stay stuck in the silent movie era of marketing or am I going to embrace the digital talkie marketing personalization part of it?” Two years after being laid off, I got a phone call to come back to Conde Nast.
They said, “We have a new editor. We’ve lost a lot of accounts since you’ve left. We need someone who could sell print and digital.” I wouldn’t have even been qualified had I not gotten a job at The Daily Beast selling digital ads. I thought, “If I come back, I’m not coming back with one day of fear.” I’d always lived in fear, what if the magazine goes out of business? What if I don’t make my quota? I said, “I’ve already experienced that and I did not just survive, but figured out how to make it.” Sometimes the bold questions that we ask each other and potential customers can start with a simple, “What if?” One of the accounts I had to win back with Guess jeans and what I said to them was, “I’ve noticed that your 30th anniversary is coming up in the same year as W Magazine’s 40th anniversary. What if we did a joint celebration? I noticed Drew Barrymore has been on the cover of W and she’s also been a guest model. We could have those photos at an event invite celebrities.” They liked that idea so much that they created a special supplement every page was a different guest model through the years inserted into the magazine’s 40th anniversary. I ended up winning salesperson of the year, not just for the magazine, but for the entire company against 400 other salespeople.
As I was standing holding this award, I thought to myself, “I’m the same person whether I got laid off or I’m winning this award.” That’s what’s given me my through-line as Victoria was talking about. My purpose is to help as many people as possible get off this self-esteem rollercoaster where we only feel good about ourselves. Our numbers up or the stats are good or whatever it is that the criteria are and bad about ourselves if things did not turn out right. When we realize that who we are is bigger than what we’re doing for a living and we can bring our humanity to it, we are truly free to go on this Hero’s Journey of taking some risks.Start embracing the idea that you're all artists and you're looking for the right canvas to pull a message in. Click To Tweet
We all got the opportunity thanks to Kathy and Coca-Cola to see Hamilton. The concept there is that Lin-Manuel was on his own hero’s journey. He had written a few songs, had been invited to perform at The White House and took the risk. Talk about stepping into the unknown. This is before the Tony Awards and the standing ovations and performs that for the Obama’s not knowing if they would like it. He said, “If they didn’t like it, I was going to scrap the whole idea.” What kind of courage can you look inside to find your hero’s journey of stepping into the unknown of trying a new campaign that seems like a crazy idea and it’s not completely polished yet?
Four Elements Of A Great Story
A great story has four elements to it. I’m going to give you the four elements and then we’re going to talk about how Hamilton uses those four elements that will allow you to start thinking about this for your brand. The first one is exposition. Paint the picture. Give us a sense of time. Then there’s a problem. In the hero’s journey, usually, there’s a mentor and guess what? You’re the mentor. Your brand is the mentor. Think about how Converse was the mentor to provide the music or the canvas for people to express themselves. There’s a solution and here’s the secret sauce to any good story, the resolution. What is life like after that happens? If we think about exposition, there are so many stories, but the story I want to focus on using that structure is Andrew Hamilton getting married.
The first problem is he’s an immigrant, he’s poor, he’s attracted to a woman who he has a soul connection to, but her selflessness is that she’s going to put her sister’s feelings ahead of her own. She introduces him to her sister instead of pursuing that. He has to get her dad’s permission and he’s not the best prospect. That’s the first problem he has to overcome. The next problem is he’s never satisfied. Do you see how that’s foreshadowing for both his strength and his weakness? He has the problem of not being able to resist someone seducing him and then he gets blackmailed. The stakes keep getting bigger and bigger. He decides to tell the truth anyway.
His wife and her sister find out. Did you catch the line in the show where she literally said, “I am writing him out of my narrative?” That’s storytelling. How many times do we make a mistake with a customer? They go, “I’m never going back there. I’m writing it out on my narrative.” You think, “This is hopeless, how am I ever going to get somebody back?” As if all that’s not bad enough, then his son gets killed defending his honor. You think, “This is horrible.” Yet he approaches his wife and there’s that moment when he asks for forgiveness. She gives it to him and he starts crying and you’re thinking, “Are they ever going to get back together? Can she ever forgive him?” Part of that is the solution that he does overcome all those problems. Of course, he ends up getting killed.
Sales Funnels And The Journey Of The Customer
The resolution which moved me in the story was when she decided to write herself back into the narrative. She decided to create a legacy and be the first woman to start an orphanage in New York and in the eyes of the children, she sees her husband. That’s why that show is so powerful and so successful. You know the structure that you can start saying “Is our commercial or our online messages using this format of exposition, problem, and solution resolution? Do we have resolution going on in our marketing messages? If we don’t, what can we do to get it in there?” Where do your customers see you on this ladder? We always talk about sales funnels and the journey of the customer. Have they never heard of your brand? Maybe you have a new sandwich and they don’t know about that. Maybe you move up to insignificant.
I was talking to Maria from Dairy Queen, my childhood favorite ice cream. She said sometimes the challenge is not the external communication, but the internal communication with the tech people, getting the franchisees to embrace the new technology, the franchisee’s like, “You got technology stuff that’s insignificant to us. We’ve been doing fine without it.” She is the marketing CMO who has to take that up. How am I going to get them at least interesting to that rung of the ladder? If you look at this in terms of dating you can feel invisible to somebody you’re attracted to. This is like that. I don’t know what’s worse in dating, insignificant or invisible, but let’s say you say, “I’m selling life insurance.” That’s insignificant to me. I’m not in the market for it.”
You get up to this interesting rung of the ladder and I think of this like being in the friend zone at work. It’s your endless conversations with people and they never pull the trigger. They go into your funnel but they don’t buy. How did we lose them? Stephanie was telling me about a campaign they did and they got some people to participate in it, but then they didn’t come back. They weren’t up where they found this so irresistible. We can move up from interesting to intriguing. Literally, give them something that they haven’t seen before and then you get to irresistible.
If you have these clients that are in your loyalty programs, they’ve obviously felt like you’re irresistible, but what are you doing to keep them irresistible? Are you taking them for granted? It’s like, “Somebody else has come up with a loyalty program for a restaurant or a movie chain. I’ll jump ship.” No, you need to be focusing on what are we doing every day to stay at this irresistible rung because those brand ambassadors are so valuable. I mentioned that I was a lifeguard, so you can imagine what a thrill it was for me to get to meet Michael Phelps. How did that happen? He’s not exactly walking around the streets of LA. When I was selling advertising to Speedo, they were coming out with a line of sportswear. I said to them two magic words, “What if we treated this sport like it was high fashion and we had a fashion show around the hotel swimming pool and you could invite Michael Phelps because he’s a spokesperson for you?” They liked it and I got some unusual advertising and I got to meet Michael Phelps.Questions are at the root of storytelling, so if you change your questions, you can actually change your stories. Click To Tweet
I said, “Michael, everyone says you’re so successful because you’ve got these huge feet that are like fins and this huge lung capacity, but I’m guessing there’s something else.” He said, “Yes, John. My coach said to me, ‘Michael, are you willing to work out on Sundays?’ I said, ‘Yes, coach.’ He said we got 52 more workouts in a year than the competition.” Here’s your Michael Phelps takeaway. What can you do with your marketing that your competition hasn’t thought to do or isn’t willing to do? Two examples, Banana Republic. When I was working with them, they said, “We’ll never going to be Neiman Marcus, but we’d love to elevate the brand experience. What if we allowed some people in our flagship stores like Rockefeller Center to charge their phones while they’re shopping? It’s an unexpected perk. We’re going to define luxury as something you don’t know you need, but it’s unexpected.”
The Story Of Your Brand
They did that and sales went up 10% because people would wait for their phone to stop charging and keep shopping. When I was working with Lexus, they said, “We’re going to connect the Bluetooth phone to the sound system. The anticipation of the need is you’re blaring your music and the phone rings, you can’t hear it. We’ve connected the two so when the phone rings, the volume goes down.” They’re like, “I didn’t know I needed that, but that’s a nice luxury.” It’s those unexpected things that your competition hasn’t thought to do or isn’t willing to do. This concept of, “Does everyone have a story?” Every brand has a story. When you figure out your story of origin and how you can bring that to life and tap into evolving the story, then people start thinking, “I thought I knew that brand story, but maybe there’s more to it.”
I’m going to tell you an example, a Reebok commercial that ran on the Super Bowl. It has nothing to do with shoes. Be more human, be a better father, better brother, brother, sister, a better wife. It’s that emotion. If you look at the same year the Nike Super Bowl commercial, it’s an eleven-year-old boy in Ohio who’s overweight. It’s not your typical athletic shoe advertising, but it’s about celebrating life’s little victories. He’s getting out and trying. The story with Nike is especially interesting. Their revenues went up and someone said the brand has evolved from being a fitness brand to being a health and wellness brand. Much like Hamilton, they took some chances. They did not talk less as he was instructed to do. They talked more, they took a stab and said, “We’re putting our stake in the ground. We’re going to make a social impact ad. It’s going to alienate some people, but it might also attract some new people.” Sure enough, it did both and it also won an award.
I’m going to give you four genres of storytelling. You now know how to tell a good story. You’re going to learn how to have four genres of stories, a movie that uses it and a brand that uses it. The first one is rags to riches. That’s Cinderella, isn’t it? She was poor little Cinderella in the corner and now she’s off to the ball. The rags to riches story is Johnnie Walker scotch. He used to be poor Johnnie Walker and now he’s this. When I was talking to Merlin with Aunt Anne’s Pretzels, he said, “She started off selling the pretzels at the farmer’s market and now we’re in shopping centers and airports.”
Even his biggest challenge is there’s less traffic in the malls. They’re using technology to have pretzels be part of gift-giving. That’s the genre of the history of that particular brand. For the second one is the quest. The movie that does this is The Lord of the Rings. A friend of mine got a job at Amazon. They recruited him away from Netflix and the hook was Amazon’s going to turn The Lord of the Rings into the next Game of Thrones. The storytelling is a recruitment tool. We were joking about In-N-Out Burger. There was a video that has over 700,000 views of the perfectly wrapped In-N-Out hamburger in New York. In-N-out was only sold on the West Coast.
Someone saw that, it’s like, “Has In-N-Out opened in New York?” They got all excited and the customers became brand ambassadors and started telling this story of this quest of how did this get here? They posted it on social media. The sixteen-year-old girl who had flown from San Diego to New York had brought four of them on the plane and she accidentally dropped and she didn’t put any sauce on it, she didn’t want it to get mushy on the trip. She had the receipts. She was literally showing, “This is my hamburger because it doesn’t have sauce and this is the date I bought it and here’s my plane ticket.” It’s that awareness that somebody would care about an In-N-Out burger so much that that would become a quest to find out how it magically appeared in New York when it’s not sold there?
The genre is rebirth. My favorite movie that does this is It’s a Wonderful Life. Prudential is using this genre. They said, “Your retirement is your third act.” It’s a rebirth. It is not just a continuation of middle age. When I was talking to Dennis at Domino, he said, “We used to be known as a pizza company who has some technology.” Dennis shared with me, one of the challenges is, how do I track top tech talent against Amazon? The rebirth of the brand is we are an eCommerce company that happens to sell pizza. It sounds like Amazon is an eCommerce company that first happened to sell books. Changing the story and the genre not only helps you with your customers but helps you attract and retain great talent.
The final one is staying at home or travel. If you travel, you go on this amazing adventure and then come back and tell all your friends. Guess what movie that is? The Wizard of Oz. If Dorothy had listened to Aunt Em and gone in the cellar, she would never have had that amazing adventure. When I was talking to Ken at Regal, he was saying to me, “My biggest challenge is how I get more people to keep coming to the movies more frequently?” They have the choice to stay home and watch Netflix or they have the chance to travel to the movie theater have this amazing experience. Remember when people used to go to the movies when Sex in the City came out and all the women would get dressed up like the characters and going to the movies was an event? Downton Abbey is another huge success from a television show.When you tug at people's heartstrings, they open their purse strings as your customers. Click To Tweet
This concept is if you provide the excitement and the buzz, you can get people to leave home and go on this adventure. Expedia, of course, says, “Book your trip on Expedia, have an amazing adventure and come back.” Four genres, four movies and four customized brands are using these genres to help their marketing messages, to help attract and retain talent. You can use this storytelling, the power because now you have the tools to tell a great story. The last story I want to leave you with is when I had the opportunity to meet Francoise Gilot who is Paloma Picasso’s mother. I’ve met her in her apartment in New York. She was in her late ’70s at the time and she said, “In the ’40s there were the shortages of canvases.” She was in her twenties when she met Picasso and he was in his 60s. They would literally have such an urge to create that they would paint over their paintings. She said, “The painting you’re looking at here is the fifth one I did. My favorite one is the third one underneath.” No one’s ever going to see that and yet the story lives on a little bit by me telling that story. As marketers, how many times are you asked to paint over your masterpiece? You have the masterpiece of marketing plans and then there’s competition or new technology or something’s changed and the budget is cut.
You start to think of yourself as artists who tell stories and paint masterpieces and allow your clients to see themselves in the story. You make sure that your customer is the hero and you’re the Sherpa helping them climb the mountain, or you’re Yoda in Star Wars. Like the Converse example, the shoe becomes a canvas for them to express themselves. The more people see you in the story that you’re telling, they see themselves in that story and that you’re the mentor and the Sherpa, the more they’re going to want to do it. I want to invite you to start embracing the idea that you’re all artists and you’re looking for the right canvas to pull that message in. More than ever, the world needs good, kind, happy messages. All of your brands are all about making people feel better. If you get up in the morning and realize that that’s your throughline, that’s your purpose, it will energize you through all the frustrations and times. If you decide, “I’m going to be somebody who’s painting and creating content and marketing messages, I’m going to be like Picasso and make it a work of art.” With one final story, that’s going to bring it all home. When you tug at people’s heartstrings, they open their purse strings as your customers. Cal has a great example of how to bring that to life.
Asking The Right Questions
When that image of Hamilton came up, it hit me again. That whole play at the very bottom of it. Jeremy came up with the question, “Why aren’t we doing musicals in rap?” You all wouldn’t be in this if you weren’t pulling this off. We know you can do it. What I learned is how fast things are moving. The question is, are you going to be able to keep asking the right questions? I know you can, I’m going to prove it to you, but I want to sum it up. The first question, try and aim it for the heart and go to the head. Follow the heart and the head on the pathway to the soul. Also, remember there are other people around who may be able to contribute questions. You just got to give them the opportunity to feel free to do so. Once you accumulate all these questions and winnow them down, you’re going to be in the position to have the right question to push it all forward. Here’s a story that will guarantee that when you walk out of here, if you can use this mindset, you will succeed whatever the project is. It goes back to November 1963. Picture me, my second-grade class, the shortest guy in the class. Ms. Jaffe leaves the room for a moment and comes back a completely different person in 45 seconds.
The same clothes but her face was blanch and she starts talking so calmly that it was a little spooky and she tells us, “President Kennedy has just been shot.” We’re all sent home. Everybody runs to the television to hear Walter Cronkite say that President Kennedy has been assassinated. Soon thereafter, Lyndon B. Johnson, the Vice President has assumed the oath of office. That night my parents were sitting at the kitchen table and they realized, “Cal just turned seven a week ago. This is his first experience with death. Maybe he’s going to have nightmares. We better call him over and talk to him.” They called me over at the table and they say, “Cal, this terrible tragedy what happened, but we want you to know this has happened before in our country’s history. The country has a plan. That’s why Lyndon B. Johnson is the new president. When you wake up, you’re going to eat breakfast as you did. It’s a Saturday, you’re going to go out and play so you can sleep well. Everything’s going to be all right.”
They go over to tell my younger brother and I’m sitting at this kitchen table. Let me show you how naive I was. I was thinking that if you had a middle initial, that meant you were going to be the president because the only people I ever heard of with middle initial where John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Harry S. Truman. This guy Lyndon B. Johnson, he must’ve known he was going to be the president from the time he was my age. I’m thinking, “I wonder how he feels. Is he happy to be the President? Is he sad to be the President because he’s only the president because of the assassination?” I’m thinking. “What if he’s scared to be the President because they might want to kill him too?” I’m trying to wrap my head around what’s going on in Lyndon B. Johnson’s mind and I can’t figure it out.
I pick up a piece of paper, pulled out a pencil and start writing, “Dear President Johnson, how does it feel? Are you happy, are you sad, are you scared?” I wanted to know. I threw out a few more options and wished him my best. I folded this piece of paper into three and I stuffed in an envelope. We had just learned how to address an envelope in school. I put my return address in the top left-hand corner, wrote President Lyndon B. Johnson, The White House, licked the stamp. That’s how we used to do it. I put it in the top right-hand corner, tucked it in my pocket, I went off to sleep. The next morning, I woke up, I had breakfast, I was sent outside to play and never told anybody about the letter. It’s not like I was aiming to be Secretary of State or anything. I just wanted to know, what did it feel like? I got out and dropped the letter in a mailbox. As time passes, there’s a lot of crazy things that happen. You might remember the suspect in the case was shot right after that and the whole country was in turmoil. After a while, things started to return to normal and I forgot all about the letter until six months later.
My mother, she’s gone now, but I always remember her by this image racing up the apartment with an envelope in her right hand from The White House addressed to me. She had no idea what was happening here. Neither did I when we opened it up because this letter was not written to a second-grader. This letter was written with respect and reverence. I knew that by the second sentence, which started, “In answer to your query.” I had no idea what a query was, but I knew something. I knew that the apartment was filled with people who all wanted to touch the letter from the President, from the White House. I knew that something special has happened because the principal at school wanted me to bring in the letter and show everybody.
At that moment I learned that a single question could get you to the most powerful person on earth. If I can do that at seven, certainly everybody can channel their childhood curiosity. The more things move faster, the more you go back to that curious child and find those questions that are going to take you into the future and you will keep on doing the work that put you in the first place. I am delighted to have been here and spent this time with you. I hope that I get to see some of you in the future and find out where all your journeys are going. If you ask the right questions, you’re going to continue to go to amazing places. Thank you very much.
About Cal Fussman
People who recognize me in airports because of my Fedora are likely to have seen me speak at conferences and corporate events around the world over the last couple of years.
Readers may know me for some time now as a New York Times best-selling author.
Magazine lovers may recognize me as the writer who spent a week with Muhammad Ali for an Esquire Magazine cover story, and interviewed Mikhail Gorbachev, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, Robert DeNiro and hundreds of others who’ve shaped the last half-century.
Wine lovers will know me as the guy who became sommelier at Windows on the World at the top of the World Trade Center just before it was taken down on 9/11. Took me ten years to process that experience, and write a story about it. I’ve never been a big fan of awards, but I was proud of the James Beard medal I got for that one.
Relatively few people got to see me as the dad on the practice football field every day from the time my son couldn’t kick an extra point through the day he won a game with a 40-yard field goal in the final moments to the day he could kick them from well beyond 50. Kids in the cul-de-sac saw me as the dad who cooked breakfast for the entire neighborhood on Sunday mornings and beamed when his toothless oldest daughter said with pride: “My dad makes pancakes from scrap!” A select few friends and relatives saw me enter Carnegie Hall to watch my youngest daughter perform with her choir.
About John Livesay
John Livesay, aka The Pitch Whisperer, is a sales keynote speaker and shares the lessons learned from his award-winning sales career at Conde Nast. In his keynote “Better Selling Through Storytelling,” he shows companies’ sales teams how to become irresistible so they are magnetic to their ideal clients. After John speaks, the sales team becomes revenue rock stars who know how to form an emotional connection and a compelling sales story with clients. His TEDx talk: Be The Lifeguard of your own life has over 1,000,000 views. His best selling book is Better Selling Through Storytelling.
He is also the host of “The Successful Pitch” podcast, which is heard in over 60 countries. These interviews make him a sales keynote speaker with fresh and relevant content. Audiences love him because they know he’s been in their shoes.
John has been interviewed by Larry King and appeared on TV as an expert on “How To Ask For What You Want And Get A Yes.” John currently lives in Los Angeles with Pepe, his King Charles Spaniel, who welcomes him home after he returns from being a keynote speaker, reminding him of the importance of belly rubs.