An interview with Cymbeline Johnson
Cymbeline Johnson is a law graduate with a remarkable story. Hers is a career path that has led her from Sydney to the United States and from media law into the most socially conscious of creative industry roles.
This is far from your usual corporate career change yarn. In fact, the most fascinating part takes place on a boat off the coast of an idyllic tropical fishing village in Panama.
We wanted to talk to Cymbeline about her story, but also about the power of storytelling more broadly, so what follows is her account told in her own words, followed by an interview we did on the subject of stories.
Your story is a particularly good one, but what do you think makes stories so engaging, appealing and fulfilling in general?
I think one of the things I learnt about storytelling from the CEO of Free Range… one of the things that he drove home is this idea that stories are really how we make sense of the world around us. They’re how we make sense of ourselves. For thousands of years, our ancestors sat around campfires telling stories, and they did that so they could learn collectively about what the world means and how to navigate it.
Stories are laden with a couple of things: firstly, a moral, which is this universal truth about the world. And secondly, values. When a storyteller tells a story, they’re actually giving you insight into what they think about and what they care about, and you’re getting an incredible opportunity to see the world through their eyes.
I think that’s what’s so powerful about storytelling to build personal relationships. Stories that communicate values like that allow the audience to connect with the storyteller.
If you look into my story about the turtle [as an example], initially you might think “OK, this bird worked in law and decided she didn’t want to do that anymore and went on a journey to find herself.” At a very high level you could say that’s what the story is about. But if you really kind of think about it a bit more deeply, you might think “Oo, we got some interesting insights into the fact that she’s obviously quite a risk-taker.” You also probably get a sense that I’m pretty optimistic. I’m someone who sees an opportunity and says “Yeah, I’ll have a go at that. I can do that” and approaches things with that sort of attitude. And you also, obviously, get that understanding that I have really strong values around environmentalism and sustainability. And all of these kind of insights you wouldn’t get if you’d just interviewed me and said “What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses?”
You’re now part of the creative industry and “storytelling” has been a bit of a buzzword in creative circles for a long time. Do you think all stories are good stories or are we now at a stage where, say, advertising agencies are forcing stories into situations and media where it isn’t really appropriate?
No, all stories are not good stories.
What I’m seeing a lot in our industry is agencies and creatives saying that they’re good at storytelling because it’s a buzzword, but not actually understanding what it means to do storytelling. And so what we see is a continued focus on features and benefits of a product or a service… but what we don’t see a lot of is advertisers trying to connect with audiences on that values level.
There are some excellent examples of it [though]. Dove’s Real Beauty [campaign]is obviously one that has been talked about a lot but is an excellent example of the advertisers really understanding their audience on a values level and creating ad campaigns around values, not around features and benefits of products.
But a more recent one, which I absolutely loved – I hope everyone is watching this and studying it and trying to find ways of trying to do it with their own brands – is the University of Western Sydney. They recently did a series of stories around several of their students. And there’s this excellent one about… his name is Deng Thiak [Adut]. And it’s this beautiful story about life growing up in Africa, being a refugee, moving to Australia, becoming a student at the UWS so he could become a lawyer. And what’s really special about that story is that not once do UWS talk about the features of the law degree or the kind of courses that you’re going to do or the kind of vocational opportunities that you’ll have afterwards. It’s not even featured at all. The whole story is from the perspective of this student and it's incredibly emotional, incredibly moving. That, to me, is a much more powerful thing to leave your audience with than the features and benefits of a law degree.
What do you think makes a story great?
I think there are a few pillars that you can almost use as filters, if you will, on a story to say “OK – does this story have these features?” And if not, then it’s probably not a great story.
And the main ones to me are:
Emotional. The audience listening to the story has to feel something.
It’s got to be relatable. It has to contain real people, real, possible circumstances that people can relate to.
It’s got to be immersive. You’ve got to have enough detail to feel that you’re right there with the storyteller. The details [have to be] so rich that they take you to the time and place. A lot of times when people are telling a story they’ll skip over the detail because they’re trying to rush to get to their point, but actually, to tell a really good story you don’t want to rush to the main point; you want to give people enough detail that they are living it and breathing it with you.
Do we need to modify our stories when we bring them into a corporate or professional setting?
You need to choose the right story for the audience. In that sense, yes, you do need to modify.
What I don’t think you should do is remove the details around… the things that are emotionally challenging or the adversity – there’s sometimes a temptation when we’re telling a story in a professional sense to think you have to take out all the emotions and take out things that might make people feel slightly uncomfortable or a bit squeamish. And I don’t think that’s the right approach. In fact, that’s what makes the story human.
You don’t want to make it bland and sterile just because it’s professional.
Jonathan Rivett can be found at theinkbureau.com.au and haught.com.au