What Jimmy Buffett taught me about corporate storytelling

Years ago, as a journalist for a national magazine, I had the opportunity to interview music legend Jimmy Buffett. Now, I happen to be a Jimmy Buffett fan (we are affectionately known as Parrot Heads), so this was a pretty special interview for me!

Jimmy Buffett has an incredible business mind and a true entrepreneurial spirit. (There are unsubstantiated rumours that he is related to Warren Buffett, so the business part of his brain kind of makes sense.) He was one of the first in the music business to embrace digital technology; he recognized the coming shift in the music industry and left his big name label to start his own. He has ownership in two successful restaurant chains (Margaritaville and Cheeseburger in Paradise), interests in hotels and he just opened the Margaritaville Casino in Las Vegas. He still performs worldwide, has made over 30 albums, written several books (four made it to the New York Times Bestseller list), and he pilots his own plane… the list of his accomplishments goes on and on. And, of course, above all else, Jimmy is a storyteller. We talked about storytelling a lot in our interview.

I recently pulled out my interview notes and took a look at what Jimmy told me back then. His key points about storytelling are relevant, even for those of us who tell stories in a more corporate environment than Jimmy does.

Spend More Time Listening

One of the first things Jimmy told me was that he has stories to tell because he spends most of his time listening. It was obvious that he is interested in what others have to say. This man has done tens of thousands of interviews, knows how to give good sound bites and he is a consummate professional when it comes to the interview process. Yet, less than two minutes into our interview, he started asking me questions too. (The first one was why I knew so much about him!) Jimmy Buffett is an interesting person, but what I think a lot of people don’t realize is that he is really interested in everything. He engages people, asks questions, finds out what they think; he learns their story.

This is a valuable lesson for a communicator. We can be so focused on what we want the story to be—driven by deadlines and focused on key messages and positioning—that we forget to really listen. Sometimes really interesting stories are told to us and we don’t hear them because we have an agenda in our head. Other times, we are so busy multi-tasking, that we don’t even realize what is really being shared with us. Take your attention out of your own head and put it on the person in front you. It may sound simple, but it will bring big results.

Develop Compelling Characters

This doesn’t mean that you have to write about pirates, sailors and island eccentrics like Jimmy does, but—relevant to your brand—you should showcase what is interesting, unique, and even a little quirky about the people you are profiling.

Have a CEO who is a jazz musician by night or a customer service rep who does the Ironman? Share that. It is more compelling than knowing where they got their MBA or being told what business awards they have won.

A good story takes us into the lead character’s world—we get to know the real person, who they are when they aren’t at work, what drives them, what inspires them, and what scares them. We want to know what makes them leap out of bed in the morning and what drives them to keep going when times are tough. Bring the whole person to life, not just their professional résumé.

Use Words to Paint a Picture

No matter what the medium, Jimmy paints a compelling picture using words. From his songs to his books to what he talks about in concert—when he tells you a story, he describes the location, the people and the events in a way that makes you feel as if you are there. (Even the menu items in his restaurants tell their own story!)

We live in a world that is often shaped by statistics and facts. As communicators we are diligent about making sure the information we provide is accurate. We curse misinformation and errors. A good (corporate) storyteller uses stats and facts as the foundation, but then focuses on bringing the people, the place and the event to life. No one ever climbed Mt. Everest, changed a corporate culture or invented life-altering technology because they were inspired by stats and facts. If all you have are facts and stats, then you have a report, not a story. A good story is based in fact, but what connects us is the heart and soul of it.

Don’t Forget to Have Fun

Corporate storytelling can be challenging, but if you follow Jimmy’s advice, it gets much easier. And it’s so much more fun! Which was the last piece of advice that Jimmy gave me. He said, “No matter what you do, just don’t forget to have fun with it. If you aren’t having fun, it makes for really long, boring days. And no one needs that.”

…And if you’re reading this Jimmy, I’d love to buy you a cold one and talk “storytelling” with you again. (I will be at Margaritaville Las Vegas on February 22 from 6 – 8 p.m. sitting at the bar, listening.)

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  1. Great post. In addition being an early adopter of digital technologies, Buffet also helped pioneer social networking and community-building strategies with his fans long before Facebook, Twitter and the web existed. That’s because, as you point out, he delivered great content through the story-telling of his songs.

    Fans rally around the shared Parrot Head experiences and attitudes that his content and concerts delivered. Everyone wants to be part of a tribe. Good storytelling is the tradition that holds tribes together. It’s an important lesson that marketers often overlook.

  2. Ruth, we learn from so many people in our lives and when the lessons are combined with stories, they make it memorable. Thanks for sharing this one – I bet everyone will remember it. In the meantime, I am looking for my lost shaker of salt….

  3. Ruth Atherley

    Insightful comments—thank you, Stephen and Della.

    I have about a dozen more points that I learned from Jimmy Buffett in that interview; perhaps I will do another post like this at some point. When I read over my notes from the interview, their relevance in a corporate storytelling context jumped out at me.

    When I interviewed Jimmy, he hadn’t played Toronto for many years and I asked him why. We had an interesting chat about that and about his Canadian fans. He asked me point blank if I thought he should be playing Canada. Of course my answer was: “Heck yes!!” (I never cussed during interviews, although heck wasn’t the word I said in my head!)

    Three months later, it was clear he had listened to what I had to say because a Toronto date was added to his tour line up. He is far too smart a businessperson not to do the appropriate due diligence before making a decision like this, so I know his team did their research.

    When he played Toronto, I was fortunate enough to be asked to go to the concert by his record label’s publicity team. On stage at the concert, he did something unexpected—and yet absolutely in keeping with his approach to the world—he said thank you to me. (He actually called me that pain in the ass journalist that put a bug in his head about Canadian tour dates!) A pretty cool thing for a Parrot Head to hear.

    Della—if you find that shaker of salt, let me know!

  4. Tammie Owens

    Great post. It’s important to remember that what interests us is the human side of the story. I work in the financial field and when people just focus on the numbers, it never tells the whole story. It’s about people, what they believe in and what they stand for that moves us to action. Even in a world like mine — that is made up of financial statements — these points are helpful (and valuable).

    I’ll also be at Margaritaville in February, listening and hoping Jimmy comes to visit!

  5. Ruth Atherley

    Thanks for the comment Tammie!! It is always surprising to me that people in industries like yours will often say that their work is boring. I think if you look in the right places and have the right approach — there are incredible, amazing stories that would inspire, engage and, even, entertain.

    If you find Jimmy at Margaritaville – give him my number!

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