The Improv Is No Joke Podcast

Welcome to the Improv Is No Joke podcast hosted by Peter Margaritis, AKA The Accidental Accountant and author of the book 'Improve Is No Joke, Using Improvization to Create Positive Results in Leadership and Life'. This podcast series is also available on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.

Show Notes: Ep. 85 – Merle Heckman: Intentional Storytelling & Applying it in Business

Today’s guest, Merle Heckman, truly understands the power of storytelling – and why it is needed in all aspects of business today.

You see, Merle works with engineers, but he’s not an engineer (he’s the Manager of Organizational Development at Regal Beloit). And when engineers give presentations, they can be dense with jargon and hard to understand… not unlike when accountants give presentations.

Merle wanted to know how individuals within his organization could give better presentations so that the people listening could better retain and use the information being presented.

So, for his doctoral degree in Educational Leadership, he performed a study and wrote a dissertation titled, “Intentional Storytelling: A Potential Tool for Retention and Application in Business.”

The research was fairly simple:

•There’s a monthly divisional meeting at Regal Beloit. Every other month, Merle coached the speakers on incorporating storytelling into their presentations, and they did this for four months. So the first month was normal, second, coached, third normal, fourth coached.

•After every meeting, Merle sent two surveys: one two days after, and one two weeks after. The first survey asked questions related to retention, and the second survey asked if they had applied the information, or put it into practice.

And the results are astonishing:

•When the presenters incorporated storytelling techniques, participants put the information into practice 2.5x more often than when the presenters didn’t.

•When comparing the first presentation (no storytelling) with the second presentation (with storytelling), participants retained twice as much knowledge when there were stories. When comparing the third presentation to the fourth presentation, participants retained 81% more knowledge.

“In the business context, the story teaches. We learn how to do things … The story resonates with us in such a way that it really reaches in and it really appeals to us.” Stories give presenters the opportunity to put specialized knowledge into a context that everybody can understand.

And if the term story seems daunting, Merle sometimes uses the term “homespun illustration.” The important thing is that we’re not talking about making things up; We’re talking about taking real-life events and real-life situations so that you can draw similarities (or create analogies) to the truth that you’re trying to give, and reinforce it.

So what type of stories should a presenter tell?

1. “The best stories are the ones that come from our lives; The best stories are the ones that we have lived.” There are so many stories out of our own personal lives that can affect, inspire, educate, guide, and teach people.

2. “The second best stories are the ones we have observed in other people around us. You don’t have to say the person’s name, but explain how they solved a problem. Those make great, relatable examples.”

3. “The third best stories are the ones that we read about in books, or from history, that are true to life. These are often stories about how the Lincolns and Jobs of the worlds solved problems.”

Don’t make any mistake: Teaching with storytelling isn’t easy – but it is incredibly effective.

In a world with so much information, in a world where everybody has a screen captivating their attention, the story will distinguish you as being different.

So put in the work to craft a good story – and, more importantly, practice so that you can effectively deliver that story; “Greatness is not in the performance. Greatness is in the preparation.”

Click here to listen to the entire episode.

If you want to learn more about business storytelling, my book, Tell Me in Plain English: Taking the Numb Out of the Numbers, will be available in Spring 2018.  Please visit my website and explore the ways I can help you and your organization grow through the power of improvisation.

The Dark Side of Storytelling

Storytelling, when used for good, will help grow your business, your reputation and your brand. However, when storytelling is used to deceive or to commit fraud, it will ultimately crush your business, your reputation and your brand. That crush may also come with the potential of spending time where orange is the new black, aka, prison.

Think about some of the greatest fraudsters of all time – Madoff, Ponzi, The Wizard of Oz. The one thing they had in common: They all told a compelling story. But when you pulled back the curtain, you found a complex house of cards that could not stand up to scrutiny. There are many instances where corporate storytelling did significant damage to the companies and their brands. Three of my favorite examples are Enron, Theranos, and JCPenney.

In the book, What’s Your Story?: Storytelling to Move Markets, Audiences, People, and Brands, the authors discuss the “Ken Lay Story.” Ken Lay was the son of a poor Baptist preacher in the small town of Tyrone, Missouri. Through hard work and dedication, he became a naval officer, earned his doctorate in economics, was the chief economist at Exxon, was a federal energy regulator and then became undersecretary for the Department of Interior. His successes led him to be the founder and CEO of Enron Corporation.

Ken Lay’s story is a classic story. A poor person living in small town USA, fighting against all the odds to become one of the most powerful and wealthiest men in the energy industry, whose company at its peak had an estimated market value of $70 billion. That was before its collapse. In this story, the early hero is Ken Lay, and the villains are the number of obstacles he had to overcome in his rise to power.  However, when Mr. Lay’s moral ethics shifted, his company failed and he went on to become a convicted felon. The hero become the villain.

In a Harvard Business Review case study, A Tale of Storytelling: Its Allure and Its Traps, discusses that it is the departure from the truth that makes the story the winner. This divergence is reflected in the story that Enron was using when their business model changed from pipes-in-the-ground oil drilling to natural gas and commodities. This story was so incredibly compelling that Fortune magazine named Enron “America’s Most Innovative Company” for six years in a row. Innovative maybe, but not the truth.

What’s Your Story? discusses the difference between “truth” and “true.”  They use an example of Procter & Gamble and their detergent, Tide. A P&G research scientist sitting in the lab used expensive equipment to prove that Tide cleans laundry better than the competition. That is the true statement. However, laundry rooms throughout the United States do not come staffed with scientists or expensive equipment; those who purchase laundry detergents make a decision about which brand to purchase based on what they believe is the truth. In most cases, the truth is derived from an advertisement that might state “my clothes are cleaner when I used Cheer versus other brands.” In other words, corporate storytelling is about truth statements rather than true statements.

Another What’s Your Story? case study highlights what happened to JCPenney from 2011 to 2013. In 2011 JCPenney hired Ron Johnson, the former senior vice president of retail operations at Apple Inc., to be their next CEO.  Ron’s story was one of transformation, bringing the brand back to its original stature as a leading department store. He was going to fix JCPenney’s complex pricing structure, attract both the millennial generation and a more affluent customer base, and create new, exciting shopping experiences. His “truth story” was so compelling that it convinced company stakeholders, many on Wall Street and celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and Martha Stewart who added their names and product lines to the transformation.

Unfortunately, Ron forgot to take into consideration his existing customer base which was, in fact, almost the exact opposite of the customer demographic that would respond to the new and improved JCPenney. He was telling the stakeholders what they wanted to hear, but forgot to include one true statement about the current customer base: They were middle-of-the-road bargain shoppers. Because of the unrealistic expectations, he was not only unable to attract the young and the rich as customers, he also alienated the true JC Penney’s customer. In 2013, sales dropped 28%, the company’s revenues declined by $1 billion and the stock price was half of what it was before Ron’s vison. No surprise, Ron was fired.

In the Harvard Business Review article titled, Theranos and the Dark Side of Storytelling it discusses Elizabeth Holmes, who is the founder of Theranos. Theranos is a blood testing company that touted technological advances in blood testing. They claimed they possessed the technology to test a wide variety of diseases from a small amount of blood drawn from a pricked finger. Elizabeth’s story is compelling because she was and extremely bright 19 year-old student at Stanford University who dropped out of school to found Theranos. According to the article, her vision was to save millions of lives around the world through her technology.

Her story and her mission were so compelling that in 2015 her company was valued at $9 billion and Forbes magazine named her the youngest self-made female billionaire in the world. Her storytelling was so convincing that she recruited well-known political types, such as Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, Sam Nunn and Col. James Mattis, to be on her Board of Directors.

In October 2015, the Wall Street Journal reported that the company’s blood testing technology was a near-total failure. According to an exposé in Vanity Fair, the Elizabeth Holmes story was told and retold so many times that it became more the story of innovation and female empowerment than the story of Ms. Holmes. The company was founded on the story, and based on current evidence, the story is fictional at best.

The Enron and Theranos situations were deliberately concocted to deceive and defraud an organization and its investors.  JC Penny’s situation is different because there was no ill-intent.  It was the new CEO’s vision on how to transform the business that blinded people.  Actually, the fault lies with the JC Penney Board of Directors who was enamored by the new story. They didn’t analyze the story they loved against the facts they knew to be true in order to determine how this new vision of the company would affect their business and customer base.

It’s time we all recognize the stories behind actions, and how their compelling nature draws us to them.  We must ask questions and determine the real character of those actions and whether they stand up as the truth. Even the story Ken Lay finely crafted for Enron had cracks that should have revealed the fraud. In fact, there was one investor who didn’t invest a dime into Enron and was even chastised in financial periodicals and by pundits for his decision. That investor was Warren Buffett. The reason he did not invest into Enron was that he could not make sense of Enron’s business model and how it related to the company financial statements.  His logic superseded his emotions in his decision-making process. Reason prevailed, and Buffett came out ahead.

We all love a good story, especially when told by a gifted storyteller. The onus is on us to validate each story through a thorough vetting process.

Finding the Story

Have you ever wondered where good storytellers get their stories? I did, and I wanted to learn how to find my own stories worth sharing. Several years ago I was working on my first keynote speech and knew I could use some guidance. I hired Judy Carter, an international motivational speaker, author of Message of You, former stand-up comedian and coach.  When we began what turned out to be an eight month process, she told me “you first need to find the mess before you can create the message.”

One of the exercises in The Message of You was to identify a day that started off bad but ended up better than expected. Your stories don’t have to be large and filled with drama to be effective.  My task was to create a list of “bad day – good day” events, and I was surprised that it turned out to be a rather long list.  It is amazing how many memories come flooding back when doing this exercise. Some memories were huge and dramatic – we all have defining moments we can recall. My big stories include being adopted, going through a divorce and having arterial septal defect surgery. While all were both huge and dramatic, they weren’t the stories I wanted to tell.

What I learned was to look for other incidents that had the potential to be really bad, but ended well. When you identify that bad day moment, work backward to the beginning when everything was just fine.  That is your starting point in finding your story.

Here is an example of one of my messes:

It was January 3, 2014, and my son and I had traveled from Columbus, Ohio to Miami to watch the Orange Bowl. Our Ohio State Buckeyes ended up losing to Clemson but that didn’t upset me. The trip was all about spending time with my son.

After the game we headed back to the rental car and my heart sank when I realized I had left the lights on; the battery was totally dead.  I did begin to panic a bit as we waded through the crowd looking for someone to help us. Then a very nice Clemson fan offered to jump our car.  I tried to pay him, but he said: “pay it forward.” Okay, OSU lost and our car had to be jumped, but not such a bad day, right?

With the car started, we drove away. That’s when I realized that I left my diabetes kit that contained my insulin, meter, and test strips in the stadium. I had no backup supplies. That’s when I really began to panic. I tried to calmly share my diabetes dilemma with my son, but I knew he could see the fear on my face.  He calmly said, “Dad, there has to be a Walgreen’s close by where you could get your insulin and supplies you need.”  

He was right, there was a 24-hour Walgreen’s close to our hotel.  When I told the pharmacist my situation, he said he would try to help me out.  Of course, there were the usual issues with finding the correct prescription and insurance but the pharmacist got me all set up.  Long story short, and several messes later, I walked out with all the supplies I would need to make it back home and $550 lighter in my wallet.  

The first step to defining your story is to find those messes and put them down on paper. If you struggle with this, refer to an earlier blog posting, “The Five Components for a Solid Foundation to a Good Story,” where I discuss that every good story has a hero and a villain. In other words, there is a problem (villain) that needs a solution (hero) to overcome the problem at hand.  I have found when I encourage people to think about their stories in this way, a big light bulb goes on. Every day each of deal with problems, obstacles, issues. Think about that, and a floodgate of ideas will open up.

Take time to create a list of problems that you, the hero, have solved.  You will be astounded at the number of potential stories you have at your fingertips.  My next blog post will focus on techniques to craft your story into something memorable. Remember, small messes can make huge and dramatic stories!

Pete & Mr. IRS Agent: Sketch Comedy Writing

In 2015, I took an online sketch comedy writing course from Second City. I was looking for ways to become a better writer, and I learned a lot from this course. What I learned was developing characters to help build the emotional attachment with the audience. When writing, we need to create the emotional attachment with our reader to they will continue reading. I still have a long way to go, but this course helped me to keep this concept in the forefront of my mind. I hope you enjoy.


Pete – 40’s.

Mr. IRS Agent – 50’s

(Scene: conference room at CPA firm)


Welcome Mr. IRS Agent.  It is good to finally meet you after all of these years.


Same here and thanks for agreeing to meet at your office.


Please excuse my attire but it is “let’s dress crazy day” here at our firm.


Not one bit!  You might be the only person to pull off wearing an orange sport coat, white dress shirt, purple bow tie, white dress slacks and black Chuck Taylor shoes. Either way, lets get started.


I will take that as a compliment.  Ready to get down to work Mr. IRS Agent or would you like a tour of our office.


Let’s get to work.


Would you like something to drink?  We have coffee, espresso, or water.


A glass of room temperature water would be fine.


Would you like some ice with your water?


No, ice water.


One glass of ice water coming up.


Pete, sorry for the confusion. I would like a glass of room temperature water, not a glass of ice water.


Oh! Okay, coming right up.

Here you go.


Thank you.  Are you ready to start?


Yes Mr. IRS Agent! What questions do you want to ask?


Your client is claiming $515,732 in airfare expenses for 2013 but in 2012 they claimed only 32,869.  Can you explain this?


Hey Bill!  How are you today and thanks for dinner last night.  Mr. IRS Agent, have you ever been to Delmonico’s restaurant?  Bill and I went last night for dinner and the steaks were outstanding…


No, I am a vegetarian. Let’s get back to my question.


Before we start back, I have a question for you. Why did you want to come down and meet at our offices?


The reason is that I am finding our conference calls have not been productive these last couple of years. And…


And what?


And I am considering leaving the IRS, moving to Los Angeles, chasing my dream of being a stand-up comic and I wanted to meet you face-to-face.


WHAT?! Mr. IRS Agent wants to be a stand-up comic. Now that is funny!


Yea, I know but this has been my dream. I even did some stand-up my freshman and sophomore year in college.


Excuse me for saying this but you are a stereotypical IRS agent – lack of any humor.


Pete, I use to be really funny, outgoing, “fun to hang out with” kind of guy.


What happened?


I changed my major from theater to accounting. At first, I noticed a slight change in my personality. But when I went to work for a Big 4 accounting firm, the “fun Kevin” began to get slowly sucked right out of me.


Your real name is Kevin?


Yes it is!  When I moved to the IRS my fun meter immediately went to zero. So I decided the only way to get through this job was to have people call me Mr. IRS Agent.  But you can call me Kevin.


Okay, Kevin


Did you always wanted to be an accountant?


Does anyone really WANT to be an accountant? Everyone I know in this profession kind of fell into it.


Should we get back to work?


It can wait. I am going to allow the deduction anyhow! How did you fall into becoming an accountant.  Did you lose a bet?


HA HA!  That’s funny BUT true.




I was in love and my wife wanted us to move from Ft. Myers, Fl to Cleveland, OH so she could be closer to her parents. So, I told her I would but under one condition. That Case Western Reserve University accepts me into their Master’s of Accountancy Program.


And the rest is history!


I never thought I would get accepted.  I had taken the GMAT but my scores were under acceptance limit of 500.  They were so low that even if the person who transferred my score to an excel spreadsheet had dyslexia, they still would not reach 500.


Now that is really funny!  Have you ever done stand-up?


Actually, I have. Similar to your story.  And yes, most of my funny has been sucked out by this accounting firm that I have been with for 10 years.  It actually cost me my marriage.


This is getting really freaky.  I just signed my divorce papers just before I came to your office.  My attorney is on the floor above you.


Shut the front door. That firm also handled my divorce.  Is your attorney Nouno?


OMG with a shocked emoji! Yes he is.


Who knew after all of these years that we share the love for stand-up comedy.  You know the difference between stand-up comedy and heroine?


Of course I do.  You can quit heroine!


Kevin, I have got a crazy idea.


I know what you are thinking.  We both quit our jobs today, move to LA and chase our dreams of being a stand-up comic.


Kevin, not quite.  My idea was to meet for drinks and dinner tonight and discuss quitting our jobs and becoming stand-up comics.


Great idea!  Dinner at Delmonico’s.  I really love their steaks!

(fade out)

Dealing with the Unknowns of Public Speaking

When it comes to public speaking, this is one of greatest fears people can have.  There are a number of reasons fueling this fear, but the unpredictable variables that come from speaking no doubt add to the anxiety.  You probably know what I’m going to suggest in order to combat these fears – that’s right, improvisation.  I’m going to present a few common scenarios that can occur when needing to speak publicly and how improv can help you avoid a panicked meltdown at the podium.

When Heads Start Bobbing

I’ve seen people fall asleep within 15 minutes during an hour-long presentation. If you do enough speaking, you’re going to see heads bobbing, particularly at all-day workshops and seminars. The unfortunate part of that is when people walk out of a presentation like that, about a third of what they heard stays behind them in the room. They don’t retain it. Within two weeks they barely remember anything—not even the name of the speaker.  Think about the investment wasted.

While it’s very much the attendee’s job to be respectful and stay awake – it is just as much your responsibility to engage your audience to make staying awake easier.  You must do this through connecting with them, which isn’t going to happen by rattling off a bunch of bullet points in a monotone voice.  Think of your audience as a one-on-one interaction – try to create a relationship together. You can do this by giving examples to illustrate the material, or introduce exercises that require participation.

Something to keep in mind, you’re not going to connect with everyone.  There will always be someone sitting there that clearly projects, “My boss made me come to this.” You can’t do much about that person. But as for the rest of them, you can focus on making that connection that will

The Show Must Go On

There will be times where what was planned on, simply gets thrown out the window.  Maybe there’s a technical malfunction preventing you from using your computer and slides, or someone cancelled in a line-up of speakers and you need to unexpectedly change when you present.  The unpredictable is quite frankly predictable.  Plan for things to not go as planned – or at least prepare yourself with the ability to be adaptable – yet another important element of improvisation.

I once heard a story about a gentleman who was giving a presentation and fell off the stage. He apparently misjudged a step. He tucked up and rolled, stood up, and continued his talk. He made it look as if he had done the stunt on purpose. Now that’s what I call thorough preparation for any contingency. The lesson there is to take advantage of your forward momentum, whether you are stumbling literally or figuratively. On with the show.

Contact me today for your upcoming keynote – I can show you firsthand how engaging I can really be.  Also, learn more about leveraging improv to improve your career by visiting where you can download a free chapter of my book, Improv is No Joke.