18 of Our Favorite Storytellers—and How They Inspire Us
Between our recent article on the impact of story-based strategic narratives and the landscape of ever-shifting challenges our clients now face, there’s been a lot of talk around Seed about how storytelling is more important than ever. With that in mind, I got the idea to ask some of my colleagues about their favorite storytellers… What makes them so great at what they do? And how does that inspire your own work?
The results are as unique—and interesting—as the employees of Seed and Burke themselves. So please enjoy! And I hope you find some inspiration in this list as well.
Rob Cherry, EVP, Chief Creative Officer
Favorite storyteller: Stanley Kubrick (film director, producer, screenwriter and photographer)
Why: I recently read “Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur Clarke and the Making of a Masterpiece” and re-watched “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and was once again blown away by the power and bravery of his visual storytelling.
Up until the final final cut (he was making edits even after the film’s premiere), Kubrick wrestled with whether to include narration to explain the context and plot. Ultimately, he let the imagery and action speak for itself—in fact, there’s zero dialogue for the first and last 25 minutes. That bold decision allowed the audience to engage their senses and imaginations to a profound effect. It’s still among my favorite movies of all time.
How he inspires: He serves as a great reminder to always stop and consider whether imagery and action alone will speak louder than images plus copy.
Cherri Prince, EVP, Head of Growth
Favorite storyteller: Jerry Seinfeld (comedian, actor, writer and producer)
Why: I’ve watched every episode of Seinfeld (twice), seen every HBO and Netflix special he’s done, witnessed him in concert and I’m finishing his book about all of his best material across five decades of comedy called, “Is this Anything?”
He is an expert at weaving an entire story into a short “solid bit” that’s equal parts funny and relatable. His stories are so timeless—but what I really LOVE about them is the unique perspective he takes. He’s like, “hey, let’s tell the story from the POV of a skydiving helmet or you know what, let’s talk about how the distance between sucks and great really isn’t that far.”
How he inspires: Taking a cue from Jerry, I like to stretch my thinking—and the thinking of my colleagues and clients—by changing perspectives in unexpected ways. Like… asking what they would say/think/feel IF they LOVED a particular idea, even though they just claimed to hate it, or probing them on what possible concerns they might have about an idea that they just said was perfect as-is.
Eric Scheer, EVP, Chief Strategy Officer
Favorite storyteller: Anthony Bourdain (chef, author, journalist, travel documentarian)
Why: He just seemed so real and I loved how he used cooking and food as inspiration for conversations about politics, life, etc. He was very raw and honest—you always felt like you didn’t really know what he was going to say next. He seemed to genuinely like the people he was talking to (and you could tell when he didn’t).
How he inspires: He showed how important it is to operate with honesty, curiosity, empathy and a true passion for whatever subject you’re working on. It’s good to have an edge and be provocative—don’t be a jerk, but have a real point of view.
Tara Marotti, Chief Client Officer, Burke, Inc.
Favorite storyteller: John Cougar Mellencamp (musician, painter, actor, film director)
Why: He tells great stories about growing up in a small town that really resonate with me. He talks about the mistakes he’s made and the lessons he’s learned. He seems fearless, but aware.
How he inspires: He’s not afraid to share raw emotion and reflect on his growth as a person, parent, partner. He’s accountable—he stands up for what he believes in and for people that don’t have a voice (farmers, etc.).
Chad Buecker, EVP Strategic Narration
Favorite storyteller: M. Night Shyamalan (filmmaker and actor)
Why: I’m drawn to his engaging style and plot twists.
How he inspires: His work reminds me that adding strategically placed twists and turns into presentations can help build the audience’s interest and engagement.
Sean Smyth, EVP, Head of Strategy
Favorite storyteller: Rick Steves (travel expert, writer and television personality)
Why: He not only finds locations that are worth knowing and appreciating, but he’s got incredible talent for drawing out the multifaceted qualities of each place he visits— showing what’s unique about it and what may be similar to what we might already know. He also gives equal weight to both history and what’s happening today, even sometimes weaving them together so it’s easier to understand how the local culture is formed. All of this leaves the viewer feeling temporarily transported without ever leaving their home.
How he inspires: Think of yourself as a “guide” to your audience, not unlike a travel guide. Broaden their perspectives a bit and help them see something interesting or connect the dots where they might not have before.
Corey Beilstein, SVP, Behavior and Research Design
Favorite storyteller: Mike Birbiglia (comedian, actor, producer and writer)
Why: His honesty and vulnerability. He carefully tells both funny and painful stories in ways that make you laugh with empathy and recognize a sense of shared humanity. He has a brilliant sense of timing, too. He lets the words breathe and allows silence to settle between thoughts. His stories are less comedy and more performance art through language.
How he inspires: His mastery of language and pacing is a great reminder for me to be concise and to slow down, especially when presenting.
Angela Jones, VP, Creative
Favorite storyteller: Ilana Glazer (comedian, director, producer, writer and actress)
Why: In both her writing and her acting, Ilana effortlessly captures the fun and silliness of everyday life, with an irresistible brashness that expresses what we all feel inside. Plus, in her pantomiming role as Ms. Noodle on Sesame Street (a house favorite, these days) she demonstrates the power of showing, not telling.
How she inspires: As a marketer, she inspires me to see that inspiration is everywhere, even in the smallest everyday moments. And sometimes the most impact can be made with no words at all.
Jeff Johns, SVP, Creative Director
Favorite storyteller: Dave Chappelle (comedian, actor, writer and producer)
Why: He’s a world-class storyteller that’s able to hook the audience with the setup, keep them engaged during the escalation of the story, and then pay it off with a reveal unlike any other.
How he inspires: As a designer and marketer, I find inspiration in Dave’s ability to build empathy with the audience, keep them engaged throughout the journey and make sure the closing has a memorable payoff. In Chapelle’s case, it’s laughter; for a marketer, it’s to move a product or elevate a brand.
Donna Zaring, VP, Strategy
Favorite storyteller: Nicholas Kristof (NYT Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist)
Why: He’s the ultimate truth teller—telling stories from the perspective of people who are actually living them. He goes where the discomfort is the greatest (think Rwanda and Iraq) and where problems are so ugly and complex that the rest of the world wants to look away—and somehow finds the simplest human truths. By objectively and thoughtfully telling their stories, he speaks truth to power (on all sides) on behalf of people who often have none.
How he inspires: Nicholas reminds me that we always need to check our assumptions. We must never stop caring, showing our humanity and talking to real people. It’s important to have the courage to shine light where others may look away.
Jamie Schleicher, VP, Creative
Favorite storyteller: Annie Atkins (graphic designer for films)
Why: I’ve always had an appreciation for movie details—whether it’s the costumes, the lighting, or the small stack of papers in the background. I came across her name when I watched “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”I was in awe with the innovative use of visual storytelling throughout the film. From the props, to the set, to the color palette and visual aesthetics, it was all done so beautifully. A lot of her passion areas in design mirror my own.
How she inspires: She reminds me that details matter. It’s all about understanding the bigger picture and finding the little things to help embellish or emphasize it. Sometimes we think the little things can go unnoticed, but they can really make a big difference in the end result.
Maggie Huntwork, Senior Strategist
Favorite storyteller: Andy Cohen (television talk show host, producer and writer)
Why: His interviews bring stories to life in such a fun, unique way. He never, ever misses details and always digs deep to get to the core reason why someone did something or acted a certain way. He presses people to actually answer the question at-hand, but he’s fair about it. If he’s diving into an argument between two people, he always gives both sides time to share their story. And, of course, he doesn’t have much of a poker face, which gives the audience a clue as to whose side he’s on—making the “story” even more fun and entertaining.
How he inspires: The details are where it’s at! Andy shows that getting deep into the nitty gritty can really help bring a story to life. No detail is too small when it comes to being able to “level up” whatever you’re working on.
Kevin Brummer, SVP, Creative
Favorite storyteller: Ken Burns (filmmaker)
Why: His work has brought so many historic events to light over the years. But what’s most influential, in my opinion, is the way he brings them to life. He’s able to use a static photo or an artifact and make it move through unique camera techniques. This was so monumental that Apple actually incorporated a panning and zooming feature called “The Ken Burns effect” into iMovie. The other thing I love about Ken, is the way he’s able to pair the perfect voice with the moment. You can’t help but feel like you’re transported back in time hearing these narrations from such interesting voices. His deep attention to detail is what makes his stories better.
How he inspires: Ken Burns has inspired me to constantly study and optimize the small details that I can affect. How can the visual help support the story? How can changing the voice make the story more interesting or believable? To me, a story is only as good as the visual and the voice telling it.
Catherine Salzman, Director Social Science & Analytics
Favorite storyteller: Lin-Manual Miranda (playwright, composer, lyricist and actor)
Why: With Hamilton, he took something that was perceived as boring and largely ignored beyond history classes and elevated it to one of the most famous stories in popular culture today. He was curious and inspired by the tale—and he knew others would be too, if he could tell it in the right way. Through persistence and fearless creativity, he created the ultimate mash-up of two uniquely American things… hip-hop culture and a story about our nation’s origin.
How he inspires: I regularly apply two lessons from Lin-Manuel to my work and storytelling practice. One is to be passionate. Care about the story you’re telling and get excited to share it with others. The other is, don’t be afraid to break the rules. Using hip-hop to tell a story about our nation’s founding sounds absurd on paper… just like many truly breakthrough innovations do at first. But, if you believe in it, then keep at it and your audience will come.
Dave Hayes, VP, Technology Innovation
Favorite storyteller: Neal Stephenson (author)
Why: He consistently writes books that really make you think, while also being hard to put down.
How he inspires: He reminds me that even complex subjects can be woven into compelling stories.
Matt Donahue, Creative Director
Favorite storyteller: Quentin Tarantino (film director, screenwriter, actor and producer)
Why: He empathizes with the audience and writes the film he would want to see. To that point, he says, “Before I make the movie, I watch the movie. I don’t think the audience is this dumb person lower than me. I am the audience.”
How he inspires: He reminds me how important it is to be true to your own vision—but also strive to see, understand and evaluate that vision from the perspective of your audience.
Kathy Jeffrey, Director, Account Management
Favorite storytellers: Simon and Garfunkel (American folk rock duo)
Why: I find that the more you listen to their lyrics, the more you hear and understand. I also like some of the visuals that I’ve dreamt up based on misheard lyrics too. Plus, the fact that Paul Simon was dating someone named Kathy when he wrote a few songs is fun for me!
How they inspire: I think they do a good job of spinning a very personal tale. It could be based on casual observation of others, a wistful reflection, or an even an expression of pain, but their work reaches through the clutter and makes others listen. It is simple. It is poetic. It is memorable. And again, it always feels very personal.
Philip Grosvener, Motion Graphic Designer
Favorite storyteller: Stanley Kubrick (film director, producer, screenwriter and photographer)
Why: He can tell a complete story with just his visuals.
How he inspires: He inspires me to aim, when appropriate, to let the visual do the “talking.”
Adam Siegel, VP, Creative (Yes, I answered my own question!)
Favorite storyteller: Amanda Gorman (inaugural poet, National Youth Poet Laureate)
Why: I’ve always enjoyed poetry and she is an incredibly powerful poet. Beyond her writing, she’s an amazing orator as well. And I really admire how she embraces the role of change-maker—using her talents to shine light into the darkness and say what needs to be said, in a way that makes the message impossible to ignore.
How she inspires: Like much of the rest of the world, I just recently became familiar with Amanda, but the more I learn about this wonderful young woman, the more I am inspired by her. She is fearless, she researches the hell out of whatever she is writing about, and she agonizes over every word—knowing that even the slightest change can make a big difference. Another thing I find fascinating about her is that she thinks in words, not visuals. So, if she is preparing to write about a topic or event, she doesn’t search for pictures, she searches social media, news articles and books to see what others have said about it. This often enlightens her to a word, phrase or idea that propels her work forward.
Who is your favorite storyteller and how do they inspire you? I’d love to hear about it—reach out to me on LinkedIn to continue the conversation.
Adam Siegel is the Editor of The Accelerator and VP, Creative at Seed Strategy where he draws upon his diverse experience in advertising, research and innovation to craft breakthrough creative and winning concept copy.
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