The Storytelling Edge – Book Interview

Heidi Cohen Interviews Joe Lazauskas and Shane Snow

New book – The Storytelling Edge: How to Transform Your Business, Stop Screaming Into the Void, and Make People Love You


Q: What’s your best piece of advice for readers looking to improve their marketing?

A: To steal a line from my friend Rebecca Lieb: “Content is the atomic particle of all marketing.”

More than half of the buyer journey occurs before a customer raises their hand and gets in touch with you. If you want to stay competitive, you need incredible content that’s easily discoverable by people on search and social when they’re researching their purchase. Then, you need even better mid and bottom funnel content to convince people to select you.

Marketing frameworks and technology can be fantastically helpful, but if you don’t have top-notch content that builds relationships with your customers and makes you stand out, you’re going to lose moving forward.

Q: What was the inspiration for The Storytelling Edge?

A: Over the past seven years at Contently, Shane and I have helped hundreds of brands launch their content marketing programs. And over that time, we saw some common struggles.

Great content marketing is a huge challenge. You need to tell stories so good that they compete with the millions of other stories beckoning for your audience’s attention every second. But this kind of storytelling isn’t most marketers’ expertise. They didn’t go to school for creative writing and journalism like we did. They didn’t spend tens of thousands of hours writing, making videos, and building newsrooms.

So we wanted to write a book to help those people. The Storytelling Edge is a fun, story-driven book that teaches marketers the timeless art of storytelling (here’s one of our favorite examples), while illuminating the surprising new science of stories—showing people which ones make the biggest impact on people’s minds.

The second half of the book is about how to put that into practice inside your organization, shown through case studies of the best brands on earth.

Q: What is the key concept behind your book?

A: There are a few. The first is that our brains light up when we hear stories. Scientists have a saying: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” When more of your brain is at work at a given point of time, the chances that your brain will remember the work it did increases exponentially. This is crucial when you want people to remember your message:

The next is that there are some timeless frameworks that can help you tell better stories, like the Hero’s Journey:

Then, we dive into how to discover your brand’s story, through concepts like the Story Funnel-Matrix:

And how to reach people with those stories, through frameworks like the Storytelling Bull’s-eye:

Q: What do you want readers to take away from your book?

A: “Storytelling” has been the buzzword off and on since the advent of advertising. It keeps rising to the top of the pile because it’s timeless. Stories have driven human behavior throughout history—for good and for ill.

And in the digital age, businesses, workers, and leaders have more opportunities than ever to stand out, spread their message, and spark change through stories.

As Internet, mobile messaging, and sharing tools transform our lives, storytelling is becoming an essential skill in any job. As we spend more and more time consuming information by the streamful, storytelling is a core skill that every business—and individual—will need to master.

Q: How do you describe yourself professionally?

A: Joe: I’m not sure anyone’s ever asked me to elevator pitch myself. But I’m a writer who’s been working in content marketing before it was a thing. (So hipster of me!) I started a branded content studio to fund my news site, The Faster Times, way before T Brand Studio made that whole game cool.

I take a very data-driven approach to content. I believe that audience insights can super-boost human creativity, unleashing our imagination and helping us tell the exact kinds of stories people will love.

Shane: My elevator pitch depends on where I am. When I’m at a coffee shop, I say I’m a journalist. When I’m at a business or networking event, I say I’m the founder of a tech company that helps brands tell stories. When I’m at a marketing event, say I’m the founder of Contently, the content marketing platform. When I’m in Mexico, I say, “Soy actor. Has visto la serie de CW, Gossip Girl?” Everyone tends to believe me. (Also I was, actually, in a couple episodes.)

Q: What are 1-3 books that inspired your work/career?

  • Joe: David Sedaris was my writing inspiration throughout college. Mimicking him as a young writer really helped me develop my voice—Me Talk Pretty One Day and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim are my favorites.
  • Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal got me really interested in the neuroscience of storytelling. It’s a fantastic book. I also drew a lot of inspiration from my co-author Shane’s 2014 best-seller, Smartcuts.
  • Shane: I introduced Joe to The Storytelling Animal, so I call that one, dammit! (But also, thank you for the shout out re: Smartcuts!)
  • Reading Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test made me realize how bad I would need to be in order to be the kind of nonfiction writer that’s actually fun.
  • And Gene Weingarten’s collection The Fiddler in the Subway gives me a motivating amount of professional jealousy.

Q: What is the biggest challenge that you’ve had to overcome?

A: Joe: I’m an upper-middle-class Jewish kid from New Jersey, so it’s hard to say that I’ve had to overcome any real challenge, in the grand scheme of things. But if I had to point to one thing, it’s the fact that I graduated college into the Great Recession, at a time where there were very, very few jobs for journalists and writers. So I helped start a news site called The Faster Times; we used a Park Slope coffee shop as our office when we weren’t working other jobs. (I was a teacher, and then, hilariously, a 22-year-old social media manager for a parenting site.) Launching a branded content division is how we turned that into an actual business that could sustain us full-time.

Shane: At one point while we were in the middle of building Contently I got a cancer (mis)diagnosis and surprise divorced in the span of a couple of months. I was too prideful to tell people what I was going through—I even kept the ones who were closest to me and wanted to help in the semi-dark. Writing about that bad time and what I learned after a few years had gone by helped me to process and be grateful for a lot of things:

Q: What’s something unusual or fun that most people don’t know about you?

A: Joe: I was raised by a single mom who worked 70-hour weeks as a vet, so I literally grew up in an animal hospital, raised by dogs. This explains a lot about my desk.

Shane: I once won a trophy for singing a Billy Idol song in a karaoke contest.

Q: Is there a piece of content, a social media campaign or a marketing campaign that you worked on that you’re particularly proud of?

A: Joe: For me, it’s Contently’s blog, The Content Strategist, which I grew 30x, and award-winning print magazine. It helped us build our brand and grow this company, but most importantly, it grew a really strong community of marketers and helped a lot of people.

The Story of Contently Quarterly from Contently on Vimeo.

Shane: I think my third book, Dream Teams (which comes out June 5), is the best thing I’ve ever written. It was also the most difficult and took the most collaboration, which is appropriate, given the topic!

Q: Is there anything else that we haven’t covered that you’d like to share?

A: Check out to sign up for a free storytelling email course! It’s been super popular so far.

Where to find Joe and Shane

Joe LazauskasShane Snow

Thank you Joe and Shane.

Happy Marketing,
Heidi Cohen

Heidi CohenHeidi Cohen is the President of Riverside Marketing Strategies.
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