‘Storytellers need to motivate a sceptical audience to do the unimaginable’

29 Aug 2019

Rafferty Jackson speaking at Inspirefest 2019. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

At Inspirefest 2019, former Beats by Dre exec Rafferty Jackson talked about what businesses can learn from the headphone company when it comes to storytelling and knowing your ‘why’.

What do Winston Churchill, JFK and Steve Jobs all have in common? They all knew their ‘why’ – the reasons driving their decisions – and used storytelling to convey those goals to others.

That’s according to former Beats by Dre executive Rafferty Jackson, who was part of the team that helped build the headphone company from a simple concept to a $3bn acquisition target.

Now, with her own business Jack Industries, she focuses on helping leaders and founders execute their goals through purpose-driven leadership and says that storytelling is a big step on the road to success.

Speaking at Inspirefest 2019, Jackson said that a storyteller “just needs you to understand what is happening”.

“Sometimes storytellers need to motivate a sceptical audience to do the unimaginable,” she added, referring to Churchill encouraging his country to continue fighting in the second world war and Kennedy asking his country to go to the moon.

The ultimate goal for any storyteller – be they a leader in politics or in business – is to entice and convince their audience. But how can this be achieved?

“Storytellers know their ‘why’. They know their personal ‘why’ and they know their professional ‘why’,” Jackson said.

“Their personal ‘why’ is that unique ‘why’ that is inside of every single one of us. It’s that energy that gets us out of bed … It is singular and unique inside of every single one of us.

“Storytellers also know their company why – the why that drives their company, or what you could call your professional purpose,” she added.

“Steve Jobs knew he had an amazing product, but he also knew the best product doesn’t always win. He had to actually story tell to all of us what an iPhone was and what an iPhone did.”

Beats business

The idea of the personal and professional ‘why’ was key at Beats by Dre, where Jackson was an executive vice-president until the company was sold to Apple for $3bn in 2014.

She described the co-founders, Dr Dre and Jimmy Iovine, as “living legends” and “prolific music producers”, who wanted to solve a specific “plague” that was affecting the music industry.

“That plague was those crummy awful 25 cent earphones that came in your box. So the song was great on the digital playback device but it was horrific when it went through that awful, awful little earphone.”

The company wanted to create something that would allow people at home to “hear the music as the artist intended”, with headphones similar to the ones producers and musicians wore in the studio.

‘Why matters. Even if you’re not a CEO, even if you’re not a president, even if you’re not a founder’

“Jimmy and Dre knew their personal ‘why’. They are some of the greatest storytellers of our generation,” Jackson said. “Figuring out how to translate that ‘why’ into an operational company ‘why’ for the employees at Beats – that’s a whole other story.”

Designing a product was one thing, but the team also had to figure out what the company stood for and how it could translate the founders’ passion for music to the wider world.

Jackson said that the company’s advertisements, in particular, showed this and helped consumers connect to the “emotional story”. They attracted stars such as Eminem and Serena Williams to take part, attracted viewers to get the company’s products tattooed on their bodies and, ultimately, attracted Apple to acquire the business for a substantial sum.

“We were able to get fuel into that rocket and we were able to get Beats to go even further and faster than we knew it could go,” Jackson added.

Laying the foundation

Jackson said that there are lessons every person and every business can take from the story of Beats, and avoid the “dumpster fire” that can occur when you don’t understand the purpose behind what you’re doing.

“Why matters. Even if you’re not a CEO, even if you’re not a president, even if you’re not a founder. Every single day every single one of us is making decisions that are grounded in our personal ‘why’ and our company ‘why’.

“If you have ever pitched your idea – a presentation at work or you’re pitching to investors – and crazy stuff comes out of your mouth, you don’t know your company ‘why’.”

The next important element brings us back to the art of storytelling. This isn’t something reserved “for famous people”, Jackson added, noting that whether you’re asking for a new responsibility at work or you’re trying to get a VC to invest in you, you’re still telling your story.

Referencing the work of Simon Sinek, Jackson concluded: “Start with your personal ‘why’ –  why you get out of bed every day to go after your goals, getting through all of those roadblocks – then your company ‘why’.

“If you don’t have these two foundations, you are vulnerable to doubt, bad decisions and unhappiness. Lay your foundation in your personal and your professional ‘why’, then go tell your story.”

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide. Ultra Early Bird tickets for Inspirefest 2020 are available now.

Sarah Harford was sub-editor of Silicon Republic