Rod Thorn tells stories for a living.
And when he took the stage at the recent Summit by Dynamic Signal, Thorn had a success story to share.
He was the Senior Director of Communications at PepsiCo when his business unit faced a crisis. The North America Beverages division was struggling. Revenue, profit, and market share were eroding with morale low and turnover high.
After a fact-finding tour led by Thorn and the head of Human Resources, the CEO allocated more than $100 million to address their employee-first recommendations. But Thorn contended it wasn’t enough to simply invest in the 40,000 front-line workers.
They had to show people how they were making their work lives better.
“The heart of our problem was we had to overcome a trust issue, and stories helped us do that,” Thorn said.
PepsiCo created a multi-directional storytelling effort called “Ignited.” A mini-documentary series, called “You Said It, We Did It,” shined a spotlight on the changes. An internal communications process was launched so employees could communicate directly with the CEO and one another. They started a creative short video series, “Life on the Front Line,” that was shot by and starred employees – and it took on a life of its own.
“Our business turned around with three straight years of positive growth,” he said. “People got their swagger back. They started feeling good about themselves, and we went into quarterly earnings with our chins up. It was a big turnaround.”
One of the featured speakers at Summit, Thorn cited this and other examples to explain the importance of storytelling at his session, “Creating an Employee Experience that Builds Connection, Confidence, and Business Success.”
It’s hard to describe everything that Thorn does. He’s a playwright. Author. Voice actor. (He goes by the “Voice of Rod.”) Enterprise communications executive. He recently left PepsiCo to focus on a variety of ventures that include his communications consulting business, Thorn Media.
“I help people and organizations understand what their stories are and what they could be, as well as how they can strategically use them,” he said. “Then we capture, create, and distribute those stories as speeches, films and videos, books and articles, websites, blogs, social media posts, presentations, exhibits, and oral histories.”
Perhaps the best tale he tells is his own.
He grew up in abject poverty, living in a trailer on a dirt road that was dominated by an alcoholic, abusive father. In his recent LinkedIn post announcing his departure from PepsiCo, he began with these words:
“When I was a poor kid in upstate New York I used to chase airplanes. I thought if I caught one I could fly away to a better life. Since then, I’ve been lucky to fly all over the world on corporate jets with CEOs . . .”
Yes, there’s a reason why he’ll have a book coming soon to an airport kiosk near you.
One of his coping mechanisms as a child was to create an alter-ego superhero – The Mighty Thorn. But he also had real help overcoming his hardscrabble upbringing. His supportive mother, a successful uncle, and teachers and coaches all encouraged him to dream big. But most important was Thorn’s refusal to put limits on himself.
After college, he worked at a small-town newspaper, ABC and CBS television affiliates (where he learned to do voiceover work), and in local government. A chance meeting with off-Broadway dramatist Leonard Melfi led Thorn to impulsively blurt out that he, too, was a playwright. He wasn’t. But when Thorn completed his first play a few months later, Melfi agreed to produce it. Today, Thorn is up to about 25 productions.
Thorn also would gain a reputation as being something of a CEO whisperer.
He has worked with about 35 CEOs and countless other executives, writing their books, speeches, op-eds, and serving as a trusted advisor.
“Often as a communicator, you’re the only person who isn’t trying to get something from the CEO,” Thorn explained. “Over the years, I’ve realized part of my value to them is I remember what it’s like to be that kid on the ground, trying to work his way up into that jet. I can explain regular people to them.”
That’s partly why the PepsiCo initiative was successful. Storytelling alone wasn’t the reason for that turnaround. But it captured the context for people on the front line, gave them a voice, and made them characters in their own story. It reinforced that they mattered and were playing a role in helping the brand improve.
“Storytelling is the foundation of all communications, and how we make sense of the world,” Thorn said. “But if you’re just telling a story without any data, then you’re only spewing fantasies. If I didn’t tell you how the business turned around and just said that everybody was sharing cool videos, you would say, ‘So?’ Every story has heroes and villains. Challenges and conflicts. Resolution. There needs to be a learning or a moral at the end. And that’s the most important way to frame communications in business.”
Position: Chief storyteller at Thorn Media; communications consultant with Consultants Collective; and recently signed with The Creative Management Agency for projects that include producing his plays
Family: Wife Christine; daughter Sarah (20), a junior at the Manhattan School of Music
Home: Ridgefield, Conn.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in Rhetoric and Communications at the State University of New York at Albany
Career: Until recently, he led executive and internal communications for the North America Beverages division at PepsiCo, which has 55,000 employees and generates approximately $22 billion in annual revenue. His extensive corporate experience also includes Director and Vice President of Communications and Public Affairs at Kodak, and Director of Communications at IBM.
Favorite Movie: “Local Hero”
Favorite TV Show: “American Pickers”
Favorite Book: “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck
Favorite Playwright: Arthur Miller
Favorite App on His Phone: Scrabble. “My mother and I played all the time. So, I get a little closer to her when I play.”
First Job: Helping bale hay on a farm
Memorable Non-Corporate Writing Project: He spent one summer in rural Indiana at the home of motorized wheelchair inventor Ralph Braun while ghostwriting his “Rise Above” autobiography. “I was writing this uplifting, inspiring story while living in a barn above his herd of alpacas.”
Fun Fact No. 1: Played baseball and football in college. “I was a much lesser Bo Jackson.”
Fun Fact No. 2: He was the lead singer and lyricist for a band. “We mostly played our own songs, and even got on the radio. But when we tried U2, I went from Bono to Bozo in about 10 seconds.”
Fun Fact No. 3: He has been confused with his famous namesake, NBA Hall of Famer Rod Thorn. Once, in the 1990s, they ended up in a Chicago hotel at the same time, and the non-basketball-legend got the presidential suite and a constant stream of phone calls from luminaries like Charles Barkley. “I told the front desk, ‘There’s an important Rod Thorn in this hotel, and then there’s me.’”
Superpower He Wished He Had: Invisibility
Five Questions with Rod
Why does storytelling matter in business?
“If you just do data and PowerPoint presentations, you’re not going to capture the hearts and heads of people. Storytelling makes them feel something. It changes how people think and drives them to take actions.”
What’s an example?
“For instance, it’s one thing to say a recycling program will save the company $100 million. But it’s something else to say we can save $100 million and invest in a local drug rehabilitation center, programs to help veterans, clean up a lake or river. That’s when people see the larger mission. Storytelling helps them get there in their hearts and minds.”
So, you’re talking about giving employees a reason to believe in their company?
“If you’re not delivering on the purpose part of the equation, employees today will have no interest in being there.”
Why are metrics important for a communicator?
“If we’re using the Dynamic Signal platform, there’s data that will be coming out of that. We’re going to know that people clicked on these types of articles, spent this much time on them, and shared them these many times. That’s all data that I could use to sell the idea of why stories matter to my upper management. ‘Trust me’ is not a good strategy.”
What’s the benefit of attending a conference like Summit?
“To learn from each other. I’m very open about going to conferences and stealing great ideas. Conferences also are where you can commiserate with each other. And this may sound hokey, but there’s a currency in sharing what I know. I always get a good feeling when people think they learned something from me.”