#63 Storytellers I Admire: Braveen Kumar Pt. 1
How Selling Out Can Lead You to Your Dreams
A few months ago I shared a tweet from a writer who I admitted made me absolutely jealous of his ability to succinctly and powerfully express an idea in a tweet or a story.
That writer and creator is Braveen Kumar, a content marketer, humourist, and creator. I’d add teacher and storyteller to that introduction, though don’t think he would. I got the chance to sit down with Braveen and learn more about his perspective on storytelling, why it’s become a buzzword, creation, and writing. What was supposed to be a 20 minute interview lasted double that time—I was just so keen to hear more, which means I had waaaaaaay more to share than space and attention to share it (we get into that idea of attention in the conversation). But there’s just SO much in it, so many things I learned and that reinforced some of the things I’ve shared with you in the past that I wanted you to experience. About life and storytelling. So rather than cutting it within an inch of its existence and impact, I split the interview into two parts. This week we stick to storytelling and Braveen’s role as a communicator and next week we get into the impact of storytelling in different arenas of life.
Get a warm beverage, sit down somewhere cozy and take in what I think is a really inspiring and brilliant perspective on what it means to create and share stories.
(Also, I have two things I want to share with you at the end. Invitations really, so don’t miss that).
The interview has been edited and condensed for brevity, but I tried to leave as much with you as possible. It’s long so I’d encourage you to grab a cuppa when you have a bit of time and dive into the world of one storyteller for a bit. Enjoy and let me know what you think, I have more of these planned.
Chantaie: So my newsletter is very much about storytelling and exposing people to different kinds of storytelling. I don’t want to interview the traditional type of storyteller that people assume are storytellers. I want people who tell stories in different ways. So, let's jump in. Starting with what's your story? And you can interpret that question however you want.
Braveen: Oooof. That's a hard one. Well, my story is, I've always been really into writing, ever since I was a kid, to the point where I would have notebooks just filled up with writing: short stories, jokes, poetry, everything. It was one of those things that just consumed my attention as a kid. It was a weird thing for a kid that's eight years old to be into. And over the years it's the one thing that I got recognition for growing up. I was not that good at most things in school. I was actually a C student until I dropped math and science in high school, and then I was on the honour roll for the first time.
In high school and university is when I really leaned into writing. I started writing, producing, directing plays, most of them were comedies. I started my first a MySpace blog, started a Facebook page, writing jokes. Was always into writing comedy. That's how it manifested was humour. I remember reading Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal and I was just like, you mean to tell me I can say something that I don't mean and people can pick up on the irony of that. I can make an argument by saying the opposite thing. And so I got really into satire and poetry. I took a creative writing class. People started hitting me up for writing assignments. Just anything people needed me to do. Did a lot of those essays, resumes, cover letters. When I went to university, kids had OSAP money so essay writing became a lot more lucrative.
Wait a second. Is this is writing essays for people's assignments? Like doing people's homework?
B: (without shame) Yeah. Yeah. Helping people plagiarize.
Okay. Okay, great. Love that. Keep going.
B: It was just a thing that fell into my lap and I was like, yeah, I'll do this for this much money. I started doing more of that and then eventually started helping entrepreneurial types with their website copy and blog posts, press releases, stuff like that. And yeah, just was always into writing and then started making money doing it pretty young. The way I put it is, once I entered into my career as a content marketer that's when I went all-in on “selling out”. I just wanted to get really good at content marketing. The craft.
Why do you think of it as selling out?
B: Because it is. Very few people want to get into marketing. Most stumble into it. I think it's true for writers especially, every writer I know wanted to write a book at some point. They get into their career and then it just doesn't happen anymore. Or you're into writing, spoken word or comedy, or stuff that is not as easy to monetize. That being the practice, the art side of things, the practice that makes you good enough that someone would want to hire you for marketing purposes because the nature of content marketing, anyways, is it's really hard for brands to stand out with just ads, so they try to create stuff that has independent value that either educates, entertains, or inspires. And that's kind of like what I did as a kid, it was a lot of that kind of writing. And doing it on behalf of brands as a content marketer was great, I got really into it. I became very career-oriented. But then there came a point where I was like, “I don't like writing.” I needed a career change or something. I thought about getting into coding or whatever and I realized that I didn't stop liking writing, I just stopped doing the kind of writing that I love doing. And then I started doing that again as side projects. Because I used to do a blog post a week in university on my blog. And those are humorous in nature or whatever. But that became kind of a grind—being on a hamster wheel of publishing once a week. And one of the lessons I learned was to increase the timescale of the projects I took on, which makes them inherently more interesting. So writing a book is an example of a project that has a much larger time scale. I did this satirical poetry project where I tried to grow an audience writing bad Instagram poetry. And that was a year-long project and I created a book, a poetry book, to monetize that audience. And that was a lot of fun to do.
I learned a lot doing it too. But for me that was the first thing that I did that felt like art in a very long time. It made me better at my job too, not just from what I learned from it but just having something just to care about that is your own and to grow it and to try really hard at making it good reminded me to bring that perspective to the work that I did for work, right? It shifted my perspective when it came to my own job, my career and made me think more about how do I get as much money as possible for my time in this one aspect of my life so I can have time and money to finance other aspects of my life. And so I found that balance between marketer and artist, and that brings me to where I am right now.
Did you say you found that balance between marketer and-
B: Artist. Yeah.
Oh, I love that.
B: And I feel like that has been something I've struggled with my entire career. And only now was I like, I get it now. It's, one, you have to be good at the craft of marketing, to get good at that. To practice, to learn how ideas spread on the internet. And learn how to make money for other businesses. And then from there, it's like, well, now I can charge more for work that I would typically have to, in order to make the same amount of money, I would have to do it through volume, now I just do it through myself being scarce. And so it's just having figured that out.
That's why I call it selling out. Not in the negative context that typically comes with it. I sold out and I made sure that I got to a point where I could buy back my dreams.
B: And then now I've finally done that. And now I'm working on other projects that are more creative in nature. I don't even care to make money or not. And it's one of those things where I just deferred my dreams deliberately. I remember when I was a kid I was like, I want to learn how to distribute my own ideas, I want to get better at distributing my own ideas, so I want to become a marketer so I can borrow from that skill set and lend it to my own ideas.
“I sold out and I made sure that I got to a point where I could buy back my dreams.”
So how would you define yourself now? If you had to give yourself a title, what would you say?
B: (Long pause) I'd go with creator. Because I feel like that mindset… in every interview that I've done it's the creators that I resonate with most. So not writers, not entrepreneurs, it's specifically creators as in YouTubers, people that have Instagram pages. Because it’s a different mindset around growing an audience and community, engaging with people, and expressing yourself, but also creating stuff, knowing how it gets distributed on the internet and knowing how to navigate compromise between content and art, expressing yourself, and getting seen online. Even as a content marketer, that mindset helps me a lot. Having empathy for apathy on the internet. You have to have such a deep appreciation for how little people care about anything that we create online. And then how do you, one, create things that people care about, that are relevant to them and also package them and distribute them so that they can consume it.
So I love that you say creator, because I actually thought you were going to say something like humorist. So tell me where humour fits into your work as a creator now.
B: Humour is always fun because it's a layer that you can add to anything. If I could write a horror story and there could be a layer of humour to it. I can write a blog post and can use humour to persuade people. Social media, same ways. So I can't put comedian because I performed maybe once on stage in high school. So I would never call myself a comedian. But humorist makes the most sense because a lot of what I write is absurd. And so I feel like it's a disclaimer almost where I'm saying, I'm capable of being serious, this is just one side of me. I just had to put that out there.
But yeah, humour has a layer to make points, a vehicle to make points that I want to make, social commentary, things I think are important to talk about. Things that I observe that I think could be better; inherently not funny if most people look at them, but maybe I'd see something funny about it and then package it and then other people look at it through a different lens. Humour is for me, if I have multiple voices, it's the most prominent voice usually.
Okay. And is it something that you had to create over time? Did you have to teach yourself this or was it something that came naturally to you? Sorry, I'm really interested in this.
B: So the way I'd frame it is, you have to keep putting your stuff out there, especially jokes. The feedback loop when it comes to jokes is so clear. You put something out there, do people laugh at it or not? Who laughs at it, who doesn't? And you can tell whether something is good or not very quickly. If you ever perform and the joke doesn't land, you know that, right? Versus other types of writing that you might perform or feedback loops that you might see around them. When I write a short story I think, what’s that feedback loop look like? Did people finish it? Did they enjoy it? But a joke is very simple. Put it out there, do they laugh or do they not laugh?
Okay. So we're only on question two but I will manage that. So how do you define a story? Or another way to hear this question is, what makes a good story in your world?
B: I think relatability.
Why is that?
B: Storytelling is a bit of a buzzword in marketing. What I see a lot is brands going, “we need to tell more stories.” And they just crank out more stories. But then I'm like, well, who are they for? What specific aspects of the human experience are you trying to resonate with, right?
Is it so basic that everyone relates to it or is it so specific that your customer relates to it or a very specific audience? So for me, I don't actually spend a lot of time telling other people's stories, like a journalist would. For me a lot of it is borrowing from my own life, trying to tell my own story. Every day is kind of a story. Just the most random things that you experience in life are stories. And then observing those things and then figuring out how can I incorporate this into my writing. It's very hard to be original I think, unless you put yourself in the work, then it becomes very easy. Because if all a story is is interviewing someone and putting that interview out there. To me that’s not a story, that's an interview.
A story has to find something very real about the human experience, something that exists in this one specific person's world but also exists in the wider world, in a bunch of other people's worlds, right. Especially when it comes to humour, I think that's super important. There's things that could be a minor inconvenience, something that you experience in your own world and other people probably experienced in theirs too. And then, how do I package this in a way that's going to resonate with them? So whether it's a poem, a joke, whatever, what is the specific thing that people experience every day but they never really looked at in this way?
Awesome. Thank you for that. So all of these interviews are with people who I consider to be storytellers. But do you consider yourself a storyteller?
B: I would never call myself one (laughs).
Okay. Say more, say more. Help me understand that.
B: Because I feel like that label is usually for people that tell other people's stories. Which I've done but... I make up stories a lot. I write short stories, even when I'm writing jokes sometimes it'll be framed or packaged as a story like something that happened to me or whatever. Yeah, I feel like a “storyteller” is someone that's a conduit for other people's stories.
I find that so interesting that in your head or for you the idea of storytelling is that notion of a conduit. Because as you were talking I was thinking, in some ways you're a conduit of your own story but then you're reflecting something back out to people that resonates with them.
B: Yeah. Yeah. For me, it's like journalists are storytellers. Podcasters are storytellers.
Is it because you think your story, the sharing of your story… what's the missing link there?
B: For me I think it's because I over-index on writing jokes. Humour in general. And that's a very personal thing. Stand-up comedians rarely get on stage and tell other people's stories, it's usually their own. That's why I kind of lean into that more. Trying to do interesting things, learn new things. It’s always been trying to make my experience as rich as possible so that I have more to borrow from when it comes to writing.
Yeah. So who would you say is your audience? Who do you create for? And you can choose whatever context you want.
B: I like creating for people that are a little lost. A little misunderstood maybe, or they feel like they don't quite belong.
Why is that?
B: That's how I feel most of the time (laughs). And I feel like that is a very common thing to feel. Especially when you're in your 20s, 30s, still figuring things out. I don't think you ever stop figuring things out in life.
Yeah. I hope not.
B: Yeah, I think that's mostly my audience. I write a lot about careers because I think a lot of that stuff I'm talking about being lost and not knowing what you're doing manifests in careers. And so that ends up being relatable to a lot of people. Again, borrowing from my own experiences. So when I say borrowing from my own experience, I also mean, I talk to a lot of people as well and in doing so I kind of absorb their own experiences and then it's just mixed up. For me writing isn't a private activity, it's very social. You’ve got to talk to people, you got to meet random people and I just randomly drop into interview mode sometimes. I'm just like, tell me everything about your life.
Yeah, yeah! “Tell me more.”
B: And then learning how to get people to lower their guard so they tell you this shit is always fun. But yeah, just taking all that. Living, talking to people, meeting people. And then when it's time to sit down, you just have more to draw from.
That's so interesting. But that's probably my biggest weakness as a writer, when I go out to the world and talk to people I'm almost always like, don't talk to me, leave me alone. But the best things come or the most interesting stories come out of talking to more people.
B: Are you an introvert?
I'm a ridiculous introvert. I'm textbook.
B: I'm a ridiculous extrovert. I feel weird if I'm not talking and meeting new people.
I'm at my best when I'm alone thinking [grimace]. So why would you say stories matter at all? Do stories matter? And if they don't, tell me more about that.
B: I think they definitely matter. I don't think there's anything more human than a story. I think they matter. And I also think there's a lot of them, right? And I think that's why it's easy for stories to get drowned out because there's so many of them. Which ones get a platform to be heard, which ones don't. I think stories very much do matter. I think that it's one of those things where there's obviously demand for it, but there’s a massive limitless supply of stories as well. And so standing out has never been harder. But also stories have never been more important. Because even when you're writing something that is made up. Like I write fiction, even though it’s made up, there's something real and true within it, and it's represented in a way and packaged in a way that other people can see what is real, true. So yes, they do matter.
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More next week with Braveen Kumar….
I’d Love For You To Join Me
I am lucky enough to be speaking at this year’s Filling the Gap conference on October 7, 2021 and hope you’ll join. I’ll be sharing my experience of burnout and healing from it. The talk is part of a series on redefining our relationship with work from hustle culture (boo), recognizing toxicity, burnout, capitalistic functionalities and how to break away from those things.
Filling the Gap, is a wonderful not for profit that usually organizes two conferences a year—the past year has been virtual. They donate all conference proceeds to the Barbra Schlifer Clinic, which fights domestic violence against women through legal aid.
Tickets are $75 and you can sign up here to join.
I was recently featured on Cleo Social Inc.'s blog. I shared the role storytelling plays in my work and how I use (or neglect?) social in running my own business. A fun read with a bit of insight into what informs the way I guide my clients in crafting and sharing their own stories. Check it out here.