As you’ll clearly see in this interview, Carlos Maestas understands the importance of a good story. In his new book, Mommy Lied to God: Life Lessons in Authentic Storytelling, Carlos explains to readers how individuals and organizations alike can communicate their authentic stories in a way that not only rings true but that also connects them with their audience on a deeper level. In this interview, Carlos shares some of his own story, including how his former life as a stand-up comic ultimately led him to be the founder and chief story smith at Key Ideas–a firm that helps organizations sharpen and share their messages. But I’ll let him tell you about all of that.
Nikki Van Noy: I am joined today by Carlos Maestas, author of the new book, Mommy Lied to God: Life Lessons in Authentic Storytelling. Carlos, thank you so much for joining me today.
Carlos Maestas: I’m crazy happy to be here with you.
Nikki Van Noy: The obvious place I have to start here is tell me why the title, Mommy Lied to God?
Carlos Maestas: My gosh, was the title offensive to you? Do I need to change it?
Nikki Van Noy: Sorry to tell you, yeah, it’s not too late, is it?
Carlos Maestas: No, that will not upset Scribe at all, right? If I would like, hey, guess what, I recorded this podcast and they hate the title.
Nikki Van Noy: It’s a great title because it’s intriguing. I love titles like this that make you ask questions.
Carlos Maestas: Yeah, okay. Well, I thought you might ask this, and you know, I don’t want to totally give it away. What I will say is the answer to your question is definitely in the book. I’m a marketer, so I’m going to tease it a little bit. It’s in chapter three and it’s probably my favorite chapter in the book.
Without giving it away, I’ll say that one of the characteristics of authentic storytelling is really to just be authentic. I got some advice, from a friend when I started doing stand-up comedy and it was just to write about yourself and make sure that it’s true to your story. You know, I really took those principles that I learned from doing stand-up comedy into the work that I do professionally.
That title is very true to my story, it’s very personal, I couldn’t write a book about storytelling and not include some stories about myself because after all, I’m going to be giving people advice on how to become a better storyteller and that’s really at the heart of it. It’s a title I also thought would hopefully get people’s attention. I’m glad that it was your first question because hopefully, it will.
Nikki Van Noy: Mission accomplished, Carlos. Well done. Not to start off by taking us on a tangent but just hearing you talk about stand-up comedy and laying yourself bare in that type of environment gives my nervous system a reaction. Talk to me about the experience for you of telling stories in such an authentic way that you’re really putting yourself out there, both on stage and then again in this book?
Carlos Maestas: Yeah, one thing to remember about stand-ups is that, as a stand-up comedian, you have a very finite amount of time to create an emotional response. One of the things I think comedians are really brilliant at is just simplifying very complex issues. I think that doing stand-up really taught me how to take things that were personal to me, that were true to me, and hopefully organize them in a way, in a very short period of time, where it would create an emotional response out of an audience.
That’s what we have to do as storytellers. We really need to learn how to simplify our message and be vulnerable at times. Sometimes there are things that really differentiate us, they’re a part of our story, and are also very relatable to other people that have that shared experience. So, it was terrifying at times. I still get nervous anytime I do stand-up. Public speaking is the thing people fear more than death and I have died many deaths on stage.
I think that when you add the responsibility of actually trying to make people laugh, it can be even that much harder. But I always tell people that, for me, doing stand-up was just cheaper than therapy, and that is what I needed at that time. So, yeah, it was a lot of fun and it certainly has been something that has stayed with me. I take those lessons that I learned into how I help other people share their stories.
Nikki Van Noy: Yeah, that really strikes me as one of those superpower experiences. If you can do that, you really can do anything.
Carlos Maestas: Yeah, if you’ve been through a hard thing, I’m not necessarily suggesting you go do stand-up comedy because performing at a hole in the wall bar in Laredo in front of a bunch of drunk people can be very uninspiring. But I would challenge people to look for opportunities where they may feel vulnerable. I think for most people, going up in front of a group of either strangers or colleagues, you’re putting yourself up there, you’re putting yourself out there and it can be a challenge. So, I recommend that people learn how to be okay with being uncomfortable sometimes.
Nikki Van Noy: Beautiful. Okay, let’s dig in here a little bit and talk to me about what you do and how storytelling fits into that.
Carlos Maestas: Yeah, I have a company called Key Ideas. I’ve had a company now for 18 years and really, at the heart of what we do is we help folks that are trying to move an audience in a certain direction, whether it’s a nonprofit or a for-profit, look for how they can differentiate themselves through their own story.
We do that primarily through video. We will create content for organizations, we will help them with messaging, so we’re kind of a hybrid between doing the work an ad agency does because we also work on the creative heart of it as well and can take anything from concept to completion. The majority of the work we do is around video storytelling, but we also do graphic design and social media. But essentially, the principles that I write about in the book, many of them are taken from real experiences that we’ve had with real clients.
We are All Storytellers
Nikki Van Noy And why is storytelling the avenue that you choose to work with?
Carlos Maestas: I think that we are all storytellers. Whether we know it or not. I learned that this was really what I needed to be doing and wanted to be doing. There are really two kinds of things in my life. When I started Key Ideas, the first product that we had is we were selling advertising on hotel keycards–quite literally Key Ideas. So, when you check into a hotel, you would get an ad from Domino’s or Papa John’s and you need to carry that ad with you in your pocket for your entire stay. That’s what I first started doing and after a few years, I realized that more of a printing business and I sold that part of the business and started doing stand-up.
That was a hobby, but at the same time, I was going to a church that was asking me to help them produce services. It’s a very multimedia kind of church. They do a lot of music, a lot of videos, and I had a chance to travel to Liberia, Africa with that church on a mission trip and tell stories of folks that had survived a civil war, that has left over 200,000 people dead. I got to interview people, meet Liberian folks that were just some of the most incredible people that I’d ever met, hear these heart-wrenching stories, and take those stories back and share them in front of the congregation that could help support the work that the church was doing with a nonprofit partner down there. I just fell in love with that kind of storytelling and I realized that there are so many organizations in our country that are doing really important work but have a hard time sharing their story.
Really, what they’re doing is they’re competing with many other organizations for the same limited funds. If they can’t learn how to differentiate themselves and be consistent in their message, then they really are never going to maximize the impact that they can have. That idea of learning how to tell my own story and learning what it did for me had stuck with me. And it’s what I want to do for the rest of my life–help other people tell their story.
Nikki Van Noy: It’s really interesting, embedded in your entire story, well not your entire story, but the little snippet of your life that you’ve told us about thus far, how storytelling is so effective and powerful in these very disparate situations when you’re talking to such disparate audiences.
Carlos Maestas: Storytelling is really one of our oldest art forms. I mean, it’s always been with us. And if you think of things that we actively participate in, whether it’s listening to podcasts or reading a book or going to see a movie or listening to a TED talk, it’s the stories that stick with us.
It’s the stories that inspire us and can really lead to movements. If you think about what’s going on in our world right now, voices need to be heard–people’s experiences that are maybe really hard to talk about. Just being vulnerable and having to share some of those stories, they are what leads to movements and hopefully, sustainable change. And that’s what we’re seeing happening around us in the world right now is there’s a group that has lived with experiences for generations.
Those stories are being shared in a way that we hadn’t had access to them before and hopefully, it will lead to real change in our society. I think that happens in government, it happens in business, it happens in nonprofits. It’s the stories that really move people to want to change in a certain direction.
Nikki Van Noy: Carlos, that’s such a potent point especially if we tether it to what’s going on right now because obviously, we’re all aware of systematic issues but they’re hard to connect to as a human. When it comes down to these smaller stories, that is exactly what ignites a movement, it’s just a really interesting point in light of where we’re at right now.
Carlos Maestas: Yeah, you know, there’s research that shows that the bigger the statistics, the more desensitized that we get to the statistic and to the issue. So, you could say, that 200,000 people passed away in Liberia, Africa due to two civil wars. You can have that statistic on a website, or you could just hear that statistic and you could acknowledge that it’s significant, right?
But, it doesn’t have the same impact as just hearing one person’s story that survived a civil war and hearing about their experience and I feel like that is what’s happening now. George Floyd’s story is not an isolated statistic, it’s not an isolated story, we know that, but there’s something different about being able to turn a video on and see what happened to him, hearing that one story, and then getting to hear the stories of the family members who loved him. There’s a way that moves us, that one story, that reaches beyond statistics that exists. I think that we can never take for granted the power of that one story and what it can do to really create a movement.
Nikki Van Noy: The fact that it is so intimate and personal is what actually allows us to resonate with it.
Carlos Maestas: I think that the best stories tap into a certain sensibility that we have within us that reminds us of our own story. I think that what storytelling has the power to do is to bridge gaps and make connections with people that we don’t even know.
I think that’s certainly true for my own story and what I talked about when I was a stand-up comedian–bitter divorce comic is what I got known for. So, I talked about going through a divorce and that was true to my own experience. Those who were in the audience that had been through a divorce or whose parents were divorced, we’re the ones that would laugh the loudest.
Because they’re not thinking about my story, they’re thinking about the connection in my story to their story. I feel like everybody has the power to do that because they all have things that they have experienced that are unique to them but that also can connect them with an audience, far beyond their own understanding.
Nikki Van Noy: You know, the other thing that strikes me as so interesting as you’re talking is we have all of this technology at our disposal now. Yet, it’s still this ancient innate human thing that is storytelling which is the most effective of all.
Carlos Maestas: What I think is unique to our time in history is that it’s so much easier for the masses to have a platform. That can be a really good thing and it can be a bad thing too. You know, writing the book about the sort of responsibility that we have because we have this platform. What it does is it’s so much easier for us to show people who we are. And you know, I think depending on what you’re posting on social media, you’re showing people the good in you and you have an opportunity to show people the bad in you too.
I think it’s a tool, you know, social media has given every organization a very inexpensive way of having a voice but because everybody has access to that technology, it’s very noisy and so there’s a lot of people communicating many different things and so if we’re hoping to move an audience, you need to learn ways that we can really simplify our message and create content that’s relevant. That is compelling if that’s what we want to do.
Yeah, I think social media is really helping all of that. I think it’s making the world smaller in many ways because we have instant access to information and things that are going on all over the world and that can be a great thing if it’s used responsibly.
Nikki Van Noy: Carlos, I was going to say that not all stories are created equal, but I think what’s more true is that not all storytelling is created equally. In your opinion, what do brands, and individuals need to know in order to create a really compelling story?
Carlos Maestas: The first chapter of the book the title is, “We All Have a Story,” and the first step to becoming a great storyteller is just acknowledging that you have one.
I think that many folks just can’t get past that. It doesn’t matter what you do, there’s something about what you do or something that inspired you to follow the path that you’re on, that is unique to you. Maybe you were the third or fourth generation of family that has owned that business and that’s a story that’s important that might connect with a certain group of people. So, I think that you knowing your story is worthy of being shared, it is important to just be authentic when sharing your story, and not try to fit in a box that you don’t belong in.
I think the mistakes that many organizations make is that they try to create content that sounds a certain way because they feel like that is what their audience wants, instead of focusing on the things that are true to them and really going through doing the work to identify what those things are and then just consistently sharing those over a period of time–and knowing that, through that process, you’re going to connect with an audience that is going to get value from what it is that you do.
One story that I like to tell when I give a presentation is that I had a really good friend of mine who is an executive director of a foundation and he told me a story. He said, “It is really evident to me when a nonprofit is sitting in my office and asking for funding but they have done no research on what it is that I care about, or they just don’t care because the problem they’re trying to solve does not fit into the three things that I have clearly listed on my website that I fund.”
They will even sometimes try to make these loose connections to connect to what it is that’s important to that foundation and that is not authentic. That is not true. You know people can sniff inauthenticity out so much better than you might think and so it is just better to be true and understand that there is going to be a certain percentage of people that are never going to care what it is that you do or the problem that you’re trying to solve. That’s okay.
That is not your audience. It is about making meaningful connections with the audience that does care about the problem that you are solving.
Nikki Van Noy: I was going to ask you and it sounds that you may have just answered this if there are any common traps that organizations tend to fall into when it comes into identifying or telling their story in a way that really lands?
Carlos Maestas: I think that the one that I just described is certainly one of them, but I think another is that they change their messaging too often. So, they create a campaign, that campaign is successful, but because they are aware of that campaign and it’s been out for a certain period of time, they change the messaging and do something that’s completely different and it is not consistent with that message.
I think that what happens when you do that is that you lose the synergy that your message is trying to create and an audience has to completely be re-educated based on this other story that you are trying to share about what you do.
I think the value you provide, your mission, what is at the core of what you do, should not change. That audience that you target and how you get about that mission and the different services you provide. If it is an organization, that ‘get at that mission’, those things can all have their own story attached to it as long as that common thread is consistent each time. I think consistency is a big thing. Another really big one is positioning. So many marketers, storytellers, make the mistake of trying to position the organization as the hero, and really that is a mistake. There is a great book called Story Brand on this and it is really the power of positioning.
There is a whole chapter in my book about this and it talks about how your goal as a storyteller should be to be the guide. The customer wants to see themselves as the hero. And in every great story, you’re going to have a hero that has a problem and there is usually a guide that helps them solve that problem and helps them win the day. It helps them become the hero and that’s really about positioning.
So, when you look at how you’re sharing your story on your website or through video, you know you really need to position yourself as the guide and the customer as the hero. I think that is another common mistake that you’ll find when people are trying to share their story.
Nikki Van Noy: So, to tether all of this into practice, since you have heard and told so many stories, is there any example you can give of a story that you’ve either worked on or been privy to that’s really landed for a specific reason or situation?
Carlos Maestas: There are many of those in the book. Each chapter has at least one. I think that stories, where people are using their experience and being vulnerable enough to help others get through theirs, are the best stories.
I think that anytime there has been a significant challenge and somebody is vulnerable enough to be in a position to just share their experience and even mistakes they may have made, and they are doing it so that other people that may hear it and understand that there is light at the end of the tunnel. My story may have a different outcome. I think every story is unique and those stories that are hard are the ones that are sometimes the most impactful.
I can give you a couple of examples. I write about this man that I interviewed. His name is José and he had been a pretty good student when he was younger but had an injury that sidelined him. He was a football player. He grew up in a rough neighborhood, and he lost that outlet of being able to be in a sport. He was a skinny kid and got picked on, and so he started to hang out with those people who were picking on him. He joined the gang, ended up experimenting with drugs, became addicted to drugs, and started to live a life of crime. He ended up getting sent to prison for an armed robbery. And all of this happened in his youth.
So, there were two major stints of significant prison time that he had and the last time he got out, he had a sentence that was supposed to be much higher than what it was. It got mitigated and he saw this as a sign. He decided that he was going to be a part of a prison ministry, and turn his life to God, really focus on his faith, and that is what he did.
When he got out, he went to this organization called Chrysalis Ministries that is in San Antonio. They help people transition from being in prison or in jail and get them back on their feet. They have a really good track record of helping minimize the recidivism rate that exists. They helped him get back on his feet. He maintained his sobriety and he started to work for a nonprofit that is lobbying for prison reform in the youth criminal justice system.
So, here is this guy who had a really difficult experience as a child–many things because of the choices that he made. It is a story that many people might try to hide and not try to let people know about.
What he’s done is he’s done the opposite and now he lobbies in Austin and meets with Senators and House of Representatives and lobbies for prison reform and uses his own experiences being a youth incarcerated as this sort of badge of credibility. You know, he had never been to the state capital prior to that. Now his story has been used to really make major reforms.
I think that is one small example, but there are so many other examples of people who have taken something really hard in their life and instead of hiding it, actively sharing their story for the good of either an organization, but probably most importantly, for the people that the organization impacts.
Nikki Van Noy: You know what struck me as you were telling that particular story is that it seems like there is almost another side to that too where again in this example, he is taking his own story and sort of rewriting it or alchemizing it in some way.
Carlos Maestas: 100% and I think that you really touched on probably the key idea of the entire book and the common thread of the entire book, which is that there is glory in your story. Those really difficult things that have happened either happened to us or have happened as a result of mistakes that we made. Those don’t have to be wasted experiences because any story, no matter how difficult, it can at some point be used for good.
I have interviewed parents that have lost their children and those are always the hardest stories. We have used those stories to tell a story of donor organizations like the eye bank and organ donation organizations. So, here is this tragic loss that someone has had, and even in the midst of this tragedy, there is a small comfort that can exist because they know that the loved one that they lost is actually helping someone else regain their sight or continue to live. I think that those stories are not wasted stories.
So, as we speak to using stories that are hard to do something good, this really hits at the heart of my own journey. I shared that I used to do stand-up comedy and I would talk about my divorce, but you know that was helpful for me to be able to go up in front of a group of strangers and make them laugh and sometimes get paid even if it was just a bar tab.
Really, the pivotal moment for me was when I started producing services at the church that I was going to. It’s a church in San Antonio called City Church and the very first service that they asked me to produce was on Valentine’s Day and it was a service called ‘Break Up Divorce.’ What’s interesting is that I had been pretty reserved at the church about my own journey and my own story at that time. So, when we were in the meeting I said, “Well, it is interesting that this is the subject for this weekend because I have been through a divorce, I started doing stand-up and it is a really huge topic of my material in my stand-up.” They let me not just produce the service but they let me go up on stage and do a little bit of time. They wouldn’t let me retitle the service to “Mommy Lied to God,” but that’s okay. You have to pick your battles sometimes, but they let me go up and do a little bit of time and then share my testimony.
A couple of pivotal things happened. The first thing is I have a little boy and his mom and I, who I guess you could say are important to the story, we were at one of those school performances that he had, kind of a recital. She said, “You know, I was thinking about going to your church. What time are the services?” I said, “Okay that’s weird but you can totally come to church and here are the service times, but I have to give you a disclaimer, I am going to be going up on stage and I am going to be talking about you.”
Obviously, this is my ex-wife I am talking about, and of course, she was horrified as most normal people would be. But I said, “It is not that bad, trust me. You’re welcome to come,” and so she ended up coming. She came to the last service. She was literally shaking, and she sat at the back. It is a pretty big place, so it was easy for her to be anonymous and I wasn’t about to go and say, “There she is at the back–everybody wave,” no.
I did the material and she hadn’t heard me do stand-up at that time. It was an interesting thing because she had actually at one point found notes of the very first show that I was going to do and she was upset at some of the material until she was reading it to her mom and her mom was laughing. I mean it helped the situation, but she had never seen me perform. I shared the story of using this time to really reevaluate things that I needed to as a person.
The title and sort of this phase of my life that I was in were really about forgiveness. It was about forgiving her, forgiving myself, and not focusing so much on what I felt like I had lost, but what I still had, which is our son. That’s really what that service was about, and it was the beginning of a journey for me to just actively make sure that when I had an opportunity, I could share my story. Afterward, there were many people who came up to me and said, “You know I really appreciate what you had to say. I am going through a divorce right now and it really connected with me.”
One of those people I ended up meeting about four or five years after that, she said that she was sitting in the room with her mom watching the service with her son and she was saying, “You know guys like that don’t really exist.” She was also going through a divorce. She was a little skeptical and we ended up meeting.
In November we’ll be celebrating nine years of marriage and have a five-year-old together. I share that story not because I really feel like everybody needs to go do stand-up comedy, but I share that story because it is such an important part of my own journey. I write about it in the book because I really want people to understand that even those difficulties in their life that they experience, you get a few years remade from them. And they really can be the stories that have the most significant impact on people’s lives and can be a turning point for other people. No stories are wasted.
Nikki Van Noy: That is such a great story. I love that, thank you for sharing. Carlos, thank you so much for joining me. Again, the book is Mommy Lied to God. Carlos, where else can listeners find you outside the book?
Carlos Maestas: You can certainly follow us on Instagram, my handle is just @keyideasinc. We’re on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, our website is keyideas.net and you get a sense for the work that we do. I say we because I would be nothing without the team of story smiths, as we like to call them, on our team. They’re just really talented people that really care about storytelling as much as I do and use their gifts to really help others maximize the impact that they can have on the communities that they serve.
Nikki Van Noy: I am always a fan of the storytellers. Carlos, best of luck with this book and thank you so much again for joining me.
Carlos Maestas: Awesome, this is great, it is a pleasure and I hope that the book is impactful in some way.
Create and Orchestrate: Marcus Whitney