How to Live a Better Story, from Best-Selling Author Donald Miller

UPDATED: June 8, 2023
PUBLISHED: July 1, 2015

You probably know Donald Miller from his New York Times best-selling books Blue Like Jazz (which was also developed into a major motion picture), A Million Miles in a Thousand Years and most recently, Scary Close.

I became a Donald Miller fan when I first read Blue Like Jazz in college, so I grew nervous as I approached his office in Franklin, Tennessee. I was greeted by Miller’s COO, Tim Schurrer, the ex-Apple chief of staff, who was as cool as you’d expect a chief of staff poached from Apple to be. My heart beat a little faster as I studied the ultra-hip converted loft space for the best interview spot.

The space had been Miller’s home base as he transitioned from author to entrepreneur, founding Storyline and StoryBrand—Storyline a website and conference company that helps people “live a better story,” and StoryBrand a consulting firm that helps brands like Pantene, Lincoln and Chick-fil-A refine their message and grow their businesses.

My anxiety subsided, though, when Miller walked in. He is as warm and gracious in person as you would think from reading his books. We chatted and laughed as he was fitted with a mic, just like a pro who’d done it hundreds of times.

So, how did a humble memoir writer become the CEO of a branding firm that consults Procter & Gamble brands? That’s what we sat down to talk about, and as we did, I realized just how much we can learn about success from Donald Miller.

Are you an aspiring author, or maybe a hopeful entrepreneur? Here are a few things he’s learned along the way that can help you in your pursuit:

1. Get clear on your message.

That was the first step that took Miller’s struggling company to a major branding firm. “A friend of mine kind of pulled me aside and said, ‘Don, you’ve got 350 people coming to your conference and you’ve sold millions of books. Why are there so few people coming to your conference?’” Miller recalls. “I thought, This is my fault. I’m really great at communicating things in 300 pages, but I’m not very good at summarizing things.”

So Miller took his company through his seven-step story-writing process. “I filtered our communication through that process, and we went from 350 people to selling out a theater of 970. Then we went from 970 to 1,700, from 1,700 to 1,800. All of these were sellouts. In 2016 we hope to go to 7,100.”

2. Balance creativity and strategy.

Creators who find success, says Miller, have to balance sentimentality and creativity with selling and strategy. “The publishing company that is publishing your book is in business. And what that means is they have hundreds of employees that they have to pay, and when your book is late, doesn’t deliver or doesn’t sell, these wonderful people get laid off.”

He applies this combination to both his books and his business. “When you’re thinking about business, you’re waking up every day saying, Where am I losing money? Where am I making money? What do I need to focus on? When you wake up writing a book, you think, What needs to be in this chapter? What’s the point of this chapter? How can I get rid of the clutter in this chapter so people don’t get confused?

3. Fight insecurities with results.

We all feel like rookies at the beginning of a new endeavor or when transitioning from one space to another as Miller did. I asked how he dealt with the intimidation when his first branding client was Pantene, and I loved his answer. “There’s one way to fight through that, and it’s very, very important: What you’re offering has to work. It just has to work. When it starts working and you see it working and the results are verified, that’s when you gain confidence.”

4. Give up control to grow.

First, Miller recommends you hire out your liabilities, hire people smarter than you and try to only hire revenue-producing positions at the beginning. Then let the people you hire run with it. “My strengths were that I was a visionary. I was very passionate. I was very driven. But I was not terribly interested in details and not going to be around because I’m traveling so much,” he says. “So, I hired Tim to run my company. That was really scary because I looked at Tim’s salary, what we were going to pay him, and we hardly had it in our account. I was counting on Tim bringing in more money. Within a short period of time, he was bringing in way more than his salary, and that was fantastic.”

5. Keep yourself motivated.

Anyone building a small business or a passion project, according to Miller, “knows the frustration of having to get up every day and push that cart up the hill.” But it’s up to you, he continues. “The thing just is not going to happen without your drive and your passion, and keeping that up is the hardest part. Keeping something new and fresh and original and beautiful and meaningful on the table at all times is the pressure.” He quickly follows this up, assuring me that he truly loves what he does, saying “Again, there’s such an upside to this that it’s hard to even call that a downside.”

His love for his work—telling his stories while helping others tell their stories—probably explains why he’s become so successful. “The best part, and I think it’s what every writer wants, is that I get to be heard…. It’s a twofold blessing. One, I got to be heard. Two, as I got older and matured, I got to give other people a voice so they could be heard. That’s the daily thing I get to wake up and feel super-satisfied about.”

[[{“type”:”media”,”view_mode”:”media_large”,”fid”:”30733″,”attributes”:{“alt”:””,”class”:”media-image”,”height”:”350″,”style”:”width: 200px; height: 146px; margin: 10px; float: left;”,”typeof”:”foaf:Image”,”width”:”480″}}]]Watch Kelsey Humphreys’ interview with Donald Miller on The Pursuit, exclusively on SUCCESS Videos.

Kelsey Humphreys is an entrepreneur, motivational speaker and host of success talk show The Pursuit.When she's not interviewing the mega-successful, speaking at events or writing about the journey to success, you'll find her creating her popular motivational Quick Pep Talk videos.