I worked with a great team of people involved in teaching K–12 students last week, and it was an honor to coach them because of the important work they’re doing. When our society gives teachers the material rewards they deserve for what they do, they we will demonstrate that we really do care about the well-being of our children and grandchildren. Until then, it’s only lip service that we pay.
OK, enough of the soap box; what did I learn that was useful to readers of this blog?
I was struck, as I often am, by the disconnect between the raw potential of their stories and the lack of clear thinking about what makes a story work.
The participants told their stories – their potentially powerful stories – in the following way: “And then this happened….And then that happened….And then this happened…..And then that happened….”
What’s wrong with that? As I said to the participants, the problem is that you’re telling the story without any discernable structure. Very quickly we lose interest, and our mental memory banks are overloaded, because we hear a story like that as a list, and we can only remember 5 plus or minus 2 things. We reach that limit in about, let’s say, 30 seconds, into one of these stories.
The rest is tedium. It’s why we adults have perfected the art of nodding, smiling faintly, and pretending to listen.
Stories are not lists!
Stories are not anecdotes!
The data of your life are not inherently interesting to most of the rest of humanity!
My grandmother used to have a saying: “Not of general interest.” Far too many business people tell stories and anecdotes that are not of general interest. Not even close.
They tell stories like my mother does. I call her up on any given Sunday, and she says, “do you remember X” — where X is the name of someone I do not remember.
“No,” I say.
“Well, you used to know him,” she’ll say. “You knew him in high school. Anyway, I saw him in the grocery store on Tuesday. And I know it was Tuesday, because I was wearing my bowling shoes, and I always bowl on Tuesday. No, as a matter of fact, it must have been Wednesday, because I wasn’t wearing my bowling shoes when I met him. And you know what? I must have gone bowling on Wednesday this week, because it was Wednesday and I was wearing my bowling shoes….”
If you compile transcripts of most business stories or anecdotes, I would wager that they end up looking like that. The rabbit holes! The digressions! The pointless detail!
You can always tell these sorts of storytellers, because every phrase is connected to the next one by what the grammarians call a weak coordinating conjunction: and.
Here’s a quick tip for improved storytelling: never connect your phrases with “and.” Instead, use the Hollywood storytellers’ trick and use two other words: “but” or “therefore.” The result will be much more interesting stories.
Speaking of interesting stories, I’m very pleased to announce that our first online course in creating a great presentation will launch in the next few weeks. The course will teach you the secrets of great storytelling, the ways to use stories in great speeches, and the best way to structure a presentation to move your audience to action. It’s the kind of experience I’m privileged to give clients working face-to-face. Now we’ve figured out how to offer that at a wildly lower price, online, where you can learn at your own pace and your own convenience without flying to Boston. I hope you’ll check out this new way to create great presentations. We’ve been working on these concepts for several years, and we’re very excited by the result.
With thanks to Andy Kaufman for sending me the video link.