How to Water Ski at 93 (and also … How to Become a Better Business Story Teller)

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How to Water Ski at 93 (and also … How to Become a Better Business Story Teller)

Amber Johnson
Amber Johnson works at the intersection of marketing, culture, and leadership as the Chief Communications Officer for the Center for Values-Driven Leadership.

My grandfather went water-skiing shortly before his 93rd birthday. Blue Velvet is his name on the website where he plays poker. He regularly sends me photos of the significantly younger women he’s chatting up on dating sites.

You’ll never meet my grandfather, but just from those three sentences you can probably make a lot of accurate guesses about his personality. Much more accurate than if I’d told you he was a retired farmer, widower, and World War II vet with seven grandchildren.

Why is this true? Because stories convey so much more meaning than static facts ever could. Stories are greater than the sum of their parts. As business leaders who care about purpose and meaning at work, the more we learn to use stories, the clearer our important messages will be heard.

We’ll talk about why that’s true in a second, and about how to become a better story-teller. But first – let’s try a thought experiment. (I’ve boldly stolen this from Think Like a Freak, the third book in the Freakonomics franchise.)

Here’s the experiment: write down as many of the 10 Commandments as you can. Do it now – grab a pencil and get started.

(I’m waiting patiently while you do this.)

You’re back? Great – how many of the commandments did you get? Two? Three? Five? I’m in church every Sunday, but given just a few seconds, I only listed four. Not great, but better than most Americans, who can only list one.

Now – name the children in the Brady Bunch family. Or, if that’s from your parent’s generation, name the kids from Full House.

Did you do better on that than the 10 Commandments? If your answer is yes, the explanation is simple: you’re better at this because of stories. They’re memorable. Stories are effective means of communicating information for four essential reasons:

  1. They are memorable. Stories stick with us long after we’ve forgotten the five bullet points on a PowerPoint slide.
  2. They are emotional. Stories take us out of a spreadsheet and into the human side of things. They make us feel compassion or pride or anger, and that emotion imprints itself on our brains better than hard facts.
  3. They are motivating. Marketers have long understood that when you tap into emotion, you tap into motivation as well. Stories prompt us to act.
  4. They are meaningful. And finally, stories help define who we are at an intrinsic level, deeper than the clothes we’re wearing or the title on our business cards.

For all these reasons, story-telling is one of the most powerful tools in a leader’s toolbox.
To illustrate this, let me share a story. In my first real job out of school, I was the editor of a small magazine. In my first issue, I made a typo on a caption on one of the first pages. Here’s a pro tip – never make a typo in a caption. Everyone reads captions, and typos stand out like a black eye.

Unfortunately for me, the first person to find my typo was not my senior editor; it was her boss’s boss – a formidable man. He sent a scathing email berating my capacity as an editor and my intelligence as a human being. I felt horrible. The mistake was mine, and I knew it. I’d let my boss down, I’d started on the wrong foot, and I’d made our publication look unprofessional. When my boss, Donna, came to my office with a copy of the email in hand, I was ready with a sincere apology. “So, you’ve learned the lesson?” Donna asked. Yes, I nodded. Then she led me down the hall to the copy room and held the button on the shredder as I fed the email into it. “It’s over,” she told me. “Forget about that email.”

I tell the story of Donna and the shredder every time I’m talking with a young team member who made a mistake. What’s the moral of the story? Learn from criticism, but don’t take it personally. Get over it fast.  For me (and I think for others with whom I’ve shared it), this story is memorable, emotional, motivating, and meaningful. Much more than if I just shared the advice, “Don’t take criticism too personally.”

Improving Your Story to Fact Ratio

Earlier today a colleague related a story to me, based on a conversation he’d had with a noted academic who made the transition to writing for popular business audiences. The academic told him, “When I wrote for academics, I wrote concept, concept, concept, story. Now, writing for practitioners, I write story, story, story, concept.”
I have no scientific research behind this, but that 3:1 story to concept ratio seems about right. As communicators, stories should be our primary vehicle for communicating our message – at least if we want our message to be heard, understood, remembered, and acted upon. So how do we become better story-tellers?

First, become a curator of stories. I mean this literally: on my computer, I have a file called “stories” where I jot a summary of great stories and experiences, and the themes they illustrate. Need something on how physical space influences culture? I have just the story. Want something on overcoming challenges? I’ve got that too.

You don’t have to keep a literal file of stories, but do catalog them in your mind. What’s you’re your go-to story for illustrating resilience? Integrity? Leadership? Look for and tell stories that illustrate your values and the values and culture of your company.

Next, use a story in place of other information whenever you can. Not long ago I needed to introduce a CEO at a conference. I could have reviewed his impressive bio or listed the two dozen companies he’s helped start. Instead, I asked everyone in the audience who knew Tom, or had been influenced by him, to stand. At least 40 percent of the room stood, and Tom took the stage blushing, with tears in his eyes. His title was printed in the program, but his impact was seen through that little story the audience told by standing.
That raises an important point: stories aren’t just tales with a beginning, middle, and end. Stories are shared experiences. Stories are metaphors that illuminate. Stories are the perfectly chosen photos that make your point crystal clear.

So how are you using stories?

If you’re not already using stories to shape the way you lead and communicate, or want to be more intentional about doing so, download our 10-Minute Story-Telling Tool. Use it in your next team meeting to find compelling stories of your company at its best, then challenge yourself and others integrate the stories into daily communication with clients, customers and colleagues.

Find the story-telling tool here, along with some reflections on the power of origin stories and how to tell yours. (Hint: it involves a love story that spanned an ocean and launched one of the decade’s cutest toy franchises.)