Puppies, Paintings, and Philosophers


The Denver Museum of Contemporary Art’s Summer Series of Mixed Taste sounds like a delightful source of entertainment as well as a crackerjack opportunity for new stories to emerge. “Adam Lerner, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver, and Sarah Kate Baie, director of programming, enjoy mixing it up artistically.”  If I could attend, I would to learn and pick up completely fresh new stories. Just think of the stories we could take away from these talks:

  • Nietzsche & Puppies, Puppies, Puppies
  • Space Weather & Kool-Aid Pickles
  • Jean-Michel Basquiat & Fruit Trees
  • Tacos & Geodesic Domes

I love to see old stories bring light to new situations.  Like the old TV ad when peanut butter crashes into chocolate and… voila’ the Reese’s Cup is born!  My #1 Principle of Storytelling is 1.) Storytelling is Developmental: We supply a+b+c+d but we only co-create the meaning of “= e”  That is what happens with the Q&A.  I find that part exciting. Imagine yourself enjoying these conversations:

It is stimulating when you don’t know what is going to happen next. So if things feel dull, boring, or predictable, then maybe you can borrow this idea from DMCA.

Adam Lerner, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver, and Sarah Kate Baie, director of programming, enjoy mixing it up artistically.   Discover an interesting fact about mustard in this one mixing up Dia De Los Muertes and Gourmet Sauces (sound quality is iffy but points for taking the time to edit and post! – thanks DMCA!)

Stories come from every where, every field of study, and particularly from people who deeply care about something, or someone.  Seek the geeks!!

Hanging Out in Our Underwear

LBJ-underwearStories get told when extra-ordinary events happen, and these change relationship only when they feel personal.  Read on….

During a recent visit to Austin, I met a ring-tailed tooter named JoAnn.  As true Southern ladies, we got to know one another before mentioning anything tacky like the property I called to discuss.  We shared our personal histories in two minutes and I found out, among other things, that JoAnn’s husband was a Texas politician during the 1960’s and 70’s when when John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas turned Texas’ own Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) into the U.S. President overnight.

This is just one of JoAnn’s stories.  Yes, Texas stories can be heavy on the hyperbole…but I think this one is more true than not.

When LBJ was first in Washington, legislators lived in dorm like facilities.  They didn’t bring their families and set up homes like they do now.  They shared bathrooms just like any dorm with long lines of sinks with shower stalls in the back.  They were all men at the time, (of course).  In the morning, the men wandered around in their underwear, lining up at the sinks to shave, brush their teeth, or tend to their coiffure.

LBJ knew that you don’t get bills passed without relationships.  He was new in Washington and he needed to develop his relationships.  He used an ingenious strategy.  He kept track of the early birds and the men who slept in.  When the first early bird stood at the sink, he was there with his tooth brush.  He was also there – perhaps  shaving this time – when the next important contact stepped up to a sink. Not every time,  but often enough they’d get to talking.  It really didn’t matter.  Standing next to someone in your underwear bleary-eyed, preparing for the day family style creates a bond of familiarity.  According to JoAnn, when he had the opportunity he spent whole mornings in his underwear working the sinks.

As JoAnn put it, “It’s hard to keep your defenses up when you are standing there in your skivvies.”  Lyndon B. Johnson started life-long relationships that held firm as he championed historic advances in social and civil rights. Telling stories is only half of our storytelling practice.  Living stories, creating stories that live in the minds of others is perhaps more important than the telling.  LBJ created opportunities for mutual stories to happen.  By the time he became President, enough people knew him – not in the Biblical way, but in the underwear way – sort of like a Texas cousin.

Experiences are the best teachers, right?  We need to create experiences, maybe not literally hanging out in our underwear with customers, contacts, political leaders, funders(unless you can organize a camping trip!) but we can certainly drop our agenda long enough to metaphorically “hang out in your skivvies” and together live a story worth remembering. Biographer Robert Dallek, in Portrait of a President (2004) summarizing Lyndon B. Johnson’s career called him a “tornado in pants.”  I guess he never saw him in his underwear.

P.S. I was happy to read Jim Signorelli’s new book Storybranding because he makes a strong case that story telling requires that your story happens, first.  Same thing.

Juicy, Colorful, Textured and Vivid

Colorful-Paints-BackgroundCreate a vivid picture by using descriptive details that light up more than one part of a listener’s sensory cortex. Mix up sensory details sound and vision when you describe a detail like a quiet face, a blue humming, or screaming purple. Every sense you stimulate makes your story feel more like a real experience.  Mix up any of the senses so listeners See, Hear, Taste, Touch, and Smell your story.

From “Contact” to Friend

Debra CondrenI have to confess I never liked the word “contacts.”  I have always preferred to make friends but social networking warmed me up to the word: contacts.  I probably don’t know you personally, but I appreciate you because you and I ARE connected.  I wish I knew you better, knew some of your stories.  And it could happen.  In the radio interview link below, that’s exactly what happened between Debra Condren and myself.

Debra interviewed me about storytelling, how to find the story so you are the one who wins, when “Whoever The Best Story Wins.”  During the interview you can hear how “give a story/get a story” works in several spontaneous exchanges.  Best of all for me, this interview demonstrates how exchanging stories shifts two strangers, two “contacts,” to two good friends.  I think you will find it a delightful and instructive audio download (50 minutes) to listen to during your commute time.

Listen online or download the radio interview:

AMBITION Is Not A Dirty Word – Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins

by Dr. Debra Condren

Storytelling and Structure…not so much

“What’s your opinion on the topic of structuring business presentations as Story?”

Question from: Gonzales Alvarez

Good question, Gonzales. Let me begin by giving my definition of a story:

A story is a narrated sequence of words or other triggers in a way that an simulated experience (def: images, smells, sounds, tastes, touches, and emotions) is created in the mind of another person.

This includes true anecdotes, stories from books, movies, folktales, borrowed stories with permission, and personal stories, etc. Further distinctions are founded in critical thinking and a story subjected to critical thinking dies a terrible death.

My books offer a geography of human connections when story can help, I offer buckets full of stories, but no rules, no structure. There is a reason for that. Structural guidelines feel like rules to me, and I have the kind of personality that hates rules. Some people are rule followers, some question rules, and if you want to find me…breaking rules is my definition of the creative process.

This means I break my own rules and try everything. I’m not anti- or pro-structure; I am anti-dogma. I bought a couple of the books Gonzales Alvarez cited in the full text of his question.

  1. Paul Kelly’s 7-Slide Solution
  2. Andrew Abela’s Advanced Presentations by Design and his SCoRE method
  3. Nancy Duarte’s Resonate and her hero’s journey adapted from Vogler’s The Writers Journey, which in turn was adapted from Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

If I was flummoxed about a presentation I would go straight to one of those books and look for ideas. I don’t believe these brilliant people (and they are!) truly meant to issue a Presentation Dogma promising their structure will work every time.

The popularity of story structures is not so much the author’s wish as the wish of people scared of delivering a presentation.

Follow my structure, color in these lines and “I can make you a star (storyteller)!”

An offer that is “too good to be true” is too good to be true. Real storytelling is an art that communicates “Truth” sorely lacking in business presentations. Data doesn’t deliver a promise. Any story designed to illustrate you data is a waste of time, until you have earned your audience’s trust. You can’t predict which kind of story will do that, it is completely relative to the context, and a structure might put you on the wrong track.

You are trying to create a FEELING by using triggers of sound, smell, touch, taste and images that simulates an EXPERIENCE in you listeners mind. The content of the story can be irrelevant to your presentation IF the feeling you create is TRUST, FAITH, EMPATHY, and a genuine promise.

For example, Steve, a British ex-pat working in the USA, picked me up at the airport personally to tell me about using a story from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Tipping Point about “connectors,” people who know lots of other people and have a gift for bringing them together. In it, Gladwell uses Paul Revere as a prime example. As Sheila O’Malley said on her blog, “It wasn’t just that he went on his famous ride, and rallied the troops – it was that he was the kind of person who could galvanize others, who knew EVERYBODY, and everybody knew him …”

The job was a multi-million contract to build a sustainable, wetland-friendly building back in 2009. Many builders promise sustainability but they don’t deliver (not really). Steve’s managers are the Raul Revere’s of sustainable contractors: they are connectors who can locate the before-sustainable-was-cool suppliers because they already know them, they have worked with them.

That day, Steve represented his company in a final presentation among a short list of three contractors. Steve has a wonderful sense of humor and spent his first 5-10 minutes telling his version of Paul Revere’s story in great detail, pointedly using his “losing side” British accent to communicate his genuine humility and genuine admiration for his American “winning side” client. His listeners couldn’t help but remember failures or successes of their own based on the “who you know” truth.

All numbers and dates in a construction pitch are guesses — careful guesses but guesses nonetheless. Once the client was focused on the serious issues of integrity and deadlines, the rest of the presentation was free to follow the structure those presentations always follow. Familiarity creates trust as well.

If Steve had used a structure would he have missed the magic of this particular story? Or worse, distorted it into a structure that would destroy the flow?

Karen Dietz turned up a fabulous clip of Kurt Vonnegut discussing structure. He makes fun of our favorite stories. I think he makes a point about creativity. Being who you are will mean you can’t follow a pattern/structure. Just because we love a story doesn’t mean we trust it.

(You can read the full text of Vonnegut’s entire talk here.)

Humans have a weird relationship with freedom and creativity.

“If humanity cannot live with the dangers and responsibilities inherent in freedom, it will probably turn to authoritarianism.”

– Erich Fromm

Following a recipe to create a story offers a safety net that not only keeps you from falling; it wraps you so tightly you can no longer swing from the trapeze.

Gonzalez Question in it’s entirety: Simply told, I don’t buy it. If you put the eggs, onions and potatoes in a sauce pan, you’ll get a mess with little resembling to a Spanish omelet. It is one thing is to use stories in a presentation as another tool of persuasion, illustration, or entertainment; and another thing completely to pretend that by putting conflict into the presentation and having a main character you have a Story.

Telling stories is great for a TED presentation where somebody describes his humanitarian project in Uganda or how she started a movement to save children in India after something striking happened to her. But what story can I tell to my students when teaching them about firewalls? Of course, I tell lots of anecdotes taken from my career or from news clips, but this is not a Story.

As I see it, the only legitimate way to structure a presentation as a Story is when you’re narrating a collection of facts (not necessarily in chronological order) about what happened to you. I’ve structured scientific presentations in the past this way because I was describing the project’s inception (the inciting incident, what led me to start working on the project), the problems I faced and how I solved them, and then the final product with the benefit to the audience. And, of course, ending with the call to action.

But when dealing with more abstract matters – like presenting a business model, a security audit report, or a project’s progress report; when discussing the buying alternatives or selling your product to potential customers – you can use two real or fictitious characters describing the usefulness of your products or resource to stories, anecdotes, and testimonials, but that’s not Story.

What’s your opinion on the topic of structuring business presentations as Story?

Saying "Hero" One Too Many Times

William Deresiewicz’s essay “Empty Regard” delivers a punch while illustrating that overuse of the term “hero” has drained the word/story of it’s true military meaning and The Hero with a Thousand Facesworse, out-right accuses embarrassed team-players of grand standing. Online replies from members of the military tell their personal stories that will silence and liberal or conservative hoping to wag a finger in the air.  What happened happened, an important specific symbol was generalized into meaninglessness.   [Read more…]

Raf asked me about "untrue stories"

“How true does a story have to be?”

Raf – a good buddy who stretches my brain – asked me to visit  http://significantobjects.com/ where people make up stories and compete to see how much value they can add.

I puff up with pride and can barely muffle my “told you so!” when well told stories take a meaningless object and give it enough meaning to register in dollars and cents! Whoo hooo!! The project raised money for writing programs, until is was shut down.  I suspect the project was suspended because technically they were committing fraud. Oops, no harm meant.  Adding a sentence: “even if they knew it wasn’t true” can’t fix the fact that eBay tests do not show any substantive disclaimer like, “This story is false.”

My philosophy is being tested here:

“People don’t want your information, they want faith..that you know what you are talking about, that this is a good product, they will be happy they listened to you…”

Faith that you are telling the truth, in other words. I want to focus on this point, not because I’m all uppity about the ethics, but because this is a critical crossroad where your choices make you a good storyteller or a brilliant storyteller.

I deeply believe all stories should be literally true, or transparently metaphorical or fiction – movies, folk tales, etc.

Untrue stories (particularly those that could have happened) are still untrue.  Lying to your customers is bad business. And, I use this inflammatory word not to insult anybody, but to grab your attention.

Two reasons I recommend you keep working until you can tell it a true story.

1.If you have to invent a story, you aren’t doing your homework.

Either, you haven’t been talking to your customers, or you haven’t tested your product yourself in real situations…whatever it is. Needing to invent a story – to take that kind of short cut – reveals a much bigger problem in that you don’t know a true story that is worth telling.   If the product is actually good, and you know your audience, then why do you need to make something up?  I think it is a warning sign.

2. Customers generalize.

If I discover you told me one untruth, I will doubt everything.  In today’s market trust is incredibly expensive to create and maintain.  The ROI of untrue stories can’t be high enough to compensate for the risk of losing trust.  Maybe it is a small risk, but Toyota having a jammed gas-pedal was also a tiny probability.

In the case of the eBay items, the fictional backstory seems harmless enough, unless it encourages anyone to tell untrue stories for any reason other than entertainment.

At least, this has been my personal experience:

One time, in New Orleans I began a keynote at a great hotel by saying, “I love this place, and I am extra happy to be here today.” I followed with a story (big surprise) about how the last time I was in that hotel I was a child, it was Easter and I was with my mother and father who had decided to take a trip to New Orleans.   I remembered that trip so vividly because in the lobby downstairs were bunnies!

Bunnies not just for show, but bunnies I could hold and pet.  I was in heaven.  There was a circle of colored corrugated cardboard and I could reach in and just pick one up. As an adult, I’m sure there was also a hotel staff member who managed that process. But I don’t remember that, I just remember burying my face in the neck of a warm soft bunny.

Later, at the client’s evening event I felt a vise-like grip pinch my elbow, I turned and a woman tugged my arm down so she could reach my ear.

“Was that true?”

“Was what true?”

Whatever it was, her tone indicated she believed it was not true. After asking a few questions I realized she figured the bunny story was adapted to lots of hotels. to unfairly suck the participants into liking me.

I didn’t blame her.  I hate it when people make up stories.  I feel demeaned and betrayed if I find out I smiled or cried or felt a strong connection – when the story wasn’t even true.

Conversation on Twitter at #TRUorNOT

Eva asked about “Bait and Switch” Stories…

Peanuts, by Charles Shultz, Copyright by Universal UClick, all rights reserved. The first time I used the “bait and switch” method was in my first book, Territorial Games: Understanding and Ending Turf Wars at Work.  Without talking too much about that book, I believed some people would buy the book to improve their territorial games so they could crush their “enemy” departments/nemeses like bugs. That was the bait: Here are ten territorial games that keep people from getting “your stuff.”

Bait is never presented as a bad thing.  Part of the “bait and switch” story is to validate that sure, it makes a lot of sense to want that “bait,” we are together in wanting something like that, but…the “switch” is we can have something better, or a hard lesson that the “bait” is, has always been an illusion.

Of COURSE you want to protect (validate), that makes sense, but if you protect everything you may pay a price (switch) in lost relationships, pay-back as others protect/hoard information from you, or build unexplained brick walls (since you started it)…then you might be coming out behind in the long run.  For instance:

Cavemen protected land, water, and hunting grounds by growling, brandishing weapons, maybe even peeing on the perimeter.  Today information, relationships, and authority is the turf to be protected.  Same behaviors, updated.  Who has not seen some doofus get angry (growl) in a meeting, mention unpleasant consequences (weapon) if “idea A” is adopted, or hoard information (peed on it, now it is mine!)?  (after all that validation, my favorite switch)…and who among us has not been that doofus?

Bait and Switch stories tend to be about “THEM” in the beginning and turn into an opportunity for insight about “US.”  Speaking from equality makes the medicine go down.

My favorite “Bait and Switch” story is one I use when there are too many egos in a room who refuse to budge.

Larry was a rescued greyhound. He didn’t win too many races. Larry was retired at 18 months. Retired greyhounds make wonderful pets, but there are certain life skills they don’t learn in a kennel. They must learn that nice dogs don’t go on the oriental carpet. The road is not a race track. They have seen a leash but a pleasure walks in the neighborhood are a new concept with plenty of surprises. Larry, for instance, never figured out (and he lived to the ripe old age of twelve) that if he walked on one side of a telephone pole and I walked on the other side that we weren’t going anywhere. As he felt the backward pull of his leash the look on his little dogface questioned my reason for stopping. I pointed at the pole. I demonstrated how to solve the problem, but no matter what he was going to follow my lead. He never backed off until I backed off. I could spend as much time as I wanted trying to teach him “YOU are the dog, you should back off first.” Finally I was the one who learned it doesn’t matter who backs off first, the faster it happens, the faster we can move on.

Every ego in the room thinks someone else should back up first, until the story frames that thought as worthy of the intelligence of a dog.

Basically, the purpose is to allow our listener/readers to see that what they think they want is not really what they want – that being better than, or master of, or the “winner” is not as satisfying, lucrative, or speedy as collaboration. The trick is to hold the mirror discretely so that no one EVER feels the least bit embarrassed or “called out.” That’s our job as a storytellers – to show solidarity with other imperfect human beings.  Because…we all get our turn at the mirror.

Storytelling and Big "T" Truth

Andrea from Italy:  What is your story about Storytelling?

Truth or consequencesAs a child I wondered why people did not tell each other the truth.  I wondered even more why they did not tell themselves the truth. In the beginning I puzzled over little untruths: “Everything is fine. They mean well.” When I knew that person did NOT mean well.  That person was mean as a snake.  Little lies bothered me. “You look great.” I thought, “liar.”  As you can imagine I was not popular with teachers, now was I the most popular girl in high school. [Read more…]

Words are no more powerful than the stories they tell

While I believe Jared Loughner is mentally ill, I also think it is a good time to discuss the power of words.

What (crazy) story prompted Jared Loughner to try to assassinate Congresswoman Giffords? Did he make his story up from scratch? Probably not. The metaphor of war is so deeply embedded in our American culture we should all take a look in the mirror.

We wage war on fat. We tell war stories to the new interns. Budget meetings are battles. We wonder if proving a point is a “hill worth dying for.” We need firepower to gain market share. In 1984, I danced and pumped my fists in the air as Pat Benatar sang “Love is a Battlefield,” because I would rather see myself as a victim instead of a young woman dumped by some guy. War is a fabulous metaphor if you need to disassociate yourself from responsibility. How could I be a victim if I’m the one who chose the guy in the first place?

Not only do we avoid responsibility, the war metaphor gives us permission to change the rules of civility. It legitimizes tactics of war including disinformation, “gun and run,” distraction, and Sun Tzu’s favorite: deception.

These newly legitimized actions gain steam when a story moves from concept to reality. I teach people how to do this. I teach them how to use sensory words to create images, simulate sounds, smells, tastes and physiological feelings to create a virtual reality in a listener’s mind. Imagine your grandmother, surrounded by the smells and intrusive sounds of a hospital. Hold her warm hand in yours and look into her cloudy eyes filled with love, as you hear the doctor behind you say, “You will have to take her home, she is past eighty years old and we don’t keep people alive after eighty.” Or you could read the two thousand plus pages of the healthcare reform bill and figure out for yourself what it means for your grandmother.

Pictures, music, and words have the power to turn a metaphor into a story that feels literally true – a story you can touch and feel – particularly if you are in a group when you hear the story.  Martin Luther King, Jr. used the same strategy of sensory story/words to incite non-violent action almost fifty years ago when he stirred the imaginations of hundreds to see, hear, touch and feel:

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
“One day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

It is the words and images that make a story feel real, urgent, and demanding action – that have power.

I don’t know what happened with Jared. My heart breaks for everyone suffering from that tragic event. But it gives us an opportunity to reflect on the power of any story told well, to create change and inspire action in the direction you choose.  May we all choose well.