The Bully Principle – Lessons from 7th Grade by Ernesto Quiñonez

Ah yes, 7th grade….Do you still owe an apology to someone from your 7th grade life? I certainly owe Al Smith an apology. He moved away before I could drum up the courage. You see, Al Smith loved me. I played flute and he played clarinet in Lakeshore Junior High School band. He would follow me around asking to carry my books. I was equally embarrassed and charmed. Unfortunately, I only showed my embarrassment. To this day, I feel delighted when I remember his devotion. All I did was squeal and run away. One time I organized all of the flute players (nine girls) to turn on cue to stare at his open fly. He ran from the room to zip up and when he returned he was laughing. But …that wasn’t very nice of me, was it?

If no one comes to mind, you may find that Ernesto Quiñonez’s story triggers a memory or two.

I love lots of things about this story. I truly believe storytelling is the antidote to racism and discrimination. This story demonstrates that. However, I want to call attention to the descriptive flourishes he uses (often found in Moth Stories) that may seem like throw away lines but are probably quite intentional. For instance Ernesto describes Mario by saying,

“Mario was big. Did you see the movie Grease when they don’t look like high school kids? Mario was like that. He was big. People would ask if he was a teacher? No! he’s a ninth grader!”

“I was the toast of the 7th graders…I was like the Obama of the 7th grade class.”

“I felt so betrayed by a principle! It was a principle…the way the planets revolve around the sun. It was a principle the way gravity says that what you throw up is going to come down. It was a principle that if you stand up to a bully, he leaves you alone.”

These emphasizers are a great way to enhance the attention your listeners give to some element of your story. And they can add an entertaining image that improves retention.

Brainstorm metaphors or similes to emphasize some detail in your story.

The meeting was an icy terrain where vibrant ideas never moved again

It was my last try. I felt like a dog on my way to the pound. Pick me! Pick me!

He got on the elevator like a rock star with his entourage. He was the President with his aides, a general with loyal minions.

Arianna Huffington Takes Us on a Tour

The Moth provides storytelling coaching and I imagine that Arianna Huffington has her own team of coaches to help her work on her stories. I think this story is a good example of having a message and then crafting a story to deliver it. She takes us on a tour of several events the pivotal point

Present Tense and Setting

Another great Moth story begins like a reporter in the middle of the story using present tense to deliver a description of the setting: “So it’s April 4, 2007 and I am on the campus…with my eldest daughter Christina.”

Universal Human Dilemma

When she says, “And the reason I’m so really, really, tired is…” I feel my own fatigue bubble to the surface to greet hers in a sort of “burden shared is a burden halved” sort of way. Did that happen for you?

Creating a personal connection

Arianna adds contect and uses humor to connect to other generations with a funny description of a Blackberry, but she’s also using the opportunity to present herself as normal and relatable. Humor is a great way to bring down barriers. She is an awe-inspiring woman and it feels good to share a joke with her. Anyone with an oversized image can bring people closer with a personal story or a bit of humor.

Show Don’t Tell

I realize the story isn’t about being a good mother, but I am struck by the amount of love and respect she must feel for her daughter to go without her Blackberry for eight days straight while her business was still so young. Yes, she was on it at night, but I am still impressed with her response to her daughter’s “demand.” It reveals who she really is when no one is looking: a good mom.

Teaching Story

By the time she says “can’t remember not being exhausted and you don’t remember that “no” is a complete sentence” I can feel the sensation my body delivers when it urges me to keep pushing on, not the idea of it, but that physiological sense that I cannot stop now. She takes us to five scenes before the most powerful sentence in her story. “I wake up in pool of blood.”

Sequence of Three Perspectives

“I wake up in a pool of blood,”is the first of three different points of view for the same scene: her own, her sister’s then her daughter’s view of the same situation. THis is like three different camera angles in a movie. It delivers a much more meaningful appreciation of the different ways we interpret one singular event.


The idea of a tour is a great theme to hold this story together. First touring colleges and later touring doctors focuses on the fact that ultimately we have to make our own personal decisions despite the complexity and ambiguity that we face. We cannot say yes to everything. The best we can do is take a tour of as many options as we can see and just pick one.

Awakening the Senses! “like your life flashing before your tongue.”


What an engaging beginning! This is a great example of the “give a story – get a story” dynamic. Who hasn’t though about that “last meal?” It is one of those get-to-know-you-better questions we used to ask each other.* My first five thoughts were:

Aunt Grace’s water cornbread (fried cornbread)

Purple hull peas

Grandmother Simmons’ brisket

Fried Okra

No bake chocolate peanut butter oatmeal cokes

What about you?  Did you find your brain searching for your perfect last meal? More importantly did other emotional memories come along with the tastes you imagined?

Physical Memories

Talking about food awakens more channels than ears and eyes by talking to the body in it’s own language. I bet our most intense food memories are usually associated with family memories so it really is a loaded question.

Notice if images/smells/tastes/sensations flashed other details (who cooked? setting? friends? family?) that set you up to think more deeply.

Metaphorical descriptions (a/k/a similes)

I liked this use of imagery. His doctor “looked like John Lithgow with a hunchback.” And oatmeal, when you aren’t hungry “tastes like warm snot.”

This might be a good teaching story for oncology medical students who need to remember the physical toll of chemotherapy and the emotional resilience of hope.

There is so much more to like about this story but I will leave that to you to point out!


A “Good” Bad Girl – What Ameera is doing right!

Ameera Chowdhury tells a great story that reveals there is more to her than her good girl, unassuming appearance might indicate.   Please listen to the story first, then see if some of her techniques might work well for you, too.

“I know what you are thinking”

In the first seven seconds Ameera describes having “delinquent taste in music.” It immediately adds depth to her good girl looks. It also creates curiosity to some hidden secret. People can’t help but judge a book by it’s cover, so if your audience has a one dimensional and therefore inaccurate picture of who you are, why not let them in on a secret that makes them curious again.


Ameera doesn’t just tell us about the card she received from Iggy Pop, she shows us. The legitimacy of bringing the real thing enhances our ability to visualize in a microsecond the envelope as it first appeared, where she might have been, how long it took before she began “freaking out” and what she did next. Highly engaging.


There is a vast difference between saying something like “he had a strange message on his answering machine,” and reciting with a sneering Iggy-ish voice: “This is that thing you throw peanuts at. Take a shot, sucka.” Using first person dialogue makes your story feel more realistic to your listeners.

Just for fun, watch it again and notice the listener’s face in the lower left corner.

Please add your own comments below, which of the six stories this might be, what you like about Ameera’s story, what her story tells you about her, or how this story might work in an organizational setting.


The Story Factor – “How to” Series

Sam Thurman’s story is short (5 minutes) and delightful. Please listen to it before reading my comments so you can have the full listener experience.

Imagery and Present Tense

One of the things I really like about this story is that Sam uses present tense from his first sentence: “I am in Tokyo, Japan.” Suddenly, we are too. Thirty seconds later we are in a mosh pit at the Fuji Rock Festival listening to a Jamaican Punk hardcore band the “Bad Brains.”


“I’m timid.” Stories need contrast and Sam’s level of authenticity invites trust. Don’t be afraid to reveal personality traits that you fear might be misinterpreted. This is the nature of bringing humanity back into your communication. It is oh so human to have flaws.

Metaphors and Similes

Sam uses some wonderful metaphors, but my favorite (I wear glasses) was “the crippled corpse of my glasses.” There are others if you pay attention, “carried like driftwood” and “like a human ladder.”

If you were Sam, how would you use this story in business? Which of the six stories might this story be? Please comment on other successful storytelling techniques you admire (and may want to use) in Sam’s story.

Exercise in Empathy

owpUSw2SnI-3000x3000Anna Deavere Smith is a wonderful actor who “performs” stories by taking on the personality of the original teller. She brings people from Studs Terkel’s collections back to life and takes her audiences on a tour .  Here she is pitching a workshop on Empathy but this little clip reminded me how to really pay attention and I thought it might be a good reminder for you as well.  She points out, “There is someone else going on when you are really paying attention.” [Read more…]

Sinking Ship

The guy on the right drew this map.  He is bailing out the boat that is sinking.  He is doing his job in spite of a bad situation.  I asked, “Who is the guy on the left?”  He said “That’s my boss.”  A few heads turned toward his boss sitting up front.  I asked “So what is he doing?” He answered, “He’s pissing in the boat and not doing much else.”  There were guffaws from his cronies and the rest of us couldn’t resist smiling.  [Read more…]

Metaphor Maps

Using Art to Create A Safe Place for Dangerous Truths

When you walk into a room and see people leaning back with crossed arms, responding to words like “teamwork” with rolling eyes and cynical smiles, or worse, staring into space with blank faces of apathy, it is hard to expect you will accomplish much.  Yet, you risk — if you ask about “the problem”— potentially hours devoted to a vitriolic bitch session that can demoralize the few previously happy people and intensify the cynicism of the unhappy ones. [Read more…]

The Big Secret

o_i-ve-got-a-secret-50-s-game-show-ca441 . Nothing works 100% of the time. A machine can have a motor replaced but a sales manager can’t have a personality transplant. Maybe a new story about who he is and why customers need him will mean he sells more, but maybe it won’t.  Successes of 70% or higher are good. Expect more and you kill good ideas as heartlessly as killing imperfect children.

2 . Tiny details can deliver great power and huge gestures can mean nothing. One plus one doesn’t equal two anymore.

3 . Since the situation, emotional state, and time context are unpredictable the outcome is always unpredictable. [Read more…]

Four Ways to Find Your Story

In t4storieshe beginning, finding good stories is difficult. If only because your brain keeps saying, “I can’t tell stories.” or “I’m not a storyteller.” Trust me; if you are breathing you tell stories. The problem is that on a bad day, our stories are about being stressed out (who I am) barely surviving stupid decisions (why I’m here) and counting the days until we can retire (vision). We blame politicians for self interest (values-in-action), repeat stories that prove there is nothing we can do to change things (teaching) because we’ve already tried and failed (I know what you are thinking). Okay…it’s not that bad (I hope) but you will have to work a little harder to find good stories. There are four reliable buckets that are full of good stories. [Read more…]