HERE’S HOW THE STORY YOU LOVE TO TELL IN A BAR WITH YOUR FRIENDS MIGHT BE YOUR BEST BET IN A BUSINESS SETTING AS WELL.
A story is often the best way to break through the walls of indifference in corporate life. This is not a secret. Yet the challenge remains: How do you find a good story to tell—a story that is original, irresistible, and relevant to a business need? Your best bet is often to draw on a personal experience that holds a profound lesson. Take the story of Dan and the dog who got away.
In a Storytelling for Impact workshop, Dan—a tall, trim, soft-spoken middle manager—was asked to evaluate himself as a storyteller. Like most of his peers, he rated his skills at less than five on a scale of one to ten.
In fact, Dan soon showed that he’s a fantastic storyteller. As part of the workshop, he responded to a challenge: Think of the funniest or most memorable thing that ever happened to you on a job—any job, any time in your life. Almost immediately, he stood up and shared a story so good that months later almost everyone in the room remembered it.
“For my first job in high school, I got a job washing windows with a guy who was very intense and sort of a pain in the butt, but he paid really well,” Dan said. “He worked on these high-end houses and everybody had to wear a uniform.
“I pull up on my first morning at this really beautiful house with a big, high fence around it. I’m early, I’m completely nervous, but I’m also determined that I’m going to do a good job.
“So I take a deep breath and I grab my bucket and I open the front gate to meet the boss. And as soon as I open the door, this big dog runs out. And I think: Great—the boss told me that rule number one is ‘Don’t let the dog out,’ and before I even started, I managed to screw that up.
“I look down the street and there’s the dog¸ standing over in front of the next house, staring right at me. He’s this German Shepard type dog, and I can tell he’s really nice. He’s kind of smiling at me, wagging his tail. So I reach out to him and I say, ‘Good dog!’ and, very slowly, I walk up to him, and as soon as I get close, he runs off. This happens, like, three or four times, and every time, he runs a little farther away, until finally he jumps over some bushes and I see him cross this big, busy four-lane highway.
“Now, at this point I’m wondering if I should just go back and fess up, but I figure I’ve come this far, I need to go get him. So I’m running across all four lanes of this highway, chasing this dog, with my brushes and my squeegees flapping around this belt on my uniform, and then I see him—standing on a hiking trail in this little park, where, of course, he takes off again. Finally, I realize I need a strategy, so I go all the way around the park to outflank him and sure enough he sees me and runs back, over the freeway again, in the direction of the house. So I cross the freeway again, too, and I’m about a block from the house when at last he lets me grab him by the collar.
“I walk him back to the house and already my boss is kind of mad at me. But I explain what happened and he says, ‘Just get to work.’ So I latch the gate and grab my bucket, and then I watch in horror as the dog runs over to this big picnic table that’s sitting alongside the fence, and he jumps up on a chair and then onto the table and right over the fence and out of the yard! And again, I’m thinking, ‘What should I do?’ I mean, this time it wasn’t my fault. But, you know, the dog has run away. And so, once again, I go and chase him.
“This time, he doesn’t cross the highway, but almost. And I’m covered in sweat, and I’m exhausted from all the running, and I haven’t even washed a window yet, but finally I get him. And I bring him back to the house, where I decide to break the boss’s second rule, which was ‘Don’t bother the homeowner.’
“I’ve got the dog by the collar and I ring the doorbell, and this very nice-looking lady opens the door. She’s got pearls and a pretty dress on, and she smiles at me. And I say to her, ‘Ma’am, I’m sorry to bother you and I hate to ask this, but can you please keep your dog inside while we wash the windows?’
“She pauses for a second and gives me this confused look. And then she says, ‘We don’t have a dog.’”
The power of personal legends
Most of us have a great story like this. Odds are, you have a whole gaggle of them. These are the legends of our lives. They’re rich narratives, full of memorable characters, relatable problems, and moments of truth. We welcome them just as we might greet old friends in a bar.
These kinds of stories usually tap into our most important wisdom and hard-earned lessons. The pure joy of the telling them provides an easy segue into all kinds of serious engagements, if only you make the connection. In Dan’s case, with a little reflection, he was able to see how his story could set up a discussion around any of a variety of professional topics, such as:
The need to validate assumptions
The futility of repeating an ineffective tactic
The importance of looking past an embarrassing mistake to recognize determination to do the right thing
There’s a deeper benefit as well. Dan’s story reveals his humanity. His wit, his ethics, and his kind nature all emerge as he tells the tale. In seeing this, you can’t help but want Dan on your team. You listen to what he says next. You trust him.
The theory that drives the work I do is that people can unlock new levels of power by putting their inherent storytelling talents to work in their professional and personal lives. I base this on the cornerstone idea that everyone—every human being—is a master of story.
This is not a revolutionary concept; every toddler masters the rudiments of storytelling at approximately the same time he or she learns to walk.
Spend too much time mired in bureaucratic blandness, however, and it’s easy to become disconnected from your inner storyteller. Your first step to finding your way back might just be to look within.