Last year I was covering a tech conference for a business magazine. I met a young woman who’d just done a disastrous public pitch for her fledgling tech company. She’d walked on stage, frozen, fluffed her lines, sat down – then got back up and struggled through to the end. But it wasn’t really clear what she was trying to sell.
Afterwards I got chatting to her. She wanted to make low cost devices to improve the safety of women on public transport in India. A sort of rape-alarm-meets-internet-of-things. She’d grown up in Delhi and experienced the sexual harassment women put up with if they travel alone on buses and trains. This mattered so much to her that she’d given up a well paid job to try and solve this problem.
Brilliant, I thought. What a great story. Could I interview her for my article? I got out my microphone and asked – “so why have you given up a well paid job to start your own company?” – expecting to get this incredible story. “Well,” she said, “it was such a good value proposition.” On she went, jargon on top of jargon, like a struggling Apprentice candidate in Lord Sugar’s boardroom. After a minute, I stopped recording and begged her to tell me the real story – but she really struggled. If it had been a live radio interview, I’d have pulled the plug on her.
It made me wonder – why do so many smart people talk such rubbish when they talk about their work? It’s not just business people. Teachers and social workers, artists, all have their own weird jargon. But business language is pretty consistently bad. Perhaps it’s a form of status anxiety. Other business leaders talk like this, so I should too. Or you think “This is strategy, it’s important stuff. It doesn’t need embellishing with emotional guff or once-upon-a-time storytelling.”
But in a crazy, noisy world, stories can help you find your voice – your personal voice and the voice of your business. Better still, stories come loaded with emotion, acting like glue, fixing information into our memories. Like Maya Angelou said, people forget what you say and do but they never forget how you made them feel.
Here’s what stories need. Without these elements, you are just reading out facts and opinions (yawn).
1. Stuff happens: We don’t tell stories about projects or companies or strategies or multi agency approaches. People tell stories about people doing stuff. This is the Who, What, Where and When of the action, with a beginning, middle and end.
So when you’re hunting stories, listen out for: “Last week…” “When I was in the Manchester branch…” “I met this woman called…” “And then…” “After all that…”
2. People care: if stuff happens AND it provokes an emotional reaction, then it’s probably a story. If it made people happy, sad, angry, proud, frustrated then they are much more likely to remember it than if it simply engaged their rational brain. This is the How of the story – how did it make you feel.
So listen out for: “I felt…” “I was so…”
3. The moral: for business stories, there has to be a moral to your story, otherwise it’s just chat. You’re not telling stories to entertain people, you want them to DO something different: buy your product, join your company, embrace new ways of working. A useful business story goes like this: stuff happened, it provoked this reaction and now we’re going to do this. So listen out for: “I realised…” “I learned…” “That’s why…”
Let’s try this out on a real story, and let’s add some bonus elements: Irony and Twist.
Back in the 70s, US journalist Ross Gelbspan was covering a conference on climate change and over-population. Looking for an angle on a dense academic subject, he realised that one of the speakers on the stage – Donella Meadows – was herself pregnant. What a wonderful irony, he thought, “she had found hope in the midst of all this doom and gloom.” This was the angle Gelbspan built his story on. Except that when the story came out, Meadows got in touch, saying “I’m not pregnant…” Decades later, Ross Gelbspan still cringes when he thinks of his mistake.
- Stuff happens: journalist makes a mistake.
- People care: he is mortifyingly embarrassed (so are we, just listening to it).
- Moral of the story: never ever assume a woman is pregnant unless her waters are breaking right in front of you. Check your facts.
- And the bonus ingredients:
- Irony – the idea of someone campaigning against over-population adding to the world population by having a baby.
- Twist – the sudden gasp when our understanding is turned upside down. She’s not pregnant! Oh no…!
If you want people to understand why fact-checking matters, tell them that story. Better still, go out and listen for the stories all round you, from your colleagues and customers. Become a story hunter and it will be your business secret weapon.
Credit: Ross Gelbspan’s story is in Being Wrong, by Katheryn Schulz