Pete’s Blog

Finding the Story

Have you ever wondered where good storytellers get their stories? I did, and I wanted to learn how to find my own stories worth sharing. Several years ago I was working on my first keynote speech and knew I could use some guidance. I hired Judy Carter, an international motivational speaker, author of Message of You, former stand-up comedian and coach.  When we began what turned out to be an eight month process, she told me “you first need to find the mess before you can create the message.”

One of the exercises in The Message of You was to identify a day that started off bad but ended up better than expected. Your stories don’t have to be large and and filled with drama to be effective.  My task was to create a list of “bad day – good day” events, and I was surprised that it turned out to be a rather long list.  It is amazing how many memories come flooding back when doing this exercise. Some memories were huge and dramatic – we all have defining moments we can recall. My big stories include being adopted, going through a divorce and having arterial septal defect surgery. While all were both huge and dramatic, they weren’t the stories I wanted to tell.

What I learned was to look for other incidents that had the potential to be really bad, but ended well. When you identify that bad day moment, work backward to the beginning when everything was just fine.  That is your starting point in finding your story.

Here is an example of one of my messes:

It was January 3, 2014, and my son and I had traveled from Columbus, Ohio to Miami to watch the Orange Bowl. Our Ohio State Buckeyes ended up losing to Clemson but that didn’t upset me. The trip was all about spending time with my son.

After the game we headed back to the rental car and my heart sank when I realized I had left the lights on; the battery was totally dead.  I did begin to panic a bit as we waded through the crowd looking for someone to help us. Then a very nice Clemson fan offered to jump our car.  I tried to pay him, but he said: “pay it forward.” Okay, OSU lost and our car had to be jumped, but not such a bad day, right?

With the car started, we drove away. That’s when I realized that I left my diabetes kit that contained my insulin, meter, and test strips in the stadium. I had no backup supplies. That’s when I really began to panic. I tried to calmly share my diabetes dilemma with my son, but I knew he could see the fear on my face.  He calmly said, “Dad, there has to be a Walgreen’s close by where you could get your insulin and supplies you need.”  

He was right, there was a 24-hour Walgreen’s close to our hotel.  When I told the pharmacist my situation, he said he would try to help me out.  Of course, there were the usual issues with finding the correct prescription and insurance but the pharmacist got me all set up.  Long story short, and several messes later, I walked out with all the supplies I would need to make it back home and $550 lighter in my wallet.  

The first step to defining your story is to find those messes and put them down on paper. If you struggle with this, refer to an earlier blog posting, “The Five Components for a Solid Foundation to a Good Story,” where I discuss that every good story has a hero and a villain. In other words, there is a problem (villain) that needs a solution (hero) to overcome the problem at hand.  I have found when I encourage people to think about their stories in this way, a big light bulb goes on. Every day each of deal with problems, obstacles, issues. Think about that, and a floodgate of ideas will open up.

Take time to create a list of problems that you, the hero, have solved.  You will be astounded at the number of potential stories you have at your fingertips.  My next blog post will focus on techniques to craft your story into something memorable. Remember, small messes can make huge and dramatic stories!

Creating a Conversation Experience Presentation

You have finished writing your presentation and now it is time to practice.  I am frequently asked if presenters should memorize their entire presentation word-for-word or should just wing it, a.k.a improvise?  The answer depends on a two things: your personal preference with a scripted presentation and your level of experience as a presenter.

Personally, I am not someone who can memorize an entire presentation as written.  To me, reciting an entire presentation verbatim can make the presentation seem robotic, dull and uninspiring.  I don’t feel the same connection with an audience when I repeat the same words in exactly the same way every time. If listening to a robotic presentation wasn’t bad enough, some verbatim practitioners put every spoken word on their PowerPoint presentation. Please, do not do that! If you have to use PowerPoint, then limit the number of words on a slide to no more than 15, and use the slides as a memory jogger.

One of the pitfalls to memorizing your presentation is human error. When you make a mistake – and you will – it’s easy to get flustered.  You may forget a word, or many words, or even a paragraph.  Now your focus is on the mistake, not the audience or the content, and you may freak out a bit. When you start to panic and your nerves are jumping everywhere, there may be unexpected side effects, and a big one is the Dreaded Shallow Breather Syndrome (DSBS).  You can actually forget to breathe! When you fail to properly inhale and exhale your brain doesn’t receive enough oxygen. A lack of oxygen leads to memory loss, and that ultimately can derail your presentation.  If you experience DSBS just pause and take a few deep breaths. This should help you get back on track.  If not, then own it. Tell the audience you just had a “brain cloud,” look at your notes and carry on.

My suggestion is to avoid verbatim presentation altogether. Instead, list and remember the key points of your presentation. Make sure you can talk about each point in length and depth without referring to your notes or even your PowerPoint slide.  When practicing your presentation, anticipate the questions someone could ask about your topic and research the answers.  Anticipating questions will help you to create the conversation experience and raise your level as the subject matter expert.

Winging it is not a suggested technique for most presenters because you will come off unprepared, scatter-brained, and, sadly, just a rambling mess.  You may have all the information inside of your head but cannot access it in a logical way to get your point across. Most beginner and even some intermediate level presenters can’t successfully and consistently improvise their presentations because they have not delivered it enough times.

To achieve that level of improvisation you have to deliver the same presentation over and over, maybe fifty times or more. Improvisation is the ultimate way to create the conversation experience but it does not come easily.  I know first-hand how much work goes into mastering improvisation presentations.

When I first taught beginning accounting at the university level, I put in hundreds of hours to make sure I understood the material inside and out.  It wasn’t until the start of my fourth year teaching the same subject, that I was able to begin to use the improvisation technique.  I slowly instituted this method, but only for a couple of chapters that I was extremely comfortable in delivering.  After a couple more years, I was well-versed on the content, and I could anticipate and react to students questions. A conversation versus a lecture.  Toward the end of my college teaching career, I was the subject matter expert, and the improvisation technique was my standard for that class. Lucky for me it didn’t matter if a new edition textbook came out, beginning accounting has not changed very much over the years.

The goal of any presentation is to create a conversation with your audience versus a classroom lecture.  Think back to your days in school when you had to listen to an instructor robotically drone on about a subject. That memory alone should be enough inspiration for you to work hard in creating the conversation experience!  Creating that conversation experience will allow you to better connect with your audience, increase your standing as the subject matter expert, and improve the retention of the information you are delivering.

Five Components for a Solid Foundation to a Good Story

Watch Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talks Do Schools Kill Creativity, and you will hear wonderful stories.  Sir Ken tells details of an interview he had with Gillian Lynne, the choreographer behind Cats and Phantom of the Opera. He shares how Lynne went from a child diagnosed with a learning disability to world renowned dancer and choreographer.1 It is a great piece of storytelling. In fact, this is the most watched TED Talks of all time with over 41 million views, so it does contain good stories.

There are five key elements to every good story: time, place, characters, conflict, and resolution.  Sir Ken’s telling of Gillian Lynne’s story uses all elements, so I will use it to demonstrate how each element works to further your engagement with the entire story, and as a result, the speaker.

  • Time and place:  This is your starting point, and in the Gillian Lynne story it was in the 1930s at her school.  That may seem vague, but it does establish a benchmark in our minds.
  • Characters:  In all good stories there needs to be a protagonist and an antagonist, or, as I like to refer to them, a hero and villain. The villain is the school administrator who believed that Gillian had a learning disorder. Our hero in this story is not Gillian, but the doctor her mother consulted to help Gillian do better in school.
  • Conflict: The school administrator believed that Gillian had a learning disorder because she couldn’t concentrate and was always fidgeting. Gillian’s mother wanted to help her daughter calm down so she could do better in school.
  • Resolution: Her mother explained to the doctor all of the issues that Gillian had in school: fidgeting, late homework, annoying people, lack of concentration. The doctor asked the mother to join him outside the room so they could observe Gillian’s behavior when she was left on her own.  As they walked out, the doctor turned on the radio so the child would feel a bit more comfortable.  The moment they left the room, she was up on her feet dancing, and she didn’t stop until they returned. The doctor told her mom that Gillian wasn’t sick and didn’t need his help. “Take her to a dance school,” he said. She is a dancer!

Good storytellers help the audience pay attention and retain information by embedding emotionally charged elements in the conflict and resolution elements of their stories. You know, to get the dopamine flowing and the Post-it® notes sticking to your brain.  In the resolution to Gillian’s story, when the doctor says she is not sick, she is a dancer – that is the emotion.  Most of us can relate to a similar situation that happened to us, our family or our friends.

As you were reading the conflict, were you thinking that Gillian had ADHD?  You probably did, I know I did.  When Sir Ken told this story, he said, “I think now they’d say she had ADHD. Wouldn’t you? But this was the 1930s, and ADHD was not invented at this point. It wasn’t an available condition.” He delivered those lines in a very dry tone, which united the audience in laughter. Using humor can create another emotionally-charged moment that connects you and your audience.

Dissecting a story into its five components becomes easier the more you practice.  I suggest watching a few Ted Talk videos to see if you can identify the five components AND those emotionally-charged elements in each story told.  In a majority of Ted Talks, there are three main stories the presenter shares to support their point of view.  If you have trouble identifying the components while watching, find the transcript online and dissect there.

You can become a better storyteller by experiencing the stories all around you every day. Try to stop, listen, and then, dissect what you hear. Learn to identify the components quickly and then apply these techniques to crafting your own stories.

Once you are comfortable in applying this method, you can begin to craft the foundation to any story to help in the delivery of your message.  The more you use this method, the easier it will become in being a better storyteller and, ultimately, a better financial storyteller.

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  1. Gallo, Carmine, Talk Like TED, (St. Martins Griffin, New York) 56

Storytelling and Our Brains

Wrapping a good message inside a great story help people connect, engage and retain. For instance, most TED Talks work because the speakers are using their personal stories to help deliver their message.  Every TED Talk shares a common trait: they contain emotional components that grab our attention from the first sentence to the last. They make it nearly impossible to stop watching. You pay attention, and you stay connected because you want to see how the story ends.

Whether the presenter uses humor, fear, empathy or tragedy, TED Talks are the direct opposite of most business presentations you get at a conference, seminar, or boardroom.  I call those “sleeping pill presentations” – data packed, mind-numbing PowerPoint presentations that challenge every person in the audience to remain awake. Becoming engaged in the topic is nearly impossible.

According to John Medina, author of the book Brain Rules, “The brain doesn’t pay attention to boring things.”1 He is right. The better you are at capturing the attention of your audience, the more they will learn and isn’t the overall goal? Consider your own behavior. When sitting through a sleeping pill presentation, do you pay attention to the speaker or, maybe, your smartphone?

I’m not an expert on the brain, so I will rely on John Medina’s research to help explain how storytelling affects our brains.  According to John, “emotions get our attention.”2 When we pay attention, we capture and retain details.

Here’s an example from my past that probably resonates with you. I was attending a Stephen Covey presentation at the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Columbus sponsored by Franklin University on September 11, 2001.  I left the ballroom to use the restroom and walked by a group of people huddled around a small TV and overheard them saying, “a plane just crashed into one of the Twin Towers.”  That was over 16 years ago.  I can’t tell you what I was doing 16 hours ago.  That entire day and weeks later were packed with so much emotion, that many of us will never forget.

Medina states that “emotionally charged events are better remembered – for longer, and with more accuracy – than neutral events. When your brain detects an emotionally charged event, your amygdala (the part of your brain that helps create emotions) releases the chemical dopamine into your system. Dopamine greatly aids memory and information processing. Think of it like a Post-it® note that reads “Remember This.””3

During an emotionally charged event we feel fear, anger, sadness, joy disgust, surprise, and other automatic responses.  My focus is on one emotion: surprise. One way of looking at the emotion of surprise is including something unexpected, like humor.  I will discuss this in greater detail later in the book, but humor goes a long way in helping to keep the attention of an audience.

Jeffrey Gitomer said, “The end of laughter is followed by the height of listening.”4  Think back to your college days.  What class did you enjoy attending? Why? It was probably because the teacher used stories and humor to capture your attention and get you involved as an active listener.  When I was working on my Master’s Degree in Accountancy, I had to take a corporate income tax class.  I was dreading that semester because in my mind that was the pinnacle of boredom.  It turns out, that class was the one I always looked forward to and enjoyed the most.  The reason was Professor David Jaeger.  He made tax fun, which is a feat in and of itself!  He told stories, used humor and I can still see his “boxer shorts” tie (another story for another day).

Do I remember everything I learned in his class? Of course not, that was over 20 years ago.  However, I do remember his name, I do remember his tie, and I do remember that I enjoyed his class. Very different than my memories of my auditing course.  I don’t remember who taught the class, I don’t remember anything about them or the class. I do remember that when I passed the CPA exam, the section that I passed first was taxation and the part I struggled with, and finally passed, was auditing.

Apparently, I had a lot of Post-it® notes in my brain on the subject of taxation and very few about auditing.  Later in this chapter, I will discuss how to craft a story but for now, remember to include emotionally charged stories in your presentations. Help your audience and their brains pay attention to you and what you are saying. Your stories will become the Post-it® notes they can recall just when they need them.

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1. Gallo, Carmine, The Storyteller’s Secret: From TED Speakers to Business Legends, Why Some Ideas Catch On and Others Don’t, (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2016), 93
2. Medina, John, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School, (2nd Edition, Pear Press: Seattle, WA 2014), 111
3. Medina, John, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School, (2nd Edition, Pear Press: Seattle, WA 2014), 112
4. Nihill, David, Do You Talk Funny: 7 Comedy Habits to Become a Better (and Funnier) Public Speaker, (BenBella Books, Inc, Dallas, TX, 2016),19

Why Storytelling is Powerful

We all love a good story and appreciate a good storyteller. Powerful stories evoke emotion and have the ability to motivate and inspire us. A story that always resonates with me is one about Pat Tillman. Pat was a former professional football player for the Arizona Cardinals who enlisted in the United States Army after the 9-11 attacks. Tragically, he died in combat due to friendly fire. When you listen to his story, you feel many emotions, and those feelings are powerful motivators.

Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson said, “The art of storytelling can be used to drive change.”1 I agree and will add that the way we succeed in driving change is by motivating and inspiring people.  Do we inspire and motivate change with a data dump of facts and figures on a PowerPoint slide? No. That type of presentation just creates a lullaby that too often puts the audience asleep. “If people aren’t entertained, they stop listening and go to sleep not unlike what happens in millions of business presentations given every day.”2

Princeton University neuroscientist, Uri Hanson states, “Those who have mastered the skill of storytelling can have an outsized influence over others.”  He goes on to say that “a person who tells compelling stories can actually plant ideas, thoughts, and emotions into a listener’s brain.  The art of storytelling is your most powerful weapon in the war of ideas.” 3

The only way to understand the power of this weapon is to understand how the brain functions when hearing a story.  Hearing a moving story releases the chemical dopamine in our system. That’s right, the same chemical that can get us addicted to drugs, alcohol, and gambling.  According to John Medina, author of Brain Rules, “When your brain detects emotion, your amygdala, located in your frontal lobe that helps create and maintain emotions, releases the dopamine. Dopamine greatly aids memory and information processing. You can think of it like a Post-it note® that reads “remember this.”4

In Simon Sinek’s Ted Talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire,” he describes the golden circle: Which, Why, How, What.  We all know what we do and how we do it, but do we know why we are doing it?  He ties this concept back to the brain, and explains the brain slightly differently than John Medina although the message remains the same.

Simon states, “If you look at a cross-section of the human brain, from the top down, the human brain is actually broken into three major components that correlate perfectly with the golden circle. In our newest brain, the Homo sapiens brain, our neocortex, corresponds with the “what” level. The neocortex is responsible for all of our rational and analytical thought, and language. The middle two sections make up our limbic brains, and our limbic brains are responsible for all of our feelings, like trust and loyalty. It is also responsible for all human behavior, all decision-making, although it has no capacity for language.”5

He goes on to say, “In other words, when we communicate from the outside in, yes, people can understand vast amounts of complicated information like features and benefits and facts and figures. It just doesn’t drive behavior. When we can communicate from the inside out, we’re talking directly to the part of the brain that controls behavior, and then we allow people to rationalize it with the tangible things we say and do.”6

In other words, “emotion trumps logic”7 every time. This is why stories are so powerful.  They evoke emotion, and emotion drives behavior.  Marketing executives understand this and if you don’t believe me, watch most commercials. The Budweiser beer commercials are a case in point. Each holiday season they feature darling, warm, cuddly puppies, and everyone loves puppies. That emotion, love, connects us to the story the company is telling in a deep and meaningful way.

Once we accept the fact that “emotion trumps logic” and begin to craft our business presentations in the same manner, the more likely we will be able to inspire and motive people to action.  That is exactly what great leaders and organizations do.

 

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  1. Gallo, Carmine, The Storyteller’s Secret: From TED Speakers to Business Legends, Why Some Ideas Catch On and Others Don’t, (St. Martins Press, New York, 2016) 1
  2. Gallo, Carmine, The Storyteller’s Secret, (St. Martins Press, New York, 2016) 3
  3. Ibid, 4
  4. Medina, John, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School, (Pear Press, Seattle, WA, 2014) 112
  5. Simon Sinek Ted Talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire”, 2009, https://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action/transcript#t-399040, (accessed August 2, 2017)
  6. Simon Sinek Ted Talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire”, 2009
  7. Gallo, Carmine, The Storyteller’s Secret, (St. Martins Press, New York, 2016) 4