The trouble begins with a thoughtful reminder—a polite email sent the night before I am to speak. The 5-minute time limit. This is something I entirely overlooked. So I scramble to cram my talk into a small cup. I know the story. I can ad lib it well, but not in less than five minutes. Tonight I will unwittingly play the Walter Mitty. I’ve seen so many people fill this role. I warn against it. It doesn’t boost my ego to learn it can happen to me.
Walter Mitty is the character from James Thurber’s famous short story. He slips into fantastic daydreams and loses contact with those around him. Danny Kaye re-interpreted the role for a terrific movie. I use the term “Walter Mitty” to describe a speaker that slips into his technical world and fails to connect with his audience. Some people say “geek” or “nerd.” I prefer “Mitty.”
I get off the train, grab a cab, and soon I’m at Kellogg for another session at Esther Choy’s Leadership Story Lab. Why am I here? Yes, I’m a writer, but I’m here to learn to TELL stories. That’s not the same process as writing and it’s not the same as giving a lecture.
Why is learning to tell a story so important? Story is a powerful business tool. Few know how to use it. It differentiates you from all the other equally qualified people.
It’s taken all my free time and the train ride downtown to hack my narrative down to five minutes. Now the sequence seems entirely unfamiliar to me and there’s no time to memorize, no time to rehearse. I figure I’ll rely on my notes. I’ll be all right. No problem. Amazing how one deludes oneself. I have no clue that I am about to fall into the trap around which I steer my clients.
Esther starts the workshop by telling her own story. She tells it as a story. She’s poised, confident, but not at all arrogant. It’s a joy to hear her speak. And it’s fascinating. This is a gal that knows her business.
Then she surprises us. By way of contrast, she begins again, this time listing her background and accomplishments the way people usually do—chronologically. And it’s an impressive list.
Which of the two introductions is more effective?
The story–no contest. I’ll remember the specifics told in the story.
Throughout the session, she gives pointers on storytelling:
You don’t have to be a superhero to tell a rousing story.
The way you tell is more important than what you tell.
You need some tools.
You need a process
You need to practice
You need plot, characters, conflict and resolution, just as you do in writing. But of all the lessons I learn tonight, the one that sticks out is this: “The hardest thing in telling a story is knowing what to leave out.”
Now I’m hearing four speakers—all fellow Kellogg grads. Some of them perform brilliantly. I’m last. I’m confident. I have no idea that I’m about to fall into the role of Mitty.
Where is the podium? Where will I put my notes? I lay them before me on a low table. Yes, I can just make out the print. I don’t yet realize it’s happening, but instead of the all-important eye contact, the audience is getting a glare off the top of my head. The notes are actually slowing me down.
Esther walks up to me.
She purposely seizes my notes—one sheet at a time.
She walks off with them.
What do I do now? I object. “I can do it without notes if you like, but not in five minutes.”
Her response? “You know your story.”
It takes me a few moments, but without my notes I ad lib. I make eye contact. I gesture with my hands, and generally become more animated. It’s probably too late to salvage this disaster but everything is going so much better.
Now Esther is standing beside me—close beside me. I glance at her. “Am I out of time?”
She smiles with compassion. “Yes,” she says quietly. I quickly skip to the takeaway points of my story and wrap it up.
Now for the comments from the audience. Turns out, I lost them right at the start. I won them back after Esther intervened. As I had assumed, I wandered and didn’t finish the story but just as Esther said, delivery was more important than content.
This will not go into my memory banks as a delightful experience. It’s another lesson learned the hard way—the way I usually learn my lessons—with pain and humiliation. But Esther points out the word LAB in Leadership Story Lab. It’s a controlled and safe environment where you can experiment—where you are allowed to fail. And fail I did. And I’m thankful. I’m thankful for the opportunity to fail here rather than in the cold world of business.
Learn. Practice. Practice again.
Find Leadership Story Lab at http://leadershipstorylab.com/
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© 2012 John Jonelis – All Rights Reserved.