Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Theme for 2016: The Power of Story

I begin writing this post as an "assignment" I've taken on as part of a Toastmasters-like public speaking club a good friend of mine has organized. 

In less than three weeks, I need to give a 4-6 minute speech on any topic I want, as long as it is organized clearly.  It is Speech 2, for those of you familiar with the Toastmasters curriculum.

Anything I want, eyyyy?

What do I have to say, and why would anyone listen?

I need a story.

A memorable talk I saw (virtually) this year was Dorothy Graham's presentation at STAREast.  It was geared toward software testers but really, it was for anyone who provides information for a living.  You need to make the information relevant to them - suck them in and don't let go until they understand and are prepared to act.  You can't inform them if they're bored.  And if you don't inform them, then you're not providing value.  And if your job starts looking like a cost without benefit, it starts sticking out as low hanging fruit for workforce reduction.  While you won't be killed for failure to entertain, I see myself every day as Scheherazade in Dorothy Graham's relaying of The Arabian Nights.  Give people a reason to keep you around and they will. 

A colleague of mine continually reinforces the importance of storytelling to me.  Why would a customer care about a new feature in our software?  What tangible takeaways can we use to inspire customers enough to write a purchase order?  Or to inspire staff to go the extra mile in supporting or delighting customers?

I've even started evangelizing storytelling to others.  I was speaking with a bright eighth grader who was putting together a display for a science project, and I was advocating the importance of easy-to-read headers and blank space between thoughts rather than a Wall of Text.  I said that adults have a very short attention span.  You need to instantly tell us why we should care and provide enough incentive to read the full paper.  She worried that she wouldn't sound smart if she "dumbed down" her display.  And I said they wouldn't know anything about how smart she was if they were too bored or intimidated by her display to want to know more.  Just like that, I became a storytelling advocate. 

I started to feel like I was an agent in further reducing the attention span and appreciation for nuance.  So I'll add further that stories need to be factual and appeal to the best in us.  They need to entice you want to know more about the subject matter and inspire curiosity rather than falsely imply that everything is simple.  We need to be astute consumers of stories as the trend of storytelling spreads.
  • What is the storyteller's motive? Are they selling something? Asking for a vote?  To legitimately inform?
  • Remember that YOU are part of the story.  And you have a brain.  Ask questions. 
  • Is the story complete?  Is it true but misleading?  Does the storyteller have a good reputation for accuracy?   Inventory the emotions that the story evokes in you - Are they emotions you are proud of or are they more lizard-brain emotions you'd prefer to evolve past? 
Apparently my speech needs a closing.  I don't think I'll be able to use this as a speech, but it was fun to take a run at putting some thoughts down. 

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