Tell Me Your Story

(From My Post on LinkedIn Pulse)

Everyone is talking about storytelling these days. It’s in vogue. A buzzword. At the corporate level you hear how meetings need to be based around a narrative. In journalism training you see a huge emphasis on storytelling over and above simply emphasizing facts. Marketing whitepapers are going crazy over the need to make a narrative out of your organization’s messaging. Nonprofits and fundraisers are waking up to the realization that it is all about stories (not just the poster child story, but the story of the organization, and now, even the story of the donor).

I am glad to see all this. But even as a strong believer in the power of stories I am intrigued at why it’s in such vogue. Thinking about it, here are some reasons I came up with:

1) Our society is deluged with information and much of it is passed on without greater context. We are suffocating from lack of context. (A story is all about context and the dramatic arc that stories possess). Everywhere we turn there is a flood of information. But it is different than in previous days. Once upon a time news articles, consumer information, even advertising was delivered mostly within the context of a magazine, a store, a TV show, a network, a brand. But that has changed. Where editors and producers used to define the context of our information, now we are our own guides and our own editors. (That isn’t all bad – many of us for years decried the gatekeepers in the media and their more or less evident biases and distorted views of reality). But now we are on the other side of the pendulum. And we are suffering some new effects from it. Much of the news these days is being consumed article by article. We get most of our information à la carte or cafeteria style. Our favorite gatekeepers may be our friends linking articles on Facebook as we read our “newsfeed” diligently every day.

After a while people get tired of not having a solid larger context. There comes a craving for context. What does this article mean? How do I see this point of view in light of the bigger picture? What is “the rest of the story?” as Paul Harvey used to say. So, we develop a thirst for narratives and the stories that hold things together.

(I could get philosophical here and talk about the effect of postmodernism, the destruction of the grand narrative concept, the accompanying idea that everything is about “me,” and so forth. It’s all tied together. But I’ll save that for another time.)

#2) Besides not having context we are overloaded with analytical information (rather than analogical information). Analysis uses mostly the left side of the brain while analogy tends to use the right side. Honestly, I believe the left sides of our brains are becoming weary. A good story, happy ending or sad ending, a laugh, a joke – these carry much more water nowadays.

#3) We are not satisfied, even in the midst of our technology. Yes, technology can be great. I look around my desk at all the digital tools that I have. (I was a pioneer in digital space). But, you know what? Sometimes I get tired of talking to and listening to robots. We begin to long for human faces (OK, some don’t and they are starting to scare me). We want to talk with people.

But more and more, robots are replacing people in our lives. Try calling a support desk to get help understanding the gadget you’re trying to work with and often you get more robots, or at best phone menus. Where are the human beings? The big question of the future may be: “How can we tell the human being from the robot?” – If I were to place a bet it would be decided by who tells the best story. I have noticed that I am developing a habit of cheering when a help desk (human) makes a mistake. “I am so glad you are a human!” I tell them.

Yes we’re hungry for stories. We are starving for stories. It may be a fad and a buzzword in business but it’s not a gimmick. It is part of the essence of human communication.

(Now. Having finished all that necessary analysis, let me tell you an interesting story!)

A few years ago, I was working with an influential organization in the mid-Atlantic region of the US. The president of the company and I were both southerners, and, as many southerners do, we started most of our business “chats” by telling stories. One day we had an important problem to solve, and one of the high-level managers was in the president’s office to help work on the solution. He was a very “straight-to-the-point” fellow and not fond of beating around the bush, so to speak. After about 25 minutes of watching stories flow between the president and me, the other manager was visibly frustrated.

The president then stood up, we shook hands and he said, “We solved it.” The other manager was befuddled. But we had figured it out. As we had laughed and gone through some good tales, the solution had become very obvious to the two of us. I am not sure the other manager has figured it out to this day.

Revolutions started by Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn …wait… LINKEDIN!!??

It is amazing what social media is doing – what all digital, people-powered, level-paying-field media is doing. We know about the Twitter revolutions – Iran, Cairo, Libya. Even the Tea Party got much of its early start on Twitter. We have also heard the stories how middle-class people rise up through FaceBook posts.

But this one takes the cake – from the Voice of America, that over-the curtain (iron, bamboo, whatever) service so familiar with listeners in repressed countries –  comes news that China has blocked the business social networking site, LinkedIn.

Why?

“…one user set up a forum discussing the idea of a Jasmine Revolution in China.”

I use Linked-In a good deal – it is a great place to get the feel for the heartbeat of entrepreneurial America. And I am starting to get into the forums. There are great ways to connect and get ideas going there. I see a lot of it.

“Get ideas going…” Maybe the Chinese are afraid of that. It CAN lead to revolutions. Even here in the US.

Maybe create new jobs while we are at it.

Bring on the Entrepreneurs!

I just saw this article and it did not surprise me:

Boomers Driving New Entrepreneurship Boom

Everyone from Wall Street to the White House has been crying for the entrepreneurs to come forth – to revive the economy, create new jobs and bring America back to the forefront of ideas and progress again. Many of us remember  Reagan and the 1980’s. That was a golden age of entrepreneur-ism and the revival of cottage industry – hundreds of thousands of people getting creative and figuring out how to do create new small businesses at home.  Who were some of those people? A Michael Dell making computer boxes in his dorm room; other guys creating small “personal” computers in their garages (IBM did not feel a threat); coffee roasters in rented warehouses who seemed to pose no threat to Maxwell House, part-time insurance salesmen working a second job under Art Williams’ tutelage – on and on it went. That generation created revolution after revolution. Many – perhaps most – of the real lights in those years were Baby Boomers unleashing their unfettered ideas about business and work itself.

Is it a surprising thing that many of that generation are still at it? It IS time, of course, to take succeeding generations under the wing and teach them how to do it.  But the best way to teach in this arena is to DO.

Godspeed! – jobs will follow, just like the 80’s and 90’s followed what happened in that previous revolution.

_________________

 

Apple app store and the Manhattan Declaration iPhone app – push technology and “control.”

A month ago I walked into the Apple Store at the Annapolis mall to find a reason not to buy a Christmas present for my family from Apple. That was a switch. We usually walk in there to have a good time. My 5-year-old likes to go to the iPads and play racing games. My wife keeps trying out the newest iMac – she wants to replace her aging Dell desktop with one.  I myself have a MacBook Pro and a 3Gs iPhone. But I am very concerned about Apple and even more concerned with where our society is headed.

Apple is in trouble with a lot of people because of its censorship policies. It recently pulled a Christian app – The Manhattan Declaration one. The reason Apple gave?  It is “offensive to large groups of people.”  Many branded it “anti-gay” and a “hate app,” though the Manhattan Declaration is mostly a line drawn in the sand by a lot of church people on what the church has for centuries defined as marriage.  Whether you agree with where the line is drawn or not, making a statement does not automatically mean hate. This app simply gave access to a firm outline of a position and an argument.

I am convinced that Apple withdrew the app, not because of what it is (or was) but because of certain people’s reaction to it. 7,700 signed a petition to Apple and asked them to remove it. The company did. It is going to be interesting to see what happens next, because supporters of the app have now gotten over 61,000 names on a petition of their own to reinstate it. Apple is not famous for being a dog wagged by its tail, though, and so far they have not budged.

(In the spirit of full disclosure, I must state that I presently work for one of the ministries that support the Manhattan Declaration, Breakpoint Ministries).

A larger question bothers me immeasurably: Is the Internet (and mobile, wi-fi, all-things-digital) moving into a zone where companies,  governments, or certain self-defined ‘large numbers of people’ can control the content that is accessible – and thus direct the debate and discussion in a society?

That was hinted at once before – in the late ’90s. The Internet was still young. Something came along called “Push Technology.” Many felt that the Internet was too wild, the information deluge too strong, and there was too much garbage online. They thought that someone needed to come along and clean it up. The old-timers online, many of us from the era of BBSes, Usenet and other “geeky” online pioneering groups, howled in protest. That was exactly what personal computing, online connections and digital networking were invented to circumvent! The Internet should be democratic to its core. No one should be able to control or influence the content stream. People should have free and open access to information.  In the very early days the power-mongers and legacy gatekeepers did not pay much attention to the Internet. They didn’t see everyone going over to this new medium. I talked to many of them (trying to sell them on the Internet). The idea seemed to be that it was for nerds and hobbyists and a few revolutionaries. Real people and real money were not there. What did they care? So the Internet was allowed to develop open and free.

Then, somewhere along the way, things changed.  Regular people all over the world discovered that this even-playing-field with its democratic and open exchange of information was a GREAT thing. People shifted much of their gaze and a large portion of their free hours to it. Gatekeeper alarms started to go off. Businesses sniffed the money to be made. There was a mad rush to the stock market (the dot-com bust followed).  “Push technology” was dreamed up. CONTROL was being lost by traditional gatekeepers. It had to be regained. For the first time, I sensed fear in the legacy gatekeepers.  That was about 1998.

I recently came across an amusing workshop website from the era entitled: Taming the Internet:Push Technology. (The amusing part is the word “Taming”).  Yes, controlling information flow was really going to be for our good! It brought back memories. Microsoft even got into the game – they began building push technology elements into Microsoft Explorer – their web browser, which was in a bloody battle with Netscape in what as called “The browser wars.” A furor arose online. Many Net purists decried the temptation to control users’ information and replace it with that presented by large companies, carriers and other net media companies (no one even dared mention governments).  On the “control” side, the higher-minded ones advanced the notion that only the gatekeepers and channels really knew what was good for people.

The debate died out quickly, though. It was overrun by a reality: change was taking place at such blinding speed and people were in love with free search. The advent of  powerful search engines and people learning how to find, display (and publish) their OWN  information was a huge social movement.  The horses were out of the barn.

The mad rush towards push technology subsided, or at least faded into the background. Microsoft gave up on it for the time. (However, some of the elements built into the back-end of some browsers for eventual “push” functionality began to be hijacked by sinister coders and something known as “spyware” or “adware” evolved in the early 2000’s. We all began to get a taste of the worst elements of “push” technology and manipulative control).

The “free” Internet is more popular than ever. But the urge to control is back with a vengeance. In some places it is government pressing for control. China is dealing hard and Google, to its credit, resisted the government of the world’s most populous nation. In our own freedom-loving America, the “control” thing is popping up in strange places. Most of it is subtle pressure from rather obscure policies (like the recent FCC ruling on Net Neutrality).

Then along comes this issue with Apple. What part does “control” play?  I would have been just as upset if Apple had censured an app on the other side of the debate from where I personally stand, as long as the app made a fair and reasonable statement of its beliefs available.

The real issue is the availability of information.  I am frightened by the fact that some of the technologies that have given us such evenness of information distribution over the past 20 years are now coming under proprietary control in certain places. The Apple app store is just one of those places and it is just for this moment. What about other places and future moments? The future presents a narrower view of this free flow of information than we experienced the last 2 decades. In that regard, I don’t care who the gatekeepers are or even what they believe. I just don’t like them. And I hate to see the dream we all got to experience falling under their blade.

This “control” threat was beaten off once, pretty successfully. Can it be defeated again? The stakes are much higher now, for all parties concerned.

Talkers and Doers – an exposé on “The Washington Disease”

We will get out of these hard times – and, once out, we will recognize it was the Doers that made it happen.  The longer I live, work and travel in and around Washington DC the more I am convinced that it is a city of Talkers. Yes, there are hard-working, sturdy doers here by the thousands, and our republic depends on them. God bless ‘em! But it is the talkers in DC who have the limelight. Blinded by their own brilliance, they rumble about the town like tumbleweed. I bump into them often – thus my rant.

I remember, as a much younger man, spending some time with an elder in our church who was a farmer. He didn’t say much. But I have seldom been so impressed at how much one person could get done in life. And it was solid. I would float my lofty ideas by him, and his wise words were often: “We’ll see.” We did.

Here in DC it is not just The Administration, Congress and the Media that clobber us with lofty talkers. They are everywhere, at all levels and in most organizations. Oratory is in vogue.  It is so pervasive that I have named it The Washington Disease. You see it in business, with gusts of “my-idea-is-the-most-significant-idea”  blowing down corridors and swirling around meetings. You see it in schools with the teacher asking the class for their feedback and then cutting off the discussion because the teacher thought of something more important to say.  You see it in the frenetic pace from the beltway to the National Mall to the suburbs – as a friend of mine puts it:  “Everyone’s in a hurry even if they don’t know where they are going.”

Where does it come from? People feel the need to get something DONE – but they are trained here to TALK. It is easy to talk. Talk is cheap. Meetings are easy to schedule in Outlook. We get to talk a lot in meetings. Makes us feel better. Gets us through the day. Makes us look even better if we rush. It is easy to rush – hey, I am an adrenaline junkie too – it feels good.

How about really getting things done?  That costs us more. As my dad, who grew up on a farm,  would say: “Time to put your money where your mouth is.” (Note to Congress and the Administration – the proverb cites YOUR money – not someone else’s).  It boils own to DOING something. That usually involves more work than talking. A great deal more. Doing things makes you miss meetings.

A big part of the problem here in the DC area is that people are too tired out from the talking and the rushing to move down from the 10,000 foot level and get their hands in the dirt like a farmer and make something grow. Besides, there is not much social value here in being a farmer. Doers don’t get much credit. My theory – it is too provincial.  Seems too much like it comes from the heartland or a red state. I digress.

Now THAT gets me back to some of my recurring themes: Politics – Business – Spirituality – Life – What’s good for America – and stuff like that.

Here is the summary:

  • Politics: I think America is really tiring of DC talkers. Recent elections seem to bear that out.
  • Business: It is still about the small-businessperson, the small business family, and the American worker who likes the feeling of being captain of his or her own ship.
  • Spirituality: The Bible says it is not the hearer of the Word but the Doer of the Word that is blessed…  (I think that also goes for the talker-about-the-Word)
  • Life and What’s good for America: It finally boils down to the regular American people who go about doing and helping their neighbors and making their small communities work. It is about volunteers and parents and kids and teachers and preachers and singers and diggers. It is about farmers with hands in the dirt. I would MUCH rather listen to the few words they have time to say than the over-caffeinated cacophony I hear in and around our nation’s capital.

I am about over that.

Jobs Jobs Jobs and Reality Checks

Prelude: It is really pretty simple. In business, when a product doesn’t work, you have to fix it or drop it – FAST. And you have to fix it the way the marketplace wants it. No exceptions. Circular reasoning, like: “well it is the customers’ fault – they just don’t realize what this product can do for them,”  doesn’t work. If you try to change the conversation or tell the marketplace that it doesn’t understand, the marketplace rewards you with this: “Hey! Listen to us or we’ll go elsewhere with our business. You have 10 seconds!”  That is a forced reality check most business owners cut their teeth on. The ones that didn’t are no longer around.

  • I think some politicians are getting one of those reality checks but they don’t recognize it for what it is.

It looks like the president and politicians in Washington are ready to move the conversation to the economy and the job situation. I thought we already did that early in 2009 with the stimulus package. But somewhere in early summer the emphasis got moved over to the health care realignment project. (I wonder if that got the spotlight because the stimulus launch didn’t produce the bump in jobs many pols hoped for last spring).

  • They can’t be unhappy about us

Now that a Massachusetts upstart (a Republican at that) helped put a stopper to the increasingly unpopular healthcare realignment project (as it now stands and was recently manipulated) it looks like it is time to turn the conversation back to jobs, jobs, jobs. After all, the public has shown it is not happy and it must really be about the economy, right? Perhaps we can lay the blame at the feet of the banks for the jobs situation and get some traction. If they’re unhappy, let’s by all means speak into their unhappiness!

Here is a possible script – “Jobs, jobs, Bush, jobs, last 8 years – oops before ‘the change’ – jobs, jobs, banks, Cheney, the French (wait, how did the French get there?)” Certainly they cannot be unhappy about us (ruling incumbents), so it MUST be about jobs and some still-repressed subliminal vibes from George Bush, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon.  What else could it be?  So let’s hit jobs another lick.

  • A clue – how jobs come about.

I don’t pretend to be a big businessman but I did start several small businesses and learned a lot about where jobs come from. In the private sector they come from people in businesses having confidence, feeling like the captains of their ships, and having the strength of heart to take on risks. Then they hire. Oh, and there is another element. Decent business leaders (and the ones I know are mostly very decent people) refuse to hire a person and take on responsibility for other people’s lives unless they feel that the ground is solid under their feet. It would be unfair to do differently. They must feel there is enthusiasm in the public marketplace.

  • Why people aren’t enthusiastic

Massachusetts, an extremely entrepreneurial state, proved that the enthusiasm quotient is low. People questioned overwhelmingly answered that the thing they were most upset about was the way that Capitol Hill was approaching the health care realignment project. That does not explain the entire lack of enthusiasm, but it does point the way. The idea is that the politicians are not listening to us – they are only listening to themselves. The government seems to want to control all the ships (they understand ships in Boston).

Most businesses will not hire when they feel not-in-control. Maybe in France they do,  not in the good ‘ole USA. Not in the tinkering, garage-band, backlot-project world of the American entrepreneur. And when those folks are not enthusiastic, most of the rest of the country is not either, because they are us – by the millions – from the Amway rep to the basement programmer to the realtor to the Jaycees greeter.

  • Time for  a reality check.

Go back and study how Ronald Reagan got confidence back to into the entrepreneur class and how the enthusiasm swelled back into the whole country in 1981 and 1982. That was right in the midst of the last really bad recession. That same army of American entrepreneurs and unorthodox, underfunded tinkerers helped create the digital revolution we are still riding today. Talk about jobs…

You have to get the nation’s enthusiasm up. You can’t push your product at us if we don’t want it. You have to listen.

Government Run Health Care and Robert Frost

robert_frost

What would Robert frost say about the present health care debate?  Well  –  he is dead – so it is hard to know exactly what he would say.

But one of my favorite poems of his,  “A Roadside Stand” contains these lines:

A Roadside Stand

While greedy good-doers, beneficent beasts of prey,

Swarm over their lives enforcing benefits

That are calculated to soothe them out of their wits,

And by teaching them how to sleep the sleep all day,

Destroy their sleeping at night the ancient way.

True,  Frost did not write this poem about Government-run health care.  But he DID write it about the difference in the proud, individualistic life of country people who refused to go into the city and live on “a dole of bread.”

Most think it the poem was a reaction to the New -Deal-ism coming out of Washington in the 30’s.

What strikes me is that Frost talks about something no one is talking about today in all the discussion of government-run health care, car-making, or government-run anything else. 

  • The loss of thinking individuals that takes place when the government forces its benefits on folk.
  • The loss of the independent spirit.
  • The loss of the beauty, the real life, and the drama of making your money the country way – even if not as slick as the way the city money is made.

It is in the news that all these pitiful kin

Are to be bought out and gathered in

To live in villages next to the theater and store

Where they won’t have to think for themselves anymore.

He seems to believe that it is better to eke out your existence with proudly earned dollars from the roadside stand and go to bed and sleep the honest way, worn out and having earned it.

I am with Frost – on any issue about stuff  pushed down by “greedy good-doers.”

(It was hard to find an online version of the poem – not a popular one at all.  Here is a PDF that has the lyrics and some good questions).