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.

_________________

 

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.

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).

GM Bankruptcy looming? Seeing the Light?

It looks like many are starting to see the light – GM: Some Bondholders Want Bankruptcy . Not so much the “light” that bankruptcy for some of the major automakers in Detroit was a given – and has been for some time – but that it is going to take bankruptcy to really get a viable business going there once again.

Interesting, now that the president and all are talking bankruptcy, people accept it and think it is “smart.” Back a few months ago, when just some of us were seeing the same light, from a distance, we were called “right-wing radicals.” 

Take a look at some of my other posts, including the interesting conversations with Scott Monty, the public communications director for Ford Motor Company. The point of those posts was not just that it needed to be done (for GM and Chrysler at least) but that they all – especially Ford –  had a great opportunity to gain the collaboration of the public if they could just lower their pride barrier and talk with people (like they did with us on TCOT). I believe the table is still set for that, but time is lapsing.

In the meantime, the more liberal “thinkers'” of our time seem satisfied just to accept the inevitable and – probably – think that they were the first to recognize it.   Such is life. But it is not the stuff real progress and change are made of.

Susan Boyle – Dreamers, Cynics and Hope

All the world is in love with Susan Boyle. She didn’t just belt out I Dreamed a Dream, she proved that dreamers still can turn cynics around and bring the world to its feet cheering.

Hurrah!

I am convinced that the real problem with the economic turmoil we are in now is not Wall Street and it is not the housing market. Its root cause is not even greed, though that has played a big part.  Greed has been around a long time and we have overcome it before.

The real culprit is cynicism. There is more cynicism than ever and precious few dreamers left to combat it.

But Scotland gave us one.

Susan turned the cynics to believers in seconds, right before our eyes. It is a beautiful thing to behold. That is why we can’t stop watching it.

Note: click this link to see the video or click twice on the image – the play arrow below will not play directly.

Remember the 1980 US Hockey team in the Olympics? Times were bad. After three assassinations, years of riots, Watergate, Vietnam ending in retreat, we were then faced with oil crises, terrorism and Iran imprisoning 52 US diplomats for 444 days while the U.S. seemed totally inept. To add to it all, the USSR invaded Afghanistan and seemed determined to push the world to the brink of war by starting a trail of conquest for territory. The cynics were all over the place.

Then along came a batch of dreamers – the US Hockey team, a bunch of gutsy college kids going up against the invincible Soviet Olympic team. The USSR team, staffed mostly by the Red army “amateurs” (pros were not allowed in the Olympics in those days),  could handily beat any professional hockey team in the world on most days. But not during the days of the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid.

How I remember sitting up in the middle of the night (I lived in Germany at the time), watching that incredible match – and watching the impossible happen. The US kids laid their hearts on the ice and knocked the USSR out of the games and won the gold medal. I’ll never, ever, forget that feeling. Spunky dreamers overcame the cynics and the unbelievers. Hope was reborn and people began to believe again.

US Hockey team beats USSR - 1980 Olympics

US Hockey team beats USSR - 1980 Olympics

That same year another dreamer and idealist came to the stage, Ronald Reagan. Again the cynics howled and scowled. But he stood up and started preaching optimism and hope. He even dared to voice his belief that communist Russia could be turned toward freedom and Germany could be reunited. In the process of leading the nation to dare to dream, our economic malaise evaporated and the American entrepreneurial spirit led the world into a technological revolution unmatched in history.

It all happened, to the jaw-dropping amazement of cynics worldwide.

As I watched the Britain’s Got Talent video again and again, I tried to remember when I had last felt like I felt watching that video clip. It took me back to 1980.

Perhaps an amazing Scottish spinster has reignited a weary world’s capacity to dream and to hope – once again.