Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Sharing stories well

DSC03813Last week, Mitt Romney was asked what he would do as president to close the wage gap between men and women.  He told a story about how, as Governor, he faced a situation where he wasn’t being presented with qualified women candidates for his executive openings.  He demanded, and received, binders full of women and went on to create one of the most balanced teams in the country.  The story  didn’t answer the question, and also started a meme about “Binders of Women” that still reverberates.

Last night, I met the British trade representative from Houston, at a BIA reception where I was speaking.  We both looked for connections to anchor our conversations: his was telling a story about American’s abroad who relocated their businesses to Houston; mine was about a ride-along that I did with the Houston paramedics Both of us told good anecdotes, but neither of us connected.  Our stories were associated with Houston, but disconnected from one another.

People organize space by creating pictures; they organize time using narrative, observes David Lodge.  People tell stories.  When executives debate policy, they swap anecdotes; when politicians woo voters, they share experiences.  Telling the  right story, and telling it well, is a key conversation and presentation skill that I’ve been reflecting on lately.

I often tell short stories in my blog essays, thoughts and observations organized around an event or idea.  I never go back and change a post,but I sometime regret the way that they turn out.

It most often happens when I experiment with painting a story, as with Route 52.  I wanted to try to evoke the feeling of the countryside, it’s contrasts with Europe an d the ‘otherness’ that familiar scenes turn into after being away for years.  But it wandered, capturing snapshots without tying the underlying ideas together.

Expats and Entrepreneurs have deep pools of stories that they can share.  But selection and timing, as in comedy, are everything.  It leads me to four thoughts to keep in mind when I write or tell stories:

  • Stories should have a point.
  • Stories should fit into a relevant context.
  • Stories should be clear and develop towards a conclusion.
  • Stories should be meaningful to both audience and purpose

I’ve learned how speaking skills, style and presence, can be improved by watching Obama’s old stump speeches or Jobs’  early product introductions.  Similarly, good examples of skilled storytellers at work can be illuminating, both the structure (reading narrative non-fiction in magazines like the Atlantic or Best Essays compilations) and the flow ( From Our Own Correspondent or This American Life).  Ira Glass has a wonderful series of YouTube videos about How To Tell A Story.

As George says, it’s about Design, Composition, Tension Balance, Light, and Harmony.

So I’m pausing, just a moment, before launching into an anecdote to be sure I’m telling a story.  From  my observation, Mitt seems to be learning the lesson too, even as Barack forgot it.

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