“I’m going to tell you a story.”
This was the first thing Acumen Fellow Aaron Kirunda said last week in a talk I heard him give at Acumen’s Partner Gathering.
Upon hearing those words, the audience leans forward a little bit, they relax, they open up. Because everyone loves a story.
Aaron’s story was about enjuba, his Ugandan organization that provides literacy training to 1.5 million Ugandan kids, anchored around hosting spelling bees. But that’s not where he begins.
He begins by telling us about two children who grew up in a Ugandan village. One of those boys dropped out of school, he never learned to read, he ended up cutting sugarcane, and he eventually struggled with alcohol abuse and parenting multiple kids out of wedlock.
The other boy, his friend, also had trouble completing primary school, but he had a mother who read the Bible to him and his brothers every night. That boy was fascinated by that ritual, of the family gathered together around a dim light and his mother’s own storytelling. He dreamed of one day being able to read that Bible, and eventually he did learn to read, as did his brothers. This reading ignited his passion for education, and he ended up being the best student in his district, which opened up doors to Uganda’s prestigious Makerere University and eventually to the London School of Economics.
This boy eventually made his way back to Uganda where he started up an organization to pass on the gift of reading to more kids like him and like his friend. This boy’s name was Aaron Kirunda. The organization he found was enjuba, which means sunshine. Seven years after he founded that organization, he came to New York to share his story, and I was lucky enough to hear it.
The reminder here is: I didn’t take any notes on this presentation, and I didn’t know Aaron’s story in this way before that night. But because he told me a story, I listened. And because it was a story, I not only stayed engaged, I remember it effortlessly a few days later. That means it stayed with me, so I can carry it around and reflect on it and contemplate its meaning.
The reminder here is: we want to listen to stories.
They keep us engaged.
They have a beginning, a middle and an end.
This makes them easy to remember – both their content and the lessons they contain.
So, it is our job as people trying to make an impact to tell stories all the time. Not just when we’re in front of a room of people doing “a presentation.” All the time.
These seven powerful words, “I’m going to tell you a story,” whether spoken or implied, can and should be used anywhere. The story can be about a challenge we once had at work, what it felt like when we heard hard feedback for the first time, the lead-up to an insight that hit us over the weekend, or a yarn about a friend we knew who also struggled for nearly a year before putting down roots in a new place.
“I’m going to tell you a story” is the beginning of a conversation that people will remember.
If they remember, it might change them.
If they forget, it definitely will not.