Which way to Newark?

I was walking up 6th Avenue around 26th street last night, talking to a friend on my cellphone.  A guy pulled over in a black SUV, rolled down the window and called out, “Hey, excuse me, can you tell me, how do I get to Newark airport from here?!”

“Hey,” I interrupted my friend on the phone in mid-sentence.  “A guy just pulled over and asked me directions to Newark.  I’m 26th and 6th.  The Holland Tunnel, right?”

“Right.” he said.  “I think he can drive straight down 6th and he’ll see the entrance at Canal Street.”

I told the driver, “Go down about two kilometers,” (he seemed European), “at around Canal street you’ll see signs for the Holland Tunnel.  Take the tunnel and follow the signs for Newark.”

“Thanks a lot,” he said, with a smile on his face.  “Straight on and to the Holland Tunnel, right?”

“Yes,” I said, turning back away to return to my phone call as the guy started to roll up the window.

“Excuse me, sir!” the driver shouted again, “Can I ask you another question?”

“Sure,” I replied.

“You see, I have to catch an 11:20 flight back to Italy. I was here for Fashion Week and I’m just going back.  I’m a designer and I was working these past two weeks at the shows and now I’m heading home.  So I know this might sound a little crazy but I’ve got all I can carry – you know, free stuff that you get at the shows, Valentino and Armani – and if I take it home I have to pay tax on everything I bring back.  $1,200 in tax, and I don’t need the stuff, I’ve got too much.  I wanted to give this away to someone because it seems crazy for me to bring it back home, and you seem like a nice guy.  Really, normally I wouldn’t do this, but are you interested in a suit or a jacket?”

“Hang on one sec,” I said to my friend.  “This is getting a little weird.  I’ll call you back,” and I hung up.

The driver backs the black car in front of the fire hydrant where I’m standing, and steps out onto the curb.  He’s dressed in black from head to toe, in casual but elegant clothes.  He opens up the back door, and the car is spotless and has a few designer bags on the floor and on the leather back seat.  “Here, let me show you these coats,” he says, “What size are you?”

He pulls back the wrapper, hands moving expertly up and down the lapels.  The whole thing is very casual.

“You know, this coat retails for $2,000, and this one for $1,800, and I’ve got a Valentino suit here.  I don’t even want to make any real money on these – I normally wouldn’t even do this,” he says, pulling a small stack of $20 bills out of his pocket, “I don’t need the money.  I just figured I don’t need these and you seem like a nice and helpful guy.  And if I could pay just for my rental car I figure we both come out ahead,” he says, showing me his $800 rental receipt from Budget Rent a Car.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

You can see where this is going, right?  It seems obvious in retrospect, but the delivery was good in this small-scale scam.  Fortunately I picked up on enough signals (the suggestion that I could go to an ATM to get some cash) that I eventually walked away.  But I’d been pulled in enough to hear the story, and I’m pretty sure I’m not a rube.

Why did this guy get my attention?

My guard was down because he had engaged me as a helper, brought me in to help solve a problem he had (getting to Newark).  So from the outset I’m feeling pretty good about myself.  I’m the Good Samaritan who disproves the New Yorker stereotype.

Then, almost casually, he presents an opportunity.  But he doesn’t really care that much either way.  He doesn’t need the money.  And, as the story unfolds, I get just enough concrete facts to make the story hang together: touching the coats and seeing their designer labels; his Italian passport, his ticket to Italy, his receipt from Budget Rent a Car.  The car is spotless, and has some designer bags in it.  And every time I started to doubt him he was more open and acted more like someone who would never do this, someone who was totally honest and just found himself in a stupid situation, with a bunch of designer clothes he didn’t need that would cost him $1,200 to take home.

My point is, if this guy could get even five minutes of my attention it’s because he knew how to weave a good yarn.  Storytellers are everywhere, and they spend a lot of time perfecting their craft.  Stories themselves are not good or bad.  They’re just a tool.

This guy reminded me that everything you do is part of your story.  How you dress, how you speak, how you shake someone’s hand, what your office looks like, where you meet someone for lunch, the thank you note you write, your email signature, your credentials, your photograph on Twitter, even your name.  These are all processed in real time and filed away by your audience.  They serve as shorthand for your listener, a way to understand who you are and decide about the credibility of what you’re saying.

Once you start thinking hard about stories, you see them everywhere.  Our brains are wired to find them engaging, so it’s easy to get drawn in to almost any story (Reread the first half of this post.  It’s not great writing.  It just says, “He did this, then he did this, then he did this,” and that simple sequence can keep you engaged for quite a while.)

Compare this to how we tend to speak and write about ourselves (especially in the nonprofit sector).  Think about the last presentation you gave, the last meeting you had, the last time a friend asked you what your organization does.

Did your second or your third sentence start with the words, “For example?”  If not, it’s time to start thinking harder about your story.

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3 thoughts on “Which way to Newark?

  1. The ability to craft and tell stories is a powerful and often underestimated skill. Applying this experience to international development communities, I wonder how often we sit back and think about both the smaller and larger (macro level) stories these communities are telling and what has been the historical format and content of those stories? Do these communities reflect on how these stories have shaped the view of whatever cause or situation they are dedicated to? I am sometimes left feeling that the story telling has not been as good or as cohesive as it could be nor as connected to the full human condition (beyond just death and disease). Specifically, with respect to global health, it seems as if I hear the same story often (data dump of mortality stats, sometimes gruesome photos and heart wrenching stories). The story telling is changing and places like TED offer alternate models, but at least in global health, we do need more reflection on the tools used to motivate and much more use of various mediums.

  2. Aman, thanks for your comment. I absolutely agree….the stories we tell both reflect and shape reality. I think we could all do better.

  3. Seth tells a story of a man who asked for a dollar in exchange for four quarters. Seems harmless enough so Seth gives him the dollar and he takes four quarters out of the man’s hands. Two seconds later, the man asks, “Can i borrow a quarter?” Brilliant. First engage the person in the right story (in this case, it was a fair trade, the man was nice, and Seth felt good about helping him out) and then stake your claim (do something abnormal/unusual/out of place) that really hits home the story.

    Needless to say, he got the quarter.

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