The Story-Reality Gap

Not long after a recent conference, I was comparing notes with an early-stage social entrepreneur about pitching to potential investors. The pitches at the conference had been heavy on dreams, lighter on reality, and we got to talking about how big the gap should be between the stories we tell on stage and what’s happening on the ground. 

Specifically, in service of telling our stories, when do we push the truth so far as to reach a breaking point?

Like all good questions, the answer to this one begins with recognizing the limits of black and white thinking: there aren’t just two types of stories, one full of puffery and half-truths and the other a grim, warts-and-all picture of reality so sober and honest that no one would ever dream of funding us.

Indeed, the real truth is this: we owe it to our ideas to tell stories big enough that there’s space for others in them.

Our job is to describe a future reality that will only come into being if the listener rolls up her sleeves with us to help make it happen. This reality can be a few steps, maybe many steps, removed from today, because the question the sophisticated listener is asking isn’t “is this exactly what they’re doing today?” it is, “do I believe that this person with this team, together with my help and support, can get us from here to there?”

With this as a given, we all have our own sweet spot for how we tell stories in ways that mesh with our personalities and worldview.  I’ve been persuaded both by big-picture dreamers and cranky cynics, the former because they help me see something that feels impossible but just-in-reach, the latter because if, with all their negativity, they tell me that they can make something important happen, I’m inclined to believe them.

My own version of selling builds off how I’m wired—I deeply value transparency and authenticity, and as a listener I want to understand where gaps lie and that an entrepreneur is thinking two steps ahead. So I pitch in this same way, always trying to walk the line of painting a big vision and acknowledging what doesn’t exist yet, the potential pitfalls, an how I’m going to address them. This is the balance that works for me, the space between a story I cannot tell authentically (because it feels un-grounded) and one that is thinking and playing too small.

Of course your sweet spot will be somewhere slightly different, a comfort zone with a natural set point on the spectrum between dazzle/charisma/vision and grounded, sober reality.

The non-negotiable bit is that, regardless of which style is most comfortable to you, it’s everyone’s job to share an evocative vision of an as-yet-unrealized future and help others see it.

Storytelling is just that…story-telling, and the stories you want to tell are stories about the future.

Why Ta-Nehesi Coates Won’t Call His Father “Billy”

A video of Ta-Nahesi Coats has been spreading like crazy online. In it, Coates responds to a question from a white woman in the audience who asks whether white people should be able to sing along to rap lyrics that contain the N-word.

For once, the Internet has it right. Coates’ answer is a masterful example of how to use narrative to address a difficult topic and to help others understand an uncomfortable truth. At a time when, as a society, we are caught in echo chambers and building up thicker walls that separate us, and when the preferred mode of response seems to be anger, vitriol and accusation, our opportunity as change-makers is to learn from Coates to become more skillful in talking in ways that others can hear.

What I notice about Coates’ response begins at the energetic level: one can imagine him feeling frustration, or exhaustion, or even anger, at hearing this question (again) from a well-intentioned white woman, but no negative feeling comes out. His demeanor conveys thoughtfulness and reflection, and, rather than put the audience on the defensive, he draws them in with accessible, sometimes humorous stories.

And not just any stories: he is making a deliberate point that “words don’t have meaning without context,” that this context is one of relationship, and that one’s right to use a particular word with another person starts with one’s relationship to that person.

Of course, he doesn’t say it that way. Instead, he starts by talking about his wife calling him “honey” and how it would be unacceptable for another woman to call him that if they were walking down the street. The audience laughs.

He goes on to describe how, when he was young and he would go see his family in Philadelphia, his family members would call his father, William Paul Coates, “Billy.” But “no one in Baltimore calls my Dad Billy, and..

…if I had referred to my Dad as Billy that probably would have been a problem. That’s because the relationship between myself and my Dad is not the same as the relationship between my Dad and his mother and his sisters who he grew up with. We understand that.

Indeed we do. It’s easy enough, and safe enough, to understand that there are certain ways we can and cannot address our parents. With this straightforward example, Coates invites us to step in at the shallow end of the pool.

Then he ups the ante a bit, both in terms of tension and humor, by saying, in furthering the point:

My wife, with her girlfriends, will use the word ‘bitch.’ (Pause) I do not join in! I don’t do that. And more importantly, I don’t have a desire to do that. You understand?

Indeed. With the story as foundation, and with the disarming humor of Coates saying that calling his wife “bitch” would not go well for him, we start to see the broader point.

With these two stories—told with all the humor and narrative and seduction of stories—Coates helps the listener experience that language and its usage sits within the context of relationship; that, if you do not have a certain kind of relationship with a person or a group, then it is not OK for you to use that groups’ language; and that it is normal for groups to appropriate potentially offensive language and use it in an ironic way. He has shared all these points in ways that are both approachable and repeatable, so that those who are ultimately persuaded by his argument are armed to persuade the next person with these same, simple stories.

With all of this scaffolding masterfully put into place, Coates then gets to the heart of the issue, and says, in no uncertain terms, that white people are not in relation to black people in a way that allows them to use the N-word. And he goes a step further to say, essentially (my paraphrase): and I think this is an instructive thing for white people to experience, because American society has taught white people that they can, essentially, say and do anything, and that it is the job of those around them to shift to accommodate that sense of entitlement and privilege. And, experiencing a time when you cannot, as a white person, use a particular word, is a great chance to feel what the everyday reality of everyone else feels like in this country.

No punches pulled here, but if you’re going to disagree with this hard-hitting truth, then you have to find your way to explain why Coates should be able to call his father Billy and his wife “bitch,” and that’s a heck of a hard argument to have make in any sort of objective way.

I hope you enjoy and share the video, and that you find space to work this sort of narrative dexterity into your own practice. To change minds, we need to meet people where they are, we need to ensure that they feel heard and respected, and we need arm them with the tools to see a different set of first principles in a way that doesn’t cause shame or separation. This is the opposite of creating a win/lose setup where to acknowledge my point of view, you need to discard your views and values, and essentially admit your own stupidity.

Much easier to accept is: “thank you. I’d never thought of it that way.”

Enjoy the video.

Your voice

Yes, your job is to learn from the masters.

This means that, to start to tell better stories, you’re well-advised to study the storytelling techniques of great storytellers – whether Martin Luther King, or Ken Robinson, or Hans Rosling, or Bryan Stevenson.

And, to make sense of all of that, you’ll want to unpack how to give a great TED talk by learning from speaker coach Nancy Duarte or from TED Curator Chris Anderson (special for blog readers: use the REFERAFRIEND discount code to save 80% on Chris’ course).

You may even take things a step further when you realize that it’s not just storytelling that interests you, it’s really about creating a broader framing of an authentic narrative, in which case you’ll bridge to the work of Marshall Ganz and unpack the story of self, the story of us, and the story of now.

Or perhaps you are more of a writer than a speaker, in which case you’ll want to start with Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and Stephen King’s On Writing, and Ann Patchett’s The Getaway Car, and grow from there.

(And no matter what you do, you’ll want to get your hands on Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist)

But at the end of the day, technique will only take you so far.

At the end of the day, what the world needs from you is not a dim reflection of one of your mentors, not the echoes of someone who inspires you, not the loose parroting of someone else’s words, approach or demeanor.

What the world needs from you is your voice, your truth (here, now, at this moment), your honest language.

Because what we crave most of all are glimpses of humanity. What we long for are glimmers of the unique perspective that only you bring because of the combination of experiences and attitude and character that come together in you, right now, on a stage or in the written word.

To begin this exploration, ask:

Who are you when you are speaking to a close friend?

How do you sound when you give advice from the heart to your child after an argument with her best friend?

How do you show up when an old colleague asks for advice?

How do people say they experience you when you are at your best?

This real, true, honest you – the one who is brave or humble or funny or grounded or clever or bold or quirky – that’s the you we want to see most of all.

Ganz – Why Stories Matter

These days, it’s easier than ever to see the power of story and narrative to define a moment – and, just possibly, to shift the course of history. Yet so often I see people in the business of social change hiding their own stories and, worse, putting off learning how to tell stories that speak truth and move others.

For a big shot of motivation and meaning-making, check out Marshall Ganz’s Why Stories Matter, a hyper-distillation of the “why” of storytelling. Ganz connects the dots between public and private narrative, and situates storytelling at the heart of all social change work. Storytelling must reside at the center because we do not do this work alone: “change” has a before and an after, and our starting point when interacting with others is helping them see both of those states and motivating them to act, often in risky ways, in support of an as-yet-unrealized vision.

This starts by giving people reason to hope, which, in Ganz’s words, happens through the stories we tell:

Hope is not only audacious, it is substantial. Hope is what allows us to deal with problems creatively. In order to deal with fear, we have to mobilize hope. Hope is one of the most precious gifts we can give each other and the people we work with to make change.

The way we talk about this is not just to go up to someone and say, “Be hopeful.” We don’t just talk about hope and other values in abstractions. We talk about them in the language of stories because stories are what enable us to communicate these values to one another.

Storytelling, then, is not simply narrative. It is an opportunity to communicate values in a way that is resonant and memorable, allowing the listener to position herself in the story, see its relevance to her current situation, and then play forward a narrative about her role in the story of now.

How does this happen? It happens through stories in which a human protagonist is presented with an unknown and has to make a choice. At this moment of choice, the listener feels the tension of what might go right and wrong, projects herself into that situation and, in so doing, experiences the values with which the protagonist wrestles. Ganz continues:

In a story, a challenge presents itself to the protagonist who then has a choice, and an outcome occurs. The outcome teaches a moral, but because the protagonist is a humanlike character, we are able to identify empathetically, and therefore we are able to feel, not just understand, what is going on.

A story communicates fear, hope, and anxiety, and because we can feel it, we get the moral not just as a concept, but as a teaching of our hearts. That’s the power of story. That’s why most of our faith traditions interpret themselves as stories, because they are teaching our hearts how to live as choiceful human beings capable of embracing hope over fear, self-worth and self-love over self-doubt, and love over isolation and alienation.

While this is all powerful and inspiring, it can also feel far away. This kind of storytelling sounds like it’s for Leaders with a capital “L,” and while we can listen to and admire their skills as storytellers, that has little to do with Us, right?

Wrong.

The moment we conclude that “this is for someone else” is the moment we let fall from our hands the power of storytelling as a tool to connect and move those around us. In so doing, we abdicate our seat at the meaning-making table at exactly moment when our voice is most needed. And here is where Ganz’s words strike closest to home:

A leadership story is first a story of self, a story of why I’ve been called. Some people say, “I don’t want to talk about myself,” but if you don’t interpret to others your calling and your reason for doing what you’re doing, do you think it will just stay uninterpreted? No. Other people will interpret it for you. You don’t have any choice if you want to be a leader. You have to claim authorship of your story and learn to tell it to others so they can understand the values that move you to act, because it might move them to act as well.

It’s the ‘I don’t want to talk about myself’ phrase that really hit me, because it is one that I’ve heard so often. It’s often said with a healthy dollop of humility, a “this isn’t about me it’s about the work” utterance. This can sound right until we grapple with the assertion that leaders have no choice but to be storytellers because either we will interpret our calling or others will interpret it for us.

This is why there is s no neutral, story-free space. There are just the stories that we supply or the stories that others supply for us. There is either the meaning we make of the world – including the articulation of our purpose, values and the “why” behind our actions – or the meaning that others make in our stead.

This is why it our job to find our own stories, to explore the values that move us to act, and to practice uttering words that help others see and feel what we see and feel. This is the work of finding the language to describe the choices we have made and are making in service of our work, so that others can feel the hope that we feel, and so that they can learn to use this hope to deal with their fears, including fear of acting on our behalf.

Once we begin to find our voice we begin to narrate the world around us, we begin to practice the art of meaning-making to ourselves and to others. It is at this moment that we truly start the dialogue with ourselves and those around us about the story of self, the story of us, and the story of now.

This is the moment when change begins.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Your Point of View

If you’ve made the decision to put your own stories – blogs, videos, articles, poetry, spoken word, email campaigns, multimedia, whatever – into the world, there are two different kinds of gaps you can fill.

You can be on the lookout for untold stories and uncover them, becoming, over time, great at picking stories worth telling, the kind of information you’re able to uncover and the narrative that brings us along, engages us, and, hopefully, pushes us to act. This is what Serial was all about (except for the action bit).

Or, you can decide that the project you’re actually engaged in is to share your own point of view.  In this kind of project, you still tell stories but these stories serve as springboards to explore, elaborate upon and illustrate your point of view.

In both cases your job is to engage us, to connect with us, and, yes, to seduce us just a little bit. In both cases, we expect you to hone your craft. In both cases, you have the power to change us.

But because it’s so easy to underestimate ourselves, because we so often convince ourselves we have nothing to say, because we imagine that someday (someday!) we will have wisdom to share…we wait.

Because the act of deciding we have something to say feels a little too proud (“who am I to think that I can….?”), a little too exposed (“what if try and it turns out I don’t actually have anything worth saying?!”), a little too much like it’s the kind of things other people do (“they’re just good at that sort of thing…”), we put off starting. And we put it off some more. And some more. Until we prove to ourselves that we were right all along – we really don’t have a point of view worth sharing.

But that’s just not true. The dirty little secret is that the only way to become, tomorrow or the next day or maybe 10 years from now, someone who has something to say is to start to share our truth today.

Interior – Zindua, Day

Every moment, every day, with every decision big and small you have the chance to blend in or to stand out, to tell your story or keep it to yourself.

Take Ken Oloo’s business card for example.  Ken is a photographer, a filmmaker and an Acumen East Africa Fellow who I just met last week in Nairobi.  In addition to his work globally as a photographer and filmmaker, Ken trains kids from the Nairobi slum of Kibera to tell their own story, using film and video.

Since Ken is a storyteller, his business card, naturally, tells that story.

ken_oloo_business card

Just a small thing, really, except of course it’s all the small things that add up to standing up and standing out.

That’s Ken with the big smile and the dreadlocks.

filamujuani

Concrete, concrete, concrete

Concrete, concrete, concrete

As Chip and Dan Heath captured so elegantly in Made to Stick, to get your point (your story!) across you need to be concrete, always. Concreteness is one of the six elements of their SUCCESS rubric for telling “sticky” stories.

More specifically, you need to use language that speaks to the shared vocabulary of the two people who are speaking. If you have more expertise on a topic than the person to whom you’re speaking, this will feel like dumbing down your language. It’s not. It’s making sure there’s no possibility for confusion where there doesn’t need to be.

Think about it: every time we use language that is not in people’s day to day vernacular (I mean that literally: language that they use every day; concepts that are so familiar that they don’t require a second of extra thought), we are asking them to spend mental effort deciphering language rather than resonating with our story. That is wasted attention and the fault is with us for asking them to expend it.

This is not (not not not!) a question of their intelligence, this is a question of your shared vocabulary and where you want them to use up their precious, finite attention.

This means that every time you’re speaking, you’re saying “for example,” a lot.

It means, for example, that you’re not saying “ethical sourcing” when you could be saying “six year olds in factories.” You’re not saying “assess baseline data” when you could be saying “go to 10 customers’ homes and record whether or not they have corrugated tin roofs.” You’re not speaking about millions of dollars when they live and breathe crores. You’re probably never, ever talking about “paradigms.”

Instead, you are trading conceptual terms for concrete ones, exchanging categories of things (“processed cotton”) with specific and familiar examples (“thread”). You are starting with one specific, familiar item (or action) and generalizing from there, rather than staying at the conceptual level and assuming they’re smart enough to boil it down to the specific. They are, but they shouldn’t have to.

And you’re doing this in a disciplined way, time and time again, because that’s what it takes to have this become natural to you.

Live in their world, speak with their language using vocabulary that parallels their reality, not yours, and they’ll finally start hearing you.

The Egyptian (wiki) coup

I’ve found it surprising how nearly blasé the mainstream Western press has been about recent events in Egypt.  Not that the events haven’t been described as important, but rather how quickly the press has devolved to a simple ends-justify-the-means analysis (epitomized in this hugely disappointing David Brooks piece).  The ousting of a democratically-elected leader by the military – with or without huge popular support – is far from a clear-cut turn of events in the Arab world’s largest democracy.

It’s also amazing to see how much the world has changed, that major political events unfold in real time online, including on Wikipedia, where a page titled “2013 Egyptian coup d’etat” apparently went live three days before Morsi was ousted.  In a microcosm over the battle of language that’s ensuing in all circles, there’s fierce debate on that Wikipedia page about whether to call the events a “revolution” or a “coup,” and I find it more interesting still to consider whether and why it would make sense for Wiki-zens to defer to the popular press in defining the terms of debate (an argument made by some in favor of objectivity).

The Wikipedia entry is here, 135 citations and all,  and if you’ve never peaked behind the scenes of a hotly-contested Wikipedia page, now’s your chance.  A nice summary of the unfolding of Wikipedia events can be found on the Foreign Policy blog.

Stories, Facts and Synthesis

Break down any presentation and you’ve got three building blocks: stories, facts and synthesis.

Since we’re generally not comfortable as storytellers, and since it feels safe to report on the facts, lots of presentations divide up the pie like this (“we did this and then this and then this.”)

There are two shifts we can make across the board so that we can connect with our audience.

The first is to radically change the balance between the three layers of the pie – spending about equal time at each level.

The second, equally important, is to realize that your facts are only there to work for your stories or to support your synthesis.  That means you only share facts that serve either to substantiate a point that a story makes someone feel; or you share facts that serve as a jumping-off point for synthesis (aka “the big picture” or “the takeaway”).

Facts that aren’t working for you are facts we don’t need to hear.

The story-reality gap

Whether or not you consider yourself a marketer or a salesperson, one way or another you’re telling stories all the time.  It happened the moment you traded in your college rucksack for that nice Kenneth Cole leather briefcase; it happens each day when you talk (or don’t) in meetings, when you speak (or don’t) about topics that are a stretch for you, when you write an email (or don’t) in a voice that stands out from the crowd.

Your organization is also telling stories all the time, and the easiest, most obvious water-cooler scuttlebutt is about your story-reality gap: how the software suite that your company just touted in a $3 million, 30-second Superbowl ad is just a mash-up of so-so apps that were just rebundled and re-branded; how the ink wasn’t even dry on the financing plan when it was put in front of your Series B investors; how you don’t have everything just right yet, so how can your CEO be talking about the next phase of growth?

Here’s a dirty little secret: that gap is supposed to exist, it has to exist, it’s the gap between where you are now and where you’re going.  And without this gap, you might never get there.

If your organization isn’t living this gap then it’s going too slowly, it’s dreaming too small, it’s getting too comfortable in its little sandbox.  This doesn’t mean you always have to grow fast – in terms of revenues, employees, customers – but it means that you have the potential to teeter on the edge of exactly what you know you can deliver today and what you dream of delivering tomorrow.  Daring to dream out loud is just the first step.

Never lie, and never ever make promises to your customers that you can’t keep (nothing spreads faster than stories about broken promises).

But the world understands that five-year plans are aspirational.  You’ll never rally the troops with small dreams.