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.

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.

Excited for 2012

Happy New Year.  I’m looking forward to 2012.  2011 was many things – exciting, turbulent, at times overwhelming – and I feel like we all need a little dust-settling as we roll up our sleeves and head into this new year.  It feels like it’s going to be a good one, even with all the uncertainty spinning around us.

I took a week off at the end of the year and the short break from regular blogging was a chance to think about why people read blogs and, as a corollary, how we blog.

There are a bunch of basic reasons people are reading your blog: to stay up to speed on their industry (or an industry they’d like to be part of); to find interesting content that they otherwise wouldn’t stumble across; to be entertained, to get useful tips of one sort or another.

But I think most folks want more than that, and if they don’t get it you’re going to lose them over time.  They want to hear your voice, hear what you have to say that only you can say.  Hear something that they wouldn’t hear anywhere else – something that inspires them, challenges them, pushes their thinking.  Something that sharpens their focus, or even changes their prism altogether.

Not a how-to book, a call to arms.

The thing is, I don’t know how to be inspiring every day, and you probably don’t either – even the notion of trying to do that seems like a fabulous way to create writers block (bloggers block?). But I do know how to show up every day, to say something that I think is relevant and about which I have a unique perspective.

And every so often, when everything goes right, something exceptional comes out.  I don’t know how or when and I’m not even sure I’ll always agree with my readers about what is or isn’t exceptional.  But I do know that the only way it can happen is if I keep on showing up – knowing that some days I connect, some days I miss, and once in a while something great happens.

So here’s to another year of swinging for the fences.  Thanks for taking this ride with me, and I wish you and yours a great 2012.

It’s not personal (and that’s the problem)

OK, I know you’re busy, we all are.

And you have a lot of people you want to connect with.  We all do.

And yes, it’s true, sometimes you copy and paste stuff into more than one email, because the meat of the update might be pretty similar from person to person, right?

But here’s the decision you get to make: how much value do you place on making the person on the other end feel like the note was written just for them, every time?

Outlook has a whiz-bang feature that allows you to create a text email that is, in fact, a mass mailing.  It’s tempting isn’t it?  Think how efficient it would be!!


Except you have to decide if relationship-building is a mass-market undertaking.  You have to decide if scale comes from going broad or going deep.  You have to decide which tradeoff you’re willing to make, because halfway there is no man’s land.

Sure, you’ll be careful most of the time.  But the moment a giant block of text in your email is in another color, or another font, or another size, the illusion is shattered. The moment you email the same thank you note to five different people, the wires appear to the whole audience, and the magic of your flying act goes *poof*.

And the thing is, the moment someone discovers that they’re the kind of person who gets impersonal notes from you…well, there’s really no way to recover from that.


The Body Shop: when stories fall short

[EDITOR’S NOTE: I’ve been given a serious factual correction by Michael, the Brazilian fixer who worked for the photgrapher on this shoot.  Please see his comment below.  Bottom line is he’s right and I was wrong in jumping to conclusions.

It turns out this girl is not a model, she is a person who works on picking nuts that supply the Body Shop in Maranhão, Brazil.  So I was wrong here – I figured she was a model and wove a whole story around that.

Personally, I still have some questions about this choice of image and the decisions around this campaign, but that doesn’t make up for the fact that I missed the mark on this one.  Thanks to Michale for the correction, and lesson learned for me that there tearing others down is not the right way to make a point.

I’ve edited my post somewhat.  I still stand behind some of the points, but more importantly I think it’s only fair to leave up what I originally said — lesson learned on this one, though.]

I’m beginning to think that outdoor advertising is the lowest rung on the external communications ladder.

Yesterday I came across this terrible ad.  Here’s a storytelling 101 suggestion: when you think your story is done, step back, look at it, and repeat it in 10 words or less to someone who’s never heard it before and who represents the people you are trying to reach.  See what they say; ask them if the story makes sense to them.

So what is the (very low quality…sorry) “hand selected naturally!” image trying to say?  Presumably that this woman had something to do with the hand selecting of the natural ingredients to your Body Shop products, and that this makes them more real, natural and authentic. [In fact she did, according to Michael’s comment, below.] Problem is, look at the woman — down to her designer short jean shorts and her $75 woven basket.

The image is so far off that it is borderline offensive.  There are hundreds of millions of people out there who make their livelihoods in agriculture, and I’m sure many of them sell to the Body Shop.  But somehow the Body Shop was unwilling to go all the way to authenticity in this campaign and with this image — finding actual Body Shop producers and telling their stories — and the whole house of cards comes crashing down.

The irony here is that people who buy at the Body Shop and who are passionate about the Body Shop  are going to notice exactly this kind of thing.  The brand was once about authenticity, natural ingredients, and our interconnected world, and it attracted educated consumers who likely care about things like the environment, the well-being of producers, and poverty in the developing world.

I guess it’s not surprising that this once-authentic brand has gotten so watered-down within L’Oreal that it’s lost all of its distinguishing charateristics — and the passionate followers who once made this brand great are gone as well.