It was a full day of speechifying at the Smith College Women’s Leadership Conference yesterday: I listened to five and gave one. Most of the presentations were good; a couple were downright excellent. Mine was standing room only, and punctuated by a sustained round of spontaneous applause. But I digress.
The theme of the conference is “Pushing Boundaries,” but the throughline running through all of the talks I saw was storytelling. Regular readers will know this warms my heart.
Stories are the saline solution of the word world. They can transport any kind of information straight to our hearts. Okay, that’s an icky metaphor. Sorry.
My point is whether you’re delivering inspirational advice, like the 23-year-old marathon swimmer who spoke at lunch, or helping people see how they can effect diversity and inclusion in their organizations, or dismantling the patriarchy with a laugh and a smile (you’ll hear more about that speech once I’ve processed it a little longer)—the medium for all of these messages was storytelling.
Even introverts can tell stories, as the impressive Tori Murden McClure ably demonstrated. I blogged about her gripping memoir seven years ago. And look at what I called the post: The Power of a Story.
As I said in that ancient blog post,
“Whether it’s something that has happened to you or a story with a good moral that you’ve plucked from history or literature , the story has to have a tangible effect on you—the speaker—if it’s going to have an impact on your audience.”
I said pretty much the same thing today (it’s nice to know I’m intellectually consistent). And all of the speakers whose presentations I most enjoyed put that advice into action.
When you speak, your audience gives you their attention. Well, okay, you have to earn it. But if you want to make a good speech—and why in the world are you up there talking if you don’t?—you owe them something more than a bunch of words. You owe them a piece of yourself, a real connection, a window (however wide you care to open it) into what makes you tick and what might in fact make them tick.
I don’t mean to hit you with behavioral science first thing on a Sunday morning. We’re supposed to be talking about songs, right? My weekly “Song for a Sunday” post. But when I was prepping the material for my writing program session this week, I remembered a beautiful song and it’s the perfect illustration of Gap Theory. So here’s a song and a writing discussion for you: two blogs for the price of one.
So what is Gap Theory—or, as I like to call it, “Gap Th_ _ry”?
I wanted to Google y’all a fancy definition, but I see I need to be more specific. Apparently there’s a “gap theory” in Creationism, to explain a whole bunch of stuff God did in between the first and second verses of the Bible. Not the first and second books, mind you—verses. As in:
1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
Then, according to the Gap Theory, a whole bunch of un-written-about stuff happens offstage—which is a really terrible way to tell a story, by the way—until we pick back up with:
2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
To translate for anyone unfamiliar with the permutations of evangelical Christianity: A bunch of folks who claim to take the Bible literally have literally invented a whole back-story to fill in the teeny-tiny space between the period at the end of Genesis 1:1 and the capital T that starts 1:2.
That’s their Gap Theory, not mine. But—hey—I guess this post is now semi-appropriate for a Sunday. Or a Saturday, depending on whether you read your Bible left-to-right or right-to-left. But let’s get back on track.
The Heath Brothers write that curiosity creates knowledge gaps, and
“Loewenstein argues that gaps cause pain. When we want to know something but don’t, it’s like having an itch that we need to scratch. To take away the pain, we need to fill the knowledge gap.”
So if you want a sure-fire way to capture and keep your audience’s attention, open up a knowledge gap and take your sweet time filling it.
Charles Dickens understood this in the 19th century when he published his novels in serial installments with a cliffhanger ending each one. Aaron Spelling understood this a hundred years later when he made Dallas fans hold their breath for months wondering “Who shot J.R.?”
But writers aren’t the only creators who can capitalize on their audience’s need for completion. Musicians can, too. And also visual artists, but I’ll save that for another post.
And that brings us to the song
Back in the day when music only existed on record albums, I had an album I loved by The Roches, three sisters who sang tight, unexpected harmonies. And every time I listened to that album—every time—when the first side ended, I had to stop what I was doing and turn the album over to hear the second side.
This was not always as easy as it sounds, as back in the day one used to stack albums five or six deep on turntables. So I’d have to stop the music altogether, unthread the albums from the pole in the middle of the turntable, fish out The Roches’ album, turn it over, and put it on the bottom of the pile. Eventually I wised up and just kept it in permanent residence on top.
Why did I go through all that trouble? Because The Roches had opened up a gap: they ended the first side of the album with an unresolved chord.
I loved the song, “On the Road to Fairfax County,” but it also drove me crazy. And my brain couldn’t let go of the gap until I heard them properly resolve an ending.
Hear for yourselves.
By the way, the lovely lady in the green jacket, Maggie Roche, passed away earlier this year—leaving a gap no amount of knowledge can fill.
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What do job interviews have to do with writing? Not much.
But what do job interviews have to do with delivering what the audience wants? Absolutely everything. Job interviews are all about the audience—the people you want to hire you.
Yet most interviewees walk into the situation assuming it’s all about them. As a certain elected official might say: “Sad!”
Your audience at an interview doesn’t care that your current boss is a certifiable narcissist. In fact, as writer Ashley Stahl points out, talk trash about anything and you might as well tattoo a giant, red NOPE on your forehead. (Seriously, would you want to be the next boss of someone who’s got a track record of complaining about her bosses?)
Focus on the audience and you’ll avoid committing what Stahl calls “job interview suicide.”
What the audience wants — it’s not what you think
I understand why you think the audience wants to hear about you. Whether you’re interviewing for a job or giving a speech, they did invite you to talk with them.
But what the audience really wants in just about any situation is to hear about themselves and what you can do for them.
As Stahl writes:
“Too often I hear about job seekers getting caught up in sharing context about their day-to-day [Note: it’s not about you!], and as a career coach I beg them to focus on their achievements.”
She advises her clients to prepare two bullet points about their accomplishments in each job they’ve held and to:
“…make sure to share at least one of your achievements as they relate to the job you’re interviewing for.”
That’s my emphasis added. Translation: Think about what your audience wants to hear. Show them you’ve considered their needs by filtering your experiences through their lenses, not just yours.
Frame your story in a way that people in the audience can see themselves in it. It’s not about what you accomplished—it’s about what you learned, how you grew, what impact your work had on your company or your clients. And don’t expect statistics to do all the heavy lifting for you. Data points mean nothing unless you can frame them in human terms.
So talk about about the results you got for your company; people in business like results. But also talk about the emotional impact your work has had. Help your audience see how the things you do make the world a better place. That’s not just you tooting your own horn; that’s you offering information your listeners can adapt to fit their own lives or business situations.
Be yourself—it’s the only choice you have
Very few people are the first in the world to do something. Chances are that whatever you’ve done, your audience has already met people who’ve done the exact same thing—especially in a job interview, where they talk to many people with virtually identical skill sets. But you can guarantee that no one else they’ve interviewed is you. So your best option—in fact, your only option—is to be yourself.
“In a world where our workspace can often demand that you’re ‘putting on a face,’ you can set yourself apart with one unique quality, and that’s authenticity.”
For interviews Stahl recommends “talking to the prospective [employer] as if they’re a distant family friend.” That frame makes sense to me for an interview: it builds in some distance that can keep you from sharing Too Much Information.
I often advise people writing speeches for themselves to imagine they’re talking with a colleague—and make sure it’s a colleague you like! That generally helps eliminate some of the stiffness an inexperienced speaker (or speechwriter) might feel.
During your first prep session, pull up a chair and tell your imaginary colleague some stories related to the topic of your speech. Stories about your work, about your education, about the time you realized this was the profession you were destined to follow, about the strangest thing that’s ever happened to you on the job. Record the ramblings and then sort through them the next day. Not everything will be usable in your speech, but the best anecdotes will stand out. And they’re stories that nobody but you can tell.
Just keep your audience’s perspective in mind when you tell them.
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For some people it’s easy; for others it’s much harder. But telling your story—your true, unvarnished, straight-from-the-heart story—may be the most radical act any of us can commit. World-changing story-telling starts with each of us.
Listen, changing the world was just about the last thing on my mind when I sat down for an interview on the Naked & Inside Out podcast. The podcast tells stories of LGBT people in various careers—a lovely idea—but it was early December 2016, less than a month after the election, and my head hadn’t yet stopped spinning. I could talk about my past, and maybe that would help someone. But the future? I wasn’t sure we’d have one.
The podcast finally dropped yesterday and it sounds surprisingly coherent. The host, Janine Toro, asks me about how and why I do what I do, and I tell the stories I often tell—though I don’t often get to tell them from an explicitly LGBT perspective.
It was interesting to revisit the bad old days of sexist ’90s-era Wall Street, when I felt daring to have a photo of my partner on my desk…even if 75% of the picture focused on my cat and the irises in our garden. That’s an old story—or is it? The clients I work with are well past that stage—they’re champions of diversity and inclusion, for real. But in more than half of our states, it remains perfectly legal to fire an otherwise stellar employee just for being LGBT. And that was true even under the Sainted President Obama. Who knows how bad it will get now?
And that’s why the last five minutes of the interview really made me sit up and take notice. Janine asked the question I’d been dreading—”what about the future?” and, man…
World-changing story-telling — action we can all take
Back in December, we had no way of knowing—really knowing—that anyone would have our back when we needed them. That we wouldn’t just be living through a rerun of Martin Niemöller’s Nazi-era lament:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
And then I remembered: We don’t have to just sit there and wait to see what happens. We don’t have to wait for other people to tell our stories. In fact, our stories become much more powerful when we tell them ourselves. Our stories can change the world. I know this because it’s happened before. When LGBT people came out of the closets and into the sitcoms, into the offices, into the schools and churches and the Scout troops—when we found the courage to be ourselves in the world, people saw who we were. And for the most part, they embraced us.
That’s world-changing story-telling and we need it again. So listen to the interview—and then tell your story. Tell your story of courage and hope. Talk about the pain the Republican administration’s policies are inflicting on you. Let people see your humanity and I have to believe they’ll respond in kind.
Learn to tell your story—and to become a better writer. Write for just 15 minutes a day for five days in a row and benefit a great global literacy nonprofit. My next 5×15 Writing Challenge starts March 13th.
It’s not the song I thought I’d be writing about today—Harry Chapin‘s “What Made America Famous.”
I went to YouTube in search of his “She Sings Her Song Without Words.” I thought I’d juxtapose the “song without words” with the song without music of the powerful poem Ashley Judd delivered at the Women’s March in Washington last weekend.
But as I was listening to Chapin sing his sweet, very of-the-era love song, I noticed a video in the sidebar called “What Made America Famous.” As a long-haired, guitar-playing teen I was a Chapin fan back in the day. But I couldn’t quite place the song title.
So I clicked on the video and heard something I need to share with you.
It’s a typical Chapin story-song—an eternity at seven minutes long, but the length is part of what makes it work.
The length and the rhythm lull you into complacency as he sings about the mom-and-apple-pie things that “made America famous.” He builds the intensity as he approaches contemporary life, the Vietnam-era world neatly divided between the “us” and “them.” “Us” always being white, middle-class and “them” the hippies, people of color, people stuck at the lower end of the economic spectrum. Disposable people. We don’t know anything about that world today, do we?
Chapin could have ended his song on a hopeful note, a Norman Rockwell picture of comity. But he knows that’s only part of the story. So sit tight ’til the end.
What makes America famous? Our choices
Chapin wrote the song in 1974. A lot has changed in our country since then. Or at least it has seemed that way to those of us in the “us” category. I have no doubt the country will change more before the song marks its 50th anniversary, just two presidential elections from now. But I’m not sure things will get better.
So join Harry in a primal scream:
Is anybody there? Does anybody care? Is anybody there?
And when you’re done screaming. Think about these words from another Chapin song, the words engraved on his gravestone:
Oh if a man tried
To take his time on Earth
And prove before he died
What one man’s life could be worth
I wonder what would happen
to this world
How we answer that question will determine what makes America famous going forward.
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I’ve given a lot of thought to this last blog of the year. Would I summarize lessons learned? Or maybe offer a list of the best books I’ve read, best speeches I’ve heard. Whether you’re dating or writing, the end of the year always carries unwarranted expectations.
And then Seth Godin sent out this link to a TED Talk he gave a couple of years ago. In just about three and a half minutes, he delivers a fascinating story, hooks us in, and delivers one of the most powerful calls to action I’ve heard.
It’s the best gift I can give you as we end the journey of 2016 and arrive unsteadily on the shores of 2017.
I wish us all a peaceful and productive year ahead. But whatever happens, let’s resolve to matter.
My story about the revolutionary truth about networking begins:
It was the worst of times; it was the best of times.
Yes, I know that’s not the order Charles Dickens used. But I met my first Titan under circumstances so stressful that when I happened upon a news story about the event several years later, I actually had a bout of PTSD. In terms of my business life, it was definitely the worst of times.
Back then, I didn’t have time to worry about the Titan’s reputation or fame. I was just head-down at my desk, doing the best work I could in an impossible situation. Fortunately, that “best” impressed him.
If we’d met under any other circumstances—at a cocktail party or (shudder) a networking event—I might have been just another fangirl, searching frantically for something intelligent to say. But in these circumstances, he met my work first. And that said the intelligent things for me.
When I picked up the office phone the next morning, I heard:
“Hello, Elaine? This is Warren Buffett. Did you write this thing?”
I had. He liked it. Over the six months we worked together, “the worst of times” turned pretty darn good.
Networking like a fangirl
I met the second Titan in much more relaxed circumstances: A friend and I bought tickets for a Broadway show featuring an actor we both adore. [Let me pause for a moment to define “adore.” In my case, it means that when this man sings, I sometimes forget I play for the other team—until my friend reminds me. She’s on his team, and somehow believes that gives her “dibs.” Though the actor’s wife might disagree.]
A colleague who wanted to do my friend a favor asked if she’d like to meet the actor after the show. I guilted her into taking me along. I mean, what are friends for?
We waited at the restaurant next door to the theater. I took a deep breath as I watched him dart past the front window and slip inside. The best of times, indeed.
He greeted my friend first and then turned to me. I consider it one of the signal accomplishments of my life thusfar that when he took my hand and said my name, I didn’t faint on the spot.
Perhaps a better accomplishment would have been to actually talk to him. But every ounce of common sense flew out of my head the moment he turned his eyes on me. I sat at the table in a daze, unable to ask a single question. My friend carried the conversation, suddenly the most charming I’ve ever seen her.
Now, it’s not like I had nothing to say to the man: we even have a (different) friend in common! We could have had a lot to talk about. But I was star-struck and dumbstruck. Easily the worst two “strucks” you can combine.
I connected well with Mr. Buffett because our conversation began on solid ground: we were talking about work, at which we both excel. But with the Actor—well, I acted like a fangirl because I was a fangirl. I completely forgot about the many very interesting other facets of my personality.
The revolutionary truth about networking—and thank you, Dorie Clark, for reminding me of this—is that it’s nothing more than having conversations with people you want to talk to anyway. Whether they’re one of the richest men in America, a man with one of the richest voices on Broadway, or the John or Jane Doe sitting next to you at a dinner party, we’re all just people. With a vast range of interests. It’s just about finding a way to connect…and then connecting.
“I’m thinking of writing about the bird thing,” I told the spouse a couple of weeks ago.
“In your business newsletter?”
“Yep.” (Disregard the use of the word “newsletter.” I hate newsletters, and the spouse knows that. But I do update the people on my list when I run across something extraordinary. I call these “Occasional Flashes of Brilliance.”)
“But isn’t your business newsletter supposed to be about…business?”
I understood the confusion. It’s one my clients often experience when I explain that we need a personal anecdote to help the audience or readers connect with them.
Why should anyone care that I went trick-or-treating with my kid? They might ask. Answer: Because it’s an experience many people can relate to. And can serve as an analogy for a great many things, including a discussion of the masks we wear at work.
It’s important for people on my email list to get a sense of who I am—as a person, not just a business writer. I may know a ton about writing, but I’m not so savvy when it comes to grains. And so I wrote:
For the Birds: An Occasional Flash of Brilliance I am not Nature Girl. Never have been, probably never will be.
So when the chef at the Quaker retreat center I visited this weekend served up a delicious roasted apple millet porridge, I had no idea what I was eating. I only knew it was the perfect meal on a late-May morning that felt like early March. The chef was kind enough to type up the recipe for me.
Back home, I Googled this magical, gluten-free grain and discovered…It’s birdseed. Depending on what variety of millet the chef used, I was eating cooked grass seed or bird seed—which is, when you stop to think about it (as you have to do if you’re not Nature Girl), basically the same thing.
If spring continues to elude us, you may want to cook up a bowl of birdseed for yourself. See the recipe below.
Then I got down to business, with an annotated list of my blog posts since the last email. And, yes, I ended the email with the recipe. If you’d like a copy, let me know and I’ll forward it to you.
Did you read my post yesterday about the flight attendant who created an improvised sympathy card for a woman whose grandson had been murdered in the Orlando shooting?
If you did, I bet you can still remember some details from the flight attendant’s story. And if you can’t remember specific details, I bet you can remember feelings you had. Maybe grief, empathy for the grandmother, pride at the actions of the flight attendants and the response of the passengers—maybe others.
Did the story change your mind about JetBlue as a company? It did mine. While I’ve never flown JetBlue, friends have told me about nightmare flights. And stories stick—the bad maybe even more than the good. But this story gave me the warm-fuzzies about JetBlue.
The company clearly has heart—the flight attendant wrote that corporate had offered to let crews add “JetBlue stands with Orlando” to the standard post-flight announcements. This crew saw the opportunity to move that sentiment from words into action.
Derek Sivers said a good story is worth more than dozens of pages of blather in an employee manual. Who reads those manuals? Maybe everybody—but who remembers dry rules and regulations? Probably nobody. But we all remember a story.