Last time I went to the Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum in Cooperstown, NY—nearly 30 years ago—I loved it so much I spent two straight days there. This time: about four hours. As I toured its three floors, I realized that the exhibits mostly consisted of about five things: bats, balls, gloves, caps, and jerseys. It’s like the Metropolitan Museum of Arts’s Costume Institute, minus the sequins.
But even though so many of the artifacts on exhibit may belong to the same genus—baseballs, for instance—they tell remarkably nuanced stories if you care to look. There’s the baseball (could it really have been black? I think it was) that one young man hit for a home run in his very first at-bat as a major leaguer. Astonishing. What’s even more astonishing, he’s only the most recent player to achieve that feat; three others did it ahead of him.
And jerseys. Most come from players’ high points. There’s Daniel Murphy’s Mets jersey from the 2015 post-season, when he briefly lifted himself from mediocrity. Two jerseys side by side commemorate Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s race to break the single-season home run record. Sadly, those jerseys hang in an exhibit about performance-enhancing drugs, which both athletes were later found to have taken. A stain on the game.
Baseball brings people together
Then there’s the Hall itself, a light, airy space lined with bronze plaques featuring bas-relief likenesses of some of the heroes of the game. Upstairs, in the Museum wing, you’ll find a fairly thorough and honest exhibit about the old Negro Leagues and another one on the impact Latino players have had on the game. But down in the Hall of Fame, everyone is the same color: bronze.
I don’t wish for a color-blind society; we need to appreciate, not erase, our differences. But in the Hall of Fame, everyone is equal. You can’t see who speaks English and who doesn’t (something a few baseball fans I know care about, though I wish they didn’t). All you can see is greatness. Hundreds of men—and at least one woman!—who all love this game.
My Mets have been playing poorly this year. Many fans wonder if the owners care about winning anymore. But my day in Cooperstown reminded me why I love the game so much.
And it reminded me how many stories you can find, even if you’re only looking at hundreds of balls, bats, gloves, caps, and jerseys.
If I could find so many stories in a museum devoted to one thing, how many stories can we find in the marvelously diverse setting of the Getty Center? Architecture, gardens, art, people-watching. Join us for the Story Safari™ Field Trip.
No, my friend wasn’t talking about an unexpectedly starch-free dinner. She was talking about a metaphor. Or, I suppose since they were literal potatoes rather than descriptions of potatoes, we should properly call them a symbol.
We had gone, separately, to see the production of Leonard Bernstein’s rarely seen musicalization of the Peter Pan story. At the opening of said production, a group of young people in yellow hazard suits wheeled a metal shopping cart full of potatoes onstage. They then spent several minutes scurrying back and forth, lining the potatoes up at the front edge of the stage. I think this action took place instead of a traditional overture. And if you’re wondering what potatoes have to do with Peter Pan, you are clearly not alone.
One of the primary rules of good directing is if you put something onstage, you have to use it. If the set has a balcony, you can expect someone will appear on it before the final curtain. If there’s a door, it will get slammed. If there’s a row of potatoes…well, Wendy affixed one around her neck (she told Peter it was a kiss) and it later saved her from being killed by an arrow. And Captain Hook’s crew speared them and cooked them like marshmallows over their campfire. That was enough to justify their existence for me.
Oh, and the shopping cart in which the potatoes made their original entrance! We saw that again, put to delightful use when it ferried a mermaid with a lovely voice across the stage at key moments. Well, you wouldn’t expect a mermaid to walk. She sat on top of the cart, waving her fin seductively.
Perhaps you can tell, this Peter Pan was a very fanciful production. Quirky and weird, and for the most part charming.
Use your potatoes—er, metaphors—wisely
But the potatoes.
My friend who didn’t “get” them is no rube. She’s a longtime theater reviewer around these parts; she’s seen it all. But I have to agree with her. The potatoes did seem rather random. Although the director made an effort to incorporate them in the stage business, there’s no real reason the items in question had to be tubers. They could as easily have been stuffed animals, or marshmallows, or pool noodles, or…
You might easily run into the same problem with your writing. Tell stories, use metaphors — by all means! But whatever you use must tie in with the theme of your work.
That’s not to say you need to address it in every paragraph. No faster way to bore a reader.
But if you start the piece with it, find a way to bring it back at the end. That will deliver a very satisfying experience for your reader. Bonus points if you can mention it lightly somewhere in the middle, but circling back to it at the end will tie up your writing in a neat little bow.
Oh, and this may go without saying, but don’t use potatoes. I mean, you can if they tie into your subject clearly. But don’t leave your audience scratching their heads—they might spend so much time trying to figure out your metaphor that they completely forget the important ideas you’re delivering.
Or they’ll find themselves craving French fries by the end of your speech.
Discover how to find unique metaphors and use them to make your work unforgettable. Join me on a field trip to the Getty Center in Los Angeles. Details here.
I’m writing this in the midst of a cemetery. Well, in a house in the midst of a cemetery—a quirky and wonderful AirBnB space. And, yes, the neighbors are quiet.
And every time Fenway and I walk through the neighbors’ yard, if you will, we find a new story. So you can expect a fair number of tales from the grave in the next few weeks.
So what’s a Story Safari™ from the cemetery about? You might expect I’ll be writing about the lives these people lived—and there are apparently some famous folks buried here, though I haven’t found them yet. But the more I walk around, the more I think that cemeteries aren’t about the dead people.
The grave sites closest to my building host more recent guests, and the simplicity of their headstones stands in marked contrast to the decorations surrounding them. American flags, of course—some of these graves also have brass military placques, like the ones you’ll find in a military cemetery. But also seasonal decorations. Pinwheels and butterflies and…well, see for yourself:
Those look like solar-powered lights on either side of the headstone. So the deceased doesn’t stub a toe on the way to the bathroom?
But I don’t mean to be snarky. We all express our grief differently and we should be free to do so without being judged.
What makes this a Story Safari™?
What I’ve written above is a story.
What alchemy turns it into a Story Safari™?
First, lift it out of its actual context. I mean, unless you work for a funeral home or a headstone carver you probably don’t have a lot of occasion to write about cemeteries.
But what do you write about?
I write about writing, most often business writing. So I ask myself, do I ever come across things in the world of business writing that seem more embellished than they need to be? Things that are more about the person doing the writing than about the people who’ll be reading or hearing it?
The family that puts frogs and tinsel and solar powered lights on grandma and grandpa’s grave—they’re the real audience for all of that frou-frou. They’re doing it for themselves. And if it makes them feel better, that’s what matters.
But when you’re writing for an audience, you have an obligation to write for them. It’s not about you, not if you want to connect with the audience, not if you want them to remember and act on your words.
So what frou-frou do you add to your speech? Where’s your tinsel, your frogs? Do you ever go out of your way to drop a name? Will you take time to tell a story that boosts your ego, even if it has no real connection to the topic? Do you spend too much time talking about you—or your company—instead of focusing on the audience’s needs? Are you onstage to solve a problem for them, to fire them up to action? Or just to collect another venue to add to your speaker’s bio.
Every word you write must add value for your reader or listener. So leave tinsel and the frogs at home—this is not about you. Tell them the story they need to hear, drive them to the action they need to take, and they’ll remember and appreciate you for it.
Interested in learning more about how to find and tell stories? Join my one-day Story Safari™ Field Trip to the Getty Center in Los Angeles.
I love pop culture references. Especially in unexpected places, like business speeches or otherwise serious-minded articles.
I’ve written before about my favorite pop culture reference, courtesy of the brilliant Adam Gopnik. He begins this New Yorker piece:
“Falling, yes, I am falling, and she keeps calling me back again,” Paul McCartney sang on June 14, 1965, a memorable high-water mark in musical history, when, on a single day, he recorded that first bluegrass-rock standard, “I’ve Just Seen a Face”; the throat-shredding early-metal model “I’m Down”; and then, in dulcet tones, the most covered song ever written, the ballad “Yesterday”—all within a few hours, with a little help from his friends. Some of us think there hasn’t been as good a musical day since.
It’s a fascinating bit of pop culture history; new to me. And engaging enough that I kept reading the piece even as the very next paragraph revealed that this was not going to be a piece about the Beatles—far from it. (I won’t give it away here.)
So please use a pop culture reference when it makes sense for your topic. That doesn’t mean it has to have an obvious relationship to your subject: Gopnik’s Beatles history does not and that’s part of what makes it so delightful. But it does mean that before you’re done, it has to make sense to the reader.
Pop Culture Beauty Salon
That’s easier to do when you put words around your pop culture reference—or, better yet, sentences. And if that seems obvious to you, it did not to the proprietor of a beauty salon I passed the other day in Connecticut:
Kryptonnite Beauty Salon
What message were they trying to send?
Women, be so alluring that your man will be powerless before you!
What kind of fun is that? And then I saw further down on the storefront the words “Unisex Salon.” So:
Men, we’ll render you completely useless!
I don’t know about you, but that’s not the message I’d want my hairdo to send.
The salon misspelled the name of the substance, but in double-checking that I discovered that kryptonite takes many forms. Pink kryptonite can even turn you gay (later adjusted to “change your gender” which is not nearly the same thing. But I don’t expect political correctness from an action comic book).
And while it debilitates people from Superman’s planet, Krypton, when we Earthfolk encounter it, it can give us superpowers. It can even supercharge our pets, albeit for only a day. (Don’t tell Fenway.)
Perhaps that’s what the salon owners were thinking. Kryptonite connoisseurs, they expect their idea clients to be similarly conversant with the many uses of the imaginary mineral.
Probably not the best business plan. Unless their ideal client is super-villains, in which case they’ve probably cornered the market.
Join us on a Field Trip to the very appropriately named Getty Center in Los Angeles, August 22nd—we’ll spend the day looking for stories in its gardens, architecture, and art. More information here.
I’m a big fan of Dorie Clark’s. I’ve worked with her, I’ve recommended her to clients. A more brilliant marketing and business strategist you could not find. And she gives a good speech, which may explain why she gives so many of them.
…it can be helpful to envision the sections of your speech as “modules” that you can shift and reshuffle as needed.
That advice needs to come with a warning label. Because you can’t just rearrange a speech, not without making other adjustments.
You can’t order a speech à la carte
A great speech hangs together from beginning to end – like a tasting menu at a three-star Michelin restaurant. Ask for the asparagus after dessert and you ruin the flow of the meal.
I’m not saying you can’t rearrange the elements of your speech. But if it’s a well-constructed speech, A transitions to B, which builds to C.
In other words, you’re telling a story—that’s what people will remember from your speech, the story you tell. And of course that story needs to contain these “modules” of ideas you want to convey. And you can’t just reshuffle parts of a story like it’s a deck of cards.
Avoid the word-salad bar
I once wrote for an executive – and seriously, once was more than enough for me – who treated his speeches like a salad bar. He wasn’t looking for a speech so much as a mise en place, the chopped-up veggies and other ingredients a chef has handy before the restaurant opens for the day so she has everything she needs to assemble a dish.
This executive expected the “writer” to present him not with a well thought-out speech, not with a story that built to a crescendo of anticipation, with the audience hanging on his every word.
Nope, this executive wanted four buckets of words: one with options for his opening, one containing several stories he enjoyed telling, a third with assorted facts, and a final bucket with an array of inspirational quotes for the closing.
That’s not a speech; it’s a word-salad bar. When he stepped onstage to deliver his remarks, he would choose one piece from each bucket—whichever piece struck his fancy.
Now, I’m sure that’s not the kind of modular construction Dorie had in mind when she wrote the HBR piece. Dorie is a fine writer. When she moves chunks of a speech around, I’m sure she ties them together thematically; I’m sure she’s careful to make sure she’s still telling a coherent story.
But I worry that her readers might not understand the importance of the connective tissue that holds a speech together.
Want to improve your writing? Register for my 5×15 Writing Challenge. Write for 15 minutes a day between June 4th and 8th and I’ll donate $15 to Room to Read, a global literacy nonprofit.
I’ve been binge-listening a new podcast with the unforgettable name Cocaine & Rhinestones. If you guessed it’s about country music, you win. Now, you may not be a fan of the genre, but if you’re reading this blog I’m pretty sure you’re a writer. Or you’d like to be. So allow me to introduce you to “The Storyteller”—that’s the industry’s nickname for songwriter Tom T. Hall. (You can listen to the podcast episode here, or just read the handy transcript.)
The writer and host of Cocaine & Rhinestones, Tyler Mahan Coe, tells us:
“One word often used to describe Tom’s writing is ‘literary.’ Similar to Bobbie Gentry’s best work, there’s a quality to Tom’s narratives reminiscent of the great American short story writers in the 20th century. Sinclair Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, Ernest Hemingway – these are Tom’s influences.”
As a songwriter, Hall writes poetry. But he finds inspiration in short stories. How does that affect his writing?
Many pop or country songwriters will state a theme—like the ubiquitous, “I love you”—and then spin out a series of variations on the theme in discrete, often interchangeable verses or even just lists. In fact, Hall did that on occasion too—listen to his hit song “I Love.” That’s what I call short-arc thinking.
More often, Hall thinks in longer arcs than a 12-syllable line of poetry, or even a verse. That allows him to tell a story, and as my regular readers know, storytelling is one of the best ways to hook an audience on your idea. Even better if your stories spark emotions in the reader or listener. And when you combine a good story and a singer who can really connect emotionally to her material, well, that there is gold.
In an earlier episode of the podcast, Coe reveals that singer/songwriter Bobbie Gentry’s biggest hits—”Ode to Billy Joe” and “Fancy”—both started out as short stories. Tom T. Hall’s most recognizable song, “Harper Valley PTA,” also tells a story that stretches out for the full length of the song. (And, if you’re really interested, for a full three episodes of Coe’s podcast.)
The Storyteller as songwriter
Here’s Coe again:
“Ask [Hall] what one of his songs is about and more often than not he’ll tell you a story about something he saw or did or something he heard someone talking about somewhere. The story that ends up in his song almost always starts with a story outside his song.”
I added the bold there. I talk a lot about Story Safari™—training yourself to see stories in the world that other people might not see. What I haven’t talked enough about is that those stories may not turn into the actual end product—they might just inspire the end product. And that’s perfect too, because you’re still writing from a unique perspective, your perspective.
Now, Tom T. Hall didn’t just sit around reading Hemingway. He had a lot of odd jobs (Coe adds, “and I do mean odd.”), like working in a funeral home. Among the less odd were his stints as a radio disk jockey:
“It’s probably worth noting that most of these gigs require Tom to write his own copy for the commercials he reads on-air. These are not songs, just tiny little scripts to read – again, like you hear in a lot of podcasts these days. But being forced to churn out disposable content like that can really make a writer out of someone. (If it seems funny that writing commercials could make you a better songwriter, well, try thinking about songs as little commercials for life.)”
It’s not just that songs are “little commercials for life”—though I love that idea. It’s “being forced to churn out disposable content” that made Hall a better writer.
When you write on deadline, you can’t be all precious and wait for the Muse to descend from on high and bless your typing fingers. You write. And you get used to writing badly sometimes, as we all do (even with the Muse). But it’s easier not to care about quality if your work goes out into the world anonymously. And if the script sucks the first time, you can always rewrite it the next time the commercial comes around. Plus, when you’re less attached to your writing, you rarely get a visit from the Willits. It’s a great way to experiment and grow.
Commit to creativity
Another thing you need to know about Tom T. Hall the writer:
“Before he was rich, Tom started his days with coffee and writing, believing the best stuff came when he was fresh from sleeping. After he got rich, Tom started his days with coffee and writing. The only thing that changed is where he was doing the writing.”
Write every day. If you’ve heard me say that once, you’ve heard me say it six hundred times.
And his definition of a songwriter tracks completely with my definition of a writer:
“In 2016, he told Peter Cooper that ‘songwriters aren’t good songwriters. People are good songwriters […] You sit down as a person and write a song. If you’ve written a song by the time you stand back up, you’re a songwriter. But the person comes first.'”
If you make words appear where there are no words before, you’re a writer. So stop waiting and start doing. The world is full of stories ready for you to find and tell.
Want more? I love coaching writers, individually and in groups. Click here for paid, low-cost (my e-book on storytelling is only $4.95), and free resources. Now get writing!
It snowed yesterday—April 2nd. At least three inches, enough to leave a thick coating on my car. I am officially sick of winter.
It snowed until early afternoon but when I looked out my window during my 3pm call, every drop of snow had disappeared. In its place, I saw dozens of tiny birds darting around my backyard. I started to think about writing a Story Safari™ piece about disappointment (snow—in April!) and optimism: birds mean spring!
Then a hawk swooped past my windows. Magnificent, powerful. And on a mission—a mission I knew would involve having one of those little optimism-inducing birdies over for lunch. No RSVP required.
By then I was on another call, a coaching session to help me refine my marketing. I made a note to incorporate more of the courage and freedom of the hawk into my work. And fun—it sure looked like fun, swooping around the sky. Though I would definitely want my clients to have a more mutually beneficial experience than those little birds did.
That hawk had come far closer to my house than it needed to, showing off its wingspan as it turned the corner from one set of windows into another. Perhaps it was doing more than grocery shopping? I’m not sure how much I believe in spirit animals, but I definitely do not believe in coincidences. So I decided to look it up.
“…you are now on notice that even the most ordinary of circumstances could have deeper meanings.”
If that isn’t the definition of a Story Safari,™ I don’t know what is.
“Even the most ordinary circumstances”—birds on a lawn, something people see every day and attach no significance to—”could have deeper meanings.”
Birds as a harbinger of spring, that’s a nice story anyone can tell. But what if we turned that into a story about complacency, about being ready for the unexpected? That story could fit in well in almost any business context.
And that’s a story no one else will tell—not in quite the same way. Because no one else saw the hawk swoop around the corner of my house. Well, no one but Fenway, who delivered a startled “Woof.”
Learn to see the world through the lens of a Story Safari™ and you’ll always have a unique story to tell. Except if you’re Fenway. She said the same thing about the skunk who visited later that afternoon. Fortunately, the skunk didn’t hear her.
Of course, you want to say “blue.” If you’re like me, it’s probably one of the first poems you ever memorized. Of course violets are blue.
But are they really? Aren’t they more—crazy idea here—violet-colored? And roses come in all shades. Some enterprising florists will even dye them green for St. Patrick’s Day.
If you start the poem:
Rose are red,
Violets are violet
People think they know where you’re going with that first line. They might even put their brains on autopilot for the second one. Until that unexpected word wakes them up.
How about this?
Roses are green,
Violets are blue
But are they really?
Try an idea that’s new.
Surprise your readers and you can breathe new life into even the most tired clichés.
That’s part of the idea behind the Story Safari™ technique I share with my writers. It allows you to find fresh ways to talk about your ideas, so audiences hear them in new ways. Your ideas become memorable—you become memorable. And if you don’t want people to remember what you have to say, why are you bothering to write in the first place?
Join me this Saturday, March 17th, for a one-day program designed to help you find and tell stories more memorably. Anchor Your Ideas—five short videos and writing assignments with a writers’ group-style webinar at the end of the day. Register here.
Yes, that’s a real thing that happened—back when people stored molasses in giant tanks on the tops of buildings. Tank springs a leak, molasses rushes out—more than 2 million gallons of it—traveling at speeds up to 35 miles an hour. More than 20 people died, along with countless horses. Can you imagine?
I found that story while doing some completely unrelated reading one day. And it just so happened that one of my clients had asked me to find a regional tie for his speech near Boston. A speech about ethics.
What does molasses have to do with ethics? I dug a little deeper into the story and found that people had noticed brown stuff oozing from between the slats of the storage tank. Did the owners investigate? No. But they did take action—they painted the tanks brown to match.
Many people have written or talked about the Molasses Flood. Some of the people in my client’s audience may have even heard of it before. But I doubt they’d ever used it to discuss ethics.
A fresh perspective on ethics
That’s what a Story Safari™ can do for you. Once you learn this technique, you’ll be able to write about any subject—even concepts your audience has read or heard dozens of times before—and bring a fresh perspective to it. A memorable perspective.
Here’s my client’s perspective:
I know this is a fine program you’re participating in, but I have to tell you that I chuckled a little when I saw the title of the program: “Managing Ethics in Organizations.” The word “managing” implies planning and control. And while that certainly is the ideal to which we all aspire, in my experience—and I don’t think I’m alone here—an Ethics Officer’s best-laid plans can be derailed at a moment’s notice.
Let me illustrate that point by offering you a bit of local history. It happened in the early years of the 20th century—and although companies didn’t have Ethics & Compliance officers back then, I think you’ll notice some parallels to the kinds of work we do today.
In January 1919, the North End of Boston was hit by a devastating flood. More than 20 people died and hundreds were injured. The flood caused several buildings to collapse and knocked an elevated train right off its tracks.
You might be thinking, “That’s tragic. But it sounds like standard flood damage.” And you’re right. But this wasn’t a standard flood. It was a flood of molasses.
Now, usually we think of molasses as a slow-moving substance. But when a 2.3 million-gallon holding tank burst that day, it sent the sticky syrup cascading through the city streets at 35 miles an hour. In a wave that some reports said was up to 40 feet high.
Who could imagine that such a thing would happen? It had never happened before (and, thank goodness, it’s never happened since). But it happened once, and that was costly enough.
Could this tragedy have been prevented? The exact cause of the failure was never determined, but it may be that shoddy construction was to blame—the tank apparently leaked from the outset, a fact the company attempted to hide by painting it brown.
It seems to me that the Great Molasses Flood of 1919 is the perfect analogy for our jobs today. Whatever company we work for, whatever industry or profession we work in, we Ethics & Compliance Officers are charged with finding out if there are any leaky tanks in our organizations and fixing them before they cause serious damage.
You might not be writing about ethics, or anything particularly business-related. But chances are, you’re not the first person—or the only person—who has something to say about your idea or issue. Make your words memorable, and get your audiences engaged, by taking them on a Story Safari.™
Join me for a one-day adventure in finding and using stories, this Saturday—March 17th. Register here.
That’s what I’ve been exploring with an intrepid group of writers in my “Anchor Your Ideas” challenge this week.
They’ve spent most of the week gathering stories—and they’ve found some good ones. On day 4, I started asking them to use those stories to make a larger point. That can be a challenging pivot to make, but it’s essential.
Learn this skill and it turns you from someone who tells stories into someone whose stories get listened to—someone whose stories get remembered. Someone whose stories drive people to action.
A story that’s more than the sum of its parts
I asked my writers to dig up some interesting stories about a place they live or would like to live, and one of them came up with a new (to me) story about one of my favorite places on earth: the Fenway section of Boston, home of Fenway Park (and namesake of my trusty Canine Assistant).
Apparently during World War II the fine citizens of Boston turned part of the Fenway into a Victory Garden—a garden that’s still tended today.
Now, that’s a fine story on its own—but widen the lens a bit and think about what ELSE it could be about. Cooperation in wartime—if you were writing about a business, you could draw a parallel to teamwork. Or you might go at it from the angle of making the most of scarce resources. That could be a great theme for a blog.
Let’s think about the cooperation angle for a minute. How many pieces have you read about “teamwork”? Only about a million, right? But how many have you read that start with a story about a victory garden next to a baseball stadium? That unique angle makes whatever you have to say more memorable. You’re not just lecturing your readers about why they should work together; you’re showing them a story about people who worked together and achieved great things as a result.
This is not the easiest pivot to make—from taking a story at face value to seeing a story as a metaphor for something larger. It takes practice. But once my writers learn it, they’ll have a skill they can use the rest of their lives.
If you’d like to discover how to make a story worth far more than the sum of its parts, join me on March 17th. We’ll run through the whole “Anchor Your Ideas” program in one fabulously entertaining day—my own version of March Madness. Register here—it’s free. And the skill you’ll hone is priceless.