Perspective is everything: Shaping your story

Perspective, the lens through which you view a story, changes everything.

My ex-father-in-law was a colorful guy. He loved to tell stories about his Zelig-like encounters with current and future celebrities—all of them true. This was one of his favorites:

“I was going into this hotel and the revolving door got stuck, so the guy behind me pushed really hard and I went flying into the lobby and landed flat on my back. He was very apologetic and helped me stand up again. And that’s when I realized he was Clark Gable.”

After the second or third time I heard that story, I had a revelation. I said, “That’s a great story. But Al, you’re telling it all wrong.” I suggested he should begin with:

“Did I ever tell you about the night Clark Gable picked me up in a hotel?”

It’s the same set of facts, right? Just a different perspective.

In my telling, we lead with the end of the story—even Al recognized that as the most interesting part. And then we’d back up and fill in the blanks, so it didn’t look like Al was cruising movie stars in the hotel bar. (He was much more likely to go for Carole Lombard, anyway.)

The truth, from a different angle

Now, I’m not advocating that we write fiction—especially not in a business context. But don’t get married to chronology when you’re telling a story. Just because it happened to you in a particular order doesn’t mean your listeners need to hear it in that order.

And you don’t necessarily need all the details, either. Think about it from the audience’s point of view. If a detail enhances the story, keep it. If it doesn’t move the story forward, chuck it.

This exercise is especially valuable when you find yourself telling the same story often. Before you tell it next time, spend some time analyzing it. Do you lead with something unexpected—something that will make the audience sit up and listen to you?

Look at the story from a different angle—Clark Gable’s, or the folks in the lobby watching the event unfold? Each angle produces a new story. If you always talk about your nonprofit budget, for instance, as an amount of money, try talking about it from the perspective of the people who work there, or the people you serve. Instead of listing your corporate values, focus on one and find a story of how your people live it daily. Better yet, tell one person’s story. Or the story of how that person’s colleagues react and interact with them. How do those actions make your organization—or the community you serve—a better place?

Stick to the truth, always. But find something unexpected in each story, something that will keep your audience engaged. It’ll keep you engaged too. And that makes for a better, more memorable experience for everyone.

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