“”We’re all narcissists to some degree” — more from Dubner on stories

painting by Caravaggio – scan, public domain

“We’re all narcissists to some degree,” Stephen J. Dubner said on the Tim Ferriss podcast I wrote about the other day. And that, he contends, is why we’re so attracted to stories. We subconsciously insert ourselves into the narrative.

I’ve heard the “inserting ourselves into the narrative” idea before. And certainly it fits with Dale Carnegie’s contention that the word each of us loves hearing most is the sound of our own name.

But “narcissists”? That’s a pretty specific word. It’s not just another adjective to me, it’s a pathology. And I’d rather not pathologize my audience.

Narcissists is a dumb keyword

Having chosen “narcissists” as my keyword—seriously, how many times can I choose the word “stories”?—the Gods of SEO require me to use it in a subhead. But really I’m finished discussing that part of Dubner’s interview. I’d much rather get to the part I agree with.

“I’ve always loved storytelling. I would argue that most people love storytelling even if they don’t really think about it.”

Most people love storytelling, even if they don’t think about it. Everyone tells stories. Okay, almost everyone. I’ll exempt the podcast guest I heard recently who answered every question with a bemused, “Yes.” Or, “Absolutely.” The interview turned out to be fascinating anyway, but only because the host told some great stories.

Everyone tells stories in what we laughingly call “real life.” But stand behind a lectern or face a blank computer screen and many people turn into that podcast guest—hiding their expertise and their personality behind a series of bland statements.

You have to be a little bit of a narcissist to tell stories (okay, apparently I wasn’t finished with the word). So figure out what’s unique about yourself and tell that story. Not with the intention of aggrandizing yourself—tell it to create change in the audience, to allow them to step outside of themselves and see the world through your eyes. You’re the only person who can do that for them.

Seeing the world through your eyes—that’s another way of saying, inserting themselves in your narrative, isn’t it?

Dubner and I agree on the affect storytelling has on an audience. We just disagree on what to call it.

Want to tell stories more effectively? My e-book What’s the Story? can help.

“You should never tell stories. Stories are the worst.”

“Stories are terrible. You should never tell stories. Stories are the worst.”

I would never disagree with Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman about anything economic. But he’s making proclamations about my areas of expertise here. And Nobel or not, he’s dead wrong.

Stephen J. Dubner, photo by Audrey S. Bernstein, CC BY-SA 4.0

Okay, that’s not a direct quote from Kahneman. It’s Kahneman as told by Stephen J. Dubner, co-author of the Freakonomics books.

Storytelling propelled Freakonomics to the best seller lists. Let me rephrase that: a book about economics hit #2 on The New York Times Best-Seller list. A book about economics.

Because it wasn’t just a book about economics. Freakonomics melds story, theory, and data into such a compelling package that anyone can get drawn into the story. Even the kind of person who fell asleep in the back row of Economics class. Even the kind of person who would never register for Economics class.

Stories vs. anecdotes

So why does Dr. Kahneman hate stories so much?

It turns out he didn’t understand what Dubner meant by the term. In his interview on Tim Ferriss’s podcast, Dubner explained Kahneman’s objection:

“…he said, ‘Stories don’t contain any data and they don’t have any time – they don’t have a time series attached to them.’ And I realized that Danny kind of, Danny thought I was talking about was not so much what I think of as a story, but what I think of as an anecdote.

An anecdote would be, like, let’s say we’re talking about drunk driving and the actual data and the numbers and so on. And I can tell you that the data seem to show that if I’m a drunk driver vs. a sober driver I’m 13 times more likely to get involved in a fatal crash. That’s what I tell you the data say.

And then you say, ‘Well I’ve got an uncle, my uncle’s accountant drinks every night at the tavern and drives home and he’s never even had a fender-bender.’ That’s an anecdote.”

Heck, using that definition even I would hate stories. So what’s Dubner’s definition?

“…to me what a story is it’s got the narrative but it does include the kinds of things that Danny Kahneman says you need to include, which is data and time series. Data, because you need to know the magnitude of the story —is it really important? And time series because you need to know if it was a kind of blip or if it really persisted. And that to me are the elements of a good story: data, a time element, at time series and a narrative with characters that people can identify with.”

Dubner had one other requirement for a story.

“And, by the way, it needs to all be true. I’m a journalist by training, I’m a nonfiction writer. And I believe that the best kind of storytelling is where you’ve got real reporting, real numbers, and you can make an argument that acknowledges my argument is not perfect, it’s not meant to be, but it is compelling because it is true.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.

Thoughts on the creative process from writer Soman Chainani

I spent a lovely couple of hours with writer Soman Chainani today. Well, with his disembodied voice. He’s the latest interview on Tim Ferriss’s often fascinating podcast.

The cover of Soman Chainani's first book
Cover art by Iacopo Bruno

I had not heard of Chainani before—not surprising, since he writes a fantasy book series called The School for Good and Evil, aimed at 10- to 15-year-olds. That’s not my demographic on so many levels. You could stack three 15-year-olds on top of each other and you’d still be  a 10-year-old short.

So while Soman Chainani didn’t win me as a reader, he did make it to my hypothetical list of people I’d like to have dinner with. He’s a smart dude and it seems like we think the same way about a lot of things. And while it’s also valuable to chat with people who think differently than you do, they can come to another hypothetical dinner party. Okay?

Soman Chainani recommends…

When Ferriss invited him to list his favorite books about writing, Chainani said he didn’t really put much stock in them:

“…writing to me is like breathing. You write the way you breathe. Everyone has their own way of doing it. Every true writer has to write to stay alive because that’s how we live, that’s our connection to the cosmos. And so every writer has their specific process.”

But he does enjoy books and documentaries about “creativity and the creative spirit.”

“One of my favorite books is called The Spark, written by Cirque du Soleil, about where their ideas come from. It’s very short; you can read it in like 20 minutes but it’s fantastic. It gets to this idea that so much of creativity is that we try to control it…If we just let go of the conscious ‘I’ trying to control when we work creatively, that’s when the universe comes rushing through. So it’s about almost making yourself into a clear vessel and accepting it when it’s going to come.”

Later he added:

“When I trust myself, that’s when the great stuff happens. Because I’m not editing.”

[Note to my Writing Unbound participants: See? It’s not just me.]

As for films about creativity, these will be showing up on a Netflix queue near me very soon:

Ballet 422 — about a “middling dancer” at American Ballet Theatre who wins a choreography internship and develops into a world-class choreographer before our eyes

“…slowly you start to realize you’re watching a genius. You’re watching a Mozart who is just gifted with something unrivaled…”

Ferriss chimed in with 6 Days to Air, about the creators of South Park putting together an episode in six days flat. And indeed, imdb.com says that if you like the next film Chainani recommends, you’ll like this one. I’m skeptical—South Park has its moments of brilliance, but sometimes the humor is too puerile for me. Still, I’ll give it a shot. It’s always valuable to see creativity in action.

“In the beginning, it’s all bad.”

Soman Chainani secured his seat at my imaginary dinner party when he recommended the documentary Theater of War. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at the Public Theater’s 2006 Central Park production of Bertolt Brecht’s play Mother Courage.

“It’s the only time Meryl Streep has ever let anybody film her rehearsing. Ever. And she said she didn’t want to do it because she goes, “Rehearsal looks like bad acting and I don’t want to see me do bad acting.” And then she changed her mind and she thought maybe it would be valuable. And to get to watch Meryl Streep’s rehearsal process, you realize how much it is—how much much of  writing in the beginning, how much of acting in the beginning, all of it is bad. It’s just about doing the bad stuff to get to the good stuff.”

I added the emphasis there. The folks in my 5×15 Writing Challenges—and eagle-eyed blog readers—will recognize this as a familiar theme. You’ve got to be willing to be bad if you ever hope to be good.

If you’re not willing to write badly, chances are you won’t write at all. Chainani recognizes this, too, and has taken it as a mission to help people unleash their creativity

“One of the missions I have in life, whenever I sense another creative soul who’s bottled themselves up, I gravitate toward them and try to get them to let it out.”

Generous and kind. Good qualities in a dinner guest.

Ready to start your own writing practice? I have another 5-day writing challenge starting soon. See The 5×15 Writing Challenge for more info.

Trust. Essential for clients…& citizens

Trust, like DNA, is an integral part of our lives. We trust that the little green piece of paper with Alexander Hamilton’s face on it will actually buy us $10 worth of goods. We trust that citizens will obey the law—and that the people who make those laws have our collective best interest at heart.

Trust also plays an essential role in creativity. When I write a speech for a CEO comparing careers to aerosol cans (“contents under pressure” in both cases), I trust that he’ll at least consider the idea. And if he doesn’t like it, he’ll give me another crack at the speech—Draft Two.

But if he does like it (and he did), then maybe somewhere down the road, I’ll come up with an even crazier idea. And he’ll find himself giving a speech that opens with a business school-type case study—taken right from the plot of The Sound of Music.

Without faith in your writers? That’s a recipe for boring communications. You rehash the same old talking points in the same ways. Zzzzzz.

Now, I’m not saying to trust anyone with a laptop and a dream to write you a speech. Ronald Reagan used to love quoting an old Russian proverb: “Trust, but verify.” (Remember when Republicans mistrusted Russia?)

Trust and Alice Cooper

And that brings me to “the godfather of shock rock,” Alice Cooper. He gained fame in the 1970s for his outrageous persona; this year, though you may have missed it (I did), he mounted a presidential campaign.

Tim Ferriss interviewed Cooper’s manager Shep Gordon recently. Gordon told some entertaining stories of trying to drum up publicity for Cooper in the early days. At one point, he convinced his client to enter a stadium concert by being shot out of a cannon. Gordon alerted the media and the concert sold out.

Only problem: every rehearsal of the stunt flopped spectacularly,

This man understands trust. (But don't vote for him)
graphic from alicecooper.com

and they were running out of time. The press would be covering the final dress rehearsal, the night before the concert.

Gordon says, “Now this is a time when most managers and artists would be choking each other to death.” But Cooper just asked, “Can you cover it?” And the manager stayed up all night thinking.

At the dress rehearsal, Alice Cooper climbed into the cannon as scheduled. But the cannon exploded, so instead of filming him flying across the stadium, the TV cameras showed him being loaded into an ambulance and sped to the nearest hospital.

A while later they announced that Cooper insisted on doing the concert the next night. Gordon says:

“We did the show with him in a wheelchair. And nurses, doctors, giving him plasma. Nothing happened to him; it was all a setup. But the front page of the paper was how great Alice Cooper was. What other artist in the world would come and do a show for his audience in a wheelchair?”

Gordon concludes: “So out of that failure came even a stronger bond.”

“Failures are almost more important than the successes.”

Failure and success “are tied so closely together in the creative world,” Gordon says. “You need to allow [people] to fail or they’ll never really win.”

Do you have the courage to fail? Don’t worry—not many people do. But you can discover more about it during my free webinar “The Courage to Communicate.” Wednesday November 30th at 8pm Eastern, 5pm Pacific.

Whose story is it, anyway—yours or the audience’s?

When you’re communicating, whether in writing or onstage, whose story is it? Is it your story, or the audience’s?

If you said it’s both—well, I’m going to disagree with you, at least partly.

Few people know more about capturing and keeping an audience’s attention than successful stand-up comedians. Mike Birbiglia, a comedian and writer with more than a decade of experience at keeping audience’s attention on stage and film, says you need to figure out not how the story is about you but how the story is about the audience. That may be a direct quote, but Siri garbled my notes on it while I was driving. If you want to hear it straight from the source, listen to his interview on the Tim Ferriss Show podcast.

I know, I know—storytelling is different for comedians than for businesspeople. Comedians can make things up; businesspeople (and sometimes politicians) get in trouble when they deviate from the truth.

Yes. This is not about lying. Or even “spin.” This is about, well, empathy. Putting yourself in the audience’s place.

What do they want to hear from you? What do they need to hear from you? How can you deliver a message that resonates with them? And, more than that, how can your message enhance their understanding, help them think about the world in a new way?

So whose story is it? In one sense, yes of course it’s your story. That’s the only story any of us can tell, really. But the most memorable speeches offer something more than personal narrative; a cult of personality can only take you so far.

In the end, the most important perspective is always the audience’s. Shape your story around the narrative points they will connect with, and then allow that connection to inform the message you want to deliver.



Emotion: wisdom from a poet and a robot

“Only emotion endures.”

I was driving down the highway the other day, listening to Tim Ferriss interview comedian and writer Mike Birbiglia. And Birbiglia quoted Ezra Pound as saying: “Only emotion endures.”

Now back at my desk, I can tell you that what Pound wrote exactly was:

“Only emotion endures.” Surely it is better for me to name over the few beautiful poems that still ring in my head than for me to search my flat for back numbers of periodicals and rearrange all that I have said about friendly and hostile writers.

He wrote that in 1918. Nearly 100 years later and it’s just as true. People remember emotions—the things that “ring in [their] head.” So make sure you connect with your readers’ or listeners’ emotions.

But that’s not the end of my story. I was driving when I heard this quote, you’ll recall. So I clicked on the microphone of my bluetooth headset and dicated a note to Siri. She managed to spell Birbiglia correctly—someone at Apple must be a fan—but this is the quote she transcribed:

“Only emotion and doors.”

That made me think of this amazing sequence from the Pixar movie Monsters Inc. (Product synergy strikes again.)

Enjoy your Saturday, folks.

Genius and Broadcast TV

I rarely watch TV these days, but when I do one of my guiltiest of guilty pleasures is the CBS procedural Scorpion. It’s like the love child of NCIS and The Big Bang Theory, both of which I enjoy—less guiltily. Hey, what can I say? I’m a sucker for connection and in all of these shows the characters connect with each other in a wackily familial way that appeals to something deep within me.

Scorpion, as the Season 1 voiceover reminded us with every episode, is based on the life of a “real genius,” Walter O’Brien, who allegedly had the second-highest IQ ever recorded, or some such thing. (Hence the title of this post.)

What I didn’t know until I heard Walter O’Brien interviewed on the invaluable Tim Ferriss podcast is that O’Brien and his confederates at the real-life Scorpion consulting firm conceived of the show as a marketing tool. He figures once the show airs for a decade (it’s going into Season 3 in the fall), his company will be permanently embedded in its prospects’ minds. Try that, Ernst & Young. We’ll call this Option A, and it’s surely the first time anyone has attempted to use a fictional entertainment to market his company and recruit potential employees. Oh wait—unless you count The Apprentice.

Or perhaps (Option B) O’Brien’s bio is a load of, as they say in his native Ireland, malarkey—fluffed and air-brushed to make it look like something exceptional. In that case, the TV show burnishes an imaginary legend. (The comparisons to Donald Trump just keep coming.) It’s based on a lie. But isn’t all fiction?

Option A—O’Brien and company think out of the LinkedIn box to attract the highly specialized kinds of employees they will need as the company grows.  It’s brilliant marketing.

Option B—O’Brien has been dining out on some really good stories (apparently he actually has done high-level hacking work for legitimate clients) and he decides to cash them in for the biggest payday possible. It’s certainly not the path of least resistance, and there’s no guarantee any TV show will become a hit; even great ones fail to find an audience (I’m lookin’ at you, The Comeback). But if the show does catch on, O’Brien collects his executive producer fee, rakes in the bucks from international licensing (two seasons in and it’s already airing in 13 countries besides the U.S.), and establishes name recognition forever.

Also brilliant marketing? Maybe. But I’ve seen too many people get caught inflating their credentials. The climb toward the top may be fun, but the fall is never worth it. Perhaps there will be a Trump comparison to be made here too. Stay tuned.


Change-Making & Writing: Seth Speaks (on The Tim Ferriss Show), 3 of 3

“There’s nothing wrong with being a wandering generality instead of a meaningful specific. But don’t expect to make the change you seek to make if that’s what you do.”—Seth Godin

How easy is it to fall into “wandering generality” mode? Say yes to something that’s not your core mission, and you’re lost. In his conversation with Tim Ferriss, Seth Godin notes that “most people play the cards they got instead of moving to a different table with different cards.” (25:00) We all have the power to move to a different table, change the game, but so few of us do.

Godin identifies two types of entrepreneurs: Those who get up in the morning and ask “whose needs am I satisfying today?” and those who focus on changing people. The businesses that change people are the ones that get remembered. (46:00). His advice to job-seekers: Ask “Is there an entity that won’t be able to live with out you?” and if the answer is no, start your own. “If you wait for someone to pick you, you will be consistently undervalued. (1:37:00)

Tim Ferriss asks about his writing process, Godin responds with the story of Stephen King’s pencil. (35:17). It’s one of those meaningless distractions we create for ourselves—thinking if I knew the equipment Stephen King used, I could write as well as he does. Godin points out that “ritual is a way to hide” and the only way to become a better writer is to “write poorly. Write until it’s not bad anymore.” (37:00) Godin calls blogging daily “one of my top five career decisions” because “it’s a practice that leaves a trail. (31:00). In fact, he thinks everyone should blog daily. (1:01:00)

The podcast wraps up with Godin’s advice in an imaginary commencement speech: “You are more powerful than you think you are. Act accordingly.” (1:54:20) I love that quotation so much, I created a poster of it for my office. Happy to share it with you, just click here.

And don’t miss part 1 on Failing and Creating and part 2 on Not Writing.

Not Writing: Seth Speaks (on The Tim Ferriss Show), 2 of 3

“‘Busy’ is a trap.”—Seth Godin

In his conversation with Tim Ferriss, Seth Godin notes that we can’t let “busy” run our lives. Especially when it comes to interacting with our kids and giving them the kind of educational experiences they’re not likely to get in school. Public schools these days are so focused on having kids memorize facts so they can regurgitate them on the tests that kids don’t get a lot of experience with problem-solving. And that, of course, is the skill they’ll need most as adults. Godin says parents should tell their children “I don’t care how you did on your vocabulary test. I care that you have something to say.” (1:36:00)

Godin also addresses the “busy” trap indirectly, by discussing his own non-work activities in great detail. He works constantly, blogs daily, probably has set in motion more creative projects than ten people—but he also makes time to create while not writing. If you ever want to know how to make honey-oatmeal vodka or artisanal chocolate, this is the podcast for you.

Godin collects cookbooks—and uses them, too. His reason for doing this really resonated with me. Especially when you’re working on a long, complex task, he says, “it’s satisfying to have a project with a definite ending.” (15:00-ish) You cook. You eat. You have fed your soul as well as your family.

Tomorrow: Change-Making and Writing. (Don’t miss yesterday’s post on Failing and Creating.)