Story Tricks and Treats

The greatest stories are about journeys. Great journeys are about adventure, good times and bad.
Life is just the same. Fear and love, success and failure, beginnings and endings. Life and death.
I talk about the use of Juxtaposition to craft stories that stick. Juxtaposition is quite a word. It even sounds great when you say it. Some people worry about what it means. It means what you position next to what, a contrast if you like. I like juxtaposition because it’s flexible, more 3 D that the word contrast. Contrast is a bit more black and white.
A favourite and powerful example of juxtaposition is Obama’s winning speech, where he juxtaposed some of the most compelling stories of the 20th century into one; black people and women getting the vote, t he advance of technology, putting a man on the moon, new deal economics and a range of takes on the American dream.
There is a polarity in great stories, a beat, so they swing from happy to sad, sad to happy, breakdown to breakthrough. Today we have frequently lost the art of great storytelling, because we focus too much on one pole or the other, the world is all doom in gloom, or it is all gloss and tinsel. But we know, we really know that the real stories we engage with are the journeys through a range of good and bad experiences.
And just as electricity moves between poles, the energy and the movement between posiive and negative strikes a very powerful chord with us.
We have to put dreadful phrases such as “don’t go there’ and “too much information’ to death. We need to ‘go there’ about the good the bad and the ugly in our experience, to tell the Untold Stories because they are the ones that are remembered and acted upon.

Make it Short and Sweet


I’ve just finished working on an organisation’s Annual Report and Annual Plan.

The journey has wound through philosophical and values debates and inspirations, use of metaphor to paint a picture of the organisation’s vision, and then grappling again and again with the challenge of welding the high level vision to an operation plan.
Yesterday we finished just in time for the monthly board meeting. And there was a sense of elation. Not simply because the job was complete, but that we had whittled the 2011 Plan down to essentially three pages.
It as if we had been distilling a great single malt whiskey; fabulous ingredients, taking our time, trusting the outcome, and rendering down many words, thoughts ideas, and actions into a simple but compelling plan.
I loved it when I heard Air New Zealand chief executive Rob Fyfe say he instructed his executives to keep their reports to him and his board very short and to the point, just a couple of pages.
I think the trick is giving up our addiction to thinking good work equals creating great quantities of stuff. We have to give up the attitude that justifying our existence through producing heaps of bits and pieces is effective or productive.
The best stories we hear and retell are short and sweet, but they have an embedded watermark that shows the thinking that has gone in to the them. Do the work, be thorough, produce the draft, then pare away till there is just the essence left.
As Einstein said: Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex… It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.


The Telling Stories

In the game of Poker, knowing a player’s ‘tell’ is a critical element in winning.

A person’s tell potentially gives away what they have in their hand, and poker players work long and hard at ensuring they have a Poker Face, that gives nothing away.

The player’s tell, gives away the real story about what is going on, whether they have a good hand, whether they are bluffing, or whether they have a terrible hand.


Unless they have investigated it, people don’t realise how much they give away their tell in their body language, and what the say and do unconsciously.

When we talk of an incident or person’s actions that were ‘really telling’ we are talking about what ‘the real oil’ was as opposed to the ’manufactured’ version of the truth that was being offered.

In sport, there is the term ‘telegraphing’ where a player unintentionally informs an opponent of their intensions.

In our era of growing transparency and access to information, the days of trying to cover up your tell, and offer a thin veneer of the truth no longer cuts it.

Great communicators speak from their ‘tell’, or ‘telegraph’ a story from a place of authenticity. They convey what is really going on; nothing is hidden.

To know one self is to communicate without hesitation from one’s tell; there is then nothing left to hide and the recipient of the story has no need to doubt.

The best comedians, the best actors, the best musicians, communicate from the place where their ‘tell’ exists.

Traditional stories have always been about transformations, where the bad times as well as the good times are part of the journey.

Stories that tell it all, make a point and take a journey through challenges and breakthroughs will be the ones people listen to.