Tell The Story That Tells The Story
Dusk settled coolly over the misty emerald vineyards in Napa Valley one fall evening. Through the window, I gazed wistfully at a thin stream of bittersweet chocolate sauce a waiter was ladling high over a raspberry-colored cake a the table of a hand-holding couple, seated inside the big stone restaurant operated by the Culinary Institute of America. I knew it was bittersweet chocolate because the rich smell was drifting through the French doors out onto the patio, where we were drinking a fine Cakebread cabernet next to two giggling toddlers, just as happily chewing red licorice twists from the local 7-11 store.
“To generalize is to be an idiot.” – William Blake
Here’s the pity. As adults, we tend to lose our “picture-making” way of speaking – especially as we become older, more educated and experienced. Our expertise does us in. Our conversations begin with sweeping generalizations. To further numb listeners, we are more likely today to talk “at” others, using longer sentences, full of jargon, background and qualifiers before we cue the listeners in with the context that matters to them. Our words become underbrush to obscure our message. Instead make the point in everyday language, wrapped around an example that matters to your listener.
Here Are Ten Tips To Say It Even Better Next Time
Whoever most vividly characterizes a situation or person usually determines how others see it in their mind’s eye, discuss it, and act on it. Here are ten tips for becoming one of the most frequently-quoted experts in your profession, organization, market or for your cause.
1. Be Mercifully Brief
In the movie, “The Player” during a scene at a Hollywood studio executive meeting Mr. Levy shows Reeve, the central character, how to pitch a potential movie story. Levy holds out a newspaper, saying, ” Here, read a headline, any headline.” Reeve responds: “Um . . .’Immigrants Protest Budget Cuts in Literacy Program.'” Levy: “Human spirit overcoming economic adversity. Sounds like Horatio Alger in the barrio. You put in Jimmy Smits, you got a sexy ‘Stand and Deliver.’ Next?” Robert Kosberg, a Hollywood producer convinced a studio to make the 1993 pets -gone-wrong movie “Man’s Best Friend.” His pitch was “Jaws on Paws”.
2. Create A Captivating Turn Of Phrase
Here’s three ways.
A. Use a familiar word in a new way and become associated with a new trend. Example: Futurist, Faith Popcorn, predicted five years ago that people would want to be “cocooning” in their home.
B. Be catchy, using one or more of these memorabiity-building devices:
Alliteration: “Peak performance” and “high tech/high touch.”Rhyme: “Jaws on Paws” (from earlier story)
Repetition: “First things first”, Steve Covey’s advice.
Puns: Tongue Fu!, title of book by Sam Horn.
C. Employ an unexpected turns of phrase: For example, I suggest that to forge a connection, “go slow to go fast.”
3. Get Specific Sooner
The specific detail proves the general conclusion, not the other way around. “The Mini Cooper of office furniture,” is the apt tag line of the tiny firm, Turnstone. Their elaboration: “Leveraging parent Steelcase’s technology and distribution channels, we offer small businesses great style for less, with big-business speed.” Unlike most children under the age of 12 or so, we adults offer qualifiers and background, creating verbal underbrush before we finally get to the delicious details that are most involving, credible, and evocative.
Think of the speeches, advertisements, and conversations you most remember. Didn’t the words evoke one or more of the senses, create an indelible picture? ” Air bag for your computer” is the description of back up software for a computer’s hard drive. For several years, many advertising campaigns featured a group photo of “diverse” people, with some variation of this headline: “We Are the People Who Care.” Banks, insurance companies, hospitals, and other large institutions thus offered a generality that perpetuated their impersonal image instead of promising some specific service, extra convenience, guarantee, or customer story that proved how they were better than the competition. For example, a bank could offer a specific new service, followed by the general reason that matters to customers: “We’re now open Saturdays to make your life easier.”
4. Make Favorable Comparisons With Familiar, Admired Objects
Say it so they can see it in their mind’s eye. When people in your work world are immersed in jargon, your remarks can stand out from others, when you make a comparison with a well-liked product, person or situation from outside your profession or industry.
Example: At the high stakes J.P. Morgan Healthcare investors’ conference, venture capitalists hear 20-minutes talks by CEOs of start-ups and public companies who seek funding or favorable stock analysts’ reporters. The tension is high and the schedule is packed. Most presenters speak fast, using a mix of highly technical scientific and finance language. The CEO from bio-tech company, Amgen, walked past the podium to the center of the stage, pulled up one suit and shirt sleeve to bare his raised forearm. He opened his talk, saying, ” You will feel the effects of this medical patch faster than it takes a Porsche to go from zero to 90. ”
5. Hijack a Familiar Slogan to Use in a New Way
After a company has spent millions to make a slick slogan well-known, twist it in a new direction for your intended meaning. Redwood Hospital in Northern California used this billboard variation of the popular milk slogan to ask for blood donations: “Got blood?”
6. Anchor Your Suggestion With a Pertinent Story
To pull people into hearing and remembering your view, set it up with a brief anecdote. For example, as a way of gently suggesting that his team may be looking at a problem from the wrong perspective, my client first offered this story: There is an old story in Soviet Russia about a guard at the factory gate who at the end of every day saw a worker walking out with a wheelbarrow full of straw. Everyday he thoroughly searched the contents of the wheelbarrow, but never found anything but straw. One day he asked the worker: “What do you gain by taking home all that straw?” “The wheelbarrows.”
7. Veil The Truth In Humor
So much of life is fast-paced, serious and tense. Consider opening a meeting with mock-serious inspiration or admonition, then grinning. You’ll find true life, Dilbert-like examples everywhere that you can keep for your dry humored use. Here are some:
“What I need is a list of specific unknown problems we will encounter.” (Lykes Lines Shipping)
“This project is so important, we can’t let things that are more important interfere with it.” (Marketing manager, United Parcel Service)
“We know that communication is a problem, but the company is not going to discuss it with the employees.” (Switching supervisor, Verizon)
8. Encapsulate A Situation
Do people stop listening before you stop talking? Offer a vignette that captures attention before they can go on a mental vacation.
Example: Jenny Lee’s literary agent characterized Jenny’s book, I Do. I Did, Now What?: One Woman’s Musings on Married Life, as “a rant that (almost despite itself) ends up as a celebration of marriage.”
Example: Financial analyst, Alan Parisse shared this perhaps apocryphal newspaper advertisement with me: “For sale. Infant shoes. Never used.”
9. Imprint By Evoking Universally-Felt Emotions
“The advantage of emotions is that they lead us astray.” – Oscar Wilde
Consider these potent ways that people are more likely to remember what you say, even when they are not trying to. Imagine that the brain is like a wall with clothes hooks on it. For the brain to catch and retain a detail, that detail must hang on one of the memory-inducing hooks that is already in the brain. The biggest hooks in the brain are the three universally felt, core life experiences, familiar to us all:
2. Hometown or town where you have lived or are living, and
3. Past or current kind of work.
For family, relate what you’re saying to a family situation: yours, theirs, someone else’s, or even a metaphorical family of services. Or relate your topic to the listener’s work situation or work with which she is familiar.
People also remember landmark places where they live, have lived, or have visited or well-known places. For example, our business is in Sausalito, which evokes pleasant by-the-bay memories for most who’ve visited here.
Another universal effect is that motion makes memories. Whenever people are moving or see movement, they remember more and are more emotional about what they remember. When others are in motion with you in a positive experience they are more likely to share their experience with others. That’s why we literally move to offer samples, getting people to reach out, so they feel the experience more deeply.
That’s why an experience is often most memorable when you and the other person are both in motion, such as when you shake hands, walk together, or reach to exchange something. Pick those ripe moments to say the most vivid, specific detail you want the listener to remember and repeat to others. Times are next most memorable for the listener who is in motion even if you are not.
The next most memorable movement is when you are in motion, even if your listener is not. A final valuable way to evoke a memory is for you both to watch motion from something or someone else.
Warning: “There are two levers for moving men – interest and fear.” – Napoleon
Movement is a two-edged sword. It is never neutral. The listener who experiences something negative where motion is involved will also remember the experience longer, and more intensely. Just like grabbing a vibrating pole, we grab onto negative feelings sooner, longer, and more intensely than positive. That is because the primitive triune part of our brain — wired to help us survive — causes us to respond to appearances of danger more strongly than to those of delight.
Speak first of the other person’s most current, pressing interest. Just as those in the market for new cars are most likely to hear car ads on the radio, all people listen sooner when you first speak about what is most on their mind at that moment. Sadly, in fewer than 5% of interactions — even when we want something from someone else — do we first speak about what matters most to them. We are more likely to speak about our own interests first.
Cite the vivid, specific and most relevant detail that has a high emotional value for the listener. Here’s the good news. If you practice speaking first about the other person’s interests, then about what you share in common, and only then about how that commonality relates to your interests, four amazingly powerful changes occur in how that other person relates to you. The person listens sooner, listens longer, remembers more, and assumes you have a higher IQ than if you first speak about your own interests.
10. Look To Their Positive Intent, Especially When It Appears They Have None
Do not let somebody else determine your words or behavior. Unfortunately, we are more likely to be vivid in describing what we don’t like than what we do. Yet, as Adlai Stevenson once said, “When you throw mud, you get dirty.” Report in neutral language the negative news and hand any resultant problems back on the person who “caused” them without labeling that person’s behavior: “As we are starting our meeting at ten after, how shall we best use the time?”
Conversely, use emotion-laden language to state the positive and both you and the person you praise will shine: “Your manager was thoughtful enough to send us the plans ahead of this meeting so we are much better prepared to make decision. Please thank him for putting in the extra time to give us a head start on this project.”
Praise what you want to flourish. As you bring out another’s best side (temperament and talents) that person is more likely to see and support yours. After all, if this is the Age of Engagement, fueled by The Power of Us, then what could be more crucial for you to learn than to create the captivating picture that inspires us to be greater together than apart?