When it comes to storytelling, having a Ph.D. might be more of a liability than an asset. It is likely that the trouble lies less with the Ph.D. degree itself and more with the discipline in which I got it. In chemistry and other “hard sciences,” data is very important. You wouldn’t drop any unless there were a good reason to exclude it. Invalid data collection methods would be a good reason not to use those data. But otherwise, you have to make sense out of ALL the data.
But storytelling thrives on highlighting the main plot and dropping the other details. There is a character who goes through a situation. The character goes on a journey with trials and tribulations. The story ends with a resolution. There’s a lesson learned. The story may have a happy ending, or in some cases, the conclusion is not happy or even open-ended.
Historically, telling my own stories has not been my strength. For example, I would talk to you about canoeing 100 miles in the Everglades. In the beginning, I still had a straightforward story plot in mind. We hadn’t showered or bathed in days because the water we were canoeing on was saltwater. We had to bring all the freshwater we were using to cook and brush our teeth. We couldn’t carry water for showering, of course. On the second to last day, it started to rain as we were approaching our next wilderness camping site. Rain! The first rain. We raced to the dock, stripped our clothes off, and took a shower in the rain. How refreshing that was!
That’s the story. But what happened during my telling of this story? As I get into telling it, my mind is thrown back into the experience. I remember who was with me. I recall the alligators, the southern bald eagles, the mangroves, the waves, the wind.
I’m veering off the path of the original brief story and take a stroll down memory lane. It doesn’t take long before the listener gets lost in the plot of my story. Hey, I’m getting lost myself.
The person may be secretly looking for a way to get out of hearing more.
“I need to refresh my drink.” Wait, their glass is more than half full?
“Oh, shoot. My grandmother just called. She needs me to help her with something. I will be right back.”
Perhaps my struggles with telling my stories have nothing to do with my Ph.D. I might be genetically predisposed. When I call my Dad, he frequently has book recommendations for me. That part is great. Without a doubt, the books he has recommended over the years have enriched my life. But getting to hear what the book is about has at times been a bit painful.
Before he tells me what the book is about, he tells me the author’s name, the ISBN (!), and the publisher. He also reads me the complete bio of the author. He does all that first. I still have no idea about the content of the book. For years I’ve been saying that I don’t need the ISBN. I can look up the book on the Internet. My Dad has finally come to the point where he is not telling me the ISBN anymore. Yet, he will often share many details surrounding the book before he tells me about the actual book. I love you, Dad.
When I work with visionaries, innovators, and other business owners, we often run into the same thing. It is ironic. As hard as it is for me to tell my own stories, I have no trouble sorting out the stories of others. Doing precisely that is essential to my work. We work on highlighting the big picture.
To engage others with your mission, you must tell a compelling story. It means you must identify the critical plot. At least at first, you must edit out a lot of details. Those details will come later.
Tell the story about showering and the rain first. Then you can talk about who you went with when it happened or other adventures that happened along the way because now the listener cares. The listener wants to know. He is not looking for the nearest exit to get away from details that obscure the main story.
This wisdom applies everywhere. It is vital for networking. It matters a lot when you are raising funding for your business or organization. I want to give a shout-out to Rob Kramarz, VC and founder of Intelliversity. He is a master in story pitching – telling stories so you can get funding.
The takehome: Give the main plot first. Find your “Top-of-the-box” (i.e., the big picture of your work). Being great at sharing it sets you apart from many others who cannot do that well.
How easy or hard is it for you to tell a compelling and quick story about your work? How easy do you find it to engage others in your mission quickly?