By Annette Simmons
What is a story? At heart, a story is a re-imagined experience narrated with enough detail and feeling to cause your listeners' imaginations to experience it as real. Experience is the key. Experience is the best teacher . . . always has been, always will be.
There are many different kinds of stories, but one of the most powerful for conveying experience is the “Who-I-Am” story. The most important story you will ever tell is, "Who are you?" Your attempts to influence others are filtered through people's judgments about who you are: your trustworthiness, values, ambitions, and integrity. People don't want more information about your technical expertise. What they want is faith in you, your words, and your good intentions. We crave personal experiences that build up our faith and if that's not possible we want true stories that feel like personal experiences.
How can you craft a Who-I-Am story that satisfies that craving? You need to tell of a time, place, or event that provides evidence that you have these qualities. Reveal who you are as a person. Do you have kids? What were you like as a kid? What did your parents teach you? What did you learn in your first job? Get personal. People need to know who you are before they can trust you.
Stories can come many different places, but to simplify and accelerate your storytelling, my book Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins presents four sources that are especially rich areas for yielding stories that will win an audience over. The four sources are:
1. A Time You Shined.
2. A Time You Blew It.
3. A Mentor.
4. A Book, Movie, or Current Event.
These four primary sources for stories are reliable for just about any situation. Following are examples of Who-I-Am stories from all four buckets. As you read these stories, think about what kind of story you might tell to illuminate a personal quality or qualities you’d like to convey. Take a few minutes to jot down ideas of stories you might develop for telling.
A Time You Shined
I do a lot of pro bono work. A friend and I designed a process called PhotoStory we borrowed from Caroline Wang—who used disposable cameras for poor women in China so they could communicate their needs without English. We adapted it for a community in Houston—poor enough that even pizza delivery men refused to go there. We asked people to use the cameras to tell their story. Telling their story invited the group to examine their story.
This process opened one woman's eyes enough for her to make big changes. She originally nodded off to sleep in group meetings because she had a morphine pump that treated terrible pain from a botched cancer treatment on her spine. She had given up. Yet this process literally opened her eyes. Three years later I saw her and she had removed the morphine pump and was WIDE awake. She contacted service agencies and rattled the cages of people who weren't doing their jobs. She now has a computer and is actively developing a community health program. I get energy when I see how story makes people feel more alive, live better, see opportunities they didn't see before. It's what feeds me.
Think of a story that demonstrates one (or more) of the qualities you’d like to convey. For example, if you want to convey integrity, perhaps it’s a story about a time when it cost you something to stand by your convictions, or a time when sticking to this value paid off tenfold.
A Time You Blew It
Here is an example from my life of a time when I blew it ( I have many to choose from).
When I first started my consulting business, I landed a very big client. I was still testing ideas, but I didn't want to seem inexperienced. I had a process that I had used many times, which I sold to Mark, the VP of Services. He asked me if I could adapt the process to accommodate 70 people. I looked him straight in the eye and said, "Sure." What I didn't explain was that I'd never done it with more than 20 people.
Basically the process was to gather and compile customer comments (piece of cake) and then hand out verbatim customer comments for the team to analyze. I knew they'd value their own conclusions more than a research company's summary and recommendations. But 70 people agreeing on their interpretations? I designed logistical aids. They were to cut out the most important comments and collectively assemble them on the walls with sticky notes in a way that simultaneously made sense and demonstrated the frequency of recurrence. I assigned different-colored highlighters to mean different things. I thought I had it covered. About halfway through I looked around and one group had stolen all the highlighters to make a tower. Paper was everywhere. It was chaos.
Mark came over and stood beside me rocking once front to back on the balls of his feet. He asked, "You've never done this before, have you?" I said, "Nope." He nodded. "Didn't think so." Then he smiled, handed me a bottle of water, and said, "Thought you might be thirsty," and walked away. God bless his heart.
I'll always remember his kindness. The process wasn't a total disaster—we did get more cohesive action out of those people. But NEVER again! From now on my principle is to undersell and overdeliver. It's better for everyone that way.
Think of a time when you really blew it. A time when you acted out of character to your values. Counterintuitively, people will more readily believe you understand the value of a quality when you can accurately tell about paying a price for NOT having this quality.
This story is about a mentor I've never met. His name is Antanas Mockus, a past mayor of Bogota. A friend from Colombia told me about the traffic problems they were having in Bogota. The only people that owned cars in Bogota were rich and they thought traffic rules were suggestions. They ran red lights or nudged through pedestrian crossings . . . and people were getting killed. Now imagine what you or I would do to solve this problem. Better enforcement? Stiffer penalties? Not Antanas Mockus. He hired mimes.
The mimes called attention to any motorist disobeying the rules. They would wag their fingers, signal stop, or call pedestrians over to help train a driver to follow the rules. And guess what? Pedestrian deaths dropped by more than half. After visiting Bogota, I emailed a magazine article I wrote to a guy who worked for the administration named Juan Uribe, and he emailed me back: "The way you write the story says that the mimes trained the drivers to obey rules. No, the mimes trained the pedestrians that they had rights." Ohhhh yeah, big difference. That's the kind of work I want to do in the world.
Take some time to reflect. Who taught you about these qualities? It might be a parent or grandparent, maybe even a teacher or scout leader. When you tell a story of the person who exemplified this value, your telling reveals as much about you as it does about the person in your story.
A Book, Movie, or Current Event
When I first developed a training course on storytelling, I used clips from the movie Amistad. All of us at one time or another have faced injustice so great that our task has felt impossible. For me the movie Amistad is a good example of trying to achieve the impossible—and succeeding.
In the movie Amistad, 44 West Africans are snatched from their homes, chained, starved, and beaten but then take control of their captors' ship; however, while trying to get home, they are apprehended—and they speak not a word of English. Can you imagine being their lawyer hoping to get justice in a country where the issue of slavery is about to spark a civil war, and where the president is up for reelection and would rather not have a civil war? Moreover, the jury consists of 12 white men. That's what I call trying to achieve the impossible. But they won. How?
In the movie a grumpy ex-president, John Adams, while refusing to formally help (he eventually joins the fight), gives the lawyer, a frustrated abolitionist, a hint. He tells him, "In a court of law I've found that whoever tells the best story, wins." So they find a translator, learn what happened, and retell the slaves' story in a way that is so compelling it outlasts four overturned verdicts. Their story was so powerful no one who heard it could deny them the justice they deserved.
Find a book or a movie that tells a good story about the quality you’d like to convey. It may only be a scene from a movie, or a snippet from a book. The scenes that stick in your mind, stick in your mind for a reason.
About the Author(s)
Annette Simmons is president of Group Process Consulting, whose clients include NASA, the IRS, and Microsoft. She has been featured on CNBC’s Power Lunch and NPR’s Market Watch and has been quoted in Fortune, The Washington Post, and other publications. She is the author of several books, including The Story Factor. She lives in Greensboro, North Carolina.