Just Because I Can (tell too many stories)
It was 2006 and I was sitting in the back of a large conference room at a military installation on the West Coast when I was 99% certain that I would have smack my head against the wall just to keep awake. It seems our Program Manager, an active duty Navy Captain, had decided to tell yet another story during our weekly “all hands” meeting. The problem? While he may have been a good storyteller, too often he told stories with no other purpose than to tell them. It was not good for morale.
When I deliver our two day Leadership Presence program, I tell a lot of stories. There’s the one about the history of the potato in Ireland, about the prince and his elephant, and the time I went to Berlin to cover the fall of the Berlin Wall for BBC Radio. And there are at least 5 more stories that I tell during class.
But I don’t just tell them because I’m the instructor or because I’m a good storyteller; I tell them because each story has a very specific teaching point, for example… to demonstrate why relying on one presentation technique is boring (surviving on potatoes only); or how our bodies can run away with us when we least expect it (the elephant out of control); and how change is constant and we all need to learn how to roll with change (Berlin Wall comes down).
The fact is, listening and learning from stories is in our DNA. We humans have been telling stories to pass on information, morals, legends and ideas from generation to generation since before the dawn of civilization. We’re wired for story; which is why stories are such valuable teaching tools. And this is why I coach all of my Leadership Presence trainees to tell at least two personal stories from their own lives in class, about events that changed their lives, and then develop a few more to keep in their back pocket. Leaders need to use stories to motivate, influence and support their teams, when the chips are down, when the odds are long, when people need to be “moved.”
But, the good Captain became so enamored of his own voice and storytelling prowess, he forgot the cardinal rule of storytelling: there has to be a compelling reason to tell the story, there has to be a lesson to be learned.
So let this little story I’ve just told you be a lesson to you: don’t tell any story unless there’s a relevant teaching point to it, and only when it’s needed most, not just because you can.