This past week I listened to Craig Wortmann’s book, “What’s Your Story: Using Stories to Ignite Performance and Be More Successful.” Craig encourages readers to place their stories into a matrix of sixteen cells, four columns by four rows.
He identifies four columns, top to bottom: success, failure, fun, and legends. A success story is how a project succeeded. A failure story is how a project failed. A fun story is a joke. A legend story is a once-upon-a-time story, that of a hero.
The idea of a matrix appears too complicated, a spreadsheet to arrange jokes. Ronald Reagan kept it simpler. He wrote his stories on 3 x 5 cards and kept them in boxes. To write a speech, for example, to inspire, he withdrew cards from his stack.
Rodney Dangerfield did not have a matrix, because he told only one type of story, his repeated failures, for he played the role of a born loser. His was a continuous failure.
“When I was a kid, my dad took me hunting, and we shot a deer. He put the deer inside the jeep on the passenger side, and he hung me on the front bumper.”
“When I go out on a date, I invite two girls. That way when I fall asleep, the two girls can talk to each other.”
Rodney’s tale of woe, all fiction of course, was, for some, funny, not for others.
Abraham Lincoln carried in his mind a treasure chest of stories, jokes, and anecdotes to make a legal or political point. At times, he acted as a clown or a jester, to disarm an opponent, to avoid being challenged or bullied into a wrong choice or action.
For example, he told a story about how a dad advised his son to take a wife. “Ok, dad,” the son replied. “Whose wife shall I take?” An example of miscommunication.
Lincoln also told a story about a farmer who suffered from seven skunks, who lived near his chicken house. One night the farmer shot one skunk, but because it caused such a stink, he let the other six go.
By this story, Lincoln justified firing just one cabinet official, rather than all seven.
Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, grew exasperated by Lincoln’s repeated use of rural, countrified, low-base stories.
In Stephen Spielberg’s movie Lincoln, Stanton shouts at the President, “Oh, no, you’re going to tell another one of your stories! I can’t stand to hear another one.”
Craig Wortmann says that our lives today lack a balance of appropriate stories, a syndrome he calls SDD, Story Deficit Disorder. We need both failure and success stories.
Instead, we endure a blizzard of bullet points and bytes, a laundry list of dull and boring facts, that lay there on the page or the screen, lifeless and uninspiring.
Like small children, readers cry out, “Come on. Tell me a story!”
The rage today is to tell “a struggle turned to success” story: “low then high; first perseverance, then achievement; all struggle redeemed; the more struggle the more redemption.”
Stephen Marche, A New York Times Book Review writer, stated his opinion.
“I hate those stories. Don’t tell me about how it’s all going to work out. Don’t show me J. K. Rowling scribbling her first Harry Potter book in cafes, a jobless single parent dependent on welfare.” Most storytellers never experience a single moment of success.
I say that the best stories of all are factual stories from the past, in a word “history.”
The historian does her best to get it straight, true, with little opinion tossed in. Her written account reads like a gossip who repeats details drawn from a family’s closet.
Some do not like to read history for that reason. It reveals events too personal and painful. One person said this about the past, “Listen, we know it happened, but why say so? Why tell it? It is unnecessary. So it happened! Fine!”
Every storyteller should know his or her audience and respect their feelings.
Today, tell someone a story: a funny story, or a story that delights, or one that makes a point. It is natural for human beings to want to hear a good story.