Fitness can be fun and bored children can be calmed. These ideas are linked through The Power of Story. I've been reminded that no matter what we attempt to accomplish, the stories we tell will always be at the core of our endeavors. This post is a long one, even for me. If a few of you make it to the end, I hope you'll find some sparks of insight or inspiration.
In the most literal sense, "story" saved me yesterday. I also received a simultaneous, valuable reminder that ultimate success can hinge on how our stories are relayed. Returning from an afternoon visit with my parents and grandfather in Greenville SC, my sister, nephew and I tried to keep ourselves distracted from the fact that we still had an hour to go. Particularly excruciating for an energetic five year old, is the expectation to remain strapped in for the second 3 1/2 hour drive of the day, and "be sweet" while not kicking the seats, holding forth at extreme decibels, and otherwise irritating the boring women in the front.
Once Upon a Time
Late one night, when Rami was perhaps three years old, a tradition was unintentionally born as I attempted to coerce sleep from the squirming body beside me. Lowering my voice to just above a whisper, I started telling him a story. The details came from no reality I'd lived, nor was it one I'd read before. From desperation paired with the hope that my imagination's resources were up for the task, I began talking without a plan. In the story that emerged, a little boy named "Andy" starts out on a very long journey. Andy was a typical American boy whose life was about to become extraordinary. The longer I talked, in the excited tones of one who has something important to reveal, and the more hints the child gave me that he was giving in to my intentions, the more elaborate and ludicrous my words became. But on an ordinary scale, suitable to the context of a small child's experience. "Do you know what he had in his pocket?" The wiggling stopped. A hushed voice echoed my tone. Riveted. "What?" (Yea, lady. Whatcha' got? What is in that kid's pocket?) I recalled earlier rolling-on-the-floor giggles that had emerged from a silly game with a squishy rubber toy.
From inside his pocket, he felt a wiggle. Then a jump. When he put his hand deep in that pocket, he pulled out... a frog! Have you ever heard such a silly thing in your life??? Andy isn't alone! He's not traveling by himself! He snuck his pet frog out of his house and it's going on his trip with him!
Yep! Andy was getting on a boat, still on his way to India, of all places, and now we know that he's traveling with... a frog! The giggles were immediate. My nephew was hooked, and so was I. We had a kid named Andy who was out in the world, having unchaperoned adventures. And he was doing so with a pet frog he kept secret from everybody except - we later learned - a carefully-chosen few!
My story made no sense then, and the episodes that have evolved in the subsequent years haven't improved all that much. My only true encounters with improv, there's no real plot, no planning, no story arc... nothing but sheer giving in to the desire for instant entertainment for a woman and a child. How does one spontaneous game remain in the past, while another sprouts legs and comes along for the ride? This tradition somehow took hold and became ours alone; not another soul will ever really "get" what's emerged as we weave the details of these silly little happenings we call adventures. Rami is now in on the action; as the wings of his imagination have grown, he now sometimes takes the lead.
Last week, I learned that Andy is a little more interested in poison than frogs, and maybe it's a snake in his pocket. Or a ghost. A poisonous ghost! Can you imagine? And he's gotten thrown off of ships for this infraction, oh yes he has! Ships he actually owned, which led to his subsequent foray into the classroom to teach his employees (heretofore unaware that he was, in fact, The Boss,) that you never, ever kick the boss off the boat. Even if the boss is breakin' the rules that say you're not, in fact, allowed to have a poisonous ghost in your pocket, sneaking out to scare the other passengers.
Yesterday, exasperation laced with the reminder of how natural it is for children to be bored while sitting still for hours brought Andy to us once again. "Hey Rami! Shouldn't we find out what's going on with Andy today? Wonder where he is on his trip, right now?" The response was immediate and, gloriously, positive. "Yea! But you tell the story today. I told you last time." Okay then, I was gonna' have to do the work. No sitting back for a lazy listen." This time I revealed that Andy was now in Australia, working on a ranch with a lot of women I brazenly stole from the long-running Australian TV drama, McLeod's Daughters. (Cut me some slack. It was a long day. My imagination was tired.) Andy starts horseback riding lessons and also has to learn how to help shear sheep. Which is very hard work.
Show Don't Tell: From the Mouth of Babes
When I started to wrap it up, inquiring if he was interested in taking over, my nephew zinged me with yet another sliver of insight that keeps taking me off guard and reminding me this kid is no longer a baby. "You keep telling the story. But Mimi. This time you have to Tell me the story." I beg your pardon? I just told you a story for 10 minutes, my precious! "No. You told me what happened, but now you have to tell me the story!!!" Come again? "I did tell you the story, Rami!" "Mimi, it's not the same thing. You told me what happened. But now I want you to tell me the story." No matter how I angled and baited, attempting to get insight into how this particular episode in Andy's travels had failed to measure up, all either my sister or I could get him to reveal was that somehow I'd failed to make it a real, complete story this time. He wasn't at all disappointed in where we'd gone so far. But he wanted much, much more. Sis also has an undergraduate degree in English, and so is well aware of what we mean when we say "Show, don't tell." I'd started to feel I'd intentionally attempted to take the easy way out in a college-era writing assignment, and was being busted for my paled efforts. I pulled sis into the inquiry, hoping her insight as Mother Of This Uncannily Insightful Child would help with my quest for heightened clarity. No dice. Although we all know that the easiest answer is often the correct one...
I've been pondering his words ever since. Is it possible this child has morphed into a mature enough human being that a detail-less story will no longer do? Was he, in his mighty-impressive-but-still-incomplete-vocabulary, trying to reveal to me that he's ready for more realism, more complexity, more "original detail," as Natalie Goldberg refers to it? Apparently it's a possibility worth strong consideration.
In Which the Secret of His Professional Success is Revealed
The day before, I spoke for an hour and a half with a new client. The CEO of a global company at the top of its industry, he is finally ready to expand his personal brand with the help of a Squarespace-based website. And I will be the one he works with to do so.
This conversation wasn't about me landing the job. Our agreement to collaborate had already been established, through the introduction of a mutual colleague. Whereas the title "CEO" might have been better respected and the cause for a bit of angst, I didn't prepare notes or formal questions for this meeting. We casually talked, instead, as equals who each have insight and expertise about very different topics. He revealed that he had no idea what to expect, or even exactly what he wants this website to become. And so I shared with this man that our work together may unfold more organically than some of the professional collaborations he's known before. He instantly expressed approval.
Our conversation was laced with the telling of stories on each side.
I told him that when I have the opportunity to speak candidly with a client, if we're able to establish comfortable rapport and speak to the many facets of our unique concerns, they will often answer questions I haven't needed to ask. Even if we are creating what's perceived to be a pretty simple, straightforward website together - as this project was presented to me - the more I can get a feel for the other person's personality, likes, and approaches, the more able I am to pull the ideas from their minds and create something that reflects them, authentically. If they're willing to have me do so.
He also heard, for the first time, the idea that at some point, someone he has never met before will arrive at his website and read what we have placed there, in their attempt to learn more about him and whether or not they will ultimately decide to engage with him in business. Because this person will neither be on his Facebook friend list, nor will they have necessarily followed his twitter stream, or connected with him through LinkedIn, in that specific visit, his website will be the sole vehicle by which they will learn what it is he wants them to know. "What is the story," I asked him, "that you want to tell these future visitors to your site? You get to decide the answer to that question. Your website can become the anchor to your online brand, connecting all the social media relationships and exchanges you've established in the past." I spun my own story, then, of how perhaps this visitor had sat in one of four audiences of the upcoming industry conference at which he will present. Whether through sheer crowd logistics that make it impossible for them to speak with him personally that day, or personal hesitation to approach him directly, this alleged future, possible customer will nonetheless initiate future contact, beginning through typing in his new website address. Or... perhaps a completely different visitor will arrive at his site through a simple Google search.
We discussed our shared belief that there are many approaches one might take within his industry... many avenues to success. I told him, "I need to know, however, what makes you successful. What makes you you. And then we need to make sure that message is conveyed within the pages of your site." He quickly grabbed on to this idea, enthusiastically showing me one of the reasons he's achieved success in an industry centered around fitness. He told me:
Fitness should be fun. I don't like to talk about exercise. Everybody knows exercise is good for them. We need to do it. It's a fact. But for lots of different reasons, many people don't. They resist it, thinking of it as boring and tedious. But if I can help people see that fitness is something that doesn't have to be boring, now that's something. I think of it as my job to infuse this topic with fun, and to help people actually want to get fit.
(I'm paraphrasing from my notes; the essence of this quote is, however, dead on.) My new client's words were infectious and I instantly imagined myself getting up a little earlier every morning to commit to this miraculous fun fitness mystery he was telling me about. In less than a half hour, a man with whom I'd never spoken before was inspiring my often-lazy self to take action in a way I routinely neglect.
Now that's my definition of successful storytelling!
Our talk will stay with me a long time as yet another example of a successful introduction within the kind of collaborations I prefer to take on. We each hung up excited, motivated, and with a list of answers to questions neither of us had even needed to completely articulate. And we did it with the help of some very fine storytelling.
You've Almost Made it to The End!
Whether we're telling stories to a child so he'll calm down and fall asleep, or stop kicking his frazzled auntie's car seat, writing The Great American Novel, or crafting the content of a website meant to elucidate the vision of a successful CEO, our job remains the same: Tell The Story. Don't JUST "tell what happened," as my insightful, little nephew accused me of doing. But really tell the story.
It seems I continue to have my work cut out for me. Fortunately for me, I'm okay with that. I kinda' love me some storytelling...