The Indispensable Power of Story
Some people have a way of making the complex clear. They know who they are, why they do what they do, and where they want to go. Because they have internalized all this, they are able to sharply crystallize ideas and vision. They speak in simple, relatable terms. And they can get a lot accomplished.
Making your words understandable and inspirational isn’t about dumbing them down. Instead, it requires bringing in elements such as anecdote, mnemonic, metaphor, storytelling, and analogy in ways that connect the essence of a message with both logic and emotion. Almost everyone leading or creating has a vision, but the challenge is often expressing it in ways that relate and connect. Quick, think of some former Presidents of the United States and presidential candidates. Which ones are most memorable? Which ones are most likable? Which ones won? The leaders who stick in your mind are likely the ones who humanize their message and deliver it in ways that connect with everyone at some level, in turn inspiring others to relate to them while better appreciating the mission at hand.
I have enormous respect for poets and writers who are able to touch our souls and enhance our understanding of concepts and ideas by writing simply and straightforwardly. Take, for example, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman — the tale of a tragic hero, Willy Loman, whose fallibility lies in his lack of self-awareness. The play’s enduring power comes from its straightforward telling of the human story — our aspirations and disappointments and how we deal with them. There is something in it for almost everyone to relate to.
In his book The 5 Essentials: Using Your Inborn Resources to Create a Fulfilling Life, anthropologist-turned-entrepreneur Bob Deutsch describes the importance of what he calls “self-story”:
There is much to be learned from the lessons that fictional characters and their creators teach us… All of our lives have stretches filled with the rising and falling action of a well-plotted story… The best fiction writers capture the core of that. Our most enduring stories and novels live in our hearts because they distill our essences.
I recently read an exceptionally thoughtful but accessible book on wine — The Essential Scratch and Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert, by Richard Betts. Richard is one of fewer than 200 master wine sommeliers in the world, but instead of speaking of wine in professorial tones he conveys the simple message that nearly every wine’s attributes can be summed up by three things — fruit (red fruit or black), wood (oaky or not), and earth (soil, floral, or “funk”). I’m a longtime wine enthusiast, and this was the first time I’d read a book on the subject that so simply distilled how to think through the smell and flavor of a wine. It made the subject much more accessible, understandable, and enjoyable by bringing structure and and common language to something elusive. Betts’ book is now one of my favorite gift books, and a go-to reference alongside my Robert Parker wine guides.
In my day job as a venture capitalist, I also look for stories I can connect to — in this case the human stories behind the entrepreneurs who are looking for investors. Often the more important questions to ask are things such as, How did this person grow up? What were their past successes and struggles? Why is it that they really want to pursue this big idea? What is their underlying purpose? The answers to these types of questions are what often determine whether we will back an entrepreneur or not. It’s not the facts of the presentation that matter most, it’s the person and the way that person shares his or her story and how that fits with our fund’s objectives. Heart, guts, and the ability to connect are critical in the early stages of company creation and beyond. The durability or effectiveness of any leadership or partnership requires this ability to connect and share a story — people need to just feel it.