26. Courage Knows No Age

Last week I was in a local bar and was eavesdropping on a conversation between two septuagenarians. The two men were telling stories with the quick pace and tempo of a Muhammed Ali jab. The punchline would hit you before you even saw it coming. Their stories were about life, politics and sport. Each short and seemed to take place 30 to 50 years ago. It wasn’t long before I was laughing in my beer trying to be discreet about my social faux pas. One of the gentlemen caught me snickering and called me over. I approached them and one asked me, “How ugly do you think my friend here is?” Ok…what is the right way to respond to that question? Do I give him a direct response? Do I call the bartender over to ignore the question? Or, do I whip up a quick story about an ugly uncle I have?
Welcome to Swimming in the Flood; a podcast where develop the resilient leader’s mindset by navigating difficult currents in business. My name is Trent Theroux.

I chose option three and whipped up a quick story about my ugly uncle. There are two things of note in this response. First, Paul Zak, director of the Neuroeconomics Studies center at Claremont Graduate university, wrote “As social creatures, we depend on others for our survival and happiness. My lab discovered that a neurochemical called oxytocin is a key “it’s safe to approach others” signal in the brain. Oxytocin is produced when we are trusted or shown a kindness, and it motivates cooperation with others. It does this by enhancing the sense of empathy, our ability to experience others’ emotions.” I choose option three because I was seeking a connection with these old rascals. Now, in truth, I don’t have an ugly uncle. Or at least I don’t want to tell him that he’s ugly.

Storytelling is a key to unlocking relationships with other people. Since we were children we always asked for a story. My son growing up always wanted to hear a story in our car rides. He was seeking stories about our family, but in truth he was seeking a connection to me and to our family through the story. Not once did my son ever ask for statistical data from a story. Not once did he ever ask me the weight in pounds and ounces of the largest turkey we ate. He simply asked me to tell him the big turkey story again and again. – And, I always gave it to him.

My magic mirror shows me that many of you are wondering how this connects to our goal of developing resilient leaders. It’s a good question. Phillip Pullman once said, “After nourishment, shelter, and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” As developing resilient leaders we need to be able to connect with people on a human level, a relatable level, not a statistical or data driven…or price driven level. Let me give you an example.

Two weeks ago I was in Toronto and shopping for a new suit to wear for a conference where I was giving a speech. You may think like me that when you are dressed well and look good your game is at a higher level. Well, this store provided each patron with a personal shopper. Maya picked out a reddish jacket, blue solid shirt and a dark purple brown and grey checked pant to try. In the changing room I noticed that the pants were a little tighter than I normally wear. Not tighter in the waist, but through the seat and thighs. I emerged wearing the outfit. Purple, brown and grey pants are one thing, the fact that they felt like saran wrap around my thighs was another. “Maya, I’m in my 50s. Guys my age don’t wear these styles and colors.” She smiled, spun me around to look at the back and said, “Trent, courage knows no age.” I went back into the dressing room rolling that sentence on my tongue. Courage knows no age. Ten minutes later I was at the checkout buying all three items without looking at the price tags.

So, is this a good story? Well, master storyteller, Ed Tate, would suggest that it covers all 4.5 criteria good story.

I am now going to give you my unscientific, non-peer reviewed, resilient leader theory on showing storytelling. Are you ready? Got your pencils out? Here’s it is. Head.Heart.Humor.Hard Hitting. You heard it. Head.Heart.Humor.Hard Hitting. This theory has been endorsed and espoused by the legend Ed Tate himself.
Here’s how the theory works. There are 4 main components of a good story. The head is to make you think. The heart is for you to connect. Humor is to make you laugh. And, Hard hitting because that is the point. Head. Heart. Humor. Hard Hitting. Four parts to every good story. Now, Alfred Hitchcock said “Movies are like life with the boring bits cut out.” Exactly. Quick question how many of you were fans of the TV show 24? I loved that show. It was must watch TV on Monday nights. Think of the lead Jack Bauer…constantly in and out of trouble, shootings, car crashes, and interrogations. Can you picture him? Good. Ever see him go to the bathroom? Me neither. More basic…ever see him drink a glass of water? Hitchcock’s point a good story is life less the boring bits.

Let’s see how my story about clothes shopping did to follow these four parts. Head to make you think. Heart to help you connect. Humor to make you laugh. Hard hitting because that’s the point. Head – I had a problem. I needed a new suit for a speech I was giving. Heart – how did I try to connect with you? Many people might feel the same way I do that when they are better dressed they feel more confident. Humor – did I give you a funny image? Wearing purple, brown and grey checked pants that fit like saran wrap is not a look for a man in his 50s. Hard hitting – what was the message? Maya told me that courage knows no age. She reframed my insecurity about the clothes by removing my age from the equation. At the same time, as a saleswoman she was closing me on the sale.
Last thing about the story. When you are telling a story – life minus the boring parts – you should be able to keep the story to one minute or less. I know that is tough for some of us. Sometimes, I am wired for maximum verbosity. But, the story needs to get to the punch quickly to be most effective. Joke telling is similar. Two line jokes deliver a punch and a twist rapidly – which is why they are very effective. Stories can be just as brief.

Head. Heart. Humor. Hard Hitting. This format works every time. For developing resilient leaders, our ability to communicate our message to others is crucial. Communicating through a simple, yet poignant story can have a powerful effect on the person or crowd you are seeking to influence.

Let’s try an exercise…yes, I’m giving you a podcast homework assignment. Later tonight, I want you to take five minutes away from your phones and family members. I’m only asking for five quiet minutes for some personal development. Ok, now I want you to use half that time to create a story. The story should be about something of interest that happened to you in the last week. Something that you have not told someone else. It could be something momentous in your life or rather banal. It doesn’t matter. Once you have the story in your head, I want you to write out the four parts; head, heart, humor & hard hitting. Try to keep these points very short. Remember, the objective is to be able to tell the story in only one minute.

Please give this a try. Have some fun. And, I will ask you for a favor. Send me a LinkedIn message of your Hard Hitting point. If we’re not connected on LinkedIn then let’s connect. But, I would enjoy seeing the Hard Hitting lines that some of you have.

Last week, I did this exercise for a sales team of 30 people. The exercise worked well because I asked some of the salespeople to act as coaches to sharpen the story. The improvements made each story stronger and more memorable. By the time we were done, each member had a strong one-minute story to tell – and, more importantly – a method for creating new stories. I was thrilled that this company hired me to help their sales team and I look forward to hearing how their improved storytelling affects their bottom line.

Folks, thank you for listening to Swimming in the Flood. Resilient leaders face challenging currents and it is tough navigating, but with one tack or another we can get there together.

If you’ve got a couple of minutes, please check out my new website, www.trenttheroux.com I’d love feedback if you have any. And, while you’re thinking of it – subscribe to the podcast. That way you can get developing resilient leader theories hot off the presses.

I look forward to getting together next time. See you.