All we talk about in communication circles these days is storytelling—or, as the storytelling consultants preciously put it, "the power of story."
I'm afraid that all we're going to do with these stories is to turn our companies, and the people who lead them, into the kinds of gaffers who populate American Legion halls, dusty taverns and boat docks.
Let me tell you a story about storytelling: how it works, and how it doesn't.
A few years ago I had the wonderful good fortune of helping my brother-in-law sail his sailboat across a fat stretch of the Atlantic Ocean, from Baltimore to the Virgin Islands. I also had the disastrous bad fortune of having as my night watch mate a guy who we’ll call Frank, just in case. But really, the guy is so deeply oblivious to the world around him that there is absolutely no chance he will ever hear of my telling this story.
A little background: On a long-distance trip, you 0bviously sail through the nights too … and someone on the boat needs to keep watch at all times. So the captain assigns shifts, and everyone usually gets a partner, because it’s easier to stay awake in the pitching blackness when you have someone else to talk to.
We had only four people on this trip, and one was my brother-in-law’s daughter. She couldn’t stand Frank, and so lobbied to be her dad’s watch-mate, claiming with a minx-like smile that she wanted “quality time with my dad.”
So I got Frank, every night. Every night, from midnight to five, just me and Frank. To say Frank was a difficult watch mate is to fail to say he was a challenge to my philosophical understanding of the meaning and purpose of human interaction.
Frank was a radio station that never went off the air and a radio that couldn’t be turned down. He unspooled uninterrupted and uniformly empty yarns about his career as a fireman and his semi-retirement as a professional sailor; about his girlfriend in Mexico and his wife in California; about himself, himself, himself.
Never once did Frank express any curiosity about me or ask any question at all beyond those phony kinds of queries designed to set up another yarn. “Have you ever found yourself at the edge of a raging forest fire with only a shovel in one hand and a pickaxe in the other? No? Well let me tell you …”
Every night at midnight I had to rise from my bunk and step up into the dark, chilly cockpit for five more hours, all by myself, with Frank’s narcissism, his shallowness, his uneducated smugness, his phony bravado, his questionable morality and his sheer boringness!
It wasn’t that Frank was painful to deal with. It was that he was an affront to everything my dear departed parents had told me to value in human beings: curiosity, humor, depth, candor. It was as if my dead and divorced parents in heaven had set aside their differences for long enough to get together and search the world for the one perfect asshole. They had found Frank, and arranged for me to share night duty with him just as a test of fealty to them! There were moments that I felt that if I didn’t throw Frank overboard or jump into the middle of the ocean myself, I was being disloyal to my parents’ memory.
For nine days and nine nights, he must have told me 10,000 stories, all of which added up to exactly nothing. They were so much patter, designed to fill dead air with words that made their speaker appear the way he hoped his audience would see him: calm and knowing and capable, humble and brave and wise.
Of those 10,000 stories, I can’t remember a single one. Those nights I spent with Frank—those 45 hours in the windy black—I remember those nights as one night, a waking coma from which I was lucky to emerge with most of my faculties.
And yet, in a magazine article that I wrote about the trip, I described Frank as “loquacious.”
I wrote: “Night watches put a premium on a skill that’s rare in this day and age: a person’s ability to make a short story long. Frank is the Michael Jordan of that skill.”
Now, how did I come to like Frank well enough to be able to write about him graciously—and even remember him fondly? Not gradually, but all of a sudden—with one story. It wasn't much of a story. It was probably the shortest story he told the whole trip. But the story explained everything.
What was it?
Ah, life is long. What's the rush?
I'll tell you tomorrow.