You may get pushback from some of your colleagues when you ask them to take up the discipline of strategic storytelling.
At Mission Minded we counsel our clients to craft, tell and retell stories as a way of inspiring belief in the value and impact of their work. We have a formula for it that you can read more about here.
People sometimes say that memorizing good stories just for the sake of sharing it with prospective supporters seems inauthentic. Yet, everyone loves to hear a good story. And we’re likely, as social animals, to retell stories we find interesting, even if we didn’t witness them firsthand.
There’s a story I love to tell about the time I was on my way to Kenya and Tanzania to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. At that time, I had rarely travelled abroad, much less taken on such an adventurous goal as climbing to the top of the highest mountain in Africa. Would I really be able to do it? Many people who try, fail.
I’d been feeling sad, flat, and kind of alone in the world. So I guess I thought that setting and achieving a big goal would add more dimension to my life. I loved hiking, so I was fit, but was I really 21,000-foot-elevation fit? Was I trekking-through-steep-elevation-gain-every-day-for-a-week fit? I would soon find out.
Between San Francisco and Nairobi, Kenya I had a stop in London with a long layover. Though there was plenty of time to take the Tube downtown and enjoy a few sights, I was too nervous about something going wrong to leave the airport. What if I missed my connecting flight? Heathrow is a huge airport, so I was staying put.
I had my day pack and sleeping bag in my hand, my larger pack having been checked back in San Francisco. So moving around the airport was a breeze. I passed the time by shopping, walking, reading, and just sitting and imagining what I was in for. How cold was it really going to be up there? Was my sub-zero sleeping bag really going to keep me warm?
At some point about half an hour before my flight I checked the monitors and realized that I was literally miles from my gate — and on the wrong side of international security!
All the time I’d spent dilly dallying I should have been taking care of getting through security, and into the right terminal. I was flustered, mad at myself, and scared of missing my flight. When I passed through without incident I went straight to my gate. I could finally exhale, disaster averted.
I sat down on the large plane, put my backpack under my seat, buckled my seat belt and kicked back for the 14-hour flight. But something was wrong. Suddenly it hit me: I’d come through security with my backpack, but had carelessly left my sleeping bag on the conveyor belt.
Forgetting to pack your toothbrush is one thing. You can always grab one at a local drug store when you land. But heading on a mountain camping trip without your sleeping bag, in a country unlikely to offer an easy replacement, was a near adventure-killer. I panicked.
With just minutes before the plane was to depart I jumped up and ran to the front begging the flight attendant to let me try to retrieve my sleeping bag. She yelled, “Run!” and run I did, leaving my backpack on the plane and charging back out into the terminal.
Imagine the largest airport you’ve ever been in, and your gate being the furthest away from security at the end of the terminal. That’s what separated me from my sleeping bag.
I sprinted. Crowds parted for me, people stopped, stared. I ran. I raced. I wheezed, slowing to catch my breath only when my body wouldn’t go on.
Finally I could see my sleeping bag sitting right where I’d left it, but by then could only walk as I desperately tried to catch my breath. So much for my mountain-ready fitness level.
I grabbed my sleeping bag and tried to run back to my gate. But I could only fast-walk. My tank was empty. I was crazed. People were still staring. I was a spectacle, the kind that makes you instantly feel pity and gratitude that it’s not you. I slowed, but never stopped.
Though I felt relief at having my sleeping bag in hand, I felt a sudden chill run down my spine when I heard through the airport PA system, “Passenger Jennifer Winton return to your gate. The doors are closing.”
Until then I hadn’t considered what would happen if the plane left London for Nairobi without me – and with my passport and backpack on it. I picked up speed, or felt like I did. Then I heard again, “Jennifer Winton the doors are closing.”
Though I still wasn’t there, at last I could finally see my gate. It was totally deserted. It looked creepy-empty like only a place that was recently filled with people and activity can feel. Had I run in the wrong direction? Was I at the wrong gate? Where was everyone?
Still sucking air, unable to catch my breath, my heart pounding, I was alone. In Heathrow airport. A post-9/11 American without a passport, money, or phone.
Just as I was about to stop moving forward, and just stand there and cry, I saw the head of my flight attendant peek out. When she saw me, she stepped fully out into the terminal and waved me in.
How I made it to her is unclear in my mind. I have no memory of getting between where I was and the door of the plane. I may have been divinely transported. I may have crawled. There’s just no visual in my mind of those last steps.
But I do remember plopping back down in my seat, hugging my sleeping bag to my chest, and realizing I’d been on my trip for less than 24 hours and already tested myself.
I’d met adversity. I’d been scared. But I hadn’t given up. I’d kept moving, with my eye on the prize, and had avoided disaster. It would not be the last time on this trip that I would have to draw on my deepest physical reserves, and will, to make my goal.
So this is how it’s going to be, I thought. Let the adventure begin.
Did you read the whole story? It happened 16 years ago. So when I tell it today I do it from memory. I love telling this story because it entertains people and it shows the very best of me: My bravery, my grit, my belief in myself. Did you enjoy it any less because it’s a story I’ve memorized and told countless times before?
Memorizing good stories is something we counsel our clients at Mission Minded to do. Memorize the good ones that show the grit and determination of your organization, the people you serve and issues you address. Then tell them again and again, to anyone who will listen.
Good stories include some key elements, and you can read more about those here. Make sure everyone on your team, from faculty, staff and board, has a few good stories ready – memorized – to share at all times. It’s not inauthentic; it’s a gift you give the listener and a boon for your organization’s brand.
In our next post, Zach Hochstadt will share a storytelling formula that demonstrates why this story works, and how you can create stories for your organization that work just as well.