Would You Sit Next to Yourself at a Party?

Up your game. Tell that great story we all want to hear.

“You’ve got to come and meet this guy,” my friend gushed. “You’re seated next to him at dinner, and his work is so up your alley. You’re going to love him.”

Unfortunately, the promise was better than the reality.

“We’ve been building powerful networks of change-makers and creating hope for the last 20 years,” he said. “Eighty-three percent of the developing world’s female population is illiterate, as measured against the WRGK index, and we’ve opened offices in 42 countries to address that. Our work has shown a 27 percent increase in efficacy. In fact, we’ve reduced the illiteracy coefficient down to 36 in 24 key regions.”

“Wow”, I said half-heartedly, completely confused and disengaged. “So, what is it you actually do?”

As he droned on in PowerPoint-speak, my attention drifted to the other side of the table. A small group was leaning in tightly around another guest.

“… so I walked into that juvenile lock-up. There I was, this six-foot tall white girl—top of my class at Stanford Law, very idealistic—surrounded by five angry young black kids whose sense of manhood was being shaped behind bars. I was waaaaaay out of my comfort zone, and I knew the little speech I’d prepared was NOT going to go over well. So I decided to just be honest and ask them, ‘What could someone like me do to help?’ What they told me changed everything …”

I found myself leaning in to hear more. I wanted—needed—to know what she was going to say next. Who was she? And what was she doing in that lock-up?

We’ve all been where I was—stuck with a stone-cold bore at dinner parties, where the most we can do is do is force a polite smile. How does it make you feel when you’re cornered by someone preaching at you or talking in deep jargon? When someone makes listening feel like work? Think about how you’d give anything to be anywhere else, and that’s how your audience feels when you bombard them with stories about your organization that aren’t well told. Stories they “ought” to care about. Stories that go down like medicine.

Now think about how you feel when you hear a good story. Because we all know a good story when we hear one. But before you decide to embrace storytelling, you have to become a student of great stories. Break down the structure of your favorites. When are you drawn in? When are you confused? Does the story start off with a wallop, or ease you into its world? Does it surprise you? Challenge you? Do you remember characters? Which details make them memorable or relatable? Is the story depressing? Uplifting? Funny? Can you repeat it to others? Does it manipulate your emotions, or leave space for you to color in your own experience? And most tellingly, is this a story you would share? The more examples you look at, the clearer the patterns will become.

Every story you put out there should be an invitation for your audience to engage. And make no mistake: there is heavy competition for their mindshare. If you focus on “cranking out” poorly told facts and badly made videos about your work, you’ll never grow beyond the choir of the converted, and you may even lose people along the way. Yes, the tools of production and distribution are cheaper, but it doesn’t mean you can forgo craft. Quality must come first. I know we’ve all been sold the promise of the incredible storytelling reach of the social web, but it simply won’t work for you if you’re telling crappy stories.

Remember that just as our personal stories define us and offer a portal through which others get to know and care about us, it’s no different for organizations. Too often, great groups do the equivalent of walking into a dinner party and reciting their résumé, and they’re doing themselves a disservice.

If you need people to stick with you beyond the decorum stage, then it’s time to up your game. Your dinner party friends and your organization will thank you.