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Incredibly Simple Rules for Story-Telling

Here’s a thing that happened: we were looking for a great engineer to work on device drivers (yes, this was a long time ago). D showed up, did a great interview, and I hired him.

Here’s the story about the thing that happened: I was doing interview after interview for a great low-level engineer. I was tired of it, bored. D’s resume was sparse, but he’d written his own game, so I thought, well, maybe, sure, give him twenty minutes. D showed up to our exposed-brick, cool warehouse space wearing a suit, which was very weird, and looking like some kind of male model, which for a game coder was weirder. My skepticism increased. I looked at my watch. D started to describe his game.

He did a great job – smart, to the point and responsive to tricky questions. He talked about optimization. I asked him why he’d done it. He wrote the compiler output on the whiteboard from memory and then his own code side by side. OK, I thought, he’s a speed freak – probably doesn’t do structure. I asked him about structure. He took his suit jacket off and drew a beautifully realized architecture on the board. By this time I was laughing, and so was he. I asked him if he wanted to work at the company – he gave me a massive smile and said yes. A fantastic hire.

Stories Make Information Dance

Humans have been using stories to paint the dry business of information with emotional color and energy for millennia.

Stories make information move and dance. They are the way we communicate who we are, what we value and why we value it.

Telling a story makes your audience lean towards you, become entangled in your voice – really listen. It’s the way you will get your point of view to land, your vision to be understood and your authentic self to be seen.

The basics are simple. Next time you have a presentation, a one on one, a critical point of view to communicate, take some time and build your story.

Simple Story Guielines

  • a story is about a character, and is most powerful if it’s about you, for a couple of reasons: it establishes an authenticity to the story — we believe it happened, so we are more inclined to believe its message; it establishes a relationship between the teller and the audience. You were there, you saw it happen. And now you’re here, telling us about it.
  • the character must face a challenge, and the higher the stakes in the challenge, the more compelling the story. I had to hire an engineer. I was tired, bored, not getting anywhere. Raising the stakes would make the story better: “I had to hire an engineer that week, or I’d be fired!”. It wouldn’t be true. But notice how situations where the stakes are high (“we were out of money and…”, “the CTO quit and…” breed stories
  • it helps if the challenge involves jeopardy to a relationship that is vital to the character — the closer the better. Think of any story that moved you. What relationship was in peril? Of course, at work, the stakes are lower than marriages and families (most of the time), but founder relationships, teams and long-time bosses can be pretty strong bonds.
  • the more specific the details, the better. “We met in a conference room to discuss the merger” is less compelling than “We met at 9pm on a winter evening in a tiny, cold conference room overlooking the open workspace where two dozen engineers were furiously finishing the next release”. Take your time with this: what colors, textures, smells, sounds, temperature do you recall from the scene? Take us there — we’ll go if you let us.
  • your emotional state matters. What were you feeling? Again, specifics are important. “I was nervous” is less powerful than “I thought about drinking coffee, but my stomach was too nervous and empty…”.

And, finally, make it move: the character moves to overcome the challenge, and by doing so, is transformed. Who were you, after overcoming the challenge? What was different about you, and your team?

D was hired. The team was better. My anxiety, fatigue and boredom went away.

We listen to stories because we are deeply wired to learn from each other, to build our collective experience and wisdom. It’s a critical skill. Take a shot!

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