Several recent experiences inspired me to write this post. Stories are one of the most powerful ways to communicate an idea, yet they’re underused. Why? One of the biggest hurdles to sharing stories professionally is self-imposed. I’m going to call it “Story Humility” for lack of a better term. (If anyone could suggest another phrase, let me know.)
Some of the most engaging and inspiring stories remain unheard, because the story owner believes that no one else would be interested. There certainly may be other reasons that great stories aren’t retold, such as privacy and confidentiality. But this post is all about plain old-fashioned humility. Ironically, some of the most heroic people I know have very modest personalities. Isn’t it in the nature of a hero to be humble?
Here’s the first story. While guest speaking at a Kauffman Foundation Growth Venture class, I mentioned to the business owners the importance of sharing the story of how they started. Whether it’s called the About Page, the Founder’s Bio, or something else, the birth of an organization is compelling. We want to read about it. We want to hear the founder tell the story.
Carol, one of the workshop participants, stopped me by asking, “Really? But why would anyone want to hear my story? I mean, does anyone really care about that kind of stuff?”
Pausing, I asked, “Well, can you tell us how your got started in your business?” Carol proceeded to share with us the story of her start. She told how she and her family had barely survived the tornado that demolished their home 9 years ago. Everyone in class leaned forward a bit in their chairs. She described more family adversity piling on that same month, followed by a decision to leave her corporate job. She was feeling confused about next steps in her life. When the general contractor who was rebuilding her home offered to pay Carol do some clean-up work for her own house, she discovered how much she enjoyed the work. She soon began receiving offers to do additional jobs, and from that experience, her commercial cleaning business was born. Today she employs more than a dozen people.
When she finished speaking, the entire room was silent for several moments. “Does anyone here think Carol has an engaging story?” I asked.
“Yes!” came a chorus of support. “Carol, we’ve been in class with you for three weeks now, why haven’t you told anyone this yet?” one man asked. He was half-demanding, half-supporting. She hemmed and hawed, because she’s modest by nature. The class began pointing out how Carol’s story of overcoming a conflict demonstrated traits like determination, commitment, and creativity. Customers find this stuff helpful to know. The point is that Carol’s story changed the dynamic of the class – we all experienced the moment again with her. It also changed how she communicates about her business. Carol had never viewed this as her founding story because nobody had ever asked her. If you want to learn more, here is Carol’s story.
In another instance, last week I was catching on the phone with the founder of a non-profit organization that I’ve worked with. In the course of our conversation, she half-mentioned that the group had almost folded several years ago, just as it was getting off the ground. “What do you mean?” I asked, dumbfounded, because I had never even heard this.
“Oh yeah, it was late on a Friday afternoon and we were informed that we weren’t going to receive non-profit status. We had been working on this forever, and all of a sudden, the officials told us to just forget about it!” she said. She went on to describe a tearful conversation with her co-founder, followed by a last minute alternative plan developed over the weekend that ended up saving the dream.
Hearing this was quite an emotional experience for me, and I was quiet for a bit. “Why have I never heard this story from you?” I asked. After all, the story showed the co-founders’ drive and creativity. It also reminded us that some community organizations can be fragile without our support. In short, it was an authentic “fork in the road” founder’s story, and yet only a handful of people even knew it!
We got into a lively discussion about the causes of “Story Humility.” This conversation got me thinking about action steps:
- Recognize and note down conflicts you and your organization have faced as potential stories. If you don’t acknowledge the experience as a potential story, it has no chance of being shared.
- If you’re feeling modest, connect the story to a larger goal that will drive you to share it more. You may not be motivated to tell your own story, but you may be energized by viewing it as the story of your cause, organization or movement.
- Listen. Ask questions. Encourage others to tell you their stories. I’m glad I asked, because otherwise I would never have uncovered these two stories. Imagine how many other great business stories are still out there, just waiting to be shared!
Have you witnessed “Story Humility?” What do think are the causes and remedies?
*Share photo courtesy of Carlos Maya (C!…)