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Both Simple And True: The Secrets of Effective Storytelling

There's communication, and then there's really telling your story. For that, businesses go to the modern masters at the Moth.

*This article was authored by Leigh Buchanan originally posted in the October issue of Inc. Magazine

The Moth advises storytellers to begin in the action. So here goes:

On a humid July evening, I sit behind a green velvet curtain in a cluttered New York City loft, recounting for several colleagues and my boss how, in college, I did Bible study with a boy so he would make out with me.

Can I say that? Should I say that? What's Inc.'s circulation these days, anyway? Maybe I should genericize it. Strike the Bible study and making out. Substitute an embarrassing experience from my college years.

The Moth folks wouldn't like that, though. Vulnerability and specificity are among their touchstones for great storytelling. And this small band from Inc. has come to the Moth's SoHo office to learn about great storytelling: how to identify, craft, and find meaning in stories and begin to think about applying them to our business. I knew that I'd probably have to produce a yarn or two, and so on the way over, I had mentally rifled through my meager store of life experiences. I was going for something mordant, wry, or--all else failing--whimsical. That I somehow ended up telling this pathetic tale is testament to the Moth's ability to shake loose poison fruit from concealing psychic foliage.

The Moth, for the uninitiated, is a nonprofit organization that stages live storytelling events and immortalizes the choicest tales in podcasts, in public radio broadcasts, and, most recently, in a book. Many luminaries have taken turns at the mike, but the Moth harvests most of its talent from the ordinary folks who show up at its open-mike storytelling contests or submit recorded pitches through a website or phone line. Imagine your voice mailbox overflowing each morning with the dramatic, intimate recollections of absolute strangers. How great a job is that?

Since roughly the dawn of time, leaders have recognized the power of stories to clarify, mollify, unite, inspire, and stir to arms. In the past 20 years, as storytelling has been adopted as a "management thing," we've been deluged with books, workshops, conferences, and TED talks on the subject. So it's not surprising that an organization like the Moth would offer a program to train businesses in storytelling. Kate Tellers, the fortuitously named senior producer for Moth Corporate Workshops, has worked with organizations as diverse as venerable L.L. Bean and bright-eyed social venture start-ups. "The businesses that seek out the Moth fall into two camps," says Tellers. "One camp are fans of the Moth who wonder if they can bring that sort of connectivity and energy into a room. The other is people who recognize storytelling is the most effective communication tool and want technical tools so they don't have to stand there naked and alone."

What most people don't seek out from the Moth but may find there is a kind of narrative cohesion undergirding the seeming randomness of their lives. Picking through memories, and then picking apart those memories to rebuild them into something with meaning and momentum, you start to recognize patterns and themes. Storytelling helps you explain yourself to others. But it also helps you understand yourself, which for leaders is the most critical skill of all.

I hadn't thought of that Bible study story in years. It bubbled out of another story from seventh grade that I'd repressed even further. And that story emerged from an exercise called first/best/worst/last, which is part of the personal-storytelling instruction that is part of a typical Moth Corporate Workshop.

First/best/worst/last is an idea-generation exercise. People partner up and challenge one another to describe, for example, the first time they traveled to another city by themselves or the best party they ever attended. Having excavated some promisingly loamy memories, participants stand up and start sharing with the group, then absorb feedback from instructors and colleagues. "When we start working on a story, we call it unpacking," says Tellers. "You need to tease out all the material, and you ask the right questions to get to its heart."

Whether coaching business clients or performers in its stage shows, the Moth relies on some homegrown rules called the Seven Principles of Moth Storytelling. The principles include things such as "Set up the stakes" and "Develop the arc," but I won't list them all here. Tellers asked me not to, because they are under copyright. That's OK. Lists suggest bullets, and bullets suggest PowerPoint; and PowerPoint, in the ethos of the Moth, might as well be wandering the halls with a Kick Me sign taped to its back.

"The Moth gave us a common vernacular of how powerful a story could be when told the right way."

Storytellers like metaphor, so let's try that instead. At its simplest, a story is a journey whose beginning and end you can see. But instead of choosing the most efficient or scenic route, you choose a route that will bring you and your audience to the destination changed. Simple or profound, the change must have meaning. And the storyteller must pin down that meaning and communicate it to the audience.

Above all, stories should be personal. For most entrepreneurs, that comes naturally, but for some it is a challenge. I've interviewed founders who have trained themselves always to say "we," even when they clearly mean "I," because they fear sounding egotistical. Often, business leaders will devolve to customer success stories or stories about a Hail Mary pass lobbed collectively by the whole team. The content of such stories is fine, says the Moth. But the perspective, the voice, the emotion, the moment of change or recognition--those things must belong to the storyteller. Third person will not cut it.

In a Moth Corporate Workshop, personal-storytelling instruction is followed by a session customized for the client's goals. "Sometimes the goal is, 'We want to explain who we are as an organization, so let's start to gather some effective stories that will explain the culture and goals," says Tellers. "And sometimes it's, 'We have a big pitch coming up' or, 'We are going through a rebranding, and we need to generate stories for that.' "

David Gerson, marketing director at Interface Europe, was thinking bigger than a sales pitch when he brought Moth instructors down to a company event in Atlanta last year. Interface is a 40-year-old modular carpet manufacturer with more than $1 billion in revenue. It was founded by Ray Anderson, a renowned environmentalist and much-loved leader. Anderson was the business incarnate, and when he died in 2011, "there was a lot of concern that the story of Interface doesn't die with him," says Gerson. "Ray was an amazing storyteller. But now we had to get at the stories that are within each one of us. We wanted to give people the framework and the confidence to formulate their own stories about Interface and our future.

"The Moth gave us a common vernacular of how powerful a story could be when told the right way," says Gerson. "Ever since then, we've been talking about telling the story, telling the story, telling the story."

The hardest thing about storytelling, as taught by the Moth, is that stories must be both simple and true. Real-life events are baggy and ambiguous; time and distance go only so far toward smoothing the bulges. "In one or two words, what is your story about?" asks Tellers toward the end of our workshop. As I grudgingly start rejecting all those things my story isn't about, a shape--clean, at once fresh and familiar--emerges. It feels satisfying.

I remember the words of the late monologuist Spalding Gray: "I have to live a life in order to tell a life. I would prefer to tell it, because telling, you're always in control. You're like God."

At Inc., we constantly ask entrepreneurs to relate their companies' birth legends. Some start with themselves in utero and haul out a memoir's worth of autobiographical detail. Others cut straight to an aching market need, and ta da! There they stand, ready to fill it.

Some get the length, the tone, and the level of detail just right. In this regard, I have high expectations for George Dawes Green, the novelist and poet who is the Moth's founder. I am not disappointed. "Well, you know, the Moth was inspired by nights that I used to spend at my friend Wanda Bullard's house on St. Simons Island, Georgia, where I grew up," says Green, speaking over the phone from his home in Savannah, Georgia. His voice is faintly elegiac: Southern in cadence if not in accent. "We'd just sit around the porch and drink a lot and tell stories all night. The porch had screens that were kind of ripped up and moths were, you know, always whirling around the light. We started to refer to ourselves as the Moth--this sort of pickup group who would gather around to drink and tell stories."

Green goes on to talk about moving to New York and attending poetry slams where arty, self-conscious language obscured meaning and emotion. "I noticed when the poets introduced the poems, they would often tell a little story," he says. "And it was so natural. And the audience would laugh." Believing New Yorkers would embrace the purity of true stories plainly told, Green started staging storytelling evenings. The early shows were "actually awful," he says. "People had forgotten how to tell stories. They felt they had to tell a story with a moral or some important purpose. Or they would use a lot of fancy language. And the stories were too long. It really didn't work at all.

"We just kept working and working," says Green. "And we started to find brilliant natural storytellers. And that's it. That's the birth legend."

The principles state that storytelling is about making choices, so I ask Green why he tells the Moth story in that particular way. "I am emphasizing the naturalness of storytelling, because that is the beauty of it," Green explains. "I like to bring in the drinking, because that seems to be part of this communal experience. What I really love about the story, too, is that I get to mention my friend Wanda, who was the best friend of my life. She just died a few years ago. I always loved her."

For a whisper, I am sad, too.

I expect Green to raise many of the same themes addressed by Tellers. But he wants to talk about just one thing. "At the center of every great story is some kind of human flaw," says Green. "It is actually human failure. A great storyteller recognizes in some way that he is a clown. And we immediately respond to that, because we are all clowns."

Green believes that some of the most compelling business stories of our time are also story-stories. He attributes much of Apple's success to our knowledge of the rise and fall and rise of Steve Jobs. By contrast, "one of the great corporate failures in the last 10 years is Microsoft's inability to find its story," he says. "Bill Gates is a truly great man, and so we ought to be responding emotionally to Microsoft's products. But there is a coldness there."

I ask Green which entrepreneur he would most like to see on the Moth's main stage, and he doesn't hesitate. "The great story of our time, I think, is Elon Musk," he says. "He has such a fabulous potential for success because he came so close to failure. He'll carry anything to the edge because he doesn't see his life as worthwhile unless he does that."

But do we want to hear Elon Musk because he tells a great story or because he has lived a great story? The Moth folks won't get drawn into that distinction. They live by the dictum that every human being has a great story inside. Those business people whose job it is to captivate, to move, and to persuade hope they are correct. And so do those of us who sit in audiences and in conference rooms, waiting to be captivated, moved, and persuaded.

Send in the clowns.

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