Recently, I was told a terrific story by someone I met for the first time. It happened when she asked me about my workshops and I recited a few stories that were used in the most recent group I ran. The stories were particularly dark. When I was done, she said, in a most polite manner, “I think I could beat that”.
She started her story by saying that she was in The World Trade Center on September 11. She was meeting two other people in the lobby before they went upstairs for a 9 AM appointment at Lehman Brothers. At 8:45 events changed rapidly for the three of them and they ran out of the building as fast as any of them had ever run. She kicked off her high heels so she could run faster, running on streets strewn with broken glass. She turned at one point, about 4 blocks from the building, to see what had caused this explosion when she witnessed the 2nd plane hitting the 2nd tower.
I was glued to every word she spoke.
Eventually, she got down to the ferry below the World Trade Center and took it to New Jersey. On the ferry she saw the first building collapse. She went on to discuss the trauma she experienced and how she dealt with it. She had special therapy for people with PTSD which helped her deal with the powerful emotions that day that became imbedded in her mind. Years later, on April of 2013, she was blocks away from the finish line of the Boston Marathon when those bombs exploded. The angst and sadness of 9/11 came rushing back with each explosion and she started sobbing as soon as she heard the bombs go off.
I just gave you the fast overview of her story. Her telling was compelling, dealing with how the 9/11 episode changed her life. Changed her career. Caused her to look seriously at how she was spending her days.
I appreciate a good story and love to retell it to friends. I’ve done so with hers. I kept exploring how I wanted to start the story. There’s a preface needed, of course. I started by saying “I heard the most incredible story” because I wanted people to know I’m retelling someone else’s story. I wasn’t there. I also experimented with her opening. I tried it a number of ways. I wanted to see if there was a more intriguing way to start the story. She started with the big headline: “I was in the World Trade Center on September 11.”
I tried to tell the story as a reveal without first mentioning the name of the building or the date. My opening was that my friend was in finance and was going to be part of a team to make a presentation to Lehman Brothers. She was to present with 2 colleagues whom she never presented with previously. So, as folks often do when they are presenting together for the first time, they all met in the coffee shop of the building to discuss who says what, and who presents what and who opens and closes, etc.
When they worked out the choreography for the presentation it was time to take the elevator up to Lehman Brothers. They were still seated in the coffee shop of the building…The World Trade Center… when suddenly the windows on the ground floor exploded and all hell broke out. It was 8:45 on September 11.
I noticed that as I told it my way, I had to rush a bit to get to the reveal (It was 8:45 on September 11) because my audience was becoming inpatient. There wasn’t enough of interest to hold their attention. Subsequently, I started telling it the way she told it to me, starting with the big headline: (my friend was in the World Trade Center on September 11).
When I started with the big headline version, I owned the audience and they stayed with me for every step and turn of the story. When I told it as a reveal they had trouble catching up emotionally to where I wanted them to be.
It’s a good lesson learned. When the story is compelling, start with the story. It doesn’t have to be creative. When the story is less compelling, use some tricks to dress it up. One caution, however. If the story is compelling and you start with the most salient fact, make sure there’s more meat on the bone to discuss, otherwise it becomes a lopsided story with a terrific opening and no follow through.
Her opening wasn’t creative, but she owned the audience with it. Recently in another workshop the presenter told a story that was moderately interesting so he started with a creative opening. This also worked well. His opening was “So, I’m in the examining room of the emergency ward when the doctor turns to me and says ‘You know, as chain saw cuts go, this one is pretty clean.’ ”
There’s a simple lesson here. If you have a great story, open with the most impressive factoid. If it is less than great, dress the opening up a bit.