The most compelling story you can tell

21 July 2017 

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Humans love stories.

From before we were hunter-gatherers we’ve been telling stories around campfires. The elders with the best stories — and the best way of telling stories — were revered, and children gathered around them to listen in awe to stories of bravery, heroism and tragedy.

We still love stories. We see and hear stories everywhere — in the movie theatre, on TV and on the internet. And of course we hear them in business, where stories of the icons and heroes of the business world inspire and depress us at the same time (how can I ever be that good?).

If you’re not telling stories right now, you should start. Because people love stories — and even if you’re not the world’s greatest speaker you can learn to tell a story really well.

The most compelling story you can tell is the one of how you started — your origin story.

An origin story is — quite simply — the story of how you started.

It tells the story of the pivotal moments that started you out on the journey you’re on now.

Most people don’t realize what those pivotal moments were until much later. One thing leads to another thing which opens up a door and before you know it you’re on a journey. And sometimes we don’t really know what the origin was until someone asks us “how did you start?”

We don’t always get the origin story right the first time. We say something like “I saw an opportunity to …” — but that’s not really the origin. Something put you in that place where you had that moment of insight. So you need to go back further, to see what led to you being there, in that place and at that time to have that realization.

Not all origin stories have happy beginnings. Some are forced on us by the discovery of an illness or the death of a family member. These are origin stories too — and some of the most powerful you can find.

Origin stories are vitally important.

Origin stories are important — vitally important — for storytellers and for the people that hear them.

For the storyteller it explains the “why” of what they’re doing. You’re out to right a wrong or make the world a better place — and that journey started somewhere.

If you know where your journey began you also know why you’re getting up every morning. When the going gets tough (as it always does) your “why” is one of the things you can lean on to motivate and energize yourself. There is a common thread and cause behind what you’re doing.

But the “why” is just as important for the people around you. Your family, friends and employees are on this journey with you, and they need to understand the “why” just as much as you do. They are supporting you, following you and helping you — and they need to know why.

You’ve probably heard of Simon Sinek and his 2009 bestseller “Start with why: how great leaders inspire everyone to take action.” In his book Simon explains the power of the “why” and how it underpins everything we do. Lose your “why” and you’re likely to lose the support and motivation of people around you.

Telling a great origin story starts with authenticity

Authenticity is a highly overused word. Everything has to be authentic — from breakfast cereals to CEO speeches.

But just because something is overused does not mean it’s not true. If you’re not authentic — if you’re trying to bullshit people — they’re going to smell it. And they’re going to run the other way.

You don’t need to be the world’s greatest storyteller to tell an authentic, engaging and compelling origin story.

I first met Cindy McCaffery in 2016 when she an her partners joined a startup program in Calgary where I was one of the mentors. Cindy was not comfortable talking in front of people — it was one of the most difficult things she ever had to do.

But Cindy’s origin story is one of the most compelling stories that I’ve ever seen. While she’s not comfortable speaking in front of audiences, she writes her origin story with so much authenticity, truth and compassion you can not help but get pulled into it. And have tears in your eyes. Read it here.

You can tell a great origin story just by telling it how it was. You don’t (and shouldn’t) embellish, make it tougher than it was or make yourself more of a hero than you already are. Just tell the story.

You can choose when to tell your origin story

Origin stories are not meant for every occasion. Some origin stories never get told beyond a close circle of family and friends.

And that’s OK. Because not everyone needs to know your origin story — but they do need to know why you’re doing this and why they should be interested, or supportive, or part of the team.

But at the right time and in the right place your origin story can inspire, motivate and delight. Because it’s a personal story it reveals something of you to the people around you. And that makes you more human, more accessible and trustworthy. People will understand that you’re not just in it for the money — you’re in it for a reason.

So choose the times that you tell your origin story with care. You will be revealing more of yourself — and that’s OK if you’re comfortable doing it. If you’re afraid that your emotions are going to get the better of you when speaking in front of an audience, do what Cindy did and write it down.

Dragons are optional

Not everyone has an origin story with dragons in it. We’re not all heroes that ride up on a trusted steed to slay the dragon and rescue the fair maiden (or hunk, as the case may be). Very few origin stories do.

And that’s OK too, because most origins are humble. They start with a thought or a frustration or a realization — and a few years later you look back and realize you’ve created something or done something that’s grown way beyond what you ever dreamed it could be.

I don’t believe that my origin story is particularly compelling — and I don’t tell it often. But that doesn’t bother me because the reason I’m doing this is strong enough for me to get up and get at it even when times are tough. Especially when times are tough.

So don’t worry if your story doesn’t have a dragon. It’s your story and it’s enough reason to do what you’re doing.

Some origins are really difficult to talk about

I mentioned Cindy McCaffery above — her husband was diagnosed with Early Onset Dementia at the age of 48. When you read her story of grace you will understand what a special person she is — and how much courage it took to write that story.

In 2015 I was working with a group of young entrepreneurs to help them pitch their stories to potential investors. One of the entrepreneurs had developed a smartphone app to pinpoint and report suspected drug dealing — multiple reports in the same area would alert subscribers to the service and eventually the authorities.

The app had a lot of social merit but he was not very good at telling the story of why this was so important. I had to have multiple “why” conversations with him before he eventually revealed why he had developed the app — the death of a friend about 6 months earlier from bad street corner drugs.

It took tremendous courage from him to stand up in the practice sessions and tell that part of his origin story — but he did and engaged his audience in a way that just wasn’t possible before.

The most compelling story you can tell

Your origin story is the story of how you started on the journey you’re on now. It can be very personal — but it can also be just a story of how you got frustrated with something and set out to solve the problem.

Origin stories are important for you and for the people around you. It will help you get out of bed especially when times are tough and help your family, friends, supporters and employees stay on the journey with you.

The best origin stories are told with authenticity — no B.S., no embellishments, just the truth. Humor helps — and if you take the time to study how stories work and practice yours it can be incredibly compelling.

Very few origin stories have dragons and swords — so don’t worry if yours is not the most glamorous in the world. Even if you just tell it to yourself it is worth telling. One day your grandkids may want to listen to it too.

Anyone for a campfire?

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of sitting round a campfire and listen to a really great story, you will know the power of a good story told well. I’ve had that privilege and I will always treasure the memories.

You don’t need a campfire to tell a compelling story (though they certainly set the atmosphere). Tell your story when it’s appropriate and when people are in the mood to listen — you’ll be surprised at how good the reactions can be.

And have fun — the best storytellers enjoy their craft and bring joy to everyone around the fire.

So what now?

If you’ve never written your origin story down somewhere, go and do it now. It will inspire you and get you back to why you’re doing what you’re doing.

You don’t have to tell your origin story to anyone. But once you have it written down you may find that the story is more compelling than you may have thought and others can benefit from it.

It’s your story. Make it count.

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