I met Bill Smartt in 2013 when I was working on a talk for a big conference I was anxious about. Bill came highly recommended as a speaking coach and storytelling expert who could help me craft the most compelling narrative possible for my presentation. I wasn’t disappointed. Working with Bill was easy and productive and the talk I gave that year went over smashingly well. Fast forward 7 years and Bill and I still keep in touch through newsletters and social media when I noticed a recent one of his posts about the power of storytelling. I realized immediately he’d be a valuable expert to speak with especially since one of the big ideas in Forever Employable is to become an expert storyteller.
In this fun, high-energy, one-hour webinar, Bill and I chat about what makes for a compelling story, what to avoid and how to make sure your storytelling presence stays strong even if you’re telling your story from home on Zoom.
Check out the recording of the webinar below:
JEFF: I met Bill in 2013. I was writing a new talk for a pretty significant conference appearance that I just got and I was a little nervous. Even though I’d done a bunch of conferences up until that point, I decided to take the opportunity. Bill came recommended from some other colleagues as a public speaking coach. Bill and I worked together on this talk that went amazingly well. The interesting thing is the sort of passive keeping in touch that we’ve done over the years has been largely due to the kind of content and storytelling that Bill has done and I suppose that I have done as well. Just kind of being on Bill’s mailing list when his post on storytelling came out. I was like, I got to talk to Bill. I’ve got to bring him in and have this chat.
If you don’t know Bill, he’s a speaking coach who works with individuals. He works with groups about how to be the most effective when presenting virtually or in-person. He’s got a background as a performer. We were talking the last couple of days about how he’s got all these old mixed tapes he made back in the 80s, cassettes. Someone has show interest in them recently. He’s been ripping cassettes to digital for distribution. Bill launched his practice in 2011. He’s been working with tech companies and startups and coaching founders how to pitch for funding and helping introverted engineers transform into engaging speakers, enabling new managers to motivate their teams. He’s worked with pretty much everybody you can think of: Amex, AMC Networks, Capital One, Harvard, Hearst, Mailchimp, MetLife, Spotify, etc. Bill, thank you so much for being here today.
BILL: Absolutely. Thanks so much for having me. One of the things, when we worked together, was we delved into stories and the stories about your history in the circus which was how much more compelling could you possibly get? Many people want to run away and join the circus and you actually did that. That was a key part of your story and really talking about that. Everybody has a story. Everybody has something that’s unique and specific to them. Delving into that, mining that, finding that is a really big part of a great way to introduce yourself to others and a great way for you stand out and be unique because it’s your own unique story and we all have those.
JEFF: What’s interesting is then figuring out how to take those stories, tell them compellingly, and tie them into the point you’re trying to make. A lot of folks will be like, “Okay, Jeff, you were in the circus. I bet you’ve got some great stories, but how does that relate to Forever Employable or Lean UX? Sometimes you have to stretch it a little bit. I’ve got a bunch of questions for Bill that we think will help share some of his expertise with you. If you have any questions for Bill, please put them in the Q&A box at the bottom of the Zoom interface. It’s easier to manage the questions there than in the chat. If I do see them in the chat, I’ll definitely try to incorporate them. At the very end, we’ve got some URLs and offers to share with you that you could work with Bill specifically around some of that stuff.
What’s a story? What are the components of a compelling story?
BILL: Everybody talks about story and storytelling. I even have taken some storytelling workshops. Sometimes it’s like I get so convoluted. I’m like, “Okay, there’s rising action. There’s falling action.” I’m like, “Oh, my god, what does this really mean and how can I use it?” In your book, you outline some real basic tenants of storytelling. You’ve got the characters. You’ve got a plot, a story arch. All those are true and important elements of the story but what I often do to back up for a minute is I think it often has to do with us trying to deal with some sort of a problem and how do we deal with that? Something happens and then you respond to it and how you respond to that, usually you often learn a lesson from that. It’s as simple as like in the morning when your alarm clock goes off, you hit the snooze button. Goes off again, you hit the snooze button. What’s happening is that’s a story. Your goal is to get more sleep. You really want more sleep but that alarm is interrupting you. That’s really keeping you from achieving that goal. Eventually, hopefully you get up out of bed and then what happened as a result of that battle? Did you win or lose? If you missed that important meeting or you missed your train, the lesson is that you need to get a louder alarm clock or you need to have someone come wake you up. What actually happened? What did you learn as a result of that? I often think in terms of in life, it’s kind of a series of obstacles. It’s like everything is an obstacle and it’s how you deal with that and talk about that. That’s if you’re telling your own story. If you’re telling a story of it’s a user journey, what’s their challenge? They’re trying to get to this thing and there’s something in the way. How do they respond to that and how can we respond to get them to a successful place or what it is they’re seeking?
JEFF: Does there need to be an obstacle in every story?
BILL: I think so. There’s some sort of conflict inherent. You look back to the history of storytelling; there’s always been that. It’s how do you get over it? Otherwise, there’s nothing to the story. It’s just kind of like a flatline experience.
JEFF: You’ve got a sense of what a story is. It’s the way that you overcame a challenge of some kind.
BILL: In your book and I also encourage people to talk about what we call wart stories; stories of bleh, something really didn’t go well or something went terribly and what you learn from that. All stories have three elements: beginning, middle, end. When you’re telling a story, if you can just think of what’s the three things I’m going to include – beginning, middle, and end is really important. Beginning is that sort of setup of the character whether it’s you or whomever it is. The middle is what happened? What are you doing battle? What’s the conflict? The end is how is it resolved? What actually happened and what did you learn from that?
JEFF: This happens to me with my kids all the time and my kids are teenagers now. So, it’s happening less because I get a little frustrated with this sometimes. They’ll come running into the room, “I need a towel” which is the end of the story. I’m like, “Can you just back up to the beginning? What happened? “Well, I was filling the fish tank and then the cat jumped up and tried to eat the fish. Now there’s water all over the floor. That’s why I need the towel.” So many stories start with the end, “I need a towel.” Actually, why? Give me a sense of what’s happening between the beginning and now so I can decide whether or not I’m going to give you a towel or not.
BILL: You can play around with that too. Stories and movies do that. Like Breaking Bad starts right at this peak intense point and then we go back and find out what’s happened. That’s that hook that really gets people into it. There are ways you can play around with that to think about the order. Yes, the end ultimately will find that out but you can also sometimes in telling it, start with the action. I guess when I’m talking about storytelling, the basics of it, I don’t want to get people too confused because it confuses me a little bit. You can move around and start with that one intense action point and then give us the background of how it got there. There are a lot of ways you can do it.
JEFF: How do you tell a good story? What are some good, practical techniques that folks can take away for telling a good story?
BILL: I’m going to answer that by telling you a story. I’m 18. I’m standing on stage for the first time. My mind goes blank. I can’t remember my lyrics. My body heats up. Sweat pools at the tip of my nose. I can’t remember lyrics. I don’t know what I’m doing. I start to sing numbers and letters, “N, 4, 3. N, 4, 3.” Afterwards, in my car, in the parking lot, I burst into tears. I’m sobbing. I will never, ever, ever get in front of an audience again. The windows are steaming up. Then there’s a [tapping noise], car keys on the window. I roll it down. “Where have you been? We’ve been looking all over for you. You ready for the second set?” “I’m not going to go back out there. No way.” “Well, look, the band is ready. The audience is ready. It’s up to you.” So I just get out of the car and I take one foot in front of the other and walk back. This time, I have my lyrics sheet in my hand and we kill it. The audience loves it.
What did I learn from that? For me, in that moment, if I had just stayed in that car and not chosen to just give it one more try, my life would have totally taken a different trajectory. I would have never been in multiple bands. I would have never studied acting. I would have never entered into this profession, into this work that I do which is a lot about helping people to move through that to the other side. That story is really about many things but one is don’t give into your fears and don’t let that kind of fear hold you back from moving forward.
What are some of the techniques that I use? What are some of the things that you noticed?
JEFF: I could visualize some of the physical things that were taking place. You did a really nice job of detailing the sweat at the tip of your nose, the windows steaming up, the keys on the window. Those are things we’ve all probably experienced at one point or another and it really helped set the tone for what you were going through at that particular moment. That was really interesting for me. That helped keep me engaged in the moment. Helped me feel what you were starting to feel at that moment. That was one thing I heard.
BILL: Sensory details. I used a lot of them. You maybe just pick on when you’re telling a story. I used a lot of them because I wanted you to have some examples to think about and notice. Those sensory details that are something universal. We all feel those. Everybody has felt that sense of nervousness for a variety of reasons. What physically happens is our body goes into fight or flight and our heartrate goes up and we start to sweat. Everybody can relate to that and immediately boom, we’re connected. Those sensory details, even if you just use one or two, can be really powerful. The other technique is thinking in terms of bullet phrases. I’m 18. I’m standing on stage for the first time. It’s interesting because it puts me in the here and now and the audience in the here and now. This is one you have to practice a little bit but can be really powerful for people. The other one is taking plenty of pauses and almost thinking it’s really these bullet phrases. I do this. Then this happens. Then this happens.
One of the hardest things, whenever you’re speaking, is like oh, dead air. You think, “Oh, shit, dead air, that’s not good.” You have to practice that but particularly with stories, you want the audience to follow along and fill it in on their own. Oftentimes, we try and give too much information in stories. We’ll say, “So what happened was I was in this club and it was in Nashville, Tennessee…” Whereas we just say, “I’m standing on stage.” We know immediately where you are and all of those details. Bullet phrases gives that audience a chance to really take it in and have their own experience with it.
JEFF: It’s interesting you’re talking about the pauses too because someone who has been on stage in front of a couple thousand people, 20 people, or two people, those pauses feel like an hour. It could be a second and a half but it feels like it’s an hour up there. They add that second that the audience needs to process what you just said. It goes a long way. The other thing I noticed you doing a lot of is you’re telling a story about something that happened in the past but you’re speaking in the present tense. Why are you doing that?
BILL: A couple things. It helps me reexperience the moment as I’m telling it. It also gives the sense that it’s actually happening right now as opposed to me reflecting on it, commenting on it, letting you know how I feel about it. It’s like watching a movie and it’s actually right there in front of you. Speaking in present tense is a great technique to really bring everybody into that specific moment in time and you’re not judging it, reflecting on it, commenting on it.
JEFF: You didn’t start the story with, “I’m on stage. I’m killing it. There’s a million people there cheering my name. Everything is going Bill’s way.” You’re like, “Hey, I’m on stage and I’m freaking out and things are going horribly wrong. I’m ready to give up. I’m bursting into tears.” These are things that I think a lot of folks – I think it depends on the culture that you grew up in, but I think a lot of folks feel like, “I’ve got share only the good stuff. Only the wins. Only the things that I did that were successful.” Why is being humble and sharing everything effective?
BILL: A big piece of this if you’re speaking, you already have a platform. If you can talk about things that were challenging for you, that makes you human and that makes us connect with you. That makes us see you as one of us. That is a key part. I do a lot of leadership training and that’s a key part for leaders to be able to show some vulnerability because when you show that vulnerability, then you create that connection and that bond with your audience and they root for you, they relate to you, and they also are thankful that you’re willing to talk about challenges that you’ve had. It just humanizes you and really is a great connector. A lot of leaders are afraid to share some things that sometimes may be pretty personal things. Of course, you need to make a decision about what you want to share and what you don’t want to share. I’ve seen examples when people go pretty deep, it can have a really profound effect on their audience. Also, they’ll really remember the power of that story. Just being willing to be vulnerable in front of a group like that, as a leader or anybody, is really a powerful experience. You’re right. There’s nothing worse than when someone says, “Yeah, I was on stage. I was killing it.” It’s like, “Oh, god. You have a platform and you’re telling me how great you are.” That’s just not appealing to us.
JEFF: You’re on stage or you’re in front of people. You’ve already got that position of authority, to some extent. You’re literally elevated and certainly, metaphorically elevated. For you to kind of bring it back down, “Look, I’m not any different than you. I’ve had some success but I’ve certainly flopped just as much as anybody else.” When and where should people use storytelling?
BILL: You mentioned this in your book. This is one of the first things I talk about and get clear with anyone I’m working with whenever they’re going to be speaking is who are you talking to? Who is your audience? What do they care about? How can you speak to their concerns? Telling a story that they can relate to, they are the protagonist is a great opportunity to tell a story. Anytime you want to connect with someone. I work with a lot of people who are interviewing and the biggest challenge… People can work on how they answer interview questions but the on that I work with people on is, “So, tell me about yourself.” That’s an opportunity for you to tell your story. What brought you to this point? There’s an exercise that I do where we really look at from birth until now, what’s your story? It’s usually pretty long. Then we narrow that down and pick out what’s relevant to this particular job. Oftentimes, people will gloss over some very important things that they go, “That’s not really relevant to this job.” If you studied journalism, that actually may be really important to this job because you’re somebody who knows about headlines. You’re somebody who knows the importance of an interview and the importance of structure and story. That’s a great opportunity to tell a story. When is a good time? I think it’s any time you want to have someone adopt your idea or someone to hire you or someone to follow your lead, stories are really very powerful. In the leadership training I do, that’s a really big part of it. How do you tell those stories and what stories do you tell?
One of the exercises is called “the river of life.” People have these big flipcharts and magic markers and you pick three major things in your life that were really positive and three things that were really hard and challenging. These are major events in your life that caused you to look at life differently, to cause you to take a stand, maybe cause you to shift perspective. They make the list and then they have a conversation with someone else. Maybe they’ll use it; maybe they won’t, but it’s a great sort of mine – what is it that made you who you are? What does that story tell about your values, your choices, your character, and how you would respond and/or be to work with?
JEFF: I do a lot of teaching. People will say, “You’re asking us to work in this particular way but we always run into this obstacle. How do we get past that obstacle?” I’d guess that 90% of the time, I start answering those questions with, “Let me tell you a story.” The story is when I was working with X and they were facing a similar challenge, this is what they did. That illustrates the three things. I could have told you these three bullet points but when you contextualize them in this kind of story wrapper, they hit home a big harder as well.
Personal experiences. I worked in the circus 25 years ago. It hurts just to say that number out loud. How can my personal experiences enhance my storytelling and can they also hurt my storytelling?
BILL: I think you just have to think about context and think about you have a personal story. What’s the point you’re trying to get across? Very often, storytelling is about facing a challenge in how you respond to that. In those cases, it’s really thinking in terms of how does this relate to the problem at hand? For example, the story I told. When am I going to tell that story? I could say to a team, “Team, I know the last two days have been really intense because the system is down and you’re afraid that any move you make is going to bring it down again. Let me tell you about a time when I almost gave into my fears. I’m standing on stage.” What I learn from that is I actually have more knowledge after that than I had before. We, as a team, have more knowledge now so we can move forward with confidence that whatever happens, we learn from that. That’s a way to contextualize and take that personal story and shift it into a business context.
It’s interesting working with people who tell personal stories because they’re like, “Oh my god, I would never tell that story.” Then they tell the story and the audience is so moved by it. They will never forget it. They think, “Oh, I shouldn’t go into that.” It’s a personal choice. How deep do you want to go? I think the one thing is if it’s very intense, either give yourself some time before you tell it from when it happened and practice doing it so that you can make it through it and still get in touch with it but not completely lose your shit. I’ll give you an example. A friend from high school died. This was maybe five years ago. I wanted to say something at the memorial service and I kept practicing. I’d burst into tears. I was a wreck. It was subsequent times, I was driving, and I couldn’t hold it together. I said it enough times so that when I got up… It was funny because they said, “Does anyone want to say anything?” I was like, “I do” because I wanted to get it over with so I could say it and then relax. By that time, I could talk about the things that I remembered sharing with him and growing up with him. I was able to get through it but it was partly through technically saying it and going through it and having time to get emotional but not lose it.
When are they not good? I guess you’d just have to think through – is there a reason that this could be a problem? Often, I just go to worst case scenarios. What’s the worst thing that could possibly happen? Playing that out and oftentimes it’s just fear of looking foolish.
JEFF: I think the other thing too is you’ve got to connect the story. If you’ve got a cool story to share, that’s great. It has to make sense. Maybe you stretch it a little bit to make the connection. I remember the talk that we worked on all those years ago. I still tell the story because it’s a circus story and I’m going to tell it forever probably. The story that we worked into the talk is about the human cannonball. How are you going to connect human cannonball to digital product development and design and LEAN and agile and all these things? The interesting part about that story – the story is about not the current human cannonball but what happened to the previous guy and how this guy got the job. The story is about assumptions. It’s about assumptions that the team made every day that they thought were true forever. When those assumptions were no longer true, the act fell apart literally and someone got hurt and then this guy took his place. As long as you can connect it and segue into it and you’re not taking up a significant part of your story with it, I think it makes a ton of sense. That’s a helpful technique to doing it. What are some anti-patterns that most people make when telling a story? What makes a story fall flat?
BILL: What I often do when I’m working with clients, it’s like, “What’s the bumper sticker version of the meaning of this?” My story could be don’t give into your fears. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Use the tools you need to succeed. Whatever story you have, how can you then take that? What is the learning from that and what’s the bumper sticker sort of saying that can communicate that universal thing that we’re all going through just like you described about making assumptions.
What is it that makes a story not successful and fall flat? There’s a couple things. I think you have to think of brevity. If it goes on too long can be a problem. Too long of a setup at the beginning. When I’m coaching people in groups, that’s one of the biggest challenges. They feel there’s this long setup we need to explain everything. If you just jump into the action, we will figure it out. We rehearse it. We go through a process of rehearsing this in pairs and pretty quickly so that you have to get to say it. You have to speak it out loud and get a sense of timing, etc. Going on too long, not actually practicing it first. The story I told, for example – first time was like 10 minutes. Second time was five minutes. It took a long time to zero it down to those headline bullet phrases to make it work. Whenever you’re telling a story, you’ve got to really think what is the point of conflict? What is that friction point? There’s the treasure you’re trying to get to. What’s keeping them from that treasure? What happened in the instance? How did it resolve? Why are you telling us? What can we learn? If you subtract any of those elements, it’s just not that compelling a story. You’ve got to think about that conflict.
Also, sometimes people don’t really talk about how it ended. We’re like, “But what happened?” I’ve had storytelling trainings where they build all this up and then they don’t tell us exactly what actually happens as a result of that. It’s important that we know the resolution. Did you win? Did you lose? That’s the key thing.
JEFF: My dad is infamous for doing all these things. Just telling these stories that go on forever. It’s what he’s known for across the family.
BILL: I think my father had a little bit of that too. He was a civil engineer. So funny. My brother had a project where he was going to record him for a typical day for a civil engineer. My father was like, “Well, the day starts with…” My father was a really communicative person who is a really people person but boy, when he turned that recorder on, it was just like flat.
JEFF: What are the differences that people should pay attention to between telling a compelling story in person versus in a remote situation like most people are doing these days?
BILL: As I’ve been working with people virtually, before COVID but since, a big part of it is about your relationship to the camera. All my acting or the camera class techniques came back. If I’m telling a story (turns away from camera), “So what happened was, we started…” People are like, “Is he looking at his email? Is there something more interesting that he’s looking at?” You really need to practice and be aware of where is the camera? Look as close into that camera lens as possible. If it’s maybe the top third of your screen, but that’s super important because live – I encourage people to make eye contact with people. Give them a thought. Let it land. Check to see if they’ve gotten it. Move on to the next person. Give them a thought. In my trainings, I’m running around the room. I have my hand over people’s heads. I talk to this person for a second and then I run over here. There is that connection, that back and forth. As far as camera, it’s all about camera technique. Raúl Esparza is a Broadway actor. There was a special that came out a few months ago. He sings this one song. It was Stephen Sondheim’s birthday. His relationship to the camera is amazing. It’s like he’s speaking directly to you. Some camera techniques that people have used in the past is put a picture of a very supportive person right next to the camera to remind you that you’re talking to people and someone that would be very supportive. Just practicing and being aware of that is really very important. If you’re not making eye contact with the camera, people think you’re not making eye contact with them. It’s a very technical thing. Gestures, if you can use them. Also, placement of where you’re placed. I’m going to slouch down. If I’m like this, there’s a lot of space between my head and the top here and I look kind of small. If you kind of sit and try and have a little bit of room above your head, that’s going to be a little better. We can see a little bit more of your body as you’re telling that story. Those are really important. Your background. What’s in your background. This is my apartment. You can’t see because I have this background. It’s important, as best you can, to have awareness of anything that might be distracting. We’re leaning in a little bit more into a lot of the techniques around virtual but if there’s someone walking behind me, that’s going to be distracting to the story. Try and eliminate any kind of distraction in the background.
JEFF: The trick I use is I have googly eyes. Two googly eyes right here right below the camera on the monitor. You’ve got a pair of eyes looking at you.
BILL: That is brilliant. So, sticky googly eyes?
BILL: That’s super smart. That’s a good one. I’m going to steal that.
JEFF: We have a ton of great questions. Let’s see if we can get through as many of these as we can. I’m going to assume that Smartt is your real name?
BILL: Yes, that is my real name.
JEFF: Is the Hero’s Journey a good template for beginners for telling stories or is it something reserved for professional storytellers?
BILL: I think everybody can be a storyteller. Hero’s Journey is you start in one place; you end in another and somehow hopefully that hero’s journey proves to be better after whatever it is they’ve gone through. I don’t think it has to limit to professional storytellers. It’s really the same model. There’s elements of it that are a little bit more complicated but it’s really basically you’re trying to get to this thing, deal with it, and hopefully you’re better on the other end of it.
JEFF: Is it okay to use animated body language during discussions in professional life and work environment using a business context to convey one’s point, for example, during meetings?
BILL: So often, I feel it’s like this, “Hi. So today I’m going to talk about…” I’m not moving anything at all and I’m just kind of a talking head. If I use my hands, gesture a little bit, I feel like that’s more visual information for the person on the other end and they can then more effectively grasp what it is I’m saying. Also, I tend to use facial expressions. When I work with executives and leaders a lot, it’s like sometimes they have a poker face. It’s like, “Hello. Anybody in there?” We want to see the person behind that. That being said, it really depends on the type of conversation you’re having. Is it appropriate? In other words, if you’re having a conversation where you need to be empathetic, you need to be listening, then I think it’s important to be aware, not to be – I don’t know. I guess one way we’d do that is by nodding our heads in understanding. Some people see that as it can lower your status a little bit but I feel as long as it’s not super crazy, I think it’s probably okay.
The answer to the question, it depends on the scenario but I generally don’t think it’s a bad thing to use gestures and body language as additional information to communicate to your audience.
JEFF: Can you apply the storytelling techniques that we’ve talked about to written articles or are there other tips for written stories that would make more sense for writing versus live delivery?
BILL: I feel you should take this because you’ve written so many books. Writing follows a similar structure. I think you should take this.
JEFF: The things that have worked for me are certainly humility in written stories. It’s interesting because there’s a bit more of a balance between big setup and no setup at all. When you’re speaking to someone, you definitely want to be more concise but when writing, you’ve got to paint the full picture. I might err on a slightly bigger setup when I’m writing but otherwise, it’s definitely, as a team, we set out especially when I’m writing very practical stuff about how to work a particular way or how to solve a particular challenge that a team is facing. When we face this challenge with this client, what they were trying to do was build this application and this context and there was a radical change in the leadership of the organization and that was the challenge and what we did to get over it. The whole aspect of overcoming a challenge is there. The specificity is there. The practical application is there. Certainly, the humility is in there. It’s like, “We tried to make friends with the new boss and that was a disaster and it set us back a month.” I do think there’s probably some more setup you have to do in written articles that you may be able to avoid in a live setting especially if you’re presenting. If there’s a slide deck behind you, the slide deck can carry a lot of the context setting when you’re presenting. Maybe you don’t have to say as much but I think a lot of that stuff definitely does apply.
BILL: To me, it goes back to problem solution. Why are you writing? There’s probably something that you’re going to share with us or there’s some sort of problem or something that you are trying to solve. In that way, it’s similar but as Jeff said, it’s a different ballgame in a lot of ways when you’re writing depending on what you’re writing, the length if you’re writing a book or an email, and how you approach that. They all lead with who am I talking to? The most important thing, who am I talking to? What do they care about? How can I speak to and somehow give them something of value?
Jeff, when you were working on your book thinking in terms of this is this one thing. This is how I did this. This is how I got to this place and this could be really helpful for a lot of people. This is a process.
JEFF: The one thing we haven’t explicitly said was obviously know your audience, which is super critical. What do they care about? You have to speak in their language as well. Use words that they care about. I talk about this all the time with designers for 20 years at this point. When it comes to designers that I work with, they say, “How do I convince my boss to do X or Y?” I said, “Your boss doesn’t care about pixels. They don’t care about fixed law or time on task or click targets. What they care about is revenue, retention, sales numbers. How is the work that you’re doing related to that and translated into the language that they care about? Now you’re telling a more compelling story to that audience.”
BILL: That’s a big piece of the work that I do too. You’ve said this as well, Jeff. You may have similar content but that’s going to change depending on the audience and their relationship to that that often people miss.
JEFF: Carol wants to ask what happens when we don’t have a platform? Does humility still have the same effect?
BILL: I think humility always has a great effect. When you’re just human with people and just connect with them and share challenges you may be having, I think we need more humility. As far as seeking a platform, Jeff’s got some really amazing ideas about that in his book.
JEFF: I think the humility aspect of it helps you build a platform. I talked to a group of 18, 19, 20 year old folks recently about this idea of telling your story. They said, “Hey, we’re 18, 19, 20. What story do we have to tell? We haven’t done anything yet.” These are folks that just graduated from one of these product management bootcamps; one of these 12 week, 16 week courses. I said, “Then tell the story you have which is I’m 20 years old. I just finished this technical bootcamp and I’m starting my job search for my first real job in this field. Tell that story because just on this call, there were 30 other people just like you who want to hear that story.” There are orders of magnitude, more people just like you in that position who would be interested in that story. If you don’t have a platform, if you don’t feel you’ve done enough or you’re just starting out to be able tell compelling stories, then narrate the thing that you’re currently doing because that’s your experience and that’s what’s actually happening.
Folks, we’re not going to get through all the questions in the time that we have. Alexander is asking how to build your base of stories to tell. Do you use only stories that happened to you or should you/can you use stories that you also heard from other people?
BILL: Sure, you can tell those stories. It’d depend on if there’s any reason they would need to know that or if you’re telling a story naming them. That happens all the time in storytelling. I don’t see a problem with that as long as there’s a learning in that story.
JEFF: And attribution. If it’s not your story, you can say, I saw Bill Smartt give a talk one time and what I heard him say or the story he told during that talk was this type of thing. Make sure there’s attribution for the source as well.
I’ve always struggled with having a story library ready for a variety of situation in business to be effective. Do you have a core set of stories that are your go-to or do you ideate on the fly?
BILL: I think it’s a great idea to develop those stories. I’ll akin this to my acting days. Oftentimes, when you had on-camera interviews, they’d say, “So, tell us something about yourself.” If you said, “I’m an actor looking for work,” not so compelling. We had to come up with what are the things that we can say that would be interesting and/or compelling stories to tell? Maybe think about this exercise of going back over your life from birth to present and three major, huge events; things that happened to you in your life that caused you to look at life differently, that caused you to change direction, that maybe formed your values in some way. Three really challenging things and then three really affirming things that happened. What did you learn from each of those? That could be a place to start to really think about cataloguing those. What you’re doing is you’re talking about the human experience, the challenge, and usually in business, there’s some obstacle we’re trying to get over. It’s how do we deal with that obstacle? How do we approach dealing with that and it’s almost always a universal thing that relates to those personal things.
JEFF: I love that idea. I love the idea of building a library of stories. It doesn’t have to be 50 volumes deep but if you have 3-5. I have 3-5 and they come from experience from work that I’ve done and the stories I tell over and over again. Generally speaking, they’re case studies. That’s a really interesting idea there. If this is something you’re not regularly doing today, building that catalog of 3-5 stories and then leaning on that catalog whenever you need it can be really powerful because it feels like it’s off the cuff but you’ve done the work to prep that.
BILL: In these trainings, we give people 20-30 minutes. Your life, 20-30 minutes. You have a limited time. It’s amazing what people come up with.
JEFF: We have time for one more. Emily asks I’m very comfortable crafting to meet the audience but because of that, I get a bit overwhelmed if I don’t have enough info about the audience to inform choices, style, etc. Any tips on how to deal with crafting a story when you don’t have good audience intel?
BILL: That’s an interesting question. If it’s an audience and there’s a wide variety of people that you’re speaking to, I always think of who are the decision makers? Who are the influencers? Who is a person that actually can forward my idea and I kind of aim the talk maybe towards that audience? Another way is you can just give context. Say you’re speaking about something that’s super technical and you’re not sure if everyone is going to understand it. You could say, “So, I understand there’s some technical people here but I also understand there’s people who just have general knowledge. Just as a level set, here’s the general landscape of da, da, day.” You can back up and give the layman’s terms and then you can also go into the details as well. That’s one way to be able to cover your basis so everybody understands.
Also, it depends if your talk with have a Q&A part of it because you may find out more there. You could kind of go over the general message and then you could say, “I’m going to leave some time for questions.” Then people will ask you specific questions and you could put stuff in the index or appendix, go to that, and speak to that.
JEFF: Thank you so much. This was fantastic, tons of fun. Folks, thanks so much for joining us. If you didn’t get your question answered or you think of one later, feel free to ping Bill or I or both of us together. We’d be happy to get back to you. I did post Bill’s offer in the chat there as well so you can get a sense of what it’s like to work with him. If you haven’t picked up a copy of Forever Employable, I encourage you to do that at your favorite digital bookstore. Any one of them works. If you do pick up a copy, I’d love a review on Amazon as well. Thank so much for joining.