Make It Concrete: Tell Me a Story or Give Me an Example


            Some years back I was invited to give a speech to a large group of superintendents. As I am prone to do, I laced my speech with many stories and anecdotes to illustrate the ideas I was presenting. For whatever reason, there seemed to be a special chemistry between the audience and me, and at the end of the speech I received a standing ovation that lasted an embarrassingly long time. Needless to say, I was honored, pleased, and gratified.

            Later on I went to a cocktail party with a group of superintendents who had attended the conference and heard my speech. Many made very flattering remarks and recalled points they found especially telling. I noticed, however, one young man whose body language suggested to me that he was not in tune with his colleagues. (Given some of his comments and the fact that he had placed a large “Dr.” in front of his name on his nametag, I suspected that he was a freshly minted PhD—and wanted to display to others that he deserved the title.) In any case, either because he had had all of me he could stand or because he simply needed to be center stage, he finally blurted out, “Hell, if you cut out all the stories, you could say in five minutes everything you said in an hour, and most of what you said anyone with common sense would know anyway. Where is the research? Anecdotes are fine, but I want facts, not stories.”

            Well, I couldn’t resist. I turned to him and said (as coldly as I knew how), “Young man, you are probably right. I would only add a little bit to what you said. I’ll bet you whatever you care to wager that most of my audience will remember much that I said for a considerable length of time, but they will not remember for five minutes what you say if you have no stories to tell.” I am still not sure I should have said what I said to this young man, but I am sure that what I said about the power of stories is so.

            Stories provide sails in which the energy of ideas can be captured. Stories also provide rudders to maintain direction. Without stories, ideas do not produce action. Without stories, ideas are like so many leaves blowing in the wind—they go no place in particular, and they need a lot of wind to keep them in the air.

            Metaphors, too, are powerful ways of communicating vaguely understood notions. I recall that many years ago when I was first starting what is now called “the Schlechty Center,” I was trying to find some way to convey to the staff I was recruiting the nature of the culture I wanted to build. More than anything I wanted our organization to be classy and businesslike, but at the same time I wanted it to be a warm and supportive place to work. We prepared a document entitled “The Schlechty Center Way” which provides a list of organizational expectations such as the following: A promise made by one of us is binding on all of us; Our clients are our friends; Promise only half of what you think you can deliver. This document, while useful, still did not catch the tone I hoped to convey. 

Then it happened. At a company Christmas party, each staff member (and others as well) were invited to express their view of the Center and speak about what working for the Center meant for them. One person in the group offered the following metaphor: “The way I see the Center is that it is a mixture between IBM and the Brady bunch. On the one hand you try to run a world-class business operation and provide nothing but quality service; on the other hand you often behave like a family that is a bit out of control and who love and enjoy each other very much.” Sounded like a good story to me and we tell it often around our place. Every place needs to have a story about what it is.

            Why is this so? I think the Heath brothers—the authors of the book Made to Stick, which I referred to in my last several blogs—have it about right. They contend that memory operates more like Velcro than like a filing cabinet. Once a person has learned something new, the question of whether or not it will be remembered depends on how many hooks have been attached to the idea. Remembering occurs when these hooks become attached to and enmeshed in the existing “loops” that have been created by past experience and past associations. The more hooks there are, the greater the memory will be and the longer the memory will last. 

            When a member of an audience asks for an example, he or she is simply seeking a story or a metaphor that has some hooks on it. Moreover, what the audience member wants are hooks that will respond to the loops he or she already has woven into his or her mental fabric. The key to making ideas concrete, therefore, is knowing the audience and what the audience is prepared to see and hear. By knowing the audience, the speaker, the teacher, or the leader begins to get a feel for the “loops” audience members have in their memory banks to which the hooks on the other side of the Velcro fastener can be attached. 

            Abstractions have few hooks. Indeed, most of the hooks have been stripped away from abstractions so that the idea can be expressed in the most uncluttered way. Stories, metaphors, and analogies, on the other hand, have many hooks. Unlike the abstraction, the concreteness of the story makes generalization more difficult. At the same time, the story can give heft and texture to a proposition so that will have meaning in the concrete world in which most of us live most of the time.

Learning to tell stories is essential to being a leader. Equally important, however, is to ensure that the stories told really convey something important about the idea you want to convey.  Too often, writers and speakers tell stories that are not relevant to anything other than the titillation and entertainment of their audience and the gratification of the ego of the storyteller. We all like to get positive feedback from our audiences, and laughter and standing ovations can be seductive. However, stories should inform rather than simply entertain. And remember there are those who just want the facts and are prone to see storytellers as nothing more or less than shallow entertainers. 


4 Responses to “Make It Concrete: Tell Me a Story or Give Me an Example”

  1. Jonathan Slaten says:

    Dr. Schlechty,
    This story sounds stangely familiar to an enounter that I had with you several years ago. During a break at a conference I came and spoke to you about research that contradicted something that you said. I felt that I made the comment with respect. You responded in much the same fashion as to the young man in your story. You made it clear that you did not want to discuss the issue.
    I don’t disagree with your point in telling stories; however, maybe you should be willing to discuss different points of view. That is the hallmark of a good researcher.

  2. Phil Schlechty says:

    Dear Jonathan,
    I apologize for any offense. If it was at a break I suspect I was responding to the press of time and may have conveyed an impatience that was not intended. At least I hope so because I enjoy a reputation of taking criticism well and following the data where ever it leads–including when it challenges my most fundamental beliefs.

    I am confident that our encounter is not the one I refer to here. This happened at a cocktail party after I had made the speech I describe. Maybe I am more of an ass than I think I am, but I do apologize to you and hope we can meet sometime to see if I can repair whatever damage I have done.

    Thanks for bringing me up short.


  3. Susan (Sue) Colton says:

    Happy New Year Phil!
    Well, today Florida inaugurates a new governor, or the appearance of a new one, anyway. This brings me back to one of your stories that I first heard you tell in 1996…regarding the future demise of public education. You painted that picture indelibly on my mind and It was then that I was “hooked” and decided that my the rest of my life’s work was to make sure that ending of your story never came true.
    Since then, I have been leading leaders to create learning organizations within the structures of a very statistical data-driven bureaucratic system. It is the stories along the way…the pictures of practice…that keep us “working on the work”. Building relationships, making connections, and being authentic to our beliefs are also very powerful forms of research. Storytelling is full of facts, yet is very much an art. It causes both left and right-brained people to think in new and different ways. If done strategically, it reaches all senses and learning styles.
    The most important point you make that I believe we miss most often is “knowing your audience”. Just as the work we design and create must hook our student audience within the context of the world in which they live, we must also know our ”greater audience” in order to communicate the importance of public education in their world. Because the world moves so fast with new information technologies and social networks, are the hooks we create to market our work already obsolete and meaningless to those who live and work in our communities? What is relevant today when we say education, freedom and democracy?

  4. C.O. Patterson says:

    Here is a quote that I have found pertinent and useful:

    Crow and Weasel have traveled together far from their own people and the lands they have known. They have encountered many strange tribes, each with peculiar ways of living, but each noble and kind. In their travels, they have gradually gained wisdom. As they turn homeward, it is late in the year, with winter coming on. They are overtaken by a blizzard, and become lost in the snow. In their peril, they are rescued by Badger, who gives them shelter and food. In return, Badger asks that they tell of their journey, and of what they have seen. Crow and Weasel recount their adventures, and the tales they have heard from those strangers among whom they have passed. Badger is pleased with their telling.

    “I would ask you to remember only this one thing,” said Badger. “The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other’s memory. This is how people care for themselves. One day you will be good storytellers. Never forget these obligations.”

    Barry Lopez: Crow and Weasel.
    North Point Press, San Francisco, 1990.

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