The Importance of The Narrative

Posted on May 17, 2011 | 71 comments


I went to undergrad at UCSD, which is not a place known for its Greek institutions and my father grew up in South America and had no idea what a fraternity was.

So I went to college with no expectation that I would ever join a fraternity let alone aspire to become president one day. Yet being in a fraternity was one of the most transformative experiences I had in college and prepared me better for becoming an entrepreneur than any class that I took.

I didn’t pledge until the spring quarter of my freshman year and even then I only did it because of the free beer. I pledged what was then the best fraternity on our campus, Phi Delta Theta.

By sophomore year I got the inspiration to hold leadership positions in the fraternity. I started off by running some lower-level roles like community service. By the end of my sophomore year I had taken on the role of education for our new freshman pledges and by the first quarter of my junior year I led the pledge class entirely. I then led our “rush” initiative, which is basically “recruiting,” followed by becoming “social chairman,” which, yes, meant I threw great parties. I still do.

During this period of time I learned how to raise money, collect dues, recruit new members, plan & hold events with hundreds of people as well as deal with security and legal exposure. Having held all of the major operational functions of the fraternity I was ready for “real leadership.”

I heard that Dean Holter was running for President and I knew he was too popular to beat so I set my sights on Vice Presidency. It’s pretty easy to be liked after you’ve just held a successful tenure as social chairman. So I came to our weekly chapter meeting where the election was to be held. I was up against Gregory Solomon, who joined later than I did, had less operational roles than I and who wasn’t in the uber popular crowd. Easy peasy.

I told the chapter the roles I had held and why I was ready to be Vice President. It was factual, short and designed to show that I had done all of the requisite jobs.

Gregory was into theater. He understood how to create emotional responses. I presented behind a lectern.  Gregory sat on a table in the middle of the circle and rolled up his sleeves. He spoke of broader themes, of better times of what his hopes were for the fraternity. He spoke on human terms. At a base level. He kicked my ass.

I was devastated. I had never lost anything like this that I had set out my ambitions of accomplishing. I was sure I’d win. It was humiliating. But I walked away with a big lesson that I carry to this day.

When you speak to crowds – whether 5 or 500 – you need to tell a story. Your speech needs to have a cohesive narrative to it. You need a thesis. You need to speak in human terms. You need emotion. You need to CONNECT.

Fast forward a year. I decided to run for President. Dean Holter had served out his term. I was to run against Rick Meyreles (who was as popular as Dean Holter) and Craig Hickox (who had just finished as social chairman). Dean called me and asked me not to run. He said I didn’t have a chance to win. He asked if I would run for Vice President. Then Gregory called me and asked the same.

I thought – no fucking way. If I’m going to put in the effort I’m going to run the fraternity. I had the experience and leadership skills. It was go big or go home. I prepared this time. I prepared and practiced my speech. It was an emotional one. I talked in themes. I talked about how all of my peers kept saying, “The fraternity had changed, it’s not what it used to be when Dave Friend was a leader. When Robertson was president. When Stedman ran the pledge class. It was going down hill.”

Me:

“Of course we’re not going down hill.  Don’t you see that when we were young those leaders thought the fraternity had changed from the days when their elders were running it? Don’t you get it? It’s now us. They are we. It’s time for us to step up and assume the mantle. It’s time for us to honor their traditions and make new ones.

There is a generation of young Phi’s who are looking up to us. This fraternity is as great as the day I joined it. Better. And my presidency will be about upholding all that our elders entrusted in us when they selected us to join Phi Delta Theta.”

The big question was which of the two of us would be in a run off since with 3 qualified candidates nobody would be able to secure the 50% + 1 required to win the candidacy outright.

Except that I did. I won in a landslide with no runoff required. I was no better than they were (in fact, Rick succeeded me as president). But by then I understood the power of the narrative to prove a point and persuade a crowd.

And I hope that this narrative will help reinforce the point for you. Whether you’re presenting to a small group of people or a large audience your presentation must have a narrative to effectively get your points across. 2 hours after you’ve left the room the people you met will already have forgotten much of the details. Yet if you’ve painted enough of a picture, if you’ve used enough analogies, if your story is cohesive and has themes then people will remember the general sense of the points you wanted to make.

So some quick guides although building a narrative is a very hard thing to teach (at least for me). I talked specifically about it in the context of raising VC / establishing credibility over on the Sales School blog where there’s a video & a transcript. They’re going t0 publish all 4 parts of my talk. Today is the only day I’ll be linking so if you’re interested make sure to check back there.

Below are some separate thoughts.

1. Have a thesis from which to build your story – If you don’t start by knowing what the central point(s) you’re trying to make are then you can’t construct a storyline that supports them. For today’s post, for example, my thesis was that story telling and narrative are some of the most important tools you can use for persuasion in meetings, to connect with an audience and to ensure that recipients retain the knowledge you present. My story was to tell the example of Gregory’s speech and my subsequent one. I hope that this story of loss, set back, reflection and ultimately triumph will help you remember the importance of the narrative.

2. Have supporting evidence -You can’t just tell a story in business. That’s for theater. You need facts that support your storyline. In any great argument you have the central thesis and then 3+ supportive facts that build the story out from the thesis. Think of it this way: assertion, proof point, proof point, proof point. If you want to make a second assertion you follow it up with more supporting evidence.

3. Use analogies -I love analogies because they stick in people’s brains and form a short hand for deeper knowledge.

These are all analogies designed to make broader points and help you remember the thesis.

4. Keep it human -Far too many presentations, keynote speeches, conference panels or blog posts seem wooden. We live in the era of authenticity. Be human. Don’t take that to mean you should take liberties in meetings and be buddy-buddy with people. Unless invited to, you should not. But don’t try to sound too smart. Don’t be too rigid. Show that you have creativity, humor, emotion, ability to build rapport and that you’d be fun to hang out with. In a business sort of way ;-) People like to work with people they like. That’s a fact. Or at least an assertion.

5. Reinforce the storyline at the end -I know that there’s a tired rule for presentations that says: tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them. So here’s my updated version of the same point. Give people a map up front that tells them the general content you’re going to cover. Then give them the content. Then summarize in a non-cheesy way at the end and draw it all together with your central thesis.

See what worked for getting Gregory to trounce me for Vice President and me in turn to win the Presidency was the same thing. We had good underlying products, we told a compelling and human story about why we were great products and then we wrapped up by reinforcing our key messages to drive retention just before the constituency had to vote on whether to back us or not.

Appendix:

I spoke recently at NYU at the SalesCrunch presentation day and Gregory Solomon was in the audience. I hadn’t seen him in 20 years. What a delight to catch up. I was there to talk about how to give great presentations so what a wonderful way to open my presentation by telling the story above. If you have any interest at all the 8-minute YouTube of me telling my story about Gregory is here.

  • http://twitter.com/ALilling Adam Lilling

    This explains why I love throwing events with you….fellow social chairman.

  • Anonymous

     This is is something the Greeks (!) understood.  They called it ‘rhetoric.’

  • http://notesfromtheninjabunny.tumblr.com/ Emily Merkle

     Love the narrative.
    I use it / ask for it when hiring.
    I use it to connect with potential partners, clients, etc. while also making a point  – you know – “just a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine do down…”
    I try to be colloquial, say things like – “Hey you’ve been playing this game as long as I have – we know where the bodies are buried…” etc . Acknowledge shared experience.
    When I find myself on the market – I tell a story of how I got from “there” to “here”…

    Show humor, ease, humility.
    Not so sure about analogies…

  • http://twitter.com/diegoandresfe Diego Flórez

    Great story!!

  • http://dissertationtoday.com/ dissertations

    thanks a lot, cause i was wondering the same too.

  • http://twitter.com/dbcsg dbcsg

    Sorry if this is a bit
    long, but this is my first time leaving a comment, (though have been reading
    BSOTT regularly, and am weekly viewer of TWiVC) and so I’d like to start by
    thanking both you, Mark, AND the community of thoughtful bright folks you
    attract, for all of your willingness to share your tips, insights, experience
    and your TIME.  More kudos at the end of
    this post.

     

    Not sure if any of you recall the great opening to Steven Spielberg’s TV series Amazing Stories, which aired on Sunday nights int he 80’s (show of hands?)?  But it captures that essence Harriet Meth
    referred to in her comment to the May 17 post: “Narratives are powerful communication tools because
    our human brains internalize and process information as narratives or stories”.  The show open segued from a scene of early cave folk sitting around a fire to a modern family
    sitting around the TV – listening to stories being told.  We
    love TV, we love bedtime stories–our brains are
    wired for narrative.   So now I can see why the narrative would be
    crucial to a great preso.  

     

    And also happy to see that
    emotion, passion and heart are essential. 
    It’s why I’ve found myself, a former artist/punkrocker/poet/filmmaker, to
    being enthralled with business – because for me its about people and their
    stories, with money being just the result—a result of peoples passions
    around products or services they create and those of others love to use them.  Once a long, long while ago I was helping out
    a friend at a PR firm who needed research on companies while her assistant was
    away, and I found myself getting choked up reading about Motorola’s early days
    as an automotive radio company—a Victrola in your car—by a then 30-year-old
    inventor Paul Galvin, father of a 6 year old boy who would eventually run the
    company and hand it off to his son (who albeit had a bit of a rough time during
    his tenure).  Then I learned that George Eastman came
    up with the name Kodak because he wanted a company name that started and ended
    with a “K” thinking this was the strongest letter in the alphabet, and read the history of Nintendo –around since the
    1800’s, starting out as a playing card company. 
    Wow what great stories!  So it was great stories got me hooked on business.   

     

    I thought points about reinforcement
    (“tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you
    told them”), makes me think of advice from a gradeschool teacher (Tom Selick
    look-a-like and decidedly my first crush) which stuck with me all my life: when
    writing an essay, state your intent in the first para, support it, then
    conclude tying back to the opening para. 
    The “less is more” tips are another a great take away, and don’t mean
    this in a derogatory way to the potential investor receiving the preso, but it
    reminds me of the scene in Amadeus where the King is saying Mozart had “too
    many notes”.  In this day where we are in
    constant overload its probably ok to call that one.

     

    Here are 2 questions for
    Mark: 1) per comments during TWiVC 5/18 regarding moving more away from text
    and towards video, and stats like AOL going from 4% video content on the site
    eventually to 70%, do you see now, or do you predict a future trend, in having
    a short video replacing powerpoints during preso’s, acknowledging that it would
    have to be followed by QnA which is where the presenter would develop the
    rapport and connect with the audience?  2)
    Is it possible to create a memorable experience by doing a hands on demo and
    email a deck in follow up (which just reiterates the points made during the
    demo?) 

     

    And in conclusion, the
    kudos.  Special shout out to all the
    folks underscoring importance of passion, emotion and speaking from the heart
    (in ref to the May 17th post) and for great additional “practical,
    tactical tips” for preso’s on the May 15th post from HumphreyPL,
    Jason Wesbecher, Declan Dunn, John Hable, ryanmatthewb not to mention all the
    book recommendations and links on both.  
    This is so helpful for someone as green as me–though I’m not going to
    be the one actually presenting but am instead prepping for, supporting and
    advising a team who will begin presenting for the 1st time in the
    near future.  And BTW I hope one day I’ll
    get invited to one of your parties, Mark! J
     

  • http://twitter.com/dbcsg dbcsg

     oops! sorry for weird formating, composed this in word and then copied/pasted

  • http://polidigital.org Joshua Ansell-McKinnon

     Great post.  It puts a lot into perspective for me.  Thanks!

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  • http://jackdempsey.me Jack Dempsey

    Do people honestly care about typos? If the word is wrong to the point of not understanding the sentence, I get it, but I’d much rather have a few typos and a great narrative than perfect grammar on something dull that I don’t give a shit about. 

  • http://www.web-self-service.com Wesley Wise

    Great points and advices. It’s really hard to find the right method in doing presentations because it’ll always be about reading your audience’s reaction to be able to know how to tickle them and get into what you’re really saying. You’ve given me lots of things to ponder on.

  • cmorrison

    This is dead on!  Mark, I love your stuff.  You seem to take a lifetime of wisdom and present it beautifully.

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  • http://twitter.com/franklinbi Franklin Bi

    Having been the president of my fraternity for 2 consecutive years (coincidentally after having been social/rush/political chair, I can definitely relate to your experience! These tips are great for conveying your vision properly, an essential skill for VCs, entrepreneurs, and leaders in general.

    I’d also add another essential lesson that I learned from being in a fraternity. The Greek experience is unique among extracurricular activities in college in that the people you must work with and eventually lead are typically some of your closest friends and confidantes. I believe that, on its best days, a fraternity is the epitome of a “no bullshit” culture. In front of strangers, you can be anyone and claim anything for that half-hour speech, but among your brothers, you have no choice but to have your worst flaws called out and your best strengths questioned. 

    I’m incredibly grateful to have learned the huge value in having a culture of full transparency and no-bullshit early on (early? I just graduated…), as it continues to advise my leadership style and inspire me to be “brutally helpful” when I engage with colleagues and entrepreneurs. Sounds like it may have done the same for you :) Great post!

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  • d7samurai

    i care about “typos”. honestly. is there a reason one should have to choose between great narrative and perfect grammar? is correct grammar and spelling really that much to ask from an adult writer (with great narrative)?

  • Ayush Neupane

    Then it probably depends on the audience that you are speaking to? Sounds like Mark’s audience has emotional attachment to the organization. Maybe yours were not as deeply attached?

  • Liliana

    Agree 100%. Storytelling with foundation rules always. And we should humanized the messages to generate more engagement and clarity. A great point is: no matter if there are 5 people or millions, it should always be like this.

  • Ginger Matthews

    Probably a good idea to take writing classes, specifically for writing screenplays and/or novels, where narrative is king.