I was in Jamaica recently for two speaking engagements. One was a closing keynote at a national business conference; the other was a half-day training session on storytelling for senior leaders of a national credit union.
Like many cultures, Jamaica has a deeply rooted history of oral storytelling. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of spending time with Jamaicans, you know that they can spin a yarn like almost no one else. Family and social gatherings are animated and full of entertaining, humourous stories. Storytelling is part of their national identity. They pride themselves in being great, natural storytellers.
And here I am, an outsider, coming in to facilitate a training on storytelling…
You can already guess what I was up against. I could practically see the skepticism bubbles above their heads.
Fortunately, the day before the training, my driver took me on a tour of Kingston and we stopped at local place for an authentic Jamaican lunch. There were no burgers or French fries on this menu. It was plain and unpretentious, but on the wall were photos of famous people who had eaten there. Andrew pointed out a few famous politicians. I recognized Shaggy in one of the photos. He stopped at the photo on the wall of Usain Bolt.
‘You know the story of Usain Bolt?’ Of course I knew the sprinter known as the fastest man in the world; the runner who followed every win with his now famous lightning bolt pose. But did I know the story?
I shook my head, ‘no’.
The fastest man in the world wasn’t so fast before he started working with his coach...
“The fastest man in the world wasn’t so fast until he started working with his coach Glen Wills,” Andrew told me. "His arms were flailing and he was running very inefficiently. It was his coach who trained him to run in a more disciplined and focused way.” That was all I needed to hear. That night I did a little research and learned that his coach observed him putting his center of mass too far back. He taught Usain to lean forward slightly and focus his energy in a straight line. The coach also incorporated a strength training regimen so his body could cope with the added stress of running with this new technique. It took two years for Usain to unlearn his bad habits so that he could leverage his natural ability to become the fastest man in the world.
The next day, I started the session with the story of Usain Bolt. It took less than two and a half minutes. I didn’t have to go into much detail because, well, everyone except me already knew it. But neither did I have to use a big, thick magic marker to connect the dots between Usain’s story and what we were going to do in our session – because everyone in the room had heard too many stories that ramble; stories that took too long to get to the point; and, stories that entertain, but when they were finished you wondered if there was any point at all.
Fast starts, focus, and form propel you to the finish line of your story too.
All I did after that was ask them to consider that perhaps there might be a more strategic and more focused way of storytelling; that if they keep an open mind and try some of the techniques I was going to show them, then perhaps they could combine them with their natural storytelling ability to become better presenters, better salespeople, better coaches for their teams, and better all-around leaders.
The session went exceptionally well, and when we wrapped up, one of the first questions I got was, ‘how can we build on this to keep on improving?’
Mission accomplished. That’s the Power of Purposeful Storytelling.