Your Point of View

If you’ve made the decision to put your own stories – blogs, videos, articles, poetry, spoken word, email campaigns, multimedia, whatever – into the world, there are two different kinds of gaps you can fill.

You can be on the lookout for untold stories and uncover them, becoming, over time, great at picking stories worth telling, the kind of information you’re able to uncover and the narrative that brings us along, engages us, and, hopefully, pushes us to act. This is what Serial was all about (except for the action bit).

Or, you can decide that the project you’re actually engaged in is to share your own point of view.  In this kind of project, you still tell stories but these stories serve as springboards to explore, elaborate upon and illustrate your point of view.

In both cases your job is to engage us, to connect with us, and, yes, to seduce us just a little bit. In both cases, we expect you to hone your craft. In both cases, you have the power to change us.

But because it’s so easy to underestimate ourselves, because we so often convince ourselves we have nothing to say, because we imagine that someday (someday!) we will have wisdom to share…we wait.

Because the act of deciding we have something to say feels a little too proud (“who am I to think that I can….?”), a little too exposed (“what if try and it turns out I don’t actually have anything worth saying?!”), a little too much like it’s the kind of things other people do (“they’re just good at that sort of thing…”), we put off starting. And we put it off some more. And some more. Until we prove to ourselves that we were right all along – we really don’t have a point of view worth sharing.

But that’s just not true. The dirty little secret is that the only way to become, tomorrow or the next day or maybe 10 years from now, someone who has something to say is to start to share our truth today.

Interior – Zindua, Day

Every moment, every day, with every decision big and small you have the chance to blend in or to stand out, to tell your story or keep it to yourself.

Take Ken Oloo’s business card for example.  Ken is a photographer, a filmmaker and an Acumen East Africa Fellow who I just met last week in Nairobi.  In addition to his work globally as a photographer and filmmaker, Ken trains kids from the Nairobi slum of Kibera to tell their own story, using film and video.

Since Ken is a storyteller, his business card, naturally, tells that story.

ken_oloo_business card

Just a small thing, really, except of course it’s all the small things that add up to standing up and standing out.

That’s Ken with the big smile and the dreadlocks.

filamujuani

Marlon is Not Alone

I was glad to share Marlon’s story, and appreciated hearing back from so many of you how touched you were by his actions.  I don’t know that much about Marlon, but I suspect he is a beautiful human being.

It turns out Marlon is not alone.  Recently, Readers’ Digest wanted to learn how honest people were and to see if it differed by geography, so they “lost” 12 wallets in 16 cities around the world.  Each wallet contained US$50 in local currency, as well as a name, business cards, a contact phone number and a family photo.

Lots of wallets came back, though the results varied widely by city.  Helsinki, Finland blew everyone else out of the water with 11 wallets returned out of 12, followed by Mumbai at 9 of 12 wallets returned, New York and Budapest at 8 wallets returned, and Moscow and Amsterdam at 7 wallets returned.  The biggest loser was Lisbon (1 wallet of 12 returned), Madrid (2 wallets), Prague (3 wallets), followed by Rio, Zurich and Bucharest all at 4 wallets.   Globally, 90 out of 192 wallets were returned, 46% of the total.

So, if the data are to be believed, if you drop your wallet in a major city, there’s about a 50/50 chance you’ll get it back.  Those feel like pretty good odds and a nice reflection on human nature.  One does wonder a bit what’s going on in Portugal though.

Before we close, a quick reflection on storytelling.

Marlon is a real guy, that really was his photo, and that was a real amazing story that touched me a lot. The Readers’ Digest survey tells us that there were 90 other of those stories out there.  And yet when I share this great information it it certainly doesn’t convey 90 times the amount of feeling or connection.  In fact it doesn’t convey 1/90th the emotion of telling Marlon’s story.

I love numbers, data, and the power to use both to get to a deeper understanding that gets beyond narrative.  But let’s not forget that the numbers themselves don’t make our points louder, indeed they often fail to amplify.

That said, I’m still just as thankful to Marlon for reminding me of how easy it is to do the right thing, and I’m heartened to know that he is not alone.

(Thanks, Ben, for sharing the Wallet Experiment story with me.)

Wallet Experiment

Mailing it in

Today I received emails from class representatives from both my high school and graduate school asking me to give as part of an annual campaign.

Both asks were identical: our participation rates are low, please give so we can increase that number (one of them said that if we got to 40% our class could get a free dinner…we were at 13% and have a few days to go.  Good luck with that).

It’s such a dismal approach that I can’t dignify it by calling it fundraising.  It feels like a bill collector aiming for the lowest level of shame (“give us something”) in the hopes that if you pester people enough with a safe, familiar approach you’ll create enough miniscule annuity streams that it will somehow pay off in the end (it doesn’t – the math doesn’t work).

It would take so little to tell one – just one – very short story:

Dear Sasha,

I know how busy you are and how many emails you receive.  I also know how important [school] was to you, and I wanted to tell you one story that caught my attention last year, and I hope that reading this will encourage you to give as part of our annual campaign [LINK].

When we were students, only 15% of our class received scholarships.  Now that number has jumped to 65%.  Just last year, [name] who was on a full scholarship to [school] was accepted to a [great school], also on a full scholarship.  She is aiming to be an engineer and is already part of an incredible research lab working on bioinformatics.  [Name] was always a leader in the [school] community, and while we aren’t surprised at her success couldn’t be prouder – and it’s a success we can all share in.

We’re hoping you will join your classmates and give this year to support this kind of success.  We all share the sense that the education we received was the foundation of so much we’ve accomplished in our lives.  Let’s do what we can to share that success with others.  Even just $10 to show your participation would mean a lot.

[nice big button – click to give]

– Class representative

This letter I’ve written isn’t even that good, but it’s a start.  It shows respect to the recipient.  It takes a stab at creating an emotional connection and allows the alumnus to ascribe meaning to the action you’re asking him to take.  It reinforces the connection he already feels to the institution.

“That’s the way we’ve always done it” is no excuse for doing something without an ounce of heart, soul, or courage.  Give all of us the respect of showing us why you’re asking, and (if you dare) take the added step of helping us understand that we already are part of something that was hugely important in our lives.

You’re contacting people anyway.  Why not try to make it good?  Lord knows it couldn’t be any worse.

Stories, Facts and Synthesis

Break down any presentation and you’ve got three building blocks: stories, facts and synthesis.

Since we’re generally not comfortable as storytellers, and since it feels safe to report on the facts, lots of presentations divide up the pie like this (“we did this and then this and then this.”)

There are two shifts we can make across the board so that we can connect with our audience.

The first is to radically change the balance between the three layers of the pie – spending about equal time at each level.

The second, equally important, is to realize that your facts are only there to work for your stories or to support your synthesis.  That means you only share facts that serve either to substantiate a point that a story makes someone feel; or you share facts that serve as a jumping-off point for synthesis (aka “the big picture” or “the takeaway”).

Facts that aren’t working for you are facts we don’t need to hear.

Chimamanda Adichie: The danger of a single story

I can’t believe it took me until now to watch Chimamanda Adichie’s profound TED talk about the danger of a single story.  A friend shared it with me the day before I discovered that it’s one of the twenty most-viewed TED talks of all time.

This weekend (especially if you’re celebrating Independence Day), give yourself a gift and put aside 18 minutes to watch this.  The talk defines the power of story to subjugate, the heart of stereotypes held by everyone – even well-meaning, kind people – and how they limit all of us.  It is at times profound, wise, humorous, and hopeful. 

And if you’re as moved as I was, you’ll quickly get a sample of Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun on your Kindle, start reading, and not be able to put it down.  Enjoy.

Sign everything you send out

I was trading emails with a nonprofit CEO when the question of newsletters came up.  Specifically, who should his organization’s quarterly newsletter come from / be signed by since it’s not written by him?

We’re all busy, there’s a lot to get done, and really what people want is to hear what the organization is up to, right?

Well, no, actually.  That’s wrong.

The temptation not to sign and not to write your own communications is huge, but signing emails from “Us” instead of from “Me” is just a way of hiding from real work, real narrative, and real connection.  It’s an excuse to strip out all personality and tone and opinion and controversy, to iron out the bumps and smooth over the edges, because it feels safe to do so and you’ll offend no one.

How many times have you seen this one?

Dear Sasha,

Thank you so much for applying for this job/school/prize.  We received thousands of applications for this position, and while we were very impressed with your application and experiences, we will not be proceeding with your candidacy at this time.

Sincerely,

The Place You Wanna Work / Go to school / Whatever

But a person rejected your application, right?  A person made the decision not to grant the interview.

Same story with your newsletter – written by a person, and received by a person (probably an important one to your organization).

You can pretend that it’s somehow OK to impersonalize it because you’re not willing to do the hard work of standing out and speaking in your own voice.  You can pretend that people have a box in their lives called “newsletter” or “updates” and somehow by sending this out you’re checking that off for them.  But I suspect you’re doing that because on some level you’re not convinced that this thing can be really valuable – for you or for them – or because you’re afraid that it will be worse to stand out and fall on your face than it will be to blend in.

It turns out that all that smoothing out and ironing out only guarantees that you’ll fade into the dull background noise in someone’s inbox, that you’ll never create something worth sharing.

So sign everything you write with your name, with a real return email address to which you will respond (or if that’s not practical, to which another human being will respond signing his name).

I bet that simple act of owning up force you to make a cascade of good decisions.