My Bet: Story thinking helps with (almost) everything

hero journey Today, you might be helping a team member get over the hump in a critical project. Maybe you’re pitching to a new client. Maybe you’re  dreading the weekly meeting with your leadership team, anticipating the conversation will circle around… and around… as you try to make a tough decision together. Whatever adventure you’re embarking on, try this.

Make them the hero in their own journey.

Brilliant, insightful, august storyteller Robert McKee paints a vivid picture of how the difference this makes in his [last week’s] interview in Fast Company, “How Screenwriting Guru Robert McKee Teaches Brands To Tell Better Stories.”

From you, to them

map of middle earth for story thinkingWho’s the hero? Yep, that person, sitting across the table from you. Map out the landscape that you see them in, the odds they’re up against. Bring to life what you see them doing, what they must be thinking, what you imagine they’re feeling as they confront their dragon.

Then, put your well-worn leather bag that has the secrets of the universe and a few sturdy tools on the table between you. Pull out a few you think might help. Help them save their day.

What I love about this is the shift in focus. From you (or me), to them. Instead of focusing on what you are going to say next, and whether your idea is compelling enough, clever enough, fresh enough…  focus on trying to help them make a meaningful difference in their life. Put the spotlight  on their adventure. This way of thinking is generous, and strategic. (Shameless plug: It’s also the same trick improvisors use to make bold, successful choices on stage – the ones that  delight their audiences against all odds. They work to make their fellow players shine.)

Pull out your bag of tricks

You might pull out a bejeweled scabbard that holds keen-edged conversation tools for tackling a tough issue. You could offer a cloak of invisibility that – instead of making them disappear from view – makes everything else except their top three priorities go away. You might give them a new meeting structure, strategic planning process, or just ask a few juicy, powerful questions that prompt new thinking after you’ve moved on to your next meeting.

The purpose of your conversation is to equip them for the adventure they’re on. You might be giving them tools, provoking new thinking… It doesn’t really matter. Get out of your own way. Instead of focusing on convincing or getting buy-in, make them the hero. Your job is to equip them with magical tools – or just help them connect with the ones they already have.

Robert McKee calls this story thinking.

Story thinking

Right before I read Robert’s article (I call him Robert now, having read his article), I had a coaching call with a client leader. She’s brilliant. I’ve known and supported her for years. But what was exceptionally exciting about our call was that she was ready to shift from simply being brilliant, to helping the young up-and-comers around her find their own brilliance. She had no idea where to start.

And I wasn’t quite sure how to help her make this shift. We found our way through the call, both of us learning. It wasn’t until after I read Robert’s article, though, that I saw it: What worked for us in that call, what made such a big difference, was story thinking. We broke past the overwhelm and historical sense of defeat by making the adventure in front of her delicious, and exciting, and worthy. We made her the aspiring hero in her own adventure. We painted a vivid picture of success – the castle freed, the dragon slain.

Then, I pulled out my well-worn leather bag, put it on the table between us, and started to pull things out with curiosity. Could this be useful? Might this serve the cause? What do you already have in your own bag that you could use?

What I love about this is that we made her the hero in her own adventure – the adventure of making others the heroes in theirs.

orc image for story thinkingMagical powers

Thinking about it now, I can see my dad was a master at this. He was a special kind of guy. A psychiatrist. With immense curiosity. He taught us again and again that everyone has their story. At his memorial service, I was blown away by the range of people who came and spoke. Colleagues, students, friends, neighbors. The waitress from his favorite restaurant. The janitorial custodian from the hospital where he worked.

They all said different versions of the same thing: That he really saw them. Saw what they were up against, even in the briefest of interactions. Helped them whip out a magical power, or remind them to look for one.

He did this with all of us kids on outrageously long car trips out West, too. He spun magical stories of the Orc- and Goblin-ridden adventures we were part of. He revealed the way our special powers – like my sister’s legendary persistence, or my brother’s uncanny ability to figure out how something worked by taking it apart – would save the day.

Robert McKee’s article is about the stories brands should be telling. I think it’s about leadership.

Images courtesy, and Robert McKee’s Youtube channel.