We don’t tell stories to sell. We don’t tell stories to persuade, or to convince. It’s about something deeper. For me, to talk about the power of story requires one of my own; an experience that moved me in the most profound way.
It was my Granpa Jack’s 90th Birthday party. The day before, I got a call from my uncle asking that I pick up one of my Grandfather’s long time friends, Mitzi. They’ve been friends since high school, more than 70 years. I remembered meeting Mitzi when I was a kid; I’m guessing when I was 10 or 11 years old.
So, my wife, two daughters and I shoot over to pick up Mitzi on the way to the party. My wife pulled the car up to the front of Mitzi’s Retirement home and I ran in to get her. My uncle had warned me that she wasn’t doing well, and had lost most of her memory, so I was rehearsing in my head how I would greet her.
I walked into the lobby, walked up to her and said, “Hi Mitzi.”
She looked at me and said, “Adam?” (Adam is another uncle of mine who’s twenty years older than me).
“No, Mitzi, its Ben.”
She asked, “Have we met before?” I said, “Yeah, I’m Jack’s Grandson/Andy’s son. We met a long time ago.’
I took her arm and escorted her outside to my car. I helped her get into the front seat, my wife was driving, and I sat in the back with my 2 girls.
She immediately confessed that she has very little memory, and asked me how she knew my Grandpa. I was so sad when I heard that. I didn’t know how to respond or what to say. I wanted to help, but I didn’t know how without making her feel worse. So, it was quiet in the car for a few minutes and I felt horrible.
Then, she broke the silence by saying to me, “I’m sorry that I don’t remember you.”
Now, I felt even worse. She was the one apologizing, and yet, I was the one who had nothing to offer. I was the inadequate one.
I felt completely helpless, but then shared with her the only thing that came to my mind. “Mitzi, I remember coming over to your house when I was a kid.”
She looked back, smiled and said, “Really?!?”
I then said, “Can I tell you the story?” (I wasn’t thinking of my work around storytelling or anything… those words just flew out of my mouth).
She perked up and said, “I love stories!”
I told her the story of when my parents took me to her house when I was about 10 years old, and I how scared I was being left with strangers. She and her husband were my babysitters for the night, and I didn’t know either of them. And their house was so big, which frightened me even more. I had to spend the entire night in this big, scary house with two people I didn’t know.
I told her that I remembered hysterically crying. But then she took me out of the house, walked me up the street to a bakery a few blocks away and allowed me to pick out a dessert. I remember the fancy chocolate, decorated slice of cake and it completely put me at ease. It was the world’s best medicine. And I told her all my fears went away with that cake. It was just a cake, but at the time, it was the best thing in the world. And, I never forgot about that cake.
As I’m telling her the story, she was cracking up, and then…
… she said, “Do you like stories? Can I tell you one?”
The four of us, all together, said, ‘Yes!”
“I’ll tell you a story about being in a big scary place.”
She launches into a story about a time she took her family on the Queen Mary across the Atlantic. She was in her thirties. She described every detail of the ship, and how daunting it was at first (as was the case when my parents left me at her house). When they boarded the ship, she met the Captain, and they started talking. Because of the connection they formed, he upgraded them from Third class to a First Class suite with separate bedrooms for the kids.
She described all the details of the furniture in the room, the flowers, the smells, all the details of the Promenade deck, all the people she met, and how over-the-top lavish that experience was.
It was one of the most amazing things for me to witness: a few minutes earlier, she couldn’t even recall how she knew her long-time, dear friend – my Grandfather. And, now she was telling crystal clear stories about something that happened over sixty years ago.
“You want to hear another story about being scared?”
She shares another story. This one about a trip she made to Argentina before she married, and how scary it was for her to be a foreign country. But then she met and fell in love with an Argentinean man. And this story was even more colorful. She talked about how suave and handsome this man was.
She goes on to tell us that years later, while she was married, she went back and had a rendezvous with this “first love” of hers. I swear that if you had listened to the story, without seeing her, you would thing it was a young woman telling a crush story.
She was so crystal clear, so emotive. Se was so full of life as she was sharing with us. EVERYTHING changed in just minutes. Thank god there was typical L.A. traffic allowing us to listen to one story after another. Meanwhile, I’m in the back seat, a total basket case, in tears.
When we got to the restaurant, she owned everything, everyone. She was the life of the party. And then when we drive her home, she said, ‘Do you want more stories?’ And she kept going… till we dropped her back off at home. And, I was so sad to let her go.
I share this experience because it was as if these emotions had been dormant – lights off, for who knows how many years, and I was able to witness those lights being turned on. My tiny, little, accidental story about the cake she bought for me thirty years ago turned into a series of amazing stories that had been locked away for years, probably decades.
And for the next few days, I couldn’t get Mitzi out of my mind. It affected me in such a big way. About a week later, I shared this story with a psychologist friend who gave me the ‘professional ‘, clinical explanation of what had happened: how Mitzi was able to access neuro-clusters, etc., etc.
For me it’s simpler – it’s everything I’ve come to learn about stories, and why we share them. Stories beget stories. Stories trigger emotions and memories. We reciprocate stories.
But here’s the thing: we don’t tell stories to persuade, to convince, to charm, to sell. We share stories because that is what we’re supposed to do.
Mitzi’s life is better because of that car ride. Better because she was able to share those stories with another human being. Better because we were able to connect through those experiences, and shared emotion.
My life is better.
And today, when I ask myself what that evening with Mitzi has to do with selling: Everything!
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