Stories Are the Best Way for You to Inspire and Motivate

“We Are Here to Talk About Heroes”

I was coaching a gentleman who needed to inspire action and commitment. Ed worked with The Gap, and I said, “Okay, Ed, tell me about yourself.” He said, “I am a newly promoted vice president of a certain division, and this is my first speech to the company since I’ve been promoted.” “Who is your audience?” He replied, “All of the Gap executives and 500 Gap managers.” I asked, “Well, what does a Gap manager look like?” He said, “24 to 28 years old.” I said, “Ed, remember, you are a 45-year old, prematurely silver-haired executive. How long are you going to speak?” He said, “Eight minutes.” I said, “No pressure, but you do realize that in that eight minutes all the executives and 500 Gap managers are going to think either, ‘Now I know why he got promoted,’ or, ‘In a company our size, couldn’t we have done better than that?’ That’s the power of a presentation. I asked, “What is your subject?” He said, “I have to talk about the program in which our employees give us ideas that will either make or save the company money.”

My next question was, “Where are you on the program?” He said, “10:45, after the coffee break.” I said, “There are two words you must not use to begin your presentation. In fact, if you do, I’m coming out of the crowd, getting on stage, and slapping you.” What two words did I tell him not to say that you hear frequently at conferences or company meetings? “Good morning.” If you’re on at 10:45 in the morning, and everyone is delivering eight- or 10-minute presentations, there have been at least eight people on the program before you, and chances are most of them started with “Good morning.”

That’s appropriate for the MC who is first on the program, but if you are the eighth or ninth person, it is too predictable. It is boring. I told him, “What I want you to do is walk on stage and say, “We are here to talk about heroes.” This is important as it will arouse interest in your subject. You will have the most interesting presentation opening of the entire meeting.

Then Ed gave me a page of statistics. I said, “Ed, numbers can be numbing. You have to tell me the story behind the statistics.” He called the HR department for a story. One of my favorites was about a guy who worked in the mailroom. One day he realized he was sending eight FedEx packets to the same location with the same item side, a company publication.

He called the manager sending them out and said, “Does it matter if I combine them and add a note telling the other end to distribute?” It was okay. He walked over to the other guys in the department and said, “Guys, if you find you’re sending multiple items to one location, at least see if you can combine them with a note to distribute. After all, we own stock in The Gap. We don’t own stock in FedEx.” That one idea saved The Gap $200,000.

My next coaching advice was, “Ed, next you need to answer the audience’s unasked questions. ‘What did you do with the money?’ This is how you make your statistics sexy. $200,000 is 17 miles of shelving. It is another jean size we haven’t designed. It’s another month of The Gap rocks, The Gap swings, The Gap jives commercials.

“The next question the audience is wondering, ‘So what’s in it for me if you accept my idea?’ Then you tell them about the cash rewards, and as you walk out you play David Bowie’s “Heroes.”

The fact that my brother played on David Bowie’s “Heroes” has absolutely nothing to do with my adding it in every possible presentation.

My next question was, “Ed, do you have any kids at home?” He said, “Yes, I have an eight-year-old daughter.” I suggested, “What I want you to do is sit down with her and say, ‘Daddy’s going to tell you some stories about some interesting people he works with.’“ Because if you can keep the attention of your eight-year-old daughter, there is a vague possibility you can keep the attention of 500 young Gap managers. Practice your stories on your children.

I said, “Ed, I want you to be so good that every time your daughter hears you come in, she runs over and says, ‘Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, tell me some more stories about those interesting people you work with.’” If you’re going to speak in front of 500 Gap managers and all the executives, you need to practice and rehearse so that you can have fun. After all, Oscar winner Michael Caine’s advice is, “Rehearsal is the work, performance is the relaxation.”

I was there to see Ed walk on stage and begin by saying, “We’re here to talk about heroes.”

Everybody laughed. I didn’t know they would laugh. He didn’t know they would laugh, but he had enough sense to wait. You must always respond as if you expect the audience to respond that way. If you keep talking when they’re laughing, you’re going to program them not to laugh.

Then Ed continued, “We are here to talk about heroes. They may be sitting in front of you, they may be sitting behind you. They may even be you in the trenches, Gap heroes.” I saw 500 Gap managers sit up, sit forward, and pay attention.

You should not be surprised to know that Ed was the first executive on stage in that meeting to receive a standing ovation. This is the secret: When you are telling stories, you must populate those stories with flesh and blood characters whom your audience can relate to. Remember, when you speak to an audience and do it well, you speak to the audience of your audience because they will be retold. Stories are a simple and great way to explain an idea or a complex situation. Give your audience a model of how ordinary people doing their job might ask, “I wonder if this makes sense.”