Be a journeyist, not a journalist. The purpose of a speech is to transform the audience—to elicit some change in thought, feeling, or action. The purpose of the audience is not to help you unburden yourself of your story.
Life rarely unfolds in a tidy, linear fashion. As we walk our path, we stop along the way. We get lost, learn lessons, nurse our wounds, and retrace our steps before continuing on. We become fascinated with details no one else cares about. We overlook details that everyone else cares about. Be a journeyist, not a journalist. Put your story in the service of your audience by bending, shaping, and shortening it to deliver the transformation you are there to offer.
In my Business Storytelling keynote, I tell a story about a stormy ocean passage. But I omit most of the true-life details. My goal is to transport the audience out of their chairs and into my story and then … Surprise! This story is about you!
The spoken version:
I am 26 years old … sailing a 26-foot boot … across water that's 2600 feet deep!
The Gulf Stream is a river within the sea, a current that flows northward between Florida and the Bahama Banks…
A river that lies between me and my home … Miami.
I set out in the afternoon, planning to sail through the night so I can arrive with the morning light.
The first five or six hours of my trip are glorious … beautiful sailing with the boat skipping and playing through the waves.
As the sun sets, the wind comes up…
And the temperature drops.
The wind comes up some more…
And the temperature drops some more…
Waves begin to break over the boat.
It's the only time in thousands of miles of sailing that I have ever tied a rope around my waist and lashed myself into the cockpit.
I am cold … and wet … and scared.
But there's nothing I can do but keep sailing toward home.
After midnight, I see lights.
My path is converging with two huge freighters and an enormous cruise ship.
I look up at the top of my mast.
My battery is dying … my light is growing dim.
I watch the lights carefully and dodge the two freighters.
Then I time my turn carefully and cut behind the cruise ship.
I can hear the hum of its big engines.
As I pass behind it, I look up into the stern and see the flashing lights and silhouettes of people dancing! hear the boom-chicka-boom-chicka-boom of the disco.
Oh my God! Those people are having a very different experience than I am … in the same place … at the same time!
I'm fighting for survival … and they're fighting to get to the bar for a third margarita!
Have you ever felt like that?
Like you're out there on the ocean of business with the big waves and the cruise ships and freighters, and you can't get anyone to notice you?
Today's session on business storytelling…
This introduction takes three minutes to deliver. It's fast enough to keep listeners from wondering why I'm talking about myself! Because my goal is to transform the audience, I don't burden them with details. The Gulf Stream is actually deeper than 2,600 feet, but why ruin a good opening line? You can sink in 200 feet as easily as you can in 20,000. I don't mention that I wasn't sailing alone because it doesn't matter. I give my listeners a taste of adventure and then make my story about the deep waters they have to cross. I've come to teach them about the power of storytelling and this tale about their adventures pulls them in and makes them receptive to my message.
Compare this to the original, prose version in my sailing memoir. Having read or watched the spoken version first, notice the factual details that I excluded from the speech.
Before sunset, we sail past Gun Cay Lighthouse into the Gulf Stream with sails shortened as a precaution. Under reefed mainsail and a small jib, we fly along. For eight hours, we enjoy an exhilarating sail through six-foot seas. Blue Monk shows her North Sea Folk Boat heritage. With her heavy, full keel, she is balanced and comfortable.
The wind increases.
The temperature drops.
I take down the mainsail.
The wind increases.
The temperature drops.
We continue under jib alone, flying along with gusty winds of 30 knots and disorganized twelve-foot seas.
I look behind us. The dinghy is fifteen feet in the air.
It must be 40˚ Fahrenheit out here.
Repeatedly, I'm blasted with cold air, then drenched by warm Gulf Stream waves crashing over my ship.
I tie a rope around my waist and secure the other end to a winch pad, lashing myself into the cockpit.
Karen is cold and uncomfortable in her light foul weather gear. Even under shortened sail, managing the helm in these waves requires force, concentration, and experience. “Put the bunk cushions on the cabinsole where you can't get tossed out of bed,” I suggest. “Lie down on the floor. Stay warm and dry. I'll stay at the tiller and keep us on course.”
The batteries are failing. My running lights are dim, hardly visible.
I dodge two enormous freighters and a brilliantly lit cruise ship converging on our position. Behind the windows of the ocean liner, colored lights illuminate the bodies of dancing tourists. Is my tiny boat even visible to their radar in these big seas?
Blue Monk flies off a wave top, falls and crashes sideways into the trough.
Karen calls out to me. “Did we hit something?”
“Nah, just a big wave. Everything's fine.”
I'm not so sure.
Lights at the tops of radio towers appear on the horizon.
I think I see the sweeping beam of a lighthouse.
There it is again.
What lighthouse is this? The flashing pattern is wrong; it doesn't match anything on my chart.
The Gulf Stream should have pushed us north, but perhaps these northerly winds have pushed us south? Where in hell are we? Somewhere in the northern Florida Keys, I guess. Maybe Key Largo? How could that be? It's as if the northbound current had no effect on our course at all.
The sky purples behind us—slowly.
If this is the Florida Keys, I know we must avoid the dangerous reefs offshore. I watch carefully for breakers.
I struggle to hold a steady course while studying the flashing patterns of various Florida lighthouses indicated on the chart. Could this be Carysfort Light? Could we be this far south?
The keel bumps hard on the bottom.
Blue Monk is lifted by the swell and continues forward.
“What was that?” Karen looks up at me through the companionway.
We're past the shallows, inside the barrier reef.
The book version was not created to teach a life or business lesson. As rich and experiential as it aims to be, its simple goal is to bring you along for the ride.
If you have a big story, your natural inclination will be to honor the truth of it. But this is—in the sense of “keeping a journal”—journalism. Few people have read my sailing memoir—it is, after all, about me—but thousands have heard my “cruise ship speech,” a speech based on an event that barely receives passing mention in the prose version.
Put your story—or a piece of it—or something derived from it in the service of your audience. Be a journeyist, not a journalist.