In my senior year of high school, I was early on Monday mornings.
I am not a morning person.
In fact, it would be difficult to classify me as a person in the morning. I am more of a stumbling need for caffeine and solitude.
But I would show up at least a half-hour early on Mondays to stand in a circle of other guys kicking dirt and smoking cigarettes. And telling stories about the weekend.
Some of us had even spent time together over the weekend but we still wanted to hear the story about what we did. Especially if it was Jim Smith telling it. We called him Schmidt, because it didn’t seem possible that a real person could be named Jim Smith. Schmidt was a mechanic after school and destined to be a mechanic until he died. He was also the best storyteller I ever knew.
We would try to make the mundane magnificent. Sometimes, we were funny. Some of us more than others. But we would stand there, kicking dirt and looking at grass until Jim uttered a sentence and flicked his Zippo. We’d watch him light up and start the story.
He unspooled setting, character, exposition, climax and conclusion even if he didn’t know he was doing those things. He excelled at timing, always the key in story-telling.
Even today, when I want to tell a story right, I’ll think about how Schmidt would do it.
It doesn’t matter what else you do in your life, if you’re not telling stories and constantly trying to improve on your story-telling skill, you may as well be any other animal. Communication is what makes us human. We teach each other. We pass along traditions. We make life worth living. With stories.
A great joke is a story with a surprise, because that’s what sparks humor – surprise. Some guys know that wooing a girl far above his ugly factor takes a story that suggests there is something more to him that is worth knowing. Your story is your essence.
That is the moral in this month’s interview that Publisher Paul Feldman conducted with Joe Pulizzi, an early practitioner of content marketing. Joe passes on excellent advice for finding the right vehicle for your story to build business. But Joe’s most important point was the simplest: you tell stories every day but you don’t recognize them.
When you confess your worst sales misadventures, you are passing along your wisdom and helping someone else navigate a similar circumstance. When you relay how you shook an angry fist, or digit, at another motorist just to end up spending an excruciating few minutes standing next to him at the supermarket checkout line, you are demonstrating that we live in a community where our careless actions have consequences. When you tell a child how you met her mommy after a mean girl stood you up, you are assuring her that no matter how much her heart is broken now, someone out there will treasure, and deserve, her precious gift.
Schmidt would have curled his lip at that last line, pronouncing it sappy. But he didn’t see what he was doing with his own jokes about a father who seemed to value only alcohol tolerance and an English teacher who appeared to enjoy inscribing an elaborate red “F” on Schmidt’s stories. Schmidt was easing his pain and, along the way, he taught us about dealing with our own disappointments.
Schmidt’s most important lesson is the same one Joe Pulizzi conveys. Get the right story, get the story right and then get out of the way.
Schmidt threw everything he had into a tale: his inflection, his arms, his eyebrows, his feet. But he kept himself out of it, as a mutual observer, as your narrator. He never cast himself as the hero, although, years later, you might conclude that he was.
We sell services. We move products. We cash checks. That’s what we do, but that’s not who we are. Our stories move people to action. They succeed us generation to generation. Think of it this way. You can either shape the story or be someone else’s story.
I learned that on the rise between the parking lot and school. I never fared that well in Schmidt’s stories. In fact, there are probably lots of little Schmidts running around with stories about this idiot, Marino.
Because Morelli is just too goofy a name for a person.
The best story wins. You have heard that, no doubt. Long after might fails, words ring on. On this 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, we don’t recall a lot of details of what happened on that day, but those images and that sweeping story stand as tall as a monument today. On this 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, it was 10 sentences uttered months after the fight that gave meaning to all those deaths.
It is never what happens to you, it is what you make of it that counts. Schmidt made legends out of the stupid things that teenagers do. I don’t remember the deeds so much as his recounting of them. He made characters out of us and adventures out of our actions.
Try this: Take the most interesting thing that happened to you today and make a story out of it. It might not have been a very exciting event, but build the story in your imagination. Then later today, tell it to someone. If you aren’t up for that, tell it to your smartphone.
You’ll see where you might have been lacking and need to develop, but also you might surprise yourself. Do this as many days as you can, and pretty soon, you’ll be known as a great storyteller.
You might even find yourself getting into trouble, just for the story. Like the time when the cops were chasing us and then we ended up chasing them. Schmidt was at the wheel. It was a hell of a ride.
Maybe I’ll tell you about it sometime. But you have to tell one, too.
See ya Monday.
Steven A. Morelli