We once ran a storytelling workshop for Coastwide Laboratories, a company that makes liquid cleaners that schools, hospitals, and bus depots use to wash their floors and countertops. About 150 executives and salespeople spent a lot of time telling us about the company’s “sustainable earth” products and its sustainability emphasis in research and development.
We couldn’t have cared less. It didn’t mean anything to us. That was 2003 and sustainability wasn’t a household word. We had no idea how Coastwide’s sustainability efforts were any different from General Electric’s (GE) or Dell’s or one of its chief competitors. If you’re in a commodity industry and you’re using commodity language such as sustainability, what makes you different?
We asked the team to tell us the single best story they could think of that demonstrated the environmental safety and quality of its cleaning products.
After four hours, one executive finally said: “Before we take a new cleaning product to market, we take a goldfish and drop it in a bucket of that product. If the goldfish swims, we know those chemicals are safe enough to seep into the earth. In fact, you could drink them and be just fine. We’ve done it. However, if the goldfish dies, we know we’ve got a massive quality control issue on our hands, and we have to go back to the drawing board. That’s what sustainability means to us.”
Now that’s a concrete, vivid, and compelling illustration of an incredibly abstract concept like sustainability—and a memorable story!
That’s weekend language. When it comes to effective communication, the story is everything. But it’s the thing almost every executive forgets, except on the weekends.
Stories are the super glue of communication and a staple of the language we use on weekends. The stories you tell at weekend parties are jargon-free and far more memorable than the corporate blather we spew in the office. When you go out with friends on Saturday night, you don’t say things like we “optimized our services solutions to further monetize our business.”
No, we tell stories. We talk about how our shy daughter performed at the school talent show in front of hundreds of people. The audience laughs along to the story of how our son swallowed his front tooth, which had fallen out, and worried about a potential snub from the tooth fairy.
On weekends our speech is conversational, simple, clear, and interesting. We resist four-letter acronyms. Our conversation is full of examples, anecdotes, and analogies. At parties and over the backyard fence, people actually pay attention when we talk. They smile. They ask questions. They remember. And, then they walk across the room or yard and re-tell them to their husbands, wives, friends, and neighbors. That’s effective communication.
Then Monday morning hits, we step into the office, and out comes that indecipherable blather we think sounds smart and “high-level” but is really just Corporate Klingon understood only by other Klingons. Far too often, we’re not truly communicating.
We’re all born storytellers, but that often fades away when get into business settings –presentations, customer meetings, even internal talks. Never forget that stories are the fundamental building blocks of effective communication. And while telling stories couldn’t be any simpler, the result is truly magical.
So here’s some homework: Listen to the difference between the language you use on weekends vs. that on weekdays. Become aware of your strengths as a weekend storyteller so you can drag them into your weekday communications. Then think of your best story at work. Are you using weekend language to tell it?
If not, you might be weekday communicator who needs the weekend to come up with a better story.