Sunday, June 26, 2011

An Analysis of a Storied Approach to Crafting Influential Messages

Terrence Gargiulo's 2011 Commencement Address

A Little Background Story for Context…

Forty years ago I found myself at the first of many interesting educational crossroads. New to Monterey, California my family searched for a school for my sister to attend. After a brief stint in one of the public schools my parents enrolled Franca at Santa Catalina School. It was an all-girls school from Pre-Kindergarten (PreK) through high school run by Domincan nuns.

Somehow the school decided it would entertain a wild and crazy idea: start boys in the PreK. Maybe they needed revenue, maybe they were curious, I honestly don’t know what precipitated the change. I found myself invited to be one of the few, one of the proud, and one of the lucky boys invited to partake in this great experiment.

Turned out they really liked us boys. Each year they kept deciding to let us stay another year. By the time we got to fourth grade they decided we could stay for good. However, we were to be the first class to graduate from eighth grade. This year, the school asked me to commemorate that decision and honor me by giving the lower school address commencement address.


The Challenge…

While I am asked frequently to do keynote addresses, I’m not a huge fan of them. It’s just hard to touch people. Perform, impress, command attention, wield pulpit power and create passive hope for people are opportunities offered by keynoting. I hunger for the intimacy of inciting insights that comes from facilitated storytelling. As a general rule, I set the value of keynoting high, ensuring that only the most serious clients engage me in this way. I also almost always insist on being given other opportunities to work with some of the member of the audience in a different setting other than the plenary address.

The commencement address for Santa Catalina School was for middle school students, parents, teachers and administrators. How could I hold the attention of a diverse audience? Could I create a fertile space of imagination to offer some tangible gifts to aid them on the next part of their journey? How would I make it be about them? Could I avoid clich├ęs, hype, and platitudes? Would I be able to minimize perfunctory pomp and circumstances perpetuated by this genre of speech? How would I be fun and serious at the same time? Would I have to keep my message super simple with only one or two key take-a-ways or could I tackle a complex set of concepts? And could the whole address be done completely with story forms employing my authentic voice?

The Approach…

Despite my familiarity with the school (my son and daughter attend the school) I wanted to hold the graduating students in my heart. Whether or not my clients realize it or not I probe client engagement requirements and stakeholder perspectives with the natural power of story. I elicit stories. Call me wedded to my storied ways, but I don’t know any other way to quickly infer patterns in complex systems. This might seem counter-intuitive but when faced with the speed of business in today’s environment stories are the fastest and most efficient vehicle for analysis and communication.

“Storytelling is a safe space for creative thinking, negotiating differences, and establishing commonality. Storytelling empowers the speaker and improves communication through speaking and listening. Stories are the most efficient way of storing, retrieving, and conveying information. Since story hearing requires active participation on the part of the listener, stories are the most profoundly social form of communication.” – http://www.makingstories.net
I had a few data points about the graduating class and other stakeholders. I filled these in with a couple of informal conversations with teachers, observations of the students leading up to graduation day and an hour meeting with the principal.

Where care is present stories flourish. The shortest distance between two people is a story. Since my children are still in kindergarten and third grade, I did not know the principal of the middle school well. Stories beget stories. An hour flew by in no time but surfaced a wealth of stories. More importantly without me overtly asking the question, “what gift (ideas) do you want to offer these students to help them succeed?” a clear concentration of three major themes emerged. These were judgment, compassion, and mercy. Armed with the gifts and a feel for the students both as individuals and as a class I was equipped to craft my message.

The Story Architecture of the Message…


Two days after my meeting with the principal while sitting on the soccer field watching my son’s practice I conceived the following architecture for the talk in my notebook:

It’s up to you but I recommend watching the video before reading the analysis. This sketch from my notebook and the story architecture will probably make more sense if you watched the video:

Santa Catalina Commencement Address from Terrence Gargiulo on Vimeo.

Let me try to decipher my notes from above for you:

1. After the formal alphabet soup introduction of credentials quickly use humor to create credibility of a personal nature somehow related to the students and audience. Get them immediately involved in the talk. Do this with humor and a quick anecdote. In this case I had a fun and fluid self-effacing bridge to construct between us.

2. Quickly make the talk all about them. Create a rapid interactive collage of small moments and anecdotes that highlights things about the students.

3. Layout a roadmap for the rest of talk. Five stories will be used. Three stories comprised the students’ gifts for their journey (judgment, compassion and mercy). On either end of the three gift stories were two stories. One to illustrate the results of failing to invoke these gifts and the last story for showcasing the impact of when all the gifts are working together.

4. Short interlude of scenarios of when and how these gifts might be necessary. I start with an example of to the daily application of these gifts in my life as a father. Then I offered situations the students are likely to experience in the next leg of their journey.

5. Return to humor I used in the opening of the talk. While being funny, lace it with a serious message in a song that connects with the gifts shared.

6. End with two brief quotes that support and segue into a closing image and metaphor.

Lessons Learned…

I was very purposeful in deciding what kind of stories to use in the talk. Variety and diversity are important. I feel stories need to from many different domains and genres to cast the story net as wide as possible. It can be easy to become too narrow or focused in what kind of stories we tell or how tightly encoded are driving messages are embedded in the stories.

Let me say a little more about this idea of working too hard to couple our message with our stories. I look for a pattern of themes. If I can tag a story with a word closely related to one of the major themes I am trying to communicate that is good enough. I do not need a story that is a perfect illustration of my message; quite the contrary. I want stories that are just a little fuzzy. Allow people to use their sense giving telescope to bring the story into focus. Let your listeners go in the direction most needed by them in the moment. Leave it rich enough that there is lots of room for them to wander through the patterning of stories to uncover new threads of meaning.

By their nature stories are fluid. Stories overlap memories with the context of the moment. I find stories in collages and clusters to be more truthful than pinning the entirety of a message in a single story. All the greatest stories are vast little universes with an orbit of small story fragments. The depth and veracity of stories is more easily perceived when scanning the pattern and intention of stories in proximity with one another. I am naturally distrustful of single isolated large perfect stories with clean beginning, middles, and ends and unmistakable story arcs. In many instances these stories have already been warped around the gravity of a pre-digested message. Stories are creative acts and furthermore I view them as co-creative stages on which themes, drama, and meanings emerge in a process of co-creation. The story is only one small part of the key. The decoding and collaborative sense making space generated by telling a story to trigger the stories of others is sacred. My experience has been that when this space opens up, storytelling and listening is authentic, deep, and responsive to the needs of the moment. The space falls apart when listening ceases and any one person returns to advancing a monocular agenda.
Strategic Use of Stories in Organizational Communication & Learning, Gargiulo 2006

There’s something else wonderful that happens when you work with collage of stories. The stories begin to entwine themselves to each other. For example, I did not architect the triple place of music in the talk – it just sort of happened. There is the musical reference at the beginning of the talk, two of the student anecdotes involve music, the story of Emmanual Jal the hip hop artists and then my closing song. On the one hand there is nothing extraordinary about this phenomenon since it’s just what naturally occurs with stories. It also helps that I come from a musical family so I am naturally drawn to musical stories; yet every time I see stories work their magic I am grateful and humbled by the experience.

Here is how I selected the type of stories to use at the various points of my talk:

Personal History (in my opening humor) – first a small piece of shared experience that I had with them and then move to a quick scene of my longtime affiliation with the school

Student Anecdotes – things I observed and learned about the students – to establish them as the heroes of the talk, to demonstrate care and listening

Personal Anecdote – of a time I failed to access the virtues of judgment, compassion, and mercy and a simple expression of regret

Two Movie Stories – popular archetypal movies (Lord of the Rings and Star Wars) to share the gift of judgment

Story from a Book – Gregory Boyle’s book, Tattoos on the Heart, for the gift of compassion

Historical Story of Major Personality – a story about Pope John Paul II for the gift of mercy

Life Story of Contemporary Young Personality – share the story of the young hip-hop artist Emmanuel Jal to show what it looks like when the gifts of judgment, compassion, and mercy are all working together

Scenario Stories – these are rhetorical questions that paint a scene of daily opportunities for judgment, compassion, and mercy to manifest themselves, start with the personal then move back to students

Story as Music – sing a short song to introduce humor and tie back to themes introduced throughout the talk

Story as Metaphor and Imagery – setup an image that encompasses the three gifts that relates back to the students as heroes, start with two quotes end with vivid word picture

A Few Tips You Might Find Useful…

I have a confession to make…I never practiced this talk and I went to the podium with no notes. All I had was a pair of shorts that I wore when I was in pre-kindergarten at Santa Catalina. Sure, I had told two of these stories in another venue but almost all of the material was new to me. What I did do is spend a lot of time reflecting and visualizing the story architecture of the talk. I also spent a considerable time holding the students in my heart.

Here are a few tips you might find helpful:

• Try not to get bogged down in style. I know what my strengths are. I am genuine, warm, intense, energetic, and personal. Each person has a distinct and beautiful footprint that animates their style. One thing that does transcend style is selflessness.

• Care about what you have to say and care about the people. The rest is very individual.

• Work to make stories in all their forms a central part of how you understand your message, craft your message and deliver your message.

• Think in terms of collages of stories. Avoid single stories. There’s a place for them and I am not recommending you abandon great stories with visible arcs, surprises, and tensions. Lots of stories orbiting your talk pull people into the gravity of your message.

• Delivery matters but not as much as you think. If you get caught up in the ground swell of stories you are sharing and your audience, you’ll be surprised at how an effective tone, color, and character emerges.

• Don’t work so hard to script these things. Anchor yourself on a few key phrases at pivotal moments of the talk and imagine yourself delivering these.

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