“What I feel about history and leadership is that the best way to reach people … is to be able to tell a story.”
– Doris Kearns Goodwin, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer and historian
If only my history teachers had known that.
History was always so boring. Facts and figures. Memorization. Stuff I learned for the test and mostly forgot.
The problem is, no one ever told me a story, at least not well enough to keep me interested. But in college, I took a class I didn’t have to attend and history came to life.
Okay, so I did go to one lecture of that history class. It was in a booming lecture hall and the professor had a thick accent. Now history would be boring and hard to understand.
But I did hear this loud and clear. There were two ways to ace this class:
- Come to every lecture and take the tests
- Do four book reports from his reading list
I don’t remember all four books, but I remember the one that changed my idea of history completely. In fact, it changed the world. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is widely regarded as the catalyst for the FDA and to a lesser extent, the labor movement.
No doubt I had studied the industrial revolution at some point in school, had learned that people migrated to cities all over the world to work in factories under horrible conditions. But the story of Lithuanian immigrant Jurgis Rudkus and his family made it real. The characters lived in that world, so I got to live in it too.
Although I read the book decades after that period in history, I didn’t eat canned meat or tuna for a long time. The descriptions of rat-infested factories and worse were so captivating, I didn’t want to take any chances.
After reading The Jungle, I devoured historical fiction and finally started to learn something about history.
So why is it that when companies want to communicate something, they go to the rote learning methods of marginal education? A state-of-the-company address that focuses only on numbers. A product presentation that focuses only on features. A media interview that is just a long list of everything the company does.
There is a story in all that, one that people would be interested in if you would tell it. The kind of thing people would pay attention to and remember.
As public radio host Ira Glass said, “Great stories happen to those who tell them.” Shouldn’t you be one of those people?