Years ago, when I lived and worked in New Haven, CT, a local senior citizens group published a book of member essays called We All Have Stories to Tell. The book featured funny, moving and heartfelt stories about the seniors’ life experiences – the simple games of childhoods gone by, the immigrant in a new world, struggling through the Great Depression, being shipped overseas to fight in World War II, finding work on returning to the states, raising their families, losing a child or a spouse, the challenges of declining health in old age, life lessons learned along the way.
I often think about this book when I take on a speech assignment for a new client. We all know, these days, that speechwriters are “corporate storytellers.” I usually have no trouble finding stories to tell about the company itself (its history, its founders, what interesting projects are in the works, how its products or services improve people’s lives), but I have found that getting personal stories from executive speakers is sometimes a story in itself.
I recently wrote a speech for a new client from whom I was unable to extract even the most basic of personal information with which to pepper his speech.
At our first and only meeting, I asked him these questions, hoping to elicit some stories and also get a sense of who he was as a person so I could more easily write to his “voice.” Here’s what I got:
• Q. How do you like to spend time away from work? A. With family.
• Q. Who do you admire in business? The arts? Politics? Education? Public Life? A. I don’t really want to get into all that.
• Q. What kinds of music do you enjoy? A. With a teen in the house, I am exposed to all kinds of music.
• Q. What makes you laugh? Do you have a favorite comedian? A. Not interested in all that.
• Q. What do you have on your desk at the office? A. A seashell, pix of my family.
And so it went. I didn’t learn much about the speaker or much of anything in the way of stories I could use in the speech.
On reflection, I realize I might have been (should have been) more thoughtful and pointed in the questions I asked to solicit stories that might have been pertinent to the speech.
For example, I might have asked the speaker (who is president and CEO of the company) what were the most important leadership lessons he learned? What was the best advice he ever got about running a business? What were some mistakes he learned early in his business life that stood him in good stead later on? Did he have mentors? How did they help him? Does he mentor anyone?
I know there are more and better questions I could have asked to develop the stories that make a speech “sing.” And make it touch the hearts and minds of those who hear it.
In the end, we all have stories to tell. Will you share yours? How you go about collecting the stories that inform and elevate your executive speeches?