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  • Paul Cumbo

Story First

I started class like this a few days ago:

"The playroom that used to be our dining room is often a chaotic mess of scattered toys, especially Legos. At some point last week, I told my older son he needed to clean them up. He looked forlorn. 'How do I even start?' he asked. 'Make smaller piles,' I suggested.

"And I showed him—I even used one of his toy trucks to assist in the work of making piles. He smiled and got to work. The room ended up more-or-less clean. At least there were no Legos to step on.

"So, listen…if things seem overwhelming over the next few months—college applications, school, sports, jobs, family life, personal stuff—just make smaller piles. If you can find a way to use your toy trucks and make it fun, go for it."

Several kids have told me they really valued hearing that, and they've been trying to make smaller piles as the work has started to get serious and anxiety has kicked in.


Since that time, we've been focusing on and practicing public speaking. One of the things we talked about today was the power of starting with a story that makes a point implicitly, before stating that same point explicitly. Showing, in other words, before telling.

If I'd started out simply by telling the seniors to divide and conquer, it wouldn't have had the same impact. But the story—the Legos, the mess, the piles, the toy truck—brought the idea home before I began to explain it.

It's not always the more effective approach, but it usually is. Stories are the oldest form of teaching and learning. Parables, myths, folklore, and fables infuse our culture. Stories resonate. I could have begun this post by stating my point explicitly, but I chose to tell you the story of how I started class last week with my seniors (with a story).

If you have to deliver a talk or presentation, consider using a (well-told, carefully articulated) story as your lead in. Don't steal its thunder. Instead, let the power of narrative illustrate your message first. Stay out of its way, let it do its thing, and resist the temptation to explain first.

Your explanation can come later, if needed—and it probably will be far more enduring because of the story.


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