This is the followup to a previous post on why your elevator pitch deserves a quick and merciful death. Have you done it yet? Yes? ... Good. Keep reading.
I'm seated across the table from my Dad, who miraculously appeared in San Francisco three days ago on his way back east from visiting my brother further up the coast. He is about to try out the fun game I taught him on my unsuspecting partner, Bruce.
I call this the What's Your Story Game, so named for the nightmare networking question that never fails to induce a mild anxiety attack:
Where do I start? What do I include? How do I sum myself up in 30 seconds?
Faced with this question, internally grasping but keeping our cool, we too often latch onto a job title, career history, or elevator pitch to keep us afloat...
And end up squandering a golden opportunity- not just to express ourselves, but also to make a meaningful and satisfying connection with another human.
We do the same thing when asked "what do you do?":
We answer the implicit question about work, rather than accept our invitation onto the playground of open-ended possibility.
So here it is, my gift to you: the better way you always knew existed:
A simple three-part game that enables you to have some fun while transforming a vague getting-to-know-you question...
into a sincere request for a specific story;one that YOU actually want to tell, and that the other person actually wants to hear.
Play this, and watch your conversations transform.
Phase One: Clarity
First things first: You should never let anyone get away with asking you a meaningless question, or one they don't really want to know the answer to.
To remedy this, always answer an open-ended question with another question so as to invite them to tell you what they really want:
"So Jim, what's your story?" Bruce asks, the willing participant.
Dad shrugs his shoulders, hands spread like he's an open book. "What do you want to know?"
When asked for clarity, Bruce might decide that all he really wants to know is Dad's job title, in which case he will narrow it down: "What do you do for work?" To which my father can respond in three words and be done with it.
But... maybe you've noticed that the more sophisticated and higher up the food chain the asker is, the more likely he is to deliberately reiterate the vagueness - thereby giving you, the person in the hot seat, the space to talk freely about yourself... just to see how you react to all that freedom.
Phase TWO: Choice
Bruce, ever sophisticated, opts to keep it open-ended: "I don't know; tell me about yourself."
Now, my Dad has a secret. The secret is that earlier today he spent some time reflecting on the vast array of his life experiences, and he's identified three categories (or "buckets") wherein he has spent a solid chunk of his time, energy, and resources.
(It took him all of two minutes.)
Thus armed, he flashes a grin in my direction. "Well, there's a lot to tell. But you could say I've got three buckets." He ticks them off on his fingers: "They are: (1) rocks, (2) investing in passion, and (3) going to places that make me uncomfortable. Which do you want to hear about?"
With this simple counter-question, my dad has achieved several things:
1. He's done something unexpected. Already, Bruce has his head cocked in surprise as he is forced to consider what these three categories mean, and how they play together.
2. He's demonstrated self-awareness, by being able to reduce the entirety of his being to just three categories - refreshingly simple in a world of information overload. And;
3. He's given Bruce a choice in what comes next. And who doesn't love to choose their own adventure?
Phase Three: Curiosity
Intrigued, Bruce will pick a category: "Huh. Tell me about going to places that make you uncomfortable."
Now we have a request for one type of story over the other two, which tells us something about who Bruce is and where his interests lie. (What, not rocks?)
At this point, my dad already has the permission he needs to launch into the story of his choosing: perhaps about the time he swallowed his fear and judgment and followed me to India, or the time he risked everything (when I was small and oblivious) in order to grow his business; and in turn, how these experiences helped him evolve as a businessman and human being.
But before he does that, he will take it one step further: "Out of curiosity, why did you pick that one?"
This final step is KEY, because it gives Bruce, who in theory is still a mystery to my father, the chance to provide insight into WHY he's interested in the topic of going to places that make him uncomfortable - insights my dad can then use to shape the way he tells his story, or to pick a different story altogether.
As it actually happens, Dad doesn't even have to take this final step. As soon as his three buckets are revealed, Bruce exclaims: "I ALSO like going to places that make me uncomfortable!"
Dad, grinning: "Really, where's the last place you went?"
Bruce: "Now that I think about it, it was Cuba."
Dad: "Wow, I've always wanted to go. What was that like?"
Bruce: Starts, then catches himself - aware that the game has worked - and says, "wait a minute... Now I'm talking about myself!"
There you have it: a simple and surefire way to get the other person engaged in the part of your story they most want to hear about.
The goal of this game, unlike an elevator pitch, is not to quickly summarize your professional efforts so that others can nod and put you in the right box without having to think too hard about it.
The goal of the game is not to pretend, like everyone else, a level of expertise that no bumbling human can ever hope to truly have.
The goal of the game is to own yourself and your experience; to lighten up a little; and to invite others to play with you. It's an infinite (versus a finite) game; the goal is not to win, but to continue the play.
I call it a "game" because I want you to have fun with it, but it's really an exercise in shared meaning-making. What you offer with your 3 buckets is not three different versions of you; but rather three distinct ways for your audience to access the same foundational content of who you are.
If Bruce HAD chosen rocks, Dad would have described what building hundreds of feet of rock wall in his spare time has taught him about building a successful business. When I offer my buckets, one of them is "Story" - imagine the array of stories I get to tell with that one!
By letting them choose, you relieve yourself of having to decide, in an instant, which way to go. And you're not surrendering too much control, because - pssst! - the game is rigged. What you know going into it is that all the stories are meaningful and relevant for a professional conversation, if you want them to be.
And the best part is that you can change your buckets any time you like - no one is going to follow you around publicly accusing you of having different buckets last time.