Hurtling through the oxygen-thin sky at thirty-five thousand feet, hoarding multiple airline-issue pillows and blankets stuffed at various angles into the space around my body, I finally have a chance to watch Hidden Figures -- a movie about three brilliant African-American women responsible for the math that ultimately launched astronaut John Glenn into orbit around the Earth in the early 1960's.
In it, there is a scene in which the character of Mary Jackson goes to court to argue before a Virginia judge for the right to attend classes at an all-white school in a still-segregated state -- the only thing standing in her way of becoming the first female engineer at NASA.
Once the judge allows her to approach the bench, here's what she DOESN'T do:
She does not launch into a speech about how much she deserves what she wants, how qualified she is for the opportunity, or how unfair it is that she should be denied.
Rather, she starts with a curveball: "Your honor, YOU of all people should understand the importance of being first."
The judge humors her and asks: "Why is that, Ms. Jackson?"
So she proceeds to tell him what he already knows: that he was the first in his family to serve in the armed forces, US Navy; the first to attend college, George Mason; and the first to receive a certain honor as a judge three consecutive times in a row.
She has his attention now, as she has led with his favorite subject of all: himself.
"You've done you're research," he admits. "What's the point?"
Now, she uses the theme of "being first" to bridge her personal agenda to something that transcends either of them:
"The point is your honor, no Negro woman in the state of Virginia has ever attended an all white school. It's unheard of."
"Unheard of," he confirms.
"And before Alan Shepard sat on top of a rocket," she continues, "no American had ever touched space -- and now he will forever be remembered as the US Navy Man from New Hampshire, the first to touch the stars."
... Suddenly, a conversation about race in America has evolved into another about "touching the stars;" which is a much bigger (and conveniently metaphorical) frame for her agenda to fit into.
Only now does she bring it back down to Earth, and proceed to the ask:
"And I sir, I plan on being an engineer at NASA. But I can't do that without taking them classes at that high school. And I can't change the color of my skin. So I have no choice but to be the first, which I can't do without you, sir."
And before he can respond, she asks him to remember not only the bigger context -- but also how he fits into it:
"Your honor, out of all the cases you'll hear today, which one will matter a hundred years from now? Which one is going to make YOU the first?"
Then, brilliantly, she waits.
She does not shoot herself in the foot by saying any more than she needs to.
And he chuckles, because he knows he's done for.
She's made it impossible to say no.
And with one counter question, which he issues while looking at her sideways in appreciation -- "only the night classes?" -- he does the "unheard of," and gives her what she wants.
Sitting in my cramped airplane seat, my eyes fill with surprising tears -- not only because of how just and righteous it is for her to get the yes, but because (nerd alert!) of how brilliantly and effectively she constructed her pitch.
Her character knew the most important secret of both storytelling AND sales:
YOU are never the hero of your story.
The hero is always your AUDIENCE.
Now, think about what YOU want most in the world.
Think about WHO you'll need to get on board.
And ask yourself:
How you can build a frame for your opportunity, so that it presents as a chance for them to get what they want?