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Where’s the bathroom?
I was about to meet my girlfriend’s parents for the first time.
With the anxious self-consciousness that most of us reserve for job interviews and international border crossings, I double-checked the orderliness of my hair, cleanliness of my shirt, and integrity of my fly.
The concrete front steps of my girlfriend’s family home were painted with an icy frost. I carefully side-stepped to the top of them, approached the oak door, and lifted the cold, weathered knocker with my ungloved hand. Raising the heavy metal ring, I paused, wondering if I was actually ready to let it drop and announce my arrival.
I didn’t know how much credence to give to the unsettling knot in my lower intestines which had accurately saved me from making a fool of myself in the past and at other times manufactured industrial-grade anxiety for no apparent reason.
I had heard more than a few stories about her father’s unpredictable temper, but tried to convince myself that he’d surely keep his cool over a first meeting with his daughter’s boyfriend.
So, I dropped the knocker with a sharp metallic clack. The sound reminded me of a movie-set clapboard.
Scene one—take one.
I was met at the door by my girlfriend’s mom. I had hoped for a completely disarming welcome that would help me relax. Instead, our greeting was conventional, courteous, and brief.
We went right to the dinner table where I was sure to be extra careful to chew with my mouth closed, not wanting to sound like a Neanderthal during this first meal at their house. The ravioli was delicious, but for some reason, her mother was unaware that she'd badly burned the popcorn for the movie we were going to watch together after dinner. Hollywood entertainment struck me as an odd focus for our first introduction, but as it took me out of the spotlight, I decided to roll with it.
The film was "Dead Poets Society" starring Robin Williams who plays a renegade teacher in a stuffy elite boys school. One of its beloved scenes features William’s character encouraging students at the academy to cast off conformity and, as an exercise, find their own unique way of walking through the cobblestone courtyard.
Suddenly, I became very aware that I was not there in the commons of that prep school, but sitting on a couch in a suburban home, and that I had to pee.
I leaned over to my girlfriend and whispered, "Where's the bathroom?"
"Through the kitchen, take a right down the hall, and then a left," she answered.
Being funny has always been a way I cope with awkward situations. And since I felt self-conscious leaving in the middle of the movie, I instinctively turned to humor.
When I got off the couch, I crossed the living room floor with exaggerated, long, loping strides—reminiscent of a Monty Python sketch called “the ministry of silly walks.” As I exited the living room into the kitchen, fully invoking the living spirit of John Cleese in a bowler hat, I heard a wonderful sound in the distance.
Her parents were laughing at my joke.
This put an even longer lope into my step.
I took that right turn out of the kitchen and then headed down the hallway in the same confident, high-stepping manner.
The lights were off in the hallway, so it was a little dark, but I could still make out the studio family portrait hung at the end of the hall, and the darkened bathroom door on the left.
I headed for it quickly, because I was already well-past the point when I would have relieved myself had I been sitting alone at home.
Two more steps.
Then I took a big step into the bathroom, while simultaneously reaching around the door in search of the light.
. . . but I never found the switch.
Because instead of my foot touching down on the floor, my entire body plummeted into a black hole of nothingness.
There was no floor.
My girlfriend had failed to mention that the first door down the hall was an unlit cellar, which had a steep wooden ladder instead of stairs.
I couldn't possibly describe the mental disorientation of walking through a middle-class domestic home only to find one’s body and mind suddenly plummeting into empty space, with no reference points to orient by.
I rapidly descended into the void.
But soon enough, I started to hit things.
First the ladder, halfway down, bouncing off a few broad wooden steps, and an instant later, I smashed into the basement dryer with a sound that can only be made by a falling body landing on a metal appliance from above.
I was reduced to a crumpled heap of tangled limbs up against the side of the old battered Maytag.
The next thing I became aware of was screaming coming from the other room as it apparently registered in the horrified imaginations of those who lived there what had happened.
Before I knew it, they were all at the top of the ladder, my girlfriend shouting, "Oh my god!" and her dad flying down the steps to attend to me.
It was purely a miracle that after a few minutes I was able to stand up and crawl up that ladder on my own power. Bruised, but nothing broken.
I immediately visited the real bathroom.
Then, we finished the movie, but not the popcorn.
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What’s the point?
Looking back at this period of my life, I see a young man who was working very hard at getting love, approval, and attention by trying to figure out what other people wanted from him, and then bending over backwards to provide it.
I'd be smart, polite, or funny if it would get me accepted.
When I hopped up off the couch to look like I was being my own leader, all of my attention was actually behind me, on those I wanted to impress.
I had yet to understand that a strong need to impress others weakened my capacity to lead myself.
We literally lose our vision—and lose sight of our way—when we try to follow the direction of others while pretending to be out in front.
Personally, I see that falling prey to the desire for popularity, was—and still is—a weakness of character that I need to guard against.
For my vision to remain clear, and to proceed with integrity, I can’t be navigating through a rear view mirror, overly concerned with what others think of me.
That’s not leadership.
It's just a recipe for an eventual fall.
You get to decide what your story means
I turned this personal story into a message about leadership because my own leadership development is a priority for me, and I know many of you are also leaders in your own right.
Discovering the freedom we have to interpret our own stories in a manner of our choosing is the beginning of personal leadership. That freedom also enables us to influence others with skill and authenticity.
If I were addressing a different audience, or speaking to attendees from another industry, or on an alternative theme, I might choose another story, or build a new takeaway into this one.
Ideally, the meaning you assign to your stories will inspire both you and your audience to grow, reflect, and even take a new action.
The competency of storytelling will serve you best as a leader if you develop an inventory of notable life experiences and practice relating those experiences to a variety of professional development and organizational themes.
Over time, you’ll become competent at creating story bridges between your own dynamic history and the needs and demographics of your audience.
You can magnify your influence and convey the wisdom of your life experience when you start to take inventory of your stories and learn to frame them to inspire potential in others.
Bring your story and practice
On Podium Day this week we’ll practice building story-bridges.
Bring an interesting life story that is colorful, entertaining, shocking, or notable and we’ll help each other find a theme, lesson, or takeaway that will communicate something of value to an audience of your choosing.
If you don’t have a story in mind, you may want to consult the Story Inventory sheet you received in your welcome email when you subscribed, or just show up and we’ll help you find a story when you get here.
This Week’s Event
Thur. Nov 2nd, 9 am PST - Podium Day
This Thursday we’ll talk about how to map a personal story to an inspiring or educational message that will bring value to your audience.
Welcome New Members
Welcome to all LEAP meeting attendees who attended last week’s conference in Prince George, BC. I’m honored to have you here.
Several of you asked excellent questions about storytelling during the conference that I was unable to address earlier—so I’m answering them here.
As a storyteller, how do you know what stories are worth telling?
Great question Kyndra. This is honestly a process of trial and error. You have to tell a lot of stories to find those that most resonate with others. Try to find low-stakes, smaller audiences that you can practice storytelling with, and as you stumble on stories that others find entertaining or valuable you will refine your understanding over time about the stories that specific audiences find most useful.
Some stories are more relatable than others, so I'm curious if there are certain factors you consider when planning your storytelling.
Yes Sophia, you’re right! Some stories are more relatable than others. A good rule of thumb here is to be as authentic as you can be with your storytelling, especially if a story reveals something about that is imperfect or that most of us try to hide. The most relatable stories reveal our humanness, flaws, and ordinariness. If you want to share a story of a win or a triumph, try to include a view of the struggles you went through to get there. Relatable stories are stories that make your listener think, “Oh, that person is just like me.”
Your presentation style was very unique. What tips do you have for managing groups or audiences who have very diverse reactions to your style?
This is an insightful question, and I appreciate you asking it Alex. To succeed as a communicator or thought leader we have to take a clear position with our ideas, presentation and style. I do tend to get strong reactions to my waiter routine as the lead-in to my keynotes, and that’s by design. I aim to not be forgettable. Whether people like the style or not, the hot or cold take they have on my act helps the lessons I’ve presented to stick, and hopefully then be of use to the attendee in the future. I always express my respect for those who don’t find favor with my style. It’s not for everyone. I’ll usually communicate that the style I’ve chosen is not meant to be off-putting or offensive, it’s meant to be educational, or hopefully entertaining. I’m always trying to walk a line that allows me to be engaging without being invasive, so I’m always open to feedback about how to do that better. The willingness to remain open to pushback about my style helps me to improve and goes a long way to creating a respectful relationship with detractors.
Thank you for the amazing and engaging presentation! How did you come up with the "waiter" act? It was definitely the most engaging entrance to a presentation I've ever experienced!
Thanks for asking about this Sophia. I wrote a full article about that here.
That’s it for this week’s newsletter.
Thanks for being a subscriber. It always means a lot to me when people comment or ask questions. Your engagement is an important part of our learning as a community.
I hope to see you on Podium Day!
Pivot to the Podium is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.