Ask ‘when have you seen this problem in action?’
Sometimes the best stories come from executives’ own experiences with the problem or situation.
Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, uses this personal story in his 2006 letter to shareholders to illustrate the problem with executive spending:
“Corporate bigwigs often complain about government spending, criticizing bureaucrats who they say spend taxpayers’ money differently from how they would if it were their own. But sometimes the financial behavior of executives will also vary based on whose wallet is getting depleted.
“Here’s an illustrative tale from my days at Salomon. In the 1980s the company had a barber, Jimmy by name, who came in weekly to give free haircuts to the top brass. A manicurist was also on tap. Then, because of a cost-cutting drive, patrons were told to pay their own way. One top executive (not the CEO) who had previously visited Jimmy weekly went immediately to a once-every-three-weeks schedule.”
How do you get these stories?
1. Ask, ‘What’s your story?’
When presentation trainer Lynn Espinoza was helping a Fortune 100 executive prepare for a speech on the company’s environmental efforts, she asked, “What’s your story?”
“It turns out that she is personally committed to the environment in an unexpected way,” Espinoza writes. “So committed is she that she and her husband bought 60-acres in the Australian outback. They are restoring the downtrodden land with the hope of returning it to the adjacent Australian National Park. She takes international conference calls from inside her tent, hoping that the Kookaburras don’t make too much noise.”
What stories could your subject matter expert tell — if you’d only ask?
2. Move from situation to implication
Executive speechwriter Les Bendtsen uses this approach:
“When I ghostwrite, I sit down and say, ‘Here’s a topic we’re thinking of writing about. When have you, your family or your ancestors confronted a problem like this before?’ I try to get away from the facts of the situation to the implication. Not, ‘How will our company weather this rough market?’ but ‘What did your dad do when he lost money in a venture or started his own business and failed?'”
As communicators, we concentrate a lot on focusing our lens to gather specific details. But sometimes zooming out to the broader theme can help you find the story.