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Good Story Bad

Last week I talked about stories, and the power they have to engage people. It was one of my most popular offerings to date. One thing got more attention - both in comments and questions - and that was the part about how engaged people can become in the awful story and what we can do about it. Many of you know that I am a pilot. Part of that journey through aviation involved becoming a flight instructor. One thing I learned about people who love to fly is that the next best thing to flying is talking about flying. Pilots call it "hangar flying", which means being in the hangar around airplanes talking about flying. Now, I had a student who had really been bitten by the aviation bug, and he was out at the airport hangar flying with the locals. He got involved, and the subject turned bad.

They started telling horror stories of flying, of accidents and awful experiences that had occurred in the air. He got really engaged, to the point where he was feeling the experiences as they unfolded through the well-rehearsed stories that these guys so loved to tell. What happened next? He acted on his feelings, which at the time were intense fear, and he left the airport. He quit flying. It was too much for him. He had not yet soloed, and by now he was sure he never wanted to. This really had me do some evaluation about how you discuss risks, or what can go wrong, in order to prepare people fully. Aviation, like many other industries, is rigorous about accident investigations and understanding in great detail what happened. Yet, even though pilots see many of these, most of us keep flying. Here's the difference. As humans, we can get engaged in any type of story. However, when the plot line creates scenarios where the listener would be a hopeless victim, it becomes a horror story. When the plot line creates challenges, even really big or scary ones, where the listener has a chance to overcome them, it becomes a story of possibilities. In aviation, every accident story is told with a lesson about what the pilot could have done to avoid it or prevent the circumstance from ever arising. Then, it can serve to expand potential and capability. For my student, the stories told in the hangars were missing a critical piece for growth. The stories had no way out.

For a novice pilot who did not have enough knowledge to fill in the possibilities for himself, they became horror stories. He took the only path to safety he knew, which was to never come back. Good stories empower the listener, bad stories create victims. There is an important distinction. Talking about something bad that happened is not necessarily a bad story, and to that degree, a something good that happened is not necessarily a good story. Here is a key point to remember. Our stories somewhat predict our future behaviors. Because of that, your organizations future is likely to be very similar to its folklore. If you want to change future events, change your stories. Even though you can't change the history of your organization or the events that actually occurred, you have the choice as to how you talk about it. Think about it.

Do your stories empower the listeners? Do they engage them in some basic question of humanity, acted out in this particular environment? Does the past provide a lesson for the future? This is one simple place to make large change in an organization. So, take some time, take some notes, and change your life!

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