Different communications styles are needed to achieve different results. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert explains how his recurring, anonymized character ‘Bob’ helps him to bridge two different communications methods.
I’d like to tell you a short Bob story, and I’d like you to tell me at the end what the point of the story was. Ready?
Just because your job isn’t terribly important and your work is relatively meaningless, you can still make a significant, positive difference in the world. Maybe your work is just a means to an end; a way to pay for the time that you spend outside of work, where you help to make other people’s lives better.
A few years back, I was living downtown, close enough to the start-up that I helped found that I could walk to work instead of having to drive everyday. There was a bus stop about two blocks down from my brownstone. After a few months of making my daily trek, I noticed that there was always one girl waiting at the stop – she never seemed to get or get off a bus. One day in late April or early May, I got inexplicably curious about her. She was wearing a black tank top with spaghetti straps, mommish jeans, and a San Francisco Giants sweatshirt tied around her waist. After her bus pulled away, I struck up a conversation with her. Her name was Bobbie, and it turned out that she was a sex worker.
Every day after that, when I’d pass the bus stop, Bobbie and I would take a few moments to chat. She enjoyed having someone to unwind with who didn’t judge her. I enjoyed her snarky sense of humour. Sometime around June, she asked me what I did for a living, and I told her that I wrote code for mobile applications. She surprised me when she said that she’d always wanted to take programming classes at university before she had dropped out. I offered to teach her something new about coding every Monday from them on. Bobbie thought that’d be fun. Turns out that it was.
Skip forward two years, and Bobbie is now a programmer in her own right. She’s still a sex worker most of the working day, but she spends her mornings coding her first iPhone game at the coffee shop closest to her flat. I bought her an old laptop from a pawnshop and told her that she could pay me for it only after her first game made her at least a thousand quid. She’s well on her way. Someday, maybe in a few years, she’ll be able to close the door on her street walking (or, really, bus stop lurking) career and work in tech full time. I’m immensely proud of her.
Right. That’s the story. So, what was the point? If you made it through basic literature themes in primary school, then you should have probably identified the following core ideas:
- Helping other people is rewarding and can give your life meaning outside of your job.
- Teaching IT skills to a disadvantaged person is a good way to help them improve their life.
If you’re looking for underlying themes, you no doubt noticed this one as well:
- Every person deserves kindness, even if (especially if!) society looks down on them.
If you got at least two of those points from my story, then I succeeded in my objective: I pitched to you the idea that you should reach out and help the people around you. Share what you know of tech and tech work to help another person better their life. Give someone a hand up.
Here’s the twist: the story is both simultaneously true and outrageously false. That is to say, I believe strongly in the message, and things sort of like that happened to different people in different ways than was presented. At the same time, the location, the characters, and the activities I described in the story are utter fabrications. Scroll back up and read it again, and see if you can find all of the blatant falsehoods. It will only take some Google reconnaissance to find all the malarkey, such as:
1. I’ve never lived ‘downtown’ in any city at any point in my life. A quick search of my name in our county’s property records service will show that I’ve lived in the same suburban house since 1999. So, I couldn’t possibly have been ‘living downtown’ or ‘in a brownstone’ by any stretch of ‘a few years back.’
2. I have been involved in Dot Com startups, but none in the last ten years. A quick shufti round my LinkedIn profile reveals all of the companies where I’ve been employed, as well as the various small businesses that I’ve owned, supported, or otherwise have been connected with. There aren’t any ‘start-up’ companies in my professional past in the last few years.
3. Bobbie’s description is obviously false; how did I know exactly what she was wearing that one day? Obviously, I didn’t – I lifted that sentence word-for-word directly from Eric Steuer’s recent story The Rise and Fall of Redbook, published in WIRED magazine’s March 2015 issue.
4. I am not, and have never been, a coder. You can divine that from my LinkedIn profile, or you can search for the word ‘programmer’ in my previous online columns. It ain’t there.
There are more, but these porky pies are the easiest to find evidence to refute. Clearly, I made the whole story up. It’s a lie. I don’t deserve any credit for having taught the completely fabricated sex worker ‘Bobbie’ to code iPhone games. It’s not just false – it’s provably false. So, why tell the story at all?
Two reasons. First, we’ve been having a minor celebrity scandal over here in the US recently about some newsreaders who fibbed about their experiences as war correspondents. NBC News’s Brian Williams was the first person ‘outed’ for exaggerating the danger he’d been in whilst taking a helicopter ride in Iraq. Then FOX News’s Bill O’Reilly, one of Williams’s most vitriolic critics, was outed in turn for having exaggerated the danger he’d been in while covering the Falklands war. Both men are popular public figures, and both seemed to have gotten a bit carried away ‘enhancing’ their adventure tales for the audience… Having forgotten that we, the audience members, can and will Google every word they utter just out of sheer, perverse curiosity.
The thing is, I think that there’s a pretty significant difference between journalism and storytelling. They both use the same fundamental narrative tools, but they have significantly different functions. Journalism is supposed to be the art of dispassionately reporting facts, even when the facts are incomplete, seemingly contradictory, or embarrassing. Journos are expected to be paragons of transparency and accountability. Storytelling, on the other hand, is the art of conveying a message, a feeling, an idea, or a cultural touchstone. The characters, settings, and events in a story don’t necessarily have to be true, so much as they have to effectively convey the central meaning of the story. That’s why storytellers have some leeway to change elements in their stories to better make their point: it’s the final conveyed thought that matters most, not the sock puppets used to convey it.
Somewhere in my personal library, I have a stack of books on biblical criticism. Or, to be more accurate, I have a gap on my bookshelf where a bunch of these sat recently. I think that I loaned them all out. I apologize that I can’t directly quote the section I wanted to place here.  Recollecting as best I can, the passage that stood out to me said (and I’m paraphrasing here):
Early religious stories weren’t ‘fixed’ in the oral traditions of the European and Middle Eastern peoples. Religious leaders would often change elements of a parable or an allegory to suit the needs of the audience at the time of the telling. A character, an event, or a sequence might be added, dropped, or changed from one telling of a story to another, so that the core message being communicated was properly received by the listeners. The resonance of the message was more important to both the teller and to the consumer of the tale than the integrity of the story itself.
When it comes to business, both factual reporting and creative storytelling have legitimate roles to play. I suspect that most adults understand that. A quarterly report to the Securities and Exchange Commission must be 100 per cent factual and accurate, whereas a company’s origin story can be afford to be a bit romanticized. We know (now) that Apple Inc. didn’t really begin in a Silicon Valley garage. Even though it wasn’t true, that story had tremendous inspirational value for Apple’s employees and for would-be entrepreneurs all over the world. The idea that two clever lads could invent some revolutionary bit of kit in their shed and thereby change the world has helped to launch a hundred thousand new businesses since the 1980s. Apple’s garage birth parable was relatively harmless. It didn’t deceive consumers or investors, didn’t cause anyone any harm, and didn’t materially change how the company functioned.
As business leaders – even tech sector leaders – we have to employ both communication techniques to motivate our people to accomplish their tasks. We need to give people hard facts with which to make plans, evaluate competing factors, and assess risks. We also need to give our people hope, so that they’re encouraged and emboldened to tackle their challenges. There’s a place for each approach, and a good leader needs to be good at both of them.
The trap that leaders often fall into comes when they see the potential gains to be made by applying soupçon of ‘harmless’ fictionalization to a story in order to make it more palatable. This is how we get small lies that take on a life of their own, like Scott Thompson, the former CEO of Yahoo!, lying about having earned a computer science degree that he never actually finished. Or the time that Laura Callahan, the Deputy CIO of the US Department of Homeland Security, was discovered to have lied about all three of her degrees – she’d bought them all from a shady diploma mill. On a much larger scale, it’s how we get massive corruption scandals like the rise and fall of Enron. At some point, an otherwise well-intentioned and ambitious leader on the way up decides that he or she can get away with adding a dash of poignant untruth to help sell a good story with all the best of intentions… and it works. They make the sale, or get the job, or move the markets. It was just a little fib, and it got the desired results. Therefore, the next time such an opportunity comes up, they’re inclined to lie again in a context where they really shouldn’t.
I don’t have any grief with newsmen putting some harmless spin on their old war stories. That’s just normal pub blather. It’s inconsequential. On the other hand, I have pretty severe heartburn over newsmen, politicians, and businessmen outright lying over their fabricated justifications for taking the nation to war. Admittedly, that’s a mighty large range of behaviour, and it biting off more issues than I intend to discuss in this column.
Let’s go back to where we started, with the story of ‘Bobbie the sex worker turned game programmer’. I like the underlying themes of that story, but I’d never deign to present it to you as a real Bob Story. Why? Because a story like that, one with such easy-to-disprove fabrications, would immediately collapse under scrutiny. If I tried to pass that off as a real event, I guarantee that someone would rightfully tear it apart – just like what happened to the aforementioned newsreaders, executives, and politicians.
That being said, I do obfuscate the hell out of my Bobs so that it’s extremely hard – if not outright impossible – to connect a real, living person with my anonymized presentations of them here on Business Reporter. I tell my Bob Stories in order to inform, to persuade, to caution, and to inspire discussion – never to shame or to slander an actual villain. They’re all true stories, though, every one of them. If I ever had to, I could convert them to legal depositions without any risk of perjury. I’d simply prefer not to go to all the headache of naming real names… Calling out a blackguard for bad behaviour could be cathartic, but it could also annoy me with all sorts of legal bother from the aggrieved Bob that I don’t have the time or the cash to deal with. Therefore, they’re all ‘Bob’… those folks who knew each of them will smile (or wince) in remembrance, and everyone else can simply benefit from the telling of the tale.
However, there’s more to it than that; I use a storytelling technique to better immerse the listener (or reader) in the story so that they can better access the ridiculousness of the moment – so that they can see the drama manifest the same way that I saw it at the time. A dry recounting of the facts, journo-style, is often lifeless and lacks emotional impact. My objective is to communicate an idea that might make a positive difference in a listener’s (or in a reader’s) life. Let others benefit from a cautionary tale – preferably, one that’s funny enough that they’ll want to remember it.
So, I use the Bob stories to try and bridge the two styles. Rather than just relate facts about my former bosses and co-workers, I try to share the story more like a screenplay. I use the same narrative techniques that that the old Hebrew storytellers used sitting around their campfire when poking fun at the Roman occupiers. The difference between us is that whereas the old pre-biblical storytellers might glibly substitute something peripheral to the the story – like a ‘knife’ for a ‘dagger’ in the telling of Abraham’s binding of Issac on Mount Moriah – I’ll instead leave the details in place but will rename ‘Abraham’ to ‘Bob’, and will obfuscate the location from a specific place to a more generic setting. In the end, a lot of the details and context of my Bobs’ adventures are critical to the point of the story.
I freely admit that I want you – the guy or gal reading this – to be a better leader. I want you to actively help other people. I want you to have respect and compassion for those less fortunate than you. I want you to make a positive difference in other people’s lives. I’m going to share my Bob stories with you to help encourage you to make those changes. I’m not, however, going to lie to you in the process, because I take it for granted that liars are always found out on the Internet, sooner or later.
 I invite my theologian friends to savage my paraphrasing of the texts down here in the comments section. Have at it!
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.