A story about telling stories

Listen.  Let me tell you a story.  It's a story about telling stories, and it goes like this:

4 men are sitting in a row outside a bus terminal.  From a distance, and even from up close, the men are hard to distinguish.  Each one is roughly the same height and weight.  Each one is well-groomed and conservatively dressed.  Over each one's shoulders is slung the same brand of knapsack.  Even their destinations are the same.  They're each sitting here, though, because each lacks the funds to make his trip.

A fifth man approaches, walking down the sidewalk past the bus terminal, and each would-be traveler hails him in turn, explaining his individual circumstances and his individual goals, his reasons for traveling and what he hopes to accomplish when he arrives -- telling the man the stories that they hope will get them where they need to go.

When the first traveler finishes speaking, the man nods, and smiles, and opens his wallet, and hands him a few dollars.

When the second traveler finishes speaking, the man throws his arm around his shoulders, walks him into the bus terminal, and buys his ticket for him.

When the third traveler finishes speaking, the man, wide-eyed and grinning, offers to drive him to his destination personally.

When the fourth traveler finishes speaking, the man says nothing at all.  He turns and walks away, and in a few minutes returns behind the wheel of his car.  The third and the fourth traveler get in, and the man drives the third traveler to his destination -- with a detour along the way: first, the man drives to the nearest auto dealership, and buys the fourth traveler a car of his own.

It really doesn't matter if you're a local nonprofit or a global entity -- there's always a man walking down the sidewalk.  In fact, if you look, you might see him coming toward you right now. 

What story are you going to tell him?

What lies beneath...

As regular readers of the blog know, we're big fans of Ernest Hemingway here at CHGR. His style is famously (and perhaps notoriously) spare and direct: it is a boxer in the ring, light-footed, throwing jabs and dancing away, and when each punch connects, you feel it.

There are those, however, who mistake directness for laziness; those who see simplicity as a lack of creativity. What's not commonly known is that Hemingway the writer developed his style in accordance with the concepts developed by Hemingway the theorist -- and chief among those concepts is the one he called "iceberg theory." In his own words:

"If a writer knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing."

Hemingway writes about, and only about, that which rises above the surface of the water, trusting in his readers to dive below the waves.  It's an enormously effective communication style, one that puts great faith in its audience -- you lay out your pattern of dots, and you trust that your readers can connect them -- but also one that lays a great burden on its messenger. 

To say it simply -- to say it as Hemingway might have said it -- iceberg theory's basic tenet is that less is more. The risk, though, is that if you aren't "writing truly enough"...if you haven't internalized the powerful core of your message, whatever it may be...then your audience will never be inspired to break the surface to see what lies beneath. They will simply steer the ship of their attention around you.

Writing is easy. Writing concisely is not. Do the former, and you'll be heard. Do the latter, and you'll be remembered.

Riding out tonight to case the promised land

Bruce Springsteen: an American icon, a lyrical genius, the pride of New Jersey, an insightful thinker into the art of hiring the best talent for your organization.

Wait. What was that last one?

Bear with us for a second. We have a story to tell you.

Earlier this month, we had occasion to sit for coffee with a longtime client. This client -- a kind person, truly, and possessed of great emotional intelligence -- mentioned to us that she and her company were looking to hire for a particular position. The position had been open for almost ten months. She'd seen more than 125 resumes. She'd not moved forward with a single candidate. It was simply impossible to find the right person for the role.

And we said: "You're throwing roses in the rain."

For a moment, the only sound was the hiss of the espresso machine and the laughter of a group of high school girls, sitting together at a table across the cafe.

"What?" She'd cocked her head slightly sideways. "I'm doing what?"

"You're not a Springsteen fan." It was a statement, not a question.

"Not hugely."

"It's a line from 'Thunder Road.' The narrator's singing to a girl named Mary -- he's trying to get her to leave her old life behind and come away with him. She's hesitant, though; she's not sure he's the right one for her...so he has to convince her."

Confusing a client is never good for business, so, with puzzlement evident in her eyes, it was time to quote The Boss:

You can hide beneath your covers and study your pain,

Make crosses for your lovers, throw roses in the rain,

Waste your summer praying in vain

For a savior to rise from these streets

"What he knows," we said, "and what he wants Mary to understand, is that he may not be the 'right' one. He may not be. But that's because there's no such thing as the 'right' one. Waiting for a savior to rise from the streets means you spend your summer wasting the days...praying in vain...watching roses wither on wet grass. You never move forward. You stay right where you are, hoping and waiting, forever."

In her eyes, the puzzlement had dissolved. She sipped her coffee. The girls across the cafe huddled together, their voices soft and warm.

That's the story. It's a true one.

And now that's it's over, ask yourself: what is my organization's hiring policy communicating to potential employees? What am I communicating if I have positions posted for six months or longer? What am I communicating by being unwilling -- or unable -- to fill a position in a timely manner? What am I communicating by telling dozens of people "no" -- but not telling one person "yes"? What is it all communicating about my organization?

Bear in mind that your potential hires are, universally, men and women who are intrigued by your organization and your mission. They are allies waiting to happen -- whether "allies" means potential donors or potential customers or merely potential brand ambassadors is dependent on the nature of your organization, but they are all allies nonetheless. Their treatment in the hiring process, even if you choose not to hire them, will make a difference in what they tell others about your organization, which of course makes a difference to your organization's public perception -- and your organization's public perception makes a difference, ultimately, to your bottom line.

Summers are for relaxing -- not for wasting. The right person is very rarely the "right" person, so take the opportunity to focus on what's in front of you, on the present and the passionate and not on the dreamed-of and hoped-for, and listen to the engine turn over as you head out, together, down the road.

There is a light that never goes out

The title of the post seems appropriate on this, the final day of 2017.

Tonight, you might raise a champagne flute and count each second as it passes. Tonight, you might wrap your arm around the shoulders of a lifelong friend. Tonight, you might slip away to secret places with a stranger, heartbeats racing, and the rising of the morning will glow warm upon you both.

Tonight, you might stand inside a doorway, at the threshold of a bedroom, and watch the breathing of your child as she dreams of days to come.

You might do some of these things. You might do none of them.

You might wish you were doing them.

You might wish you weren't.

These are our lives. These are our stories. Every moment is a sentence. Every day is a page. You read what others write. You write, and others read.

And perhaps, like Morrissey's narrator, like Fitzgerald's wanderer, like an elderly man in a dying town who is the fictional creation of the author you're now reading -- perhaps like all of them, you believe in possibility. Perhaps, thanks to your success or despite your sadness, you believe in unwritten chapters. Perhaps you believe what's past need not be prologue. Perhaps you believe a child's dreams can be made real.

Perhaps you believe in a light that never goes out.

We hope that you do.

Happy new year. See you in 2018.

It's going to be a good one.