Baseball and Storytelling With Doris Kearns Goodwin

Renowned author and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin recently sat for an interview with Tim Ferriss. Beyond her insights into past Presidents (if you saw Lincoln, that was based on her book Team of Rivals), she shared a personal story about her father which helped explain her roots as a talented communicator.

From a very young age, her father taught her to keep track of stats while listening to baseball games on their transistor radio. His (perhaps a bit selfish) motivation was so she could tell him what had happened later on. Doris quickly learned to not just report the data, but to give him a story of how the game progressed. Hits, strikeouts, walks, catches – she’d mentally record it all as the game unfurled, and then package it up into an exciting tale for him.

Doris learned that the data alone was nearly useless without a beginning, middle and end. Just excitedly saying “they won” or “they lost” had gotten a disappointed reaction from her father. However, when she built up the drama between data points and enhanced the surprise twists and turns, she could transport him to the game and read the excitement on his face. A few years later, after she learned to read, she was disappointed to discover that the paper had the box scores and a summary too, but glad to know her father preferred to hear it from his savvy personal reporter. She kept those lessons for life.

Working in an industry that regularly buries us in in both data and analysis, it’s worth taking a moment to internalize Doris’ lesson. Without a good story, the data is, well, just the data. It won’t excite anyone to action. Like her, we need to find the story, organize it, and commit to telling it well. That’s especially true even if the proverbial local paper’s covering it too. Our clients want to hear it and they want to hear it from us.

We also shouldn’t overlook the significance of her telling the stories to her father either. This is a relationship where the purpose of the story is strictly to enrich the other side, and never to take advantage. When sales feel like “sales” (ex. used car-ish) it’s because they’re not being done for mutual benefit. When a story can bring a purpose home and carry a message forward, we’re enhancing the relationship.

Look at the data and ask, “what story can we tell that they want or need to hear?” Give it a beginning, a middle and end, and connect it to their benefit.

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