The Secret to Telling a Really Good Story

A seventy-five-year-old man named Tom from Clearwater, Florida stole my stuff. Not on purpose. I was flying to Boston to speak at Inbound and happened to wedge my run-of-the-mill black bag next to his run-of-the-mill black bag in the overhead compartment.

I’m pretty sure you can figure out what happened next.

Once the plane was empty, there was one remaining bag left. And it looked just like mine. Except for the luggage tag that said “Tom” on it. It also included his phone number that doubled as a fax machine, an America Online email address, and the following quote:

“When I feel the need to work, I nap till it passes.”

It was pretty clear that I wasn’t getting my stuff back anytime soon!

Now, let me stop right here for a second so we can pick apart what just happened.

Adversity

When telling a really good story, you need to start with some form of adversity. Or challenge. Or struggle. Without it, you don’t have anything to grab and keep the attention of the person on the receiving end of this little adventure of yours.

“I was flying to Boston to speak at Inbound, and my flight landed five minutes early!”

Cool! And who cares?

The idea that I am now running through the airport without my stuff, on my way to speak at one of the biggest conferences in the world with nothing more than the clothes on my back which is covered in airport funk is intriguing enough to make you want to know more.

And I think the fact that you have read this far proves my point.

Let’s keep going, shall we?

So, Here’s What Happened Next

I took a picture of the luggage tag because ironically they wouldn’t let me take his bag with me since it wasn’t mine. I headed down to baggage claim with the hopes that my new friend was planning on being here for a while and had a few checked bags.

Spoiler alert. He didn’t. You would be surprised by how fast an old man on a mission can be!

In the time it took me to get from the plane to baggage claim, I tried calling Tom.

Thirty-four times.

That’s pretty hard to do by the way.

Once it became clear that he was gone, I went to the people at JetBlue who are in charge of telling you that you will likely never see your stuff again. They didn’t disappoint. I was given the option of leaving my number and crossing my fingers or filing a police report for my stolen items.

Now, I have a whole bunch of issues with Tom. He has an AOL email address. A fax number. And a business card stating that he is retired. But is he a thief? No.

So, I didn’t call the cops. Although seeing the guy get tackled by TSA put a bit of a smile on my face.

OK. Time to stop again.

Failure

After opening with whatever adversity you are up against, you need to follow up with some form of failure. Without it, your story just ends, and everyone feels a little ripped off by the outcome.

“I ran down to baggage claim, and there he was with my stuff!”

Close one. So…ummm…how was the weather up there?

That doesn’t work.

I mean, it works out great if you want your stuff back. But if you are trying to keep someone’s attention with your story, not so much.

You need to try and fix it. And you need your attempt at fixing it to fail.

But here’s the critical part. Your failed attempt to fix it has to be related to the outcome you originally intended. In other words, the story wouldn’t make sense if I skipped baggage claim and went straight to Brooks Brothers in the airport and tried to buy a new suit but they didn’t have my size.

Nothing is exciting about that.

I need to run down to baggage claim to find the guy who took my bag. It’s essential that you chase after that intended outcome because that leads us to the next part of our story.

Everything Happens for a Reason

I left the airport empty handed and checked into the hotel. Because I didn’t have to worry about unpacking, I decided to grab lunch. And while at lunch, I sent my wife a text.

Everything happens for a reason.

I don’t know if I really believed it at the time, but it sounded a lot more productive than the alternative. Plus, I had run out of different ways to drop f-bombs at this point. Even for me.

So, I decided to make the most of it and posted the following Tweet.

I figured that I was either going to laugh at all of this or I was going to cry. And I was done crying.

There were a few people who got in on the joke, and that certainly made the whole thing a little more bearable. But then the folks at Inbound reached out and asked me to stop by the gift shop because they had a shirt for me! And then after that, someone offered me a jacket. And then after that, someone else offered to drive me to the mall to go shopping.

Humanity had officially kicked in.

While walking around the main room where all of the vendors are set up, I stopped by a few booths, and the people there were kind enough to give me a shirt without the sales pitch. And once word got around other vendors started looking for me and gave me a bunch of new swag.

By the time I got back to my room that night, I had nearly rebuilt my entire wardrobe. Twelve hours before I was scheduled to speak.

Let’s stop again and talk this through because it’s a critical piece to this whole thing.

The Unexpected Outcome

Ultimately, you need to get to a viable outcome even though it’s not the obvious outcome you originally intended. It doesn’t necessarily have to be better than the expected outcome, but it should be an acceptable outcome.

“They ended up canceling my session because I had no clothes, so I never got to speak.”

That’s not a viable outcome. I didn’t come all that way so I could turn around and go home empty-handed.

The hero of our story needs to walk away with a win of some kind. The obvious outcome is finding my carry-on. While that does work as a happy ending to the story, the unexpected outcome of having people at the conference donating clothes adds so much more to it because, you guessed it, it’s unexpected. It keeps them on the edge of their seat to the very end.

And speaking of the end…

Wait! We’re Not Done

When I woke up the next morning, the light on the phone in my hotel room was blinking. I called to check the messages and was told that JetBlue had returned my carry-on at some point in the middle of the night.

I had my stuff.

Including the outfit I originally intended to wear for my talk which at this point was in just a few hours.

Nobody would have to know what I went through over the last twenty-four hours. I could put on the outfit I intended and give the talk I had planned, and it would have been good.

But here’s the thing about telling a really good story. It doesn’t matter how bad it was or how much it cost or how big of a mistake you made or how much it hurt or how stupid you felt.

Given a chance, you would never change a thing.

It’s because of all of the adversity and the failure and the unexpected outcome that you are able to stand where you are standing and do what you are doing.

And because of that, you wouldn’t change a thing.

So, I rewrote my talk that morning. Hours before going on stage.

Wearing a pair of jeans and the Inbound shirt that I was given the night before, I stood up on stage and showed everyone a picture of the outfit I was supposed to be wearing. I then told them the story of the seventy-five-year-old man who took my bag. And the people at JetBlue who weren’t sure what to do about it. And the thirty-four times I called Tom. And everyone at the conference who stepped up to help me.

While sharing my latest adventure, I weaved in the lesson on how to tell a really good origin story. And every five minutes or so, I put on one of the shirts someone gave me the night before until by the end of my talk I was wearing all ten. At the same time.

Note to self: next time, please account for the temperature of the lights.

And then that’s when I reached down into the bag I had brought with me and put on the outfit I had originally intended to wear. On top of all of the shirts.

Why? Because, when all was said and done, I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

Except maybe the next day when I had to go in for a tetanus shot due to an unrelated incident. But that’s a different story for a different day.