Bayberry Lane

Today's Lesson: Lessen the Lessons

"I assure you, madam, I am quite capable of swimming ... my way!" Want to kill a kid’s interest in something he enjoys? Make him take lessons “to get better at it.”

When I was a kid, I liked to swim. My technique was appalling but I could cut through the polluted water at Ideal Beach with no effort at all. And whenever I stepped on a crab, I was a regular Mark Spitz.

But apparently this wasn’t good enough for my mom, who signed up the four of us kids for swim lessons at the Red Bank YMCA.

Everyone who takes swim lessons at the Y starts as a Pollywog before advancing to Minnows, Flying Fish, and then the ultimate achievement—Sharks. Being a Shark in and of itself was pretty cool. But they also got to use the high dive, so you just had to get to Sharks.

First, however, you had to graduate from Pollywogs by demonstrating that you could swim … their way. Apparently, what I was doing did not qualify as swimming, so I got stuck with the five-year-old Pollywogs while my brother and two younger sisters advanced to Minnows. I was 12 years old.

It gets worse.

Before they even let me paddleboard with the other kiddies during free time, I had to demonstrate that I knew how to hold my head underwater without breathing. To do that, they had me bend at the waist with a paddleboard in my outstretched hands, take a breath, put my face in the water, exhale, turn my head to the left to take in a breath and repeat the process 10 times.

I couldn’t do it. For six weeks I couldn’t do it.

Those six weeks passed slowly. I’d watch as nervous new kids—“fish” we called them—entered the pool for their first day of swim lessons. And then, when they learned their lesson, I’d pat them on the back and wish them well as they advanced to Minnows. Sure, I was envious at first. But I knew I was never getting out of that hell hole so—over time—it made me happy to see those little tykes get over the wall, so to speak.

As the summer--and our swim lessons--were coming to a close, I asked my instructor in a final act of desperation if I could turn my head to the right to breathe. “Sure,” she said. “A lot of good it’ll do ya.”

Well, it worked. I could swim—their way. In one day, I graduated from the Pollywogs, blew through Minnows and became a Flying Fish. By the end of the week, I was a Shark.

True story.

But now I hate to swim. And I’m afraid the same thing is happening to people who enjoy telling stories. You can’t swing a life guard’s whistle these days without smacking into some self-described expert who wants to teach you how to tell a story.

Well, I’m here to tell you that you already are a great story teller. Sure, there are ways you can improve your unique technique, as you’ll see in this video*. But when it comes to telling stories, you’re incredible. A regular Mr. Limpet.

* This video originally appeared in our QuASAR Method Video Series.


Channeling your inner sewer monster to connect with your audiences

"Two words ... sewer monsters." My experience with sewers goes back to my early childhood when I got stuck in a debris catch basin about 20 yards into a sewer pipe near our house in Camp Lejeune. I was only stuck there for 10 minutes, but I spent every second desperately trying to hoist myself up out of the trap. The wall was just a little too high for me to escape, so all I managed to do was waterboard myself. That experience has left me terrified of the sight and sound of water rushing through culverts. True story.

Years later, we hoodlums would line up empty Knickerbocker Natural beer bottles on the sewer grate near Marius Overhand's house and throw rocks at them until the cops drove by, which usually gave us about five minutes of bottle-smashing time.

The most hilarious sewer-moment of my life actually involved Marius. After a night of drinking (a lot of) Knickerbocker Natch', we convinced ourselves that all of the coins we had dropped down the holes in the manhole cover on Bayberry Lane were still there and that it only made sense to get a crowbar, lift the manhole cover, and scoop up the loot.

Once we lifted the cover, Marius jumped in and climbed down. To our great disappointment, there wasn't any money down there. To Marius' greater disappointment ... well, I'd better let him tell the story. But remember, we had drunk a LOT of Knickerbocker Natural.

But I've matured some since then and am now putting sewers to a far greater use--as the centerpiece of a lesson on how to connect with your audiences. You can check out the video here.

If you haven't already, check out the Knickerbocker Natural link above. It takes you to a bizarre--yet strikingly accurate--Super-8 portrayal of young men being idiots in the early 70's. It made me a little verklempt, not gonna lie.

Also, if you have any sewer-related tales, share them with the class in the comments section.

Twitter Rage in the Twitter Age: How intoxicating anonymity can derail your career

"No, John, you may NOT use 'I got kissed by a priest' as one of your sins. Do I make myself clear?

It is a fascinating paradox of human nature that we would gladly hold open a tavern door for the person we just tried to kill in a moment of blinding road rage on our way to that tavern.

A lot of our rage behind the wheel is attributed to the anonymity that we enjoy in our cars—that and the fact that this jackhole has been driving 55 in the left lane with his blinker on for the last two miles and I swear to God if I ever get in front of him …

But I digress.

Social media is having much the same effect on our frontal lobes, allowing us to engage in behavior so unsociable that we wouldn’t even confess it to our priest.*

* Another quick digression. Before Monsignor Bulman excommunicated my mom from St. Mary’s for having the gall to find herself divorced(!) from her philandering husband, she used to help us make up sins on the way to confession. It was only a two-mile ride so there was a lot of frantic horse trading in the back of our station wagon.

“I don’t want ‘hitting.’ I didn’t hit anybody!”

“OK, I’ll take ‘hitting,’ Mary Beth. But you gotta take ‘being disrespectful’ and ‘skipping your prayers.’ ”

“But I didn’t skip my prayers.”

“Fine. We’ll give that to Marnie. She needs some more sins anyway. But then you gotta take ‘not sharing.’”

“But I always share!”

And although we never said it out loud, we all knew that making up sins to confess to the priest definitely qualified as one of the sins we should fess up to.

The most recent example of unsocial media that resulted in “career Twittercide” involves one Jofi Joseph, aka @natsecwonk, who was an Obama political appointee to the National Security Council. Protected by the anonymity of his Twitter account, Joseph engaged in a self-described “series of inappropriate and mean-spirited comments” for more than two years.

When he was finally outed as the culprit in a sting orchestrated by White House officials, he was promptly fired, an administrative action that was confirmed by White House spokesman Jay Carney.

Not a good day for Jofi. Not good at all.

So what can we learn from this, kids? Right. If you need to make snarky comments about your co-workers, your boss, or your employer, don’t do it online, especially if you're a presidential appointee to the freakin' NSC. If you must complain, do it the old-fashioned way—in drunken slurs slumped over your your seventh Jameson’s neat in your favorite neighborhood tavern.

Create your own buzz or prepare to get stung.

"What have we to talk about, hmmmm?" In the summer of '68, we spent a few days chucking water balloons at a cluster of cicada killer wasps that had gathered on a patch of sap on the oak tree in Billy Clifford’s backyard.

These wasps were huge. And really mean looking. We convinced ourselves that they were going to swoop down and kill the slowest of us unless we took them out first.

But it turns out cicada killer wasps only kill cicadas. It also turns out that these were male cicada killers, which means they didn't even have stingers like female cicada killers do. So rather than defending ourselves, we were, in reality, attempting to commit insecticide.

Since we were eight years old at the time and the patch of sap was about 40 feet above us, we went through a lot of water balloons before we nailed them. But once we did, those wasps exploded into a buzzing frenzy of “What the HELL, man??!! Are you serious?? What’s wrong with you goddamn kids?!”

One of them fell to the ground right in front of us. Well, it actually fell where we had been standing before we scattered like coked-out cockroaches.

Marius Overhand was the first one to go back to see if the wasp was dead. The rest of us followed a sensible distance behind. Once we all gathered around the body, we unknowingly acted out scenes from “The Crowd,” a short story by Ray Bradbury about a crowd of weirdos that would show up at car accidents to decide if the victim lives or dies.

“Is it dead?”

“Yeah, it’s dead.”

“So pick it up, but watch out for the stinger ‘cause they can still sting after they die.”

“I’m not picking it up! YOU pick it up. And no way they can sting you after they’re dead.”

“Can, too!”

“’Fraid not!”

Unfortunately for all involved, this wasp was very much alive—albeit a little stunned—and very, very angry. When it started flapping its wings—which I swear were held in place by rivets—we all bolted in different directions. All of us except Scott Lindholm and Eddie Foley, who banged heads together so hard that they, too, ended up flat on their backs surrounded by a crowd of eight-year-old boys who were busy determining their friends' fate.

“Are they dead?”

“Scott's eyes are open but they're crossed. And Eddie ain't moving. Let's get outta here!"

I bring this up because, much like the crowd in Ray Bradbury’s story, people will always try to tell your story for you if you’re not telling it yourself.

Look at Edward Snowden. After he let the world know that crazy ol’ Uncle Sam is also a "creeper," he fell off the grid, leaving the entire world to define him as a traitor, a hero, a self-indulgent narcissist, and a loser.

The same thing is happening right now with your organization. The Internet hates a vacuum. If you’re not telling your organization’s story, somebody else is. And you can bet that they're using this image Grumpy Cat

to describe you instead of this one. cute kitten


Tales from the Crib: The power of experience in storytelling

"You realize that 35 years from now no one is going to believe this stuff really happened." I was drinking beer with a couple of buddies from the old neighborhood when the war stories started to fly.

“Remember the time Marius Overhand drove Dawn’s grandma’s Duster around the block half the night backwards trying to roll the odometer back 17 miles? And you and Steve were sitting on the trunk drinking beers and shouting directions until the transmission locked up!”

“Yeah and how about when Billy Clifford threw that bicycle tire up onto the transformer in front of the Welteroth’s house and it blew out the power to the whole neighborhood—and everyone thought Marius did it?!”

“What about the time you almost burned your house down when you tried to get rid of that wasp nest?”

Good times.

There's nothing quite as entertaining to hear--or as fun to tell--as a true story from your past. And recounting these stories can be cathartic, too. Looking back through the filter of a couple of decades after a couple of beers, the outrageously idiotic decisions you made back then don't seem entirely idiotic. I mean, hey, we're alive to tell the stories, right? Most of us, anyway.

My daughters have heard my childhood stories a million times over the years. But that night, Claire asked why I can remember so many stories from my misspent youth, but I only tell them the same dozen or so well-worn stories about their childhood.

I wondered, too. Then it hit me. My memory is so vivid because I experienced those misadventures directly, while I was only a witness to my daughters’ exploits … like how Claire used to leave invitations for imaginary play-dates on the home answering machine because nobody liked her when she was little … or when Karlyn drove her Big Wheel at full tilt right down the basement stairs, not hitting a single step until she crash-landed on the floor (although I did experience the nauseating sound of her over-sized toddler head smacking onto the linoleum which was not unlike the thud of a pumpkin hitting the sidewalk).

You obviously can’t transport your audience back to Bayberry Lane circa 1978 to have them experience the adventures that would someday become your stories. But you do have to tell your stories in ways that will make them feel as though they experienced them with you.