Thursday, October 20, 2011

Speak & Deliver's Story Graveyard

I admit I listen to more speakers than the average person. I'm a fan, a student, and a critic. Over the years, there are several stories that seem to be 'general domain' (for you computer geeks, think "Open Source"), and are used and occasionally altered depending on the occasion. Some are made out of whole cloth, others seem to be parables passed down from generation to generation, without attribution.

Ben & Jerry's has flavor graveyard for retired ice cream concoctions, so I'm starting Speak & Deliver's Story Graveyard, in hopes of putting these tired old yarns to rest, once and for all. Sound the funeral dirge for the following seven motivational tales:

1) The Harvard/Yale/Princeton Goal Setting Story. I blogged about this earlier this year. Great tale about graduates in the 50's writing down their goals. Only a few did, but those few went on to out-earn all the other class graduates combined. I know people who have lived their life quite successfully based on the principles taught in this tale, but it isn't true nonetheless, and deserves to be six feet under.

2) Stuck Semi Story. A giant semi gets stuck under an overpass, and while tow trucks, fire engines and police forces struggle to wedge it free, a six-year-old boy asks the Police Chief why they don't just let the air out of the trucks tires and back it out. D'OH! I admit to really liking this story. But I've heard it from way too many motivational speakers and preachers.

3) Put the Man and Boy Together and the World Comes Together Story. Last heard from Robin Sharma at the Toastmasters International Conference in August, this is a cute little tale about a boy whose father doesn't have time to spend with him. The dad tears a magazine ad up that has a map of the whole world on it, and tells him to put it back together. The boy comes back quickly, to the dad's amazement. Turns out there was a picture of a man and his son on the other side, and the boy put that together instead. Awwww. Puke.

4) Feed The Right Wolf Story. Often adapted from an old Cherokee legend - we each have two wolves - a good one and a bad one. Which one is strongest? The one we feed, of course. Nice metaphor, but far too common. Consider changing it to a python, at least.

5) Sheik Gives Golf Course Story. The nice golf pro gives golf lessons to an Arab Sheik, the Sheik offers to reward him. The pro says he collects golf clubs, and the Sheik can buy him one for his collection. The Sheik then proceeds to send him the deed to an entire Golf Club. A nice parable that never actually happened. Last heard from Joel Osteen, but he heard it from Zig Ziglar, I'm sure. 18 holes aren't enough to bury this sucker.

6) The Starfish Story. Boy throws starfish back into the ocean, Dad questions his logic, since he can't possibly throw all the starfish on the beach back to their natural environment - that what he's doing doesn't matter. Boy says it matters to that ONE. Yeesh. Anyone got a toothbrush? Among the most overtold EVER.

7) Lincoln, Edison, Churchill - Perseverance Stories. Lincoln didn't really fail all those times, at least not as they say, Edison's story is oft exaggerated, and Churchill, well, if I hear another speaker fake an English accent and boldly tell me to "Never Give Up", I just might.

What stories would YOU add to the Story Graveyard? I'm taking nominations in the comments below. If you're using one of the above stories, consider this your warning that you and your message may be DOA, and I'm writing you a Do Not Resuscitate order. Time to birth your own stories, and breathe new life into your speaking, if you truly want to Speak & Deliver.


  1. Rich, after the appropriate moment of silence for dearly departed I reflected on your comments. The best stories are the ones we tell from our own experiences and what these legacies that were on life support far too long teach us is that we should look for and fine and deliver the moral of OUR stories. Let there be life after these deaths!

  2. Rich:

    Some Toastmasters clubs and coaches are still using this tired cliche:

    “Most people would rather die than give a speech, according to a survey reported in The Book of Lists. Fear of public speaking outranked the fear of death by a two-to-one margin!” 

    The book was published in 1977. The survey data was from 1973, and half the people now alive in the US weren’t even born back then.

    Bury this silly story, and instead refer to the March 2001 Gallup Poll “Snakes top list of Americans fears”!


  3. Rich,

    My mother used to cut the end off of a roast before she put it in the oven... I asked her why and she said she learned to cook it that way from her mother. So she went to her mother and asked her why she prepared the roast that way and it turned out the pan was too small for the roast.

    Ever hear that one?

  4. Yes, these stories need to die and never be brought back to life, including the ones in the comments, all of which I've also heard. And Richard knows I'm 100% with him on the "people would rather die" statistic. I'm all about the "Snakes top list" Gallup poll!

    Oh wait... How about the one where the professor puts the big rocks in the jar and the class thinks it's full, then he puts progressively smaller and smaller rocks, and then sand, AND THEN WATER, to make whatever point that story makes? Sick of that one, too.

  5. Great post Rich! All these, (and quite a few others) need to be put to rest. It's one thing when you hear a new speaker use one of these - it's still not good, but they can be forgiven (I remember back in my first year reading these "amazing stories" I wanted to share with me audiences :-) But if you've been speaking for any amount of time, using an old recycled rehashed story is pretty unforgivable.

    I saw a bit of a Wayne Dyer special one, where not only did he tell the Starfish Story, but he actually said it was his uncle. Now Dyer's been around long enough that it's conceivable it was his originally, but I don't know...

    As TCanfield says above, the best stories are your own - when you use those, you know they're not recycled!

    Thanks again - I'm going to share this with my list

  6. Frog and scorpion crossing a river. Hate hate hate it.

  7. "...its my nature" If you recognize the punchline, retire the story. If you don't recognize it, you are OK.

  8. These stories and those in the comments are all great (to hate as you say!). After today's conversation on my Facebook post, I'll add the oft-misquoted statistic of 7% of messages are communicated verbally so the remaining 93% is all nonverbal. Not true. Not even close. Poor Albert Mehrabian almost never gets the credit due to him and those who cite this tired, 40+ year old, and WRONG stat look like nincompoops to those of us who know the origins.

  9. When I first started speaking I am shamefully guilty of most if not all of the above and many others.

    As I have grown as a speaker and now when I hear others using these stories I cringe. First because they should know better, secondly, because I wish I had known better back then.

    The Gandhi shoe is one that I thought had died because I hadn't heard it is a long time and just heard it a few weeks ago. UHG!

    1. Jamey, is that a fake story, or over-used? I had to look it up - which just goes to show that not all people know all stories ;)

    2. Rich, I honestly don't know if it is real or fake. If you hadn't heard it maybe it's not over-used. I used to heard it a lot in speeches and in my non-profit past, but hadn't heard it in a long time until recently. So maybe stories are cyclical and get put to rest for awhile and then like a bad penny they show up again.

      Regardless, you are 1000% (not a typo I meant 1000) correct, and the over-repeated stories become cliche' and need to be put to rest.

      GREAT POST by the way!

    3. Thanks for the background. Appreciate you checking back :)

  10. Rich,

    A few years back, you and I were listening to a World Champ; a friend of yours. In his keynote, he told stories that he said were lessons he had learned from his dad. I recognized everyone as an old worn out story circulating the internet for at least 10 years.

    World champion winner or not, I will never respect him again.

    Recently, I read in a motivational book by a well know author, the 'boy and the starfish' story. I almost couldn't believe my eyes.

    Terry is right on when he says that a speaker's stories have to be his/her own.

    Keep preaching it Brother Rich.

  11. Great article. Thanks for reminding us how many times we have heard some of these. I do think I will put together a talk about the "93% of comprehension is non-verbal" myth we discussed on FB. Not sure if there is 7 minutes in it, but it would be fun to do anyway.

  12. I'll never forget working a day long conference at which the lunch provided was poorly prepared Mexican food. An hour into the afternoon session, I had an emergency and threw out a topic for breakout discussions and raced to the rest room. I was very happy that I'd successfully made an escape and taken care of the problem until I got back into the room. Every attendee was silently staring at me. I forgot I had not turned off my wireless microphone!

    That story needs to be buried, with a stake through its heart...

  13. Here's one I'm sure you've never heard. It happened to me. Or maybe to my uncle.

    I'm on this ship. There's a storm. And we see another ship coming right at us. We tell it to get out of our way...

    It's a long story, and I won't go into all the exciting details but -- you'll never guess! -- turns out the other boat wasn't a boat at all. It was a light house.

  14. Re: The stuck truck.

    Variation would be cop comes up to driver and asks, "Stuck?" Driver replies, "Nope, delivering a bridge". Courtesy Larry the Cable guy.

    1. Love this, btw, just saw it today, as I'm writing the sequel. :)

  15. Ever since you hit on this a few meetings ago, every time I hear this tale, it makes me cringe.

    The story usually ends like this, "If I can do it...."

    Rich, I'm sure you can finish this one off.



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