Originally penned: December 15, 2010. Edited: November 26, 2017
I’ve always been a storyteller. My wife claims that I embellish but I’ve told her a million times: Don’t exaggerate. (Please hold your applause til the end of the article.)
Several years ago, in a corporate world far, far away from where I am now in my career, my boss forced me to strongly recommended that I take a Dale Carnegie Sales Advantage Course as a means of elevating my professional goals to the next level.
I readily admit that I took the class quite begrudgingly and went into the process with a chip on my shoulder. What could all this “Rah! Rah! Rah! Kumbayah!” sales training possibly do for me, I thought?
The Dale Carnegie system uses a very simple means of satisfying personal needs for gratification by awarding good performances in the class with… a pen. Every week for thirteen weeks, we were given the homework assignment of applying one of the many tenants of the Sales Advantage program in our dealings with an existing or prospective customer. And then we were to come back the following week and share our experiences. More importantly, we were each tasked with telling a story to the entire class of something that had occurred in our personal or professional life.
At the end, the class voted and to reward the student with the best story, a pen was given as the prize. Not just any pen, oh no, but a “Dale Carnegie” pen. A different color each week, the pen was handed to the recipient in a finely crafted cardboard box as just reward for their experience sharing abilities.
After ten weeks and ten pens, I finally stopped trying to win in order to give the other students a fighting chance. It was too easy. I forced myself to take a dive.
It was obvious that my fire service experiences and the stories born from them gave me a clearly imbalanced advantage over the other students. After all, they were just common citizens with albeit cute little human interest stories related to their family, their workplace or their dog. And there I was – a FIREFIGHTER! (Insert Alleluia chorus here.)
How could they possibly compete? It was hardly fair! In fact, it was very un-fair. As a result of our willingness to be the crazy ones who run into burning buildings as all the sane people are running out, we end up with tremendously compelling stories of serving others. Our stories are so good that we don’t even need to embellish them, but sometimes we do anyways just for the sport of it!
In many ways, we firefighters and the fire service as a whole have a clear advantage over our competition when it comes to garnering public support and the respect and admiration of those we serve. It’s been said that the American public trusts no other occupation more than they trust firefighters – no one.
Our challenge is to maintain, enhance and exercise our revered position as a trusted source in the community and with those we serve with.
Why do people love firefighters so much? Because of our stories.
That’s exactly why www.runtothecurb.com was born and how my www.firefighterstorytellers.com Internet radio show grew from that.
Recently, while toying with a better storytelling tool called www.prezi.com, I stumbled upon a presentation by a gentleman named Raf Stevens who has made a career out of focusing on the importance of storytelling in order to be truly successful in business: (www.corporatestoryteller.be).
The following quote sums up his manifesto: “If you ask me, tackling the challenges that organizations are facing today can only be achieved by linking the vision and dream stories of the young with the wisdom stories of the old and good practice case stories of great leaders.”
WOW! Reading that statement gave me a “pit in my stomach” moment where I realized that I might actually be on to something with my focus on the importance of storytelling in the fire service as a means of passing on our experience, knowledge and legacy.
It dawned on me at that very moment that almost everything we’ve ever been successful at in the fire service is based upon a great story.
Who are your favorite fire instructors? I bet they’re the ones who are able to relate relevant information that you need to keep yourself safe and alive by connecting their message to a personal story of something that happened in their career. The good ones have great stories.
How do we teach the proper use of a new tool? While sharing the intricacies of the tool’s operation, we weave in stories of “how we used to have to do it in the old days” or of how the new tool was recently applied with tremendous success, giving us a tactical advantage.
Not only do they gain an appreciation for the new technology or an improved methodology, but the next time the student goes to use the tool or the technique, they remember the story – and thus the proper application. The story becomes the trigger for exercising their muscle memory.
Why is the fire service one of the longest lasting institutions in America? Certainly we exist because there is an ever-present need for our services, but we’ve thrived because of our ability keep our history alive by telling others of our rich heritage. More stories.
When we want the public to learn fire safety and survival techniques, what’s our most effective method of getting the point across? Telling a story of either tragedy – or of a survivor who is alive today because they took the simple steps we promote through fire prevention education. Stories save lives.
There are thousands of firefighters who are in the fire service today as a direct result of being influenced early on in their life by another firefighter telling tales of their adventures both outside and inside the firehouse. You may be one of those firefighters. I know I am.
And when we need more public support in the way of financial backing or more volunteers, we tell stories of heroism and dedicated community service from those we serve with. It works.
UPDATED CONTENT: Recently in my “Call to Duty” FireRECRUITER Boot Camp sessions, I’ve been asking the very pointed question: “Who should we be in competition with for recruiting the right people into the fire service?”
While I hear responses that vary from “other fire departments” to “every other service organization” – I emphatically respond with: “No one! Absolutely no one!”
Why “no one!” you ask? Because firefighters get to do ‘stuff’ no one else gets to do – that’s why! (sometimes I use another ‘s’ word for emphasis – but I would never put that in writing!)
Think about it: In what other vocation can you break down someone’s door or cut a hole in their roof – and they thank you? No offense to the virtually unlimited list of great civic organizations, but you will never get your picture on the front page of a newspaper for rescuing someone from a car wreck or a burning building – as a member of any other community service organization than the fire department. People don’t hand their most valued worldly possessions and family members to just anyone! But they hand them to people they’ve never met: firefighters!
It’s those stories we need get better at telling. I’ve longed proclaimed that we need to “Treat every public interaction as a public service, public education, public relations and a recruitment opportunity.” Telling stories of the great work our people do makes the most of all of those opportunities.
Regardless of what we’re trying to sell to our internal or external customers – ideas, concepts, protocols, training, behavior modification or services – we need to use our stories to our advantage.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that the Dale Carnegie Sales Advantage class was teaching me not just how to be a better salesperson, but how to be a better storyteller as a means of connecting with other people.
In addition to ten pens I’ve never written a sentence with, I ended up winning the Human Relations Award, reportedly the highest award in the Dale Carnegie system and as voted upon by my peers. That’s really what storytelling is about: relating to other humans.
In my “acceptance speech” at graduation, I talked about that chip on my shoulder that I brought to the first class and I shared that in the end, my view of the training was still that it was all “B.S.” Needless to say, that story raised a few eyebrows, especially of my boss who was sitting in the back of the audience.
I went on to conclude with “But if you come away from this class with just one thing – one thing that can change your life, your career or your story – it’s all worth it.”
So if you come away from this article with just one thing about the importance of storytelling that can change your life, your organization or your fire department’s story – it’s all worth it.
Every firefighter has a story. I just told you mine.
Run to the curb. Tell your story.
EDITOR’S NOTE: I used my Dale Carnegie Sales Advantage training to convert a customer from a local headquarters office into a national account, earning me my company’s coveted Million Dollar Club diamond ring presented with my family present in Disney World. Now I use that same training and my passion for storytelling in marketing the product I love the most: fire and emergency services.