Asking for Stories (Not Answers)
TAoN No. 99: Valuable advice from writer/performer Rob Baedeker. PLUS: A new Missing Word, and more.
A mutual friend introduced me to Rob Baedeker years ago when I was starting (with Joshua Glenn) the Significant Objects project, which involved fictional stories about everyday things. Rob became a key contributor; I got to know him a bit, and we’ve stayed in touch. Recently we caught up for the first time in a while, and it occurred to me I should shake him down for some TAoN advice!
A writer and performer, Rob co-founded the comedy/sketch group Kasper Hauser, and is senior director of Stand & Deliver, a consulting and training firm that helps organizations improve communication and creativity. Given this background, it’s no surprise he’s an excellent observer — and particularly skilled at connecting with people. And I just love the essence of the advice he offered:
“Ask for stories, not answers.”
As you’ll see, this nicely and usefully carries on our recent theme of deeper conversation. To get more specific, he continued:
“Notice (and ask about) the things in people’s Zoom backgrounds. The other day I had an initial call with a potential new client, who had Chicago Bulls paraphernalia behind him. I’m not a sports aficionado, but I happened to have started watching the documentary The Last Dance, about Michael Jordan’s final season with the team. I asked if he knew the film — of course he did, and he perked up. ‘Funny you should ask ….’
“It turns out that he grew up in Chicago and had fond memories of going to games with his (now deceased) father. ‘And so I’m watching The Last Dance with my son, who in the middle of one of the episodes says, “Wait, pause — rewind. That’s grandpa.”’ And there was the client with his dad, cheering the ’97 Bulls. One of the items in his Zoom background was a framed still of that crowd shot, a memento of his father and that happy time in their lives.”
This strategy works in the physical world, too, of course — asking about what people display in homes or offices, or are wearing or carrying. (There’s a prompt in the book about asking after the weirdest thing in the room.) But the real key in any scenario is in how you ask. Rob and author Christopher Colin get into that point in their book from a few years ago, What To Talk About: crafting your question to yield a story, not an answer.
So for example, “What does your name mean?" instead of “What’s your name?,” or “How’d you end up in your line of work?” instead of “What line of work are you in?” (More examples here.) Or in this case: “Tell me about your _____ [scarf/keychain/Bulls picture etc.]”
This is smart advice anytime, but I’m particularly taken with the Zoom/video call scenario. As Rob says:
“I’ve found that simply saying, ‘Tell me about that [painting/plant/photo/guitar, etc.’] leads to interesting stories, and adds some personal dimension to our flat digital transactions. (And a case for real vs. digital zoom backgrounds.)”
Agreed! Thanks Rob!
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Dictionary of Missing Words is an exercise in paying attention to phenomena you encounter — sensations, concepts, states between states, feelings, slippery things — that could be named, but don’t seem to be. More here and here.
This week’s missing word is from reader BikeWalkBarb, in the comments:
“We need a word for that sinking feeling in the stomach when you realize you threw away something you meant to keep — or suddenly find a need for something after thinking it was worthless and sending it off in the trash.”
I definitely know this feeling — and I think maybe the desire to avoid it is what hoarding is about! Thank you BikeWalkBarb!
(Note: I’ve edited this entry lightly; the original wording partly responded to an earlier Missing Word.)
What else should we add to The Dictionary of Missing Words? Leave your suggestion — or respond to this one — in the comments.
Next issue: a new icebreaker. (The Dictionary of Missing Words series alternates with Icebreaker of the Week, and, more sporadically, the Something to Notice series.)
In this coming Thursday’s post for paid subscribers, TAoN Book Notice: Useful ideas from three volumes on my bookshelf. Plus a fresh installment of The Heard, sharing music that’s caught my attention (in a good way) lately.
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In Other News
In TAoN No. 87 I wrote about a building with weird fake “window” decorations. The 99% Invisible blog writes about faux shutters and other phony architectural details, and points to a few social media accounts that track such things, like this one.
“Guard the margins — those seemingly unimportant parts of our day and time.” Essay on finding moments to daydream.
Here, a 1921 short silent film about the human voice. Sort of disconcerting. Amusingly: produced by “Bray Studios.” (It would be fascinating if someone composed a score for this!)
An excellent clip of “Be My Baby.” Sublime.
Very much hoping I can find a way to see this documentary about MLK Boulevards, a subject of interest. (Thanks Cynthia!) Speaking of which, I’ll end with a note of appreciation for Dr. King’s life and legacy, on this day in his honor.
Okay that’s it!
As always, I value your feedback (suggestions, critiques, positive reinforcement, constructive insults, etc.), as well as your tips or stories or personal noticing rituals, things we need a word for, and of course your icebreakers: email@example.com. Or use the comments!
—> Or just click the heart symbol. That always makes my day.
And thanks for reading …
All this by Rob Walker PO Box 171, 748 Mehle St., Arabi LA 70032
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