Vacation Stories: The Secret Business Schmooze Tool

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Taken any good vacations lately?

It's a question you'll hear at business dinners, conferences, client meetings and friendly get-togethers. And you'll want to be prepared to tell a good story.

The good news is, you don't have to relate a boring yarn. In fact, you really shouldn't be, because storytelling is also an essential business skill, says Chip Heath, co-author of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.

"We often think of the stories [people] tell as a form of entertainment, but they are a way of letting people know what you're like, and what you're about. Your listener is evaluating you as someone they'll potentially do business with, and they're listening for how you respond to challenges," he says.

They're also a great way of building rapport, says Lea Thau, executive director of The Moth, a New York-based organization that promotes and teaches the craft of storytelling.

"Stories help us to find the connection between us as human beings. You give your audience an opportunity to enter into the story, where their hopes are going to rise and fall with yours -- if you're running a marathon, they're going to be drenched in sweat."

It's a bond that's not soon forgotten -- but you must tell the story well.

Here's how to do it.

Think Small

"You want to focus on one specific aspect of your trip, and not attempt to talk about the entire vacation," says Tim Leffel, editor of Perceptive Travel, a Web site that publishes travel narratives.

"A story needs a beginning, middle and an end, but that doesn't necessarily have to be from the time you left your house to the moment you return home," he says.

What was the most interesting part of your trip? Tell people about that, and skip the less-interesting build up and the increasingly boring conclusion.

Establish What's at Stake

A story shouldn't be a mere collection of things that happened to you. To get your listeners involved, something has to be on the line for you.

Something has to be at stake.

"Stakes are a way of creating urgency, a way of getting us excited and wanting to know what happens next," says Thau.

Big and dramatic stakes are good, i.e., the airplane was on fire! But you can also tell a fine story around stakes that are more subtle: I had been working 24/7 around the clock, and I really needed to get some peace and quiet. And then I arrived at my beach resort to find it was overrun with screaming kids!

"The more opportunity you give listeners to enter into the story, by giving them information about who you are and why this matters and what is at stake, the more you'll be able to have them live through the story with you."

To establish your stakes, ask yourself: Why do I want to tell this story? And why should anyone else care?

Play With the Expectation/Reality Gap

"Stories are driven forward by either a tension between what you have and what you want -- or what you expect and what actually happens," says Thau. So, when you're thinking about what story to tell from your vacation, pay special attention to the moments that surprised you.

Also, consider the times that the unexpected turned out less than great for you on your trip, says Heath.

"These days, everyone is worried about authenticity -- what better way is there of being authentic then talking about setbacks?"

In the same way that you carefully pick out "faults" to discuss during a job interview, you can use a travel story as an excuse to be charmingly self-deprecating.

"It's a very good way to inspire trust," says Annette Simmons, author of The Story Factor: Inspiration, Influence, and Persuasion Through the Art of Storytelling.

Plus, it can be a refreshing corrective if you've been in a business situation where you've had to talk yourself up a lot.

Paint a Vivid (but Not Too Wordy) Picture

"A story is a "reconstituted" experience," says Simmons. You'll need concrete detail and excellent imagery to bring your reader right along with you.

But a story with too much detail is a different kind of frustrating. To edit yourself, ask yourself not only what you're trying to say, but who your audience is, and again consider why they should care about your story.

Avoid TMI

Thinking about your audience also helps you to avoid a distressingly common problem in vacation raconteurship: Too Much Information.

Things can sometimes go wrong when you're traveling. Gross things, that need not go beyond you and a closed bathroom door. And yet, it is surprisingly common to hear incredibly detailed stories about a person's inner workings when they're sharing a travel story, says Cameron Siewert, editorial director of Igougo.com, a Web site that publishes tourists' travel experiences.

"It's important to know which details to share and which ones not to share," she says. "Intestinal distress is a good example. It's not that it's not a good thing to say that you ate something bad and got sick in a particular restaurant, but you need to know when to stop sharing details."

Practice

As with all things that you want to do well, practicing your stories ahead of time isn't bad idea -- try them out on your friends and family before you trot 'em out in a business situation.

There's no need to overdo, of course.

"You don't need rehearse it in front of the mirror, you're not a comedian on stage trying to deliver the perfect line, but think a little a bit ahead of time," says Leffel. "What's the focus of your story, what's the hook, the gist, the climax? You're not trying to sell anything, but you also don't want the person losing interest," he says.

Losing your audience in the middle of your story, for instance, is a sure sign you need to practice more.

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