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Secrets of StoryBuilding: #1 Engage immediately

I could smell it before I saw anything. They were burning the jungle north of Siem Reap to clear land for new fields. Through the smoke, I could see lines of men walking together across the fields with long sticks, poking the soil in front of them as they went. In a few hours, I would know why.

The heat and humidity were suffocating. But the long dusty ride was over and we were finally at Aki Ra’s compound. As a former child soldier for the Khmer Rouge, Aki had laid thousands of land mines. After the war, he began to defuse the mines around his community using a knife, a hoe, and a stick.

Aki brought the defused mines back to his house for storage and started charging tourists to see his collection. Today his house is known as the Cambodian Landmine Museum. Aki has personally defused more than 50,000 landmines, making many villages safe again for farming and habitation.

Perhaps more remarkably, Aki brought home and raised two dozen orphan children he found in these villages, many of whom had been injured by land mines. Today, the Museum continues to house an orphanage as well as classrooms and a small farm.

When I visited Cambodia, some of the Khmer Rouge leaders were just going on trial. This was 35 years after the end of their terrible reign, during which they killed a quarter of their own population. The pain of war continues today, with millions of land mines still buried—searched for in reclaimed fields by men with long sticks. They find some. But other mines find victims, including the 22 killed and 89 injured in 2013.

Despite their extraordinary hardships, I found Cambodians to be happy, welcoming people. Pretty inspiring. And a bit of perspective on the “challenges” I face every day toiling away in the US.

Communicate better by telling stories

In professional settings, people commonly employ dry, impersonal, jargony business-speak to communicate—in clipped directives or lengthy attachments. This approach fails to leverage our natural affinity for stories.

We have evolved to communicate through stories—to listen to them and learn from them. Descriptive stories (versus factual summaries) activate more areas of our brains and increase engagement. In interviews and networking meetings, telling relevant stories that demonstrate learning and show self-awareness leads to better attention, understanding and recall.

Successful stories engage immediately. You don’t have to start at the beginning. You don’t have to blandly set the stage or describe the context. Just jump in and grab attention with a line that triggers an emotional response. In the Cambodia story, “I could smell it before I saw anything. They were burning…” uses the strong connection between smell and memory to stimulate an immediate reaction.

So try starting your next meeting or presentation with a personal story. Or just use one to express your opinion and make your point. And become known as a voice to be listened to.

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