The Story in Their Head

A couple of days ago, I got a letter in the mail from my insurance company saying that our coverage was about to lapse. It seems our agent had omitted a certain form in our application.

Now, I had been having trouble with this insurance agent for a while: she had made past mistakes, didn't return phone calls, and rarely remembered our previous discussions, even if only a day or two had passed.

I knew I should have already gone elsewhere, but life being what it is, and the finance charges already invested, I had not followed through on finding a new one, although I knew I planned to at the end of the term.

So, as I called "Pauline" for help on this matter, not only was I already concerned and annoyed, I was not feeling especially trusting.

In other words, I had history. Like most of us, in most situations, I was not a "clean slate".

I remember when I was about 7, asking my mother if I could have something - probably something with sugar - and she said no. I realized she was in a bad mood, and said, "You're just saying 'no', because you're mad about my not cleaning my room." It was the first time I realized that "history" matters. At the time, it felt terribly unjust that my mother could be inconsistent - saying yes sometimes and no others to the exact same request, in virtually the same context. As an adult, I realize "duh". Of course our previous experiences color our present ones.

Audiences do not arrive as clean slates, either. There are filters and expectations and millions of other stories influencing how a new story, new information, new ideas are received. Your story, even if it is told verbatim, down to the little gesture, is different every time because of how it is heard.

Ask yourself:

  • Who are my listeners?

  • What previous stories have they heard on this topic?

  • What assumptions and attitudes do they come with?

  • What do they expect to hear?

  • What state of mind are they currently in?

  • What context do I need to set?

  • Do they have any previous experience of me? (in person, by reputation) If so, how does that influence the above?

When I finally got Pauline, the insurance agent, on the phone, she was exceedingly chipper. Oh! Well, no problem! Let me look into it!

Someone may have coached Pauline to be "positive", but by failing to recognize either our history of trouble (which I'm sure she didn't remember) or my current state of mind she "blocked" my story to offer a competing one, rather than "yes, and-ing" my reality and guiding me to a new one.

No matter what story you want to tell, do whatever you can to make it possible for your audience to hear that story.