A Night at the Willard
*DRAFT* Your feedback is most appreciated!
I was nervous walking through the front doors of the Willard hotel.
It was my first time stepping into the iconic lobby. I imagined Grant sitting in a chair drinking brandy and smoking cigars, as he loved to do as president. I pictured Mark Twain and Walt Whitman walking by. What did they write here, I wondered?
Every president since the Civil War has done business here. Presidents Lincoln, Cleveland, and Coolidge even lived in the hotel. And when it caught fire in the early 1920s, when Coolidge was vice president, he famously tried getting back inside after being evacuated. The fire marshall asked who he was and Coolidge simply said, “I’m the vice president.” The marshall replied, “what are you vice president of?”
Nathaniel Hawthorne was justified in calling the Willard “the center of Washington.”
This is the place to have conversations with DC’s elite. Or -- in my case -- to help keep those conversations going. After standing in the lobby ruminating awhile, I walked up the stairs to a private dinner on the second floor.
About a dozen folks mingled and drank before sitting down at a round table. Two were U.S. senators. Others ran commissions and published research. Conversation began quickly and stayed lively. My nerves calmed as I realized there would be no need for me to jump in. People often love being the center of attention, especially in DC.
More than halfway through the dinner I realized that the man sitting to my right had yet to speak. He was a researcher named Adam. I was happy to stay quiet, as I had nothing to contribute; I wondered if Adam felt the same way.
Fairly late into the dinner the conversation turned to a topic that Adam had researched. He was asked a question about it. And to my surprise and delight, he answered with a clarity and eloquence that captivated the room.
Questions continued to be thrown his way. Everyone wanted more. The rest of the evening was The Adam Show. Even after dinner ended, several people stood around him to continue asking questions.
At the end of the evening I was able to walk back through the lobby with Adam. I asked my own questions: “How did you do that? How did you captivate the room?”
Adam told me his secret. For twenty years, he said, he’d been doing research on a wide range of topics. He realized how much more effective it was to clarify his key ideas with simple language, and bring them to life with analogies and stories tailored to various audiences. He put real effort into doing this.
And because he was interested in many topics, he wanted to make sure he didn’t forget any of his work. So he saved everything. All his research, as well as all of his key insights, analogies, and stories. Everything gets organized and digitally stored in the cloud. Wherever he is, he can always quickly access his entire catalog.
Before showing up to an event he asks himself, what are these folks interested in? Which of my ideas will appeal to them? What insights, analogies, and stories will they appreciate? He takes a moment to review the relevant parts of his catalog so they are fresh in his mind.
When someone asks him a question, he is ready to answer.
This approach makes sense. And, yet, it is rarely followed. Our default is often to ramble about whatever happens to be on our minds at the moment. To speak first rather than to listen. To talk about what interests us, rather than what interests our audience.
Adam showcased the power of effective communication. In particular, the importance of listening first, and being prepared to speak when called upon. And when we are called upon, how much more influential we are when our insights are clear in our minds, and we bring them to life with analogies and stories that resonate with our audience.
I wonder sometimes, how many folks have stepped into the Willard over the past two centuries hoping to capture people’s attention like Adam did? I imagine that number is quite high. And, yet, how many have been as successful as him? I imagine that number is quite low.
More broadly, how many people right now would like to be more eloquent and persuasive?
This approach is as simple as it is powerful: listen well, and make time to build up your own storytelling catalog.
Thankfully, anyone can do it. Whoever you are, and wherever you may be right now, you can begin applying this method today.
THE MORAL OF THE STORY:
Listen well, and make time to build up your own storytelling catalog.
Begin building your storytelling catalog today.
As always, start simple and easy. Set a timer for five minutes. Ask yourself: what is a story that I like to tell? It can be anything. Doesn’t matter whether it happened to you or someone else, whether it’s true or not. Just a story you enjoy sharing. Sketch out a quick overview as best you can in five minutes. When the timer goes off, save your notes somewhere, like a Google Doc. You have officially begun building your storytelling catalog.