The power of a story
I had my first exposure to the Hydronics Institute when it was still the Institute of Boiler and Radiator Manufacturers and I was working for the manufacturers’ rep. My boss tasked me with passing out these cardboard counter-cards to the local wholesalers to spread the word that the I=B=R school was coming to town. I’d get permission to shove some stuff out of the way on the counters, open the easel back, place the card in a good spot, and hope for the best.
This was at a time when only NASA and universities had computers. The rest of us had thick binders filled with tables and charts, and that’s what the two-day I=B=R class was all about. And they filled quickly because hardly anyone was doing generic teaching in those days. If you wanted things straight-up, and without a manufacturer’s sales pitch, this seemed to be the place to be.
Having done so well with my pass-out-the-counter-cards duty, they asked me to be a proctor at a class on Long Island. I learned a lot that day about the power of story.
We began on time. Each student had his or her thick binder, note paper and pencils. The instructor, an older gent named Ozzie, told everyone to open to the first page in the binder. Everyone did as told. Ozzie next placed a clear plastic slide of that page on the deck of his overhead projector. And then he read what was on the page.
“Please turn the page,” Ozzie said, placing a new slide on his overhead projector. The students did so. He read that page.
“Please turn the page.” More reading.
And on it went, hour after hour.
He was speaking to people who were used to being in trucks, attics and basements. They were used to moving. Few, if any, had gone to college. Few were fans of mathematics. Many, I believe, were dyslexic.
I watched closely as the hours slogged by. Some students didn’t come back after lunch. Others didn’t show up the next day. Many dozed off. Ozzie kept reading. He had blessed information, delivered poorly.
Those two days hit me so hard, and I remember them so clearly. At the end of that class, I decided that if I ever got the chance to speak to, or write to, you, I would do it all through story, and not through numbers. I would try to bring concepts screaming to life, and to make this stuff both real and fun for you.
And my memories of that class are not at all negative. I owe my career largely to what I saw during those two days, and what I realized as a proctor for the I=B=R school: Contractors who do the work learn differently than engineers who design the systems. I’ve tried my best ever since to bridge the two groups.
I’ve watched many speakers since then. Bell & Gossett’s Gil Carlson, who smoked constantly while lecturing to engineers and always sat at his overhead projector with his head down, was fascinating to watch. His bosses at B&G had sent him to a class to learn how to speak more effectively, sort of a hydronics charm school. The instructor there told Gil that he needed to make eye contact and to smile more at his audience, so this is what he did:
About every five minutes, Gil would pause in his talk and push himself up into a crouching position. He’d take the butt out of his mouth, smile like a clown in the circus, and beam that smile left, right, left across the room, like some crazy hydronic searchlight. It was quite startling. The engineers in the audience would look at each other and then back at Gil, who by now was again seated, smoking and talking.
Five minutes later, he’d do it again.
That was his style. He was doing what his coaches had advised him to do. Good job, Gil!
Hoffman Specialty had a guy named Joe Flash (and isn’t that just the best name ever for a teacher?). We called him Jumpin’ Joe Flash because he thought he was a gas, gas, gas. He taught Hoffman’s steam-heating class, and I learned a lot from him, too, but he was a man of the 1950s, and he thought that no seminar should start or end, and no coffee break should begin or conclude, without him first telling the filthiest joke you can possibly imagine. And Jumpin’ Joe Flash had plenty of them.
Just us boys here, right? I cringed at each one. I’m still cringing after all these years. Ouch.
But that was his style.
There were many others, and each had his or her own style. When I was going to college at night, I had a professor who would say, “If you will,” at the end of every other sentence. “The meaning of this, if you will . . .” and on and on. It was so distracting that we actually ran a pool to see how many times she would say those words.
At the start of each class, each of us put in a buck. Two people kept count. Whoever guessed closest to the actual amount of if-you-wills won the pot. We did this for an entire semester and she never found out. It was the only way we could keep from screaming.
All of which got me thinking about how important stories are. We crave them. I fell in love with my father’s stories about this business when I was a boy, and the contractors’ stories in the years that followed. One was better than the next, and I told many of these stories when I used to do seminars.
One stands out. I was teaching in a city I can no longer remember. A guy came up to me during a break and told me a story that was so good and so funny. It made the point I had been trying to make beautifully, so I thanked him and embraced it.
A week later, I was in a different city with the same seminar. When I got to the part where I had to make that point, I used the guy’s story instead of the one I had been telling. They absolutely loved it! I smiled, quietly thanked the guy who had told it to me, and moved on.
So now this story was going to be a permanent part of my seminar, and since I have a fine imagination, I started to change it a bit. I did a little nip here, a little tuck there. That’s okay because I’m a writer, and stories are word tools.
Years passed and the story truly became my own. I had added fur and feathers to it. I had put wheels and wings on it and painted it a hundred colors. It got better with age, and the people who were coming to my seminars were learning from it and never forgetting what they had learned. That’s the power of a great story. It teaches.
Even more years passed and one day I found myself back in the same city where the guy had told me the original story. I had met so many people in the intervening years, and this guy had blended into all of them.
I got to the point in my seminar where I launched into the story and noticed this guy sitting up front. He was giving me the strangest look. I continued with the story, which was now my story, and he started to squirm a bit in his chair.
And that’s when I made the connection. He was the guy.
But I had already jumped out of the plane and there was no going back, so I just continued to the end and called for a coffee break. The guy scurries up to me and introduces himself. He tells me that he had taken my seminar years before. I smile. “Welcome back!”
“You know that story you just told?” he says.
“Yes,” I gulp.
“Well, you’re not going to believe this, but a similar thing once happened to me!” And then he launches into the original story, which I listen to with great wonder, attention, and delight. What a coincidence!
Hey, you would have done the same thing.