“Why do you keep doing that?” my instructor asked as I practiced pulling the sailboat out of its slip.

“Doing what?” I asked.

“Throttling up when the engine should be left idling.”

“Oh,” I said. “To keep the engine from stalling out.”

He stared at me for an uncomfortably long time. I could see that he was trying to determine whether I was confused or just plain stupid. “Don’t do it again!”

Have you ever been in a situation where you were communicating clearly, but the other party wasn’t getting it? I knew that the boat’s engine was on the brink of stalling and was trying to make sure that it didn’t.

My motivation came from a teenage experience. I once owned a car whose engine exhibited the same repetitive blub, blub, blub, just before it konked out. The engine performed well while the car was moving, but as soon as I stopped at a traffic light, the chassis would vibrate, I’d hear that blub, blub, blub, and if I didn’t tap the gas pedal at precisely the right moment, the engine would choke out. I battled with that engine constantly.

Later that day, my instructor revisited our interaction. “Why did you think the engine was stalling out?”

I told him about my old car, the blub, blub, blub, and the constant stress of keeping it from stalling.

He burst out laughing. “Ron,” he said. “All boat engines sound that way. The engine isn’t going to stall out.”

The best storytellers understand that listeners tell stories to themselves–little stories that play out in the silence of their minds. Our prior experiences hold unfair advantages over our newer ones. They establish patterns that trigger automatic reactions–independently of whether those responses match the present situation appropriately. The best storytellers write stories that either enhance these patterns…or break them.

How do your customers interact with your product? Do they give it some gas when they should be letting it idle? If so, consider writing a story that breaks that pattern.


Photo Credit: Adams, Ansel, photographer. Bert K. Miura, pattern making, Manzanar Relocation Center, California / photograph by Ansel Adams. [1943] Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2002695300/.