March 2013

Conflict, story and trips that matter

by Steve Brock on March 28, 2013

As we saw last time, one of the five P’s of good storytelling is Problem or conflict. No conflict, no tension. No tension, no interest.

Travel and adventureEver tell of an experience on a trip that was fascinating to you, but you can see your audience looking at their watches long before you’re done even describing the ride from your house to the airport? For many of us, our trip stories don’t translate well because the conflict or problem isn’t clear…or isn’t there.

The “challenge” may be as benign as finding something interesting to see in a new city or discovering a decent restaurant there. That may have been a real quest for you at the time, but the story usually comes out something like, “We were hungry so we looked for this place some other travelers had told us about. We couldn’t find the street initially (oooh, real suspense!), but eventually we did and it was the most amazing meal of our trip.” How very nice.

Another reason our stories don’t work for others isn’t just because we don’t translate the challenge or conflict into a narrative they can appreciate. It’s because there is no challenge or conflict. Most of us, myself included, go to great lengths to ensure a hassle-free trip. We count it a success when we make all our connections, when no one gets sick, when nothing is stolen or lost, when the water is drinkable and the roads passable, when the wifi works well and our bargaining at the market works even better and when the whole journey goes as planned. Woo hoo for us!

But pretty boring for anyone hearing our tale.

I like the smooth trip and believe there will always be a place for those kinds of journeys. They just don’t make for great stories. I recall an interview with travel writer Paul Theroux who is famous for traveling light and alone to difficult places. Asked if he ever travels with his wife, he replied that he does and that they had been on a safari together not long before the interview. Theroux went on to explain that it was a wonderful trip… but there was simply nothing to write about.

Where there is no conflict, there is likely, no story.

Every time I find myself gravitating toward the easy trip, I do one of two things. Usually, I heed its Siren’s call and rationalize that this time, I deserve a break. A nice, comfortable trip will do just fine. Vacation is hard-earned, so why add more stress, right?

But then, I remember.

I think about the stories – the good ones – and the trips they represent. The ones that mattered, to others and to me. The ones where a slight shift in outcomes would have meant I wouldn’t be here to write this. The ones that scared the you-know- what out of me at the time but proved transformative. The ones that cost me something…and in turn gave me more than I can ever describe.

Sometimes the only thing that shakes me out of my need for the comfortable trip is to recall the power of the uncomfortable ones. And when I do, conflict, challenges and adventure aren’t things I seek to avoid. They become part of my destination.

And maybe yours as well.

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The five P’s of a good story

by Steve Brock on March 22, 2013

Old fashioned storiesLast time we defined a story as being about a person overcoming an obstacle to achieve a goal. That’s the simple definition. But let’s unpack it a bit more so that you can learn to tell better stories of your trips…and of your life.

Good stories – the kind that capture our attention and grip our hearts – tend to share some common elements. I call them the five P’s. You can call them anything you want, but here’s the list:

1. Person(s) – AKA characters, every good story has to have players, both good (protagonists) and usually, bad (antagonists). They don’t have to be people – animals, robots, even nature can all fill the role – but someone or something needs to take action or it gets pretty boring pretty fast.

2. Plot – Stream of conscious ramblings may be entertaining for a while, but without an interesting sequence of events, your story tends to go nowhere. With travel writing, one of the most common problems is that the writer thinks the plot has to follow the same sequence in which the trip unfurled. But good stories aren’t constrained by linear time. They do, however, need some kind of plot.

3. Point – Good stories all have a theme or moral to them. Maybe it isn’t obvious, even to the writer. But we want our stories to mean something.

4. Purpose – What’s the goal the protagonist is trying to achieve? Without an objective, however minor it may seem at first, a story tends to go flat.

5. Problem – Remember, a story is about someone overcoming something to achieve a goal. That thing they are overcoming, that’s the problem.

In working with clients or in telling my own stories, especially travel stories, the last element is the one that gets left out the most. Most of us don’t like problems or conflict so it doesn’t make it into of our stories. And that makes for some very boring stories.

Conflict is your friend. Embrace conflict because without it, both your stories and your life will tend to wither.

Next time, we’ll explore this issue of conflict more and see how it applies to our trips. But for now, think through the above five elements of a story. Think of a recent experience you had. How could you tell it as a story? Does it have a player? A message (point)? Is there a goal the protagonist is trying to achieve? How about a plot: does the sequence of events tell the story in the most compelling way? And finally, is there conflict or a problem to overcome?

Learn to incorporate these simple elements and I guarantee you your stories will get better, at home or on a trip.

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The making of a good story

by Steve Brock on March 13, 2013

Stories from the classicsIf I had a dollar for every time over the last five or so years I’ve heard someone talk or write about the importance of stories, I’d have enough money to last me the rest of my life. Assuming I died by next Tuesday.

Seriously, maybe because I’m in marketing and branding I hear it more than most, but my guess is that you too have heard it over and over again as well. Life is a story. We’re all part of God’s bigger story. Find your story. Live a better story. Tell your life as a story.

I’m as guilty as the next story proponent because part of what I do for work is to help organizations to know their story and tell it consistently and compellingly. When they do, it makes a huge difference in their ability to attract, inspire and retain customers, donors and other constituents. We point to organizations like charity:water, because they communicate well (even without capital letters), both in words and in images (still and video). They have a simplified message and they stick to it. They know their story and they are good at sharing it…and inviting others to join in it.

I work with clients of all sizes and while many of them talk about the power of storytelling, few of them do it well. Why? Several reasons.

First, it’s hard. Good storytellers make it look easy, but that’s what all great artists do.

Second, it takes practice (and thus relates to the first point).

Third, – I think the biggest reason – is that most of us don’t know how. I count myself in that crowd. I can teach others, but I’m only starting to learn myself how to tell a better story. So let me impart a portion of what I share with clients and over the next several entries here on The Meaningful Traveler, we’ll explore how to apply these principles of storytelling to travel.

The goal is not just to make you better at talking about your trips, but also to improve the actual experience on your trips.

Now I recognize that a good story is a lot like art – you can’t define it but you know it when you see it (or in this case, read or hear it). If there were a perfect formula for storytelling, it wouldn’t last long. It’s like looking for a perfect church: Once you find it and join, it’s no longer perfect. If everyone used the same story-telling formula, it wouldn’t be long before you’d be reaching for the remote or hitting your back button.

However, certain time-tested principles do apply. We’ll explore a few simple ones next time. (Because there are numerous books on the subject, we’ll just be glancing over the surface here). But let me leave you with a simple definition I once read (and forgive me for forgetting the source).

A story consists of a protagonist (usually a person, but not always) overcoming (or at least striving against) an obstacle to achieve a goal.

Think about it: a person overcoming an obstacle to achieve a goal. Simple, yes? Then come back next time and we’ll unpack how this applies to travel.

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Judging ourselves

by Steve Brock March 7, 2013

“We judge ourselves by our intentions. We judge others by their actions.” Great reminder on why things don’t always go as we think they should on trips or at home.

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