That reminds me of a story…
After my dad died, and we were sorting through his things, I found in his office a small filing cabinet. It was jammed full of index cards. And on each index card was a story — or at least an anecdote or an extended joke. He must have been collecting them for many years. Some were good, some corny, and some seemed designed to be deployed in very specific circumstances.
Dad, apparently, was developing an arsenal of stories for all occasions. He wanted, ideally, to be able to answer a question, any question, with a story. This strikes me now as pure parenting genius. It’s a surefire way to dispense wisdom lightly. You can impart a lesson without being preachy, be directive without inviting pushback. Because, hey, you’re just telling a story.
The funny thing is, I don’t remember my dad being particularly good at this skill of dialing up a story on demand. He was a surpassingly great guy, but not exactly a spellbinding raconteur. I think it was something he aspired to get good at after he retired and had more time to commit to the effort. Turned out he didn’t live long enough to see the plan through.
But I applaud the idea. I think he was absolutely on to something. The best answer to any question is a story.
Now, some people are super-adept at this.
The business titans Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger — the Berkshire Hathaway founders and two of the greatest investors who ever lived — are textbook. Buffett was approached by a reporter after the financial meltdown of 2008. “So many people suffered terrible losses, Mr. Buffett, but not you two gentlemen so much. Do you care to comment?”
Buffett replied: “Well, you never know who’s swimming naked till the tide goes out.”
(Okay, that’s not really a story, just an aphorism; but I bet you don’t forget it anytime soon.)
For elected officials, it’s an indispensable skill. Because if your story is entertaining enough, you make everything forget that you didn’t really answer the question. (Abraham Lincoln was the master at this—at least if the movie version of his life is to be believed.)
Who else? Religious leaders. Rabbis, especially. Because answering questions with stories is part of the Jewish oral tradition.
It was a rabbi who, for me, pulled the curtain away on how this is done. So the story goes, there was once a wise old rabbi who seemed to have no end of stories that were right on point. One day a student said:
“Rabbi, I have noticed that you always answer a question with a story. How do you know so many stories? And how do you choose the stories to tell that are so perfect for the subject?”
“Your question,” the rabbi said, “reminds me of a story….
Once, long ago, a nobleman sent his son to the military academy in a nearby village to learn to shoot. Five years later, as the young man was returning home, he passed an old barn with chalk circles drawn all over its side. In the centre of every circle was a bullet hole.
He got off his horse. ‘Who is this marksman who can shoot a hundred perfect bullseyes?’ he said. ‘I must meet him!’
A young boy heard the question. ‘Oh, yes, I know that man,” the boy said. ‘He’s the town fool.’ The boy elaborated. ‘See, you think he shoots bullets in circles. But actually, he shoots first, then he draws the circle.’
“And that’s the way it is for me, the rabbi told his student. “I don’t just happen to have these perfect stories that fit the subject we’re discussing. Instead, when I find a story I like, I steer the conversation that way so I can then introduce the story.”
That’s pretty canny. I might just give this a shot.
I think my Dad would approve.