Why a Growth Mindset is Essential for Learning

Have you ever heard anyone say “I can’t draw,” or “I’m not good at sports,” or “I could never do that?”

I used to think I’d never be able to draw. The way I understood the world was that there were artists, and then there were other people.

I was one of those other people. I had my own areas of creativity, but drawing wasn’t one of them. And yet somehow I stumbled into architecture and design school at the age of 21, trying to learn how to draw.

“Genius (or talent) is not enough; we need to get the job done.” — Carol Dweck

Even my graduate school teacher stood behind my desk and shook her head and told me that I wasn’t talented. (In retrospect, that wasn’t a very good example of teaching.) For years, I carried around a belief about my skill meant, in my mind, I’d never be able to do it.

Unfortunately, this is a mindset, and it’s one that we are all taught — but it’s incorrect. We can all learn, and part of this learning is about adopting a new mindset about how we learn at all.

How identifying and adapting your own mindset can help you learn

Interestingly, as children we’ll spend hours and hours learning how to do new things — from learning how to speak, crawl, walk, and go to the bathroom — but as adults, we think that our ability to learn is no longer part of our repertoire.

According to researcher Carol Dweck, the attitude and belief that you can’t learn something is part of a mindset, and it’s something that we can change. When it comes to our mindset, people fall into one of two predictable patterns: they learn to adopt either a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. The good news? These basic beliefs are learned, and we can changed them.

A lot of people seem to carry around fixed beliefs about what they can and cannot do.

Growth mindsets vs fixed mindsets

In a fixed mindset, you come to believe that your skills, traits, and talents are fixed. What you know is unchanging, and therefore, you can’t possibly learn anything new. While this seems extreme at first, you can hear it crop up in conversations when people say things like “I’m a terrible singer,” or “I can’t dance,” or “I’m not a good athlete.” All of these are an example of a fixed mindset.

The misfortune here is that people haven’t taken the time to practice — to work through and puzzle over something until they have acquired a new skill. And thus, they dismiss their ability and say that they simply “can’t” do something.

A growth mindset, however, believes that challenges and learning are opportunities, and that failure is an opportunity for growth. Rather than seeking out evidence that proves we’re not smart, people with a growth mindset focus on process and progress, searching out opportunities to stretch their existing abilities.

This belief that intelligence and personality can be developed has profound consequences on our behavior as adults. “Believing that your qualities are carved in stone (the fixed mindset) creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over.” People will avoid difficult situations, refuse to challenge themselves, and effectively evaluate every situation to see if it will make them look smart or dumb, whether they will success or fail.

In contrast, the growth mindset believes that “the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development,” and “that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts.” The growth mindset embodies a passion for learning (rather than a hunger for approval).

The growth mindset embodies a passion for learning rather than a hunger for approval.

Why prizing natural ability is bad for learning

When we prize “natural ability” or “talent” over learned ability, describes Dweck, we undermine the process of learning. When we expect ourselves to “just know it” and to be perfect from the first time we start anything, we end up creating a framework that scares us from trying anything new:

‘Mindsets frame the running account that’s taking place in people’s heads. They guide the whole interpretation process. The fixed mindset creates an internal monologue that is focused on judging: ‘This means I’m a loser.’ ‘This means I’m a better person than they are’ ‘This means I’m a bad husband.’ ‘This means my partner is selfish.’”

The reality, however, is that learning is a constant experience of expansion, difficulty, repetition, and mastery. When an toddler first learns to walk, we don’t yell at them for being incompetent with their first 100 or 1,000 tries. They fall down, they get back up. Nothing stops them for very long from eventually wobbling about on two legs.

Yet as we get older, we start to expect ourselves to naturally know how to do something. As a culture, we prize natural endowment over earned ability.

“As much as our culture talks about individual effort and self improvement, deep down, we revere the naturals.”

How many opportunities for learning are we losing if we place our admiration on youth and natural ability?

Growth mindsets prioritize learning:

People with a growth mindset learn that:

  • Trying and failing is part of the process
  • Learning requires stumbling, correcting, and growing
  • You don’t have to know everything in advance
  • Practice and skill-building are more important than embedded talent
  • You’re always a beginner
  • Life is about life-long learning

Three ways a growth mindset shows up in learning:

Once you know the difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset, you can start to notice how it shows up in your everyday habits and in your learning. Here are three ways that a growth mindset stands out:

#1: “Those with a growth mindset found success in doing their best, in learning, and improving.”

People with a growth mindset derive just as much happiness from the process as the results. They look for challenges and opportunities to engage with material, rather than deriving all of their satisfaction from mastery. Rather than focus exclusively on the outcome or the goal, they focus equally on the process.

Rather than desiring a finished book, written and perfected, they are motivated by the process of showing up every day to write and edit. Master athletic champions will continue to find ways to improve their personal best rather than sitting on the bench and buffing their nails.

#2: “Those with a growth mindset found setbacks motivating. They’re informative. They’re a wake-up call.”

“In the fixed mindset, setbacks label you,” explains Dweck. “You’re terrified of losing and performing badly, because to you, you are your performance. When you perform badly, you’re devastated, because you, by association, are now no longer valuable or special.”

Whereas a fixed mindset affixes their identity to the outcome, a growth mindset knows that their performance is not the only indicator of who they are. “Wow, that performance wasn’t as good,” the growth mindset might say. “I wonder what I could do differently to get a different outcome? How can I change and grow here to improve my game?”

#3 “People with the growth mindset in sports (as in pre-med chemistry) took charge of the processes that bring success — and that maintain it.

When you believe you are fixed, “you are not a work in process, you’re a finished product,” Dweck says. When you believe that you already have all of the ability you’ll ever have, there’s little reason to invest in processes that will help you grow your skills — that wouldn’t matter. “In the fixed mindset, you don’t take control of your abilities and your motivation.”

In contrast, the growth mindset knows that we are each responsible for our own learning and growth, and are therefore responsible for setting up systems for continuing our own learning. If we want to become a doctor, we’ll set out to learn everything about pre-med chemistry. If there are particular areas that are challenging or cause struggle, we’ll ask for extra help and spend more time on the puzzles until we figure out a way to do it.

Some of the best hip-hop dancers, for example, don’t just naturally begin with their talent. (And talent is a tricky word and often not a helpful word.) While talent might be what you begin with, where you end up depends on your desire to learn, practice, and improve. Many of my favorite performers have spent hundreds of thousands of hours practicing, falling, tripping, and stumbling over routines until they mastered their moves.

How to adopt the growth mindset in your own life:

  • Reward yourself for the process of working and learning, not the outcome…. such as working on challenging problems. Say to yourself “That was great — I really pushed myself and struggled with that for a while,” not “I’m such an idiot for not knowing this.”
  • When you successfully complete something, try out phrases that reward your ability to learn and grow, not your inherent success.
  • Search for and look for things that challenge you, and find ways to enjoy the challenge.
  • Don’t attribute your success or failure to inherent skills; instead, notice the hard work and effort involved in both.
  • Record the entire process (struggle and all) and begin to link the struggle with the adventure of learning.

Learn how to learn by training your own growth mindset:

Luckily, the growth mindset can be learned, says Dweck. People with the growth mindset are constantly trying to improve. “They surround themselves with the most able people they can find, they look squarely at their own mistakes and deficiencies, and they ask frankly what skills they and the company will need in the future.”

As for me, back in graduate school, I was surrounded by people who were drawing every day, and I had to complete drawing assignments every day for several semesters. Over time, the gap between my skill and my taste began to close, and my drawings improved, bit by bit. (For the first year and a half, I thought I wouldn’t actually be able to master the skills to further my design career.)

Then, about a year and a half in, I pinned a drawing up to the wall — a graphite still-life sketch. The teacher paused and said, “This one is not so bad — in fact, it has great linework in here, and we can work on the perspective over here…”

Today, a decade later, I still smile when people watch me draw and they tell me that I’m a natural. I think about the years it took for me to overcome my own beliefs and push my abilities, and how now I believe that anyone can learn anything. When people cough and say “I can’t draw,” I know for certain that yes, they too can learn to draw.

It might not be easy.

But everyone can learn.

Ruby vs. Python

Ruby vs. Python

 

RUBY PYTHON
LANGUAGE 
  • More magical
  • Created in 1995 by Yukihiro Matsumoto
  • More Direct
  • Created in 1991 by Guido Van Rossum
PROS
  • Tons of features out of the box for web development
  • Quick to embrace new things
  • Very easy to learn
  • A diverse community with big ties to Linux and academia
CONS
  • Can be very hard to debug at times
  • Often very explicit and inelegant to read
WEB FRAMEWORKS
  • Ruby on Rails-Started in 2005 by David Heinemeier Hansson
  • Django-Started in 2003 by Adrian Holovaty and Simon Willison
COMMUNITY
  • Innovates quicker but causes more things to break
  • Very web focused
  • Very stable and diverse but innovates slower
  • Used widely in academia and Linux
USAGE
  • Apple
  • Twitter
  • Github
  • Airbnb
  • Github
  • Groupon
  • Shopify
  • Google
  • Pinterest
  • YouTube
  • Dropbox
  • National Geographic
  • The Washington Post

Which is better Ruby on Rails, or Python/Django?

This is a question we get asked repeatedly. It’s an important question too. You’ll hear Ruby vs. Python compared all the time. If you’re unfamiliar with them, it’s an impossible question to answer. I’ve used them both quite a bit and can tell you that while they’re similar, they’re also different in some important ways.

To set the stage, I first learned web development through Python and Django. After spending four years building Django apps, I got a job doing Ruby on Rails and expected the transition to be really simple. That’s when it became clear to me that the two languages and frameworks are different.

So… How are they different?

The Language:

The Ruby on Rails web framework is built using the Ruby programming language while the Django web framework is built using the Python programming language.

This is where much of difference lies. The two languages are visually similar but are worlds apart in their approaches to solving problems.

Ruby is designed to be infinitely flexible and empowering for programmers. It allows Ruby on Rails to do lots of little tricks to make an elegant web framework. This can feel even magical at times but this flexibility can be good and bad at times. Sometimes code works when you didn’t expect it to and l5eaves you feeling really impressed. Other times the Ruby magic can make it very hard to track down bugs for hours.

Python takes a more direct approach to programming. It’s main goal is to make everything obvious to the programmer. This sacrifices some of the elegance that Ruby has but gives Python a big advantage when it comes to learning to code and debugging problems.

One great example showing the difference here is working with time in your application. Imagine you want to get the time one month from this very second. Here is how you would do that in both languages

Ruby

require8 'active_support/all'
new_time = 1.month.from_now

Python

from datetime import datetime
from dateutil.relativedelta import relativedelta
new_time = datetime.now() + relativedelta(months=1)

The Python version has you importing specific functionality from datetime and dateutil libraries. It’s a lot more explicit, but you can easily tell where everything comes from.

The Ruby version is a lot more magical. We import some active_support library and now all of a sudden all integers in Ruby now have these “.days” and “.from_now” methods. It reads well but it’s definitely not clear where this functionality came from inside of active_support. Plus, the idea of patching all integers in the language with new functionality is cool but it can also be abused and cause problems.

Neither approach is right or wrong, they just emphasize different things. Ruby showcases flexibility of the language while Python showcases directness and readability.

Web Frameworks

Django and Rails are both frameworks that help you to build web applications. They have similar performance because both Ruby and Python are scripting languages. Each framework provides you all the concepts from traditional MVC frameworks like models, views, controllers, and database migrations.

Each framework has differences in how you implement these features but at the core they are very similar. Python and Ruby also have lots of libraries you can use to add features to your web applications as well. Ruby has a repository called Rubygems that you can use and Python has a repository called the Package Index.

Community

Python and Ruby both have very large communities behind them. The community influences the direction of the language, updates, and the way software is built using them.

Python has a much more diverse community than Ruby does. There are a ton of academic use cases in both Math and Science that Python has thrived in. This gives it a lot of support in those areas and it continues to grow because of that momentum. Python is also installed on almost every Linux computer making it the perfect language for use on servers.

Ruby’s popularity really started when Rails came out in 2005. The community grew quickly around Rails and has since been incredibly focused on web development. As time goes on it the community around it has gotten much more diverse but it hasn’t seen the same diversity that Python has.

Usage

Who is using these languages? Quite a lot of companies. Both languages and web frameworks are pretty widespread in the tech world.

Python has been by companies including Google, Pinterest, Instagram, National Geographic, Mozilla Firefox, and the Washington Post.

Ruby has been used by companies like Apple, Twitter, Airbnb, Shopify, Github, and Groupon.

Conclusion

Anything you can do in Ruby on Rails you could also do in Python and Django. Which framework is better isn’t really a question of capability, it’s actually a question of what the support is like for you and your team.

My general rule of thumb is this:

If you plan on sticking with building web applications, then check out Ruby on Rails. There’s a very strong community built upon it and they are always on the bleeding edge.

If you are interested in building web applications but would like to learn a language that’s used more generally, check out Python and Django. You’ll get a diverse community and lots of influence and support from the various industries that it is used in.

Either way, you can’t go wrong. Almost everything you learn in Python can be translated to Ruby and vice versa. The same goes for Django and Rails. They both have supportive communities behind them. If you have friends doing one or the other, join them because you can always ask them for help along the way.


Learn to Code in 30 Days!
Learn Ruby Tutorial | Learn Python Tutorial

26 Ways To Attract And Grow Your First 1000 Subscribers

Here are a few ways to attract and grow your first 1,000 subscribers.

The hardest part of growing your product or business can often be the first part. How do you get your first few subscribers? How do you go from zero to one… to 10, 100, or one thousand?

Before I go any further, I have to reiterate what I say in my class and other places: the most important part of content marketing is creating content that is exceptional — valuable, useful, helpful, and share-worthy. If you don’t have great content, then the strategies below aren’t going to work.

At One Month, we ask ourselves, “would we share this?” This is part of our metric for whether or not a post is great. We don’t always get it right, but we’re learning as we go. We want to deliver extremely valuable, useful, intriguing, thoughtful content that helps you get more of what you want. If we wouldn’t share it with our friends, then you probably won’t share it with yours.

Once you have great content, however, how do you share it?

How do you get your first 1,000 subscribers? Here are some of the tactics and tools that have worked for us across many of our projects:

1. Tell your friends and colleagues about it.

You would be surprised how many people build something and then… expect people to show up. You have to invite them to come see what you’re doing. Send people personal emails or messages telling them exactly what you’ve built, why you think it’s useful for them, and what you’d like them to do with it.

You probably are connected to at least 100, if not 300 people that you can reach out to and let them know what you’re working on. Don’t spam everyone over and over again, but definitely tell them once about what you’re working on.

The trick? Ask people directly to sign up. Don’t expect them to sign up. Write a note to them that says, “I’m starting a newsletter about [TOPIC] and I think you might enjoy it. I’d love it if you signed up!”

2. Ask your friends and network to share it.

Email them and say, “I’m building this new thing, and I’d love to reach more people who would find this useful. Would you help me spread the word by reaching out to 5–10 people who might find this really helpful?”

Email and referrals are two of the best ways to grow signups. One email from a trusted resource to 5–10 people will generate far more signups than a random Facebook post that most of your network misses.

3. Comment helpfully on related blogs and other posts with similar questions.

Content marketing is about creating relevant conversations, not about shouting from the rooftops. Join the conversation by finding active voices and contributing wisdom and ideas to the community.

4. Become an active member in existing communities doing similar work.

Want people to comment on your blog post? Go comment on other people’s work!

5. Use paid advertising (Google, Facebook).

It’s fairly easy to set up a Facebook or a Google Ad, and for a few hundred bucks, you can drive signups. Make sure that you’re driving traffic to a page that has a big sign-up button. Don’t drive traffic to get more “likes” on your facebook fan page or to your website generally, however. Drive them exclusively to an offer (that they sign up with by email) or a place to sign up directly.

6. Make subscribing really easy to do.

It always surprises me when I go to a site and I have a ton of trouble finding out how to subscribe. Add a link in your website’s header, footer, sidebar, at the end of blog posts, in a feature bar, in the middle of blog posts, in the author bio, as a pop-up, as a hello-bar, etc. (You don’t have to do all of them, but do at least 4 different places and test which one is getting the most signups.) Add a page exclusively for signing up.

Start growing your audience today!

7. Add a link to your social profiles.

Add a link to your newsletter or mailing list across all of your social profiles: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Quora, Google+, Reddit, etc.

8. Add the site to the footer of your email, and invite people to sign up.

Use every single email you send as an opportunity to tell people about your projects.

9. Build a landing page exclusively for getting subscribers.

Dedicate a landing page exclusively for signups, like The Merchant Home does here:

10. Before you launch have only a landing page, dedicated to getting subscribers.

Put up a landing page before you launch.Create mystery and intrigue. Invite people to sign up before you’re ready. Use LaunchRock or another service to help you build this.

11. Force people to enter their email address before they get any content.

I don’t personally recommend this (in fact, I typically hate it), but it works for many people. I’d be remiss to not include it in this list. Use sparingly. People might hate you because of it.

12. Add urgency or a deadline.

Tell people what they’ll miss out on if they don’t sign up right now.

13. Host a webinar or a free event.

People love getting free stuff, and we love seeing what’s happening behind the scenes. Set up a free webinar to share what you’re working on (or your “10 best strategies for X”) and have people sign up with an email address to be notified when the webinar launches and when you do similar things in the future.

(Case in point: we’re hosting a free webinar on Growth Hacking on June 3rd, by the way. Join us!)

14. Make the offer really clear. What do they get for subscribing?

Make a compelling offer for what people get by signing up. “Great content” isn’t a compelling offer. What, exactly, are you going to give to them? Why should they spend their precious time with you, and let you into their inbox? Today’s inboxes are analogous to our living rooms. We don’t let just anyone come in. We invite people in that we want to have a conversation with. Why will they let you in?

“Your email inbox is like your living room. You don’t let just anyone in. It’s your online home, and you protect your space.”

15. Give away a free incentive for subscribing.

Make an offer that people can’t refuse. Some of our best signups come from our free offers — some of the experiments we’ve run here at One Month: we did a month of free writing prompts, offered recordings of our best webinars, and currently have a Growth Hacking Crash Course that people can sign up to for free.

16. Get really clear on who you want to connect with.

Why do you want to connect with them? What is their pain point? And why what you have to offer is different, better, and crazy-useful to the people who need it?

17. Add exit intent popups/offers.

Sumo is a great way to add a smart pop-up to your page, and PopUp Ally is also a great tool. An “exit intent” popup only shows up when the reader demonstrates an intent to leave your page (like moving their cursor to close the window or type in a new URL in the browser). You can “capture” people who are leaving with a bright, colorful exit-intent popup like this:

18. Get people to write for you.

Ask people to guest-post and publish with you. A great way to have people share your website is by asking them to contribute to it. Build your audience by utilizing other people’s existing audiences. They’ll share your site when they share links to their work that’s published on your site.

19. Syndicate your content.

Most of the content in the world, wide, web (that big old place) is only seen by a few thousand people, at most. Get your content shared by distributing it broadly. The same piece of content can be used in 10 different places — syndicated as a column, a blog, excerpts on LinkedIn, re-posts on Medium, etc. Content isn’t precious; you can share it in many, many locations.

Put a sign-up link in each of those locations!

20. Guest post, publish, and write for other people’s websites.

The best way to grow your audience is to play off of other people’s audiences that they’ve already built. Submit awesome content to sites that already have medium-to-big-audiences and watch your traffic grow.

21. Write a monthly column not on your own website, but a well-known website.

HuffPo, Forbes, and many other websites are often looking for monthly columnists and contributors. Build your web presence by writing for someone else — and capturing emails with a freebie on your own website.

22. Join social conversations.

Chime in helpfully in conversations and share your knowledge freely. Respond to and upvote other people’s work. This builds trust and reciprocity and people notice it when other people pay attention to them.

23. Use LinkedIn.

LinkedIn has often one of the best referral sources for our content and for business-related sharing. Use it to syndicate your content. Write blog posts on LinkedIn on a different publishing schedule from your regular content release schedule.

24. Go to conferences, online events, and join chats (like Twitter Hashtag chats) to meet more people in your target market.

25. Write an email newsletter.

Give people someething new to read every month, or a round-up of your favorite stuff on the web. You don’t have to write original content to have a compelling newsletter; if you link up the top 10 reads each month related to your subject area, that can be a great read. Email marketing is about connecting with people over email; it’s up to you to figure out what way you’ll use email to fit your businesses needs.

And this brings us back to where we started, which is worth repeating:

26. Write amazing content.

This goes without saying, but can be very hard to do. Give people a reason to read, use, and share your stuff. It’s worth the time — and it’s what builds your audience for the long-term.

11 Ways To Improve Your Business and Personal Storytelling

When you want to learn how to describe yourself or your business, people look to storytelling as a way to improve their core message.

But what is storytelling? And how do you actually get better at it?

And what does it matter for businesses today?

“Story” — the word is vague and yet so appealing — so it can be difficult to know where to start, and how to use what you learn in your everyday practice.

If you’re not telling your story, who is telling it for you?

This essay will look at some of the core truths about stories and storytelling in Part I, and then I’ll share a few tools that are practical and easy to implement in Part II. Use these core principles across many communication needs, from a personal biography to the description of your company.

Storytelling is a fundamental human tool that we all do innately. The problem is that over time, we’ve been bombarded with terrible examples of bad messaging, and we don’t know what models to look to. Our brains are wired for storytelling, because stories help us learn, explore, and retain information through second- and third-hand experiences. We know when we’re in the presence of a good story, but do we actually know what’s happening inside of them?

We can recognize when we’re captivated by a great story. The problem is, can you dissect what’s happening into tools you can use to your advantage later?

Stories are innately human. Everyone is a born storyteller.

Case in point: when you recount events that you’ve done, even a simple sentence as you walk through the door, you’re setting up a basic story structure:

“You won’t believe what just happened — first I went to the grocery store, then…” — your ears prick up.

You’ve set up the most basic form of a story: do you know what it is?

Here’s another example —

“The beach was dark and quiet. It was eerie — the moon was dark and someone had turned off all the lights on the boardwalk. Alison felt uneasy as she stepped nervously out into the dark. Who had turned out all the lights?”

Both of these examples use a very specific form of storytelling that we’re all hardwired to understand. Do you know what it is?

I’ll explain it today as we deconstruct storytelling. But first, I want to debunk a few myths about storytelling. Somehow we think that only an elite few can be storytellers, and it’s a skill that we don’t have.

Part I: Common storytelling principles that apply to business and life.

1. Everyone is a storyteller.

Some people say that storytelling is limited to an elite few, or a professional clique. In reality, that’s not true. All humans are born storytellers, and we’re born to look for, hear, and describe our world in stories.

When someone comes back to us and says, “Avoid Atlantic avenue, it’s crazy full of traffic,” we select a different route because we got information — in the form of a story — about someone else’s experience.

2. We tell stories to connect, dream, and imagine.

We use storytelling to connect inwardly to ourselves, outwardly towards others, and to imagine futures. Humans spend up to four hours per day inside of imaginary landscapes — in daydreams, thoughts, visualizations, and places beyond the present. We live in a world of stories.

We use storytelling to connect inwardly to ourselves, outwardly towards others, and to imagine our futures.

Children are born telling stories — in fact, we play for exactly this reason. Play is our built-in mode of imagining the future and the past. In telling stories, and playing make-believe, we’re able to learn at a much faster pace than if we had to rely only on our own experience.

We are learning creatures. We learn by experience and through our imagination. When something good happens to us, that’s a reward. When something bad happens, there’s a punishment. These incentives teach us over time.

In stories, we get to pick up and enter into the landscape of someone else’s learning — and learn for ourselves, even though we may be sitting in one place, not moving.

3. Stories are how we are hardwired.

Prior to written language, we had to keep important information about the world around us, somehow. We’ve constructed melodies, songs, and other modes of storing information.

Is it any coincidence that “storing” and “storytelling” are related? We are hardwired to remember cause and effect relationships — “I saw a spider, that spider killed my friend, spiders are bad.” “REMEMBER THIS!” Shouts your brain.

Lisa Cron’s research on the brain science behind storytelling is what prompted her book, Wired For Story, if you’re curious about how it works.

In research in The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottfried, he talks about how we actually make up stories all the time, whenever we see two events happening.

If we see a group of women and they’re all wearing tiny shorts, we might tell as story to ourselves about how they are all going to the beach. In research on people with their two brain hemispheres segmented or separated, they discover that our brains actually wire stories into our minds when presented two pieces of information. (For more on this, here’s a list of great books on storytelling.)

4. A story is what you take with you.

In any situation or setting, a story is what you take with you.

When giving a presentation or sharing your brand or idea, what someone walks away with is the story. They’ve taken all the information they’ve been given and distilled it into the easiest parts to remember.

Listen to what people catch from your descriptions, and guide your story towards what people naturally keep bringing up!

A story is what you take with you. Listen to how people explain

It’s less about what you want to say, and what people do with what you say. Pay attention to what people respond to, and adjust accordingly.

5. We are surrounded by far too many examples of bad storytelling — powerpoints, inadequacy marketing, and droll presentations have numbed our innate ability to tell stories.

Unfortunately, we’re surrounded by terrible examples of storytelling. In The Story Wars by Jonah Sachs, he talks about all the sins of modern storytelling — from our need for vanity to posing as an authority, and more.

There are far too many bad examples out there — boring presentations, terrible pitches, inadequacy marketing — that we’ve forgotten what great storytelling looks like.

Basically, the last century of mass broadcasting let the leaders in charge of storytelling get lazy. There’s too much talking about yourself, not listening to the audience, and shouting lists. Technology (like powerpoint) even encourages bad storytelling by putting bullets and lists as the mode of operation.

The good news is that once we recognize the bad examples for what they are — boring presentations that put us to sleep — we can stop copying them and start engaging.

6. When you sell anything — yourself, a brand, a business — you tell a story.

When you sell things, you tell a story. It’s not about the thing at hand. And powerpoint lists are terrible ways of communicating.

When you sell things, you’re telling a story.

Think about a toothbrush. You’re not selling a plastic stick with a bunch of flexible bristles on it. Why describe it like that?

When you sell a toothbrush, you’re selling the idea of a cleaner mouth. Why is that clean mouth important?

Think about Listerine: you’re not selling a bottle of alcohol, you’re selling … a date.

The ability to be well-liked.

A possibility.

Advertisements are stories about who you are and who you should be, and great advertisements want to capitalize on something deeper than the physical thing that they are selling.

What do they believe about human nature? What story are they telling you, implied or otherwise?

7. We are naturally curious, and we all want to be smart.

Finding Nemo, the movie, is about a little guy who gets lost and needs to find his dad. Along the way, he goes on adventure after adventure in order to return home.

At the beginning of the movie, we, the audience, know the purpose of the whole movie within the first few minutes: this is a story about a father and son finding each other again.

The same is true in most situations. We interrupt because we want to get to the point faster. When presented with a puzzle, most people work furiously to get it right — first.

People like to be smart, and curious. Stories let us engage our curiosity.

We want to be smart. We like the puzzle of a story, and we want to guess how it will end. Stories entertain us because they keep us in suspense, and they tickle our brains to try to guess how something ends.

Part II: How to improve your business and personal storytelling today.

So how do you take all this and make it applicable to your stories and messages? Here are some concrete ways to improve your storytelling right now.

8. Your English teacher was right — it is about “showing” versus “telling.”

Too often we jump straight to the point. Think about each of these as lead sentences:

“It was the hardest day of my life.”

“The thing is, simplicity matters.”

“Never underestimate the power of a good friend.”

These are all true statements, but it’s not gripping or exciting. Whatever your core philosophical statement, think about leaving it unsaid.

Just like the toothbrush examples before, the point of your story isn’t to beat someone over the head with the idea, but rather to SHOW it through lots of vivid detail and an example that highlights your core philosophy.

We don’t need to be hit over the head with ideas. We want to learn through the experience.

For example —

[It was the hardest day of my life.] vs:

“I’d just finished a fourteen hour shift in the cement factory. I had no idea what my dad did, so that summer I signed up to join him at work. Three days in, and I could barely lift my hands. My forearms burned, and my calves were shot from jumping in and out of the trucks. I’d probably lifted more than a hundred sacks of cement mix in and out of the truck. When I got home that day, all I wanted was to lie down. Then I discovered…”

[Never underestimate the power of a good friend.] vs:

“I’d just found out that my grandmother had passed, and I couldn’t make it home in time. My job had closed the week before, our office putting up the ‘for sale’ sign after more than eight months in the red. On the bus ride home through the foggy drizzle of Portland’s grey fall days, I wondered how I could pay for groceries for the rest of the week.

As I got off the bus, I saw someone sitting on my stoop. “Probably another homeless person,” I muttered to myself, thinking I’d be one soon myself. As I got closer, I saw that it was actually Andy, holding two bags of Indian food takeout. He wrapped me in a big hug. “I thought that you could use this today,” he explained, pointing to the food.

“Let’s eat.”

Words are the only vehicle someone has to understand your vision.

9. Detail, detail, detail. The environment matters — because it lays the foundation for imagination.

Words are the only vehicle someone has to understand your vision. The more you set the stage for where you are, the easier it is for someone to buy in.

Great storytelling is about detail — but a specific kind of detail. How do you set the stage and the context for what’s happening? What does it feel like to be you?

Stories immerse us in an event far away from where we are, catapulting us into a new time and space. Key descriptions anchor us into this new space through the use of all of the senses — smell, sight, touch, taste, sound, texture, even kinesthetics.

Begin by describing the world around you, in vivid sensory detail. The English language has thousands of words to describe the subtle differences in texture and weight and material. Tell the story of what the world looks like. Great fiction books often begin with these details — take a look at 1984 or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for great opening scenes.

With written narrative, all we have are words. Contrast this to film, where we can show rich detail through visual imagery. In our hyper-visual culture, we sometimes replace describing feelings with posting a quick picture, because it’s easier.

But in writing, all we have are words. Choosing words and describing the scene, in detail, is what brings someone into your story.

10. Introduce conflict — by using the “bait” method.

Here’s a secret about the human brain: we all like to be smart.

We like to figure things out, and know the answers to things. Whenever we are presented with a puzzle, we like seeing if we can figure it out before someone else does.

In storytelling, a great way to engage your audience is to add a teaser at the beginning.

In storytelling, a great way to engage your audience is to add a teaser at the beginning. By using a little bit of bait, you stoke the curiosity in your listener’s mind. Ira Glass talks about this often, and if you introduce a story with an underlying question (like “the house was eerily dark,” or “it was a different night than any other,”) the listener begins to wonder why it was so dark, or why the night was different.

This “curiosity gap” between a piece of information that asks a question, and the story that resolves the question, helps the reader stay engaged and curious about the story. A little bit of conflict introduces a puzzle to be fixed!

11. Shorter is often better. Keep it simple!

At the end of the day, a story is what you take with you — and we don’t remember every detail of every story, but rather, the highlights real.

When you’re presenting your idea, biography, or product, start with something short and sweet.

The idea of an elevator pitch is right, but with a twist. It’s not how much you can cram into 1 or 2 minutes, but how easy you can make something that’s understandable and sticky.

At a conference, if you babble and ramble when introducing yourself to people, they’ll forget most of what you said. If you string it into a story, and you keep it simple, people will be able to take that with you.

You don’t need to get all the perfect information into one sentence; in fact, being imperfect can prompt likability and curiosity!

A quick and easy test for how good your story is is to listen in to what’s being said.

Introduce yourself to someone, and then listen to when they introduce you. I’ll often keep it simple — I focus on writing and swimming. I’ll say, “I work as a writer; I teach writing, and I’m also an open-water swimmer.”

Then, when I’m being introduced, Clay leans over and grabs his friend and says, “You gotta meet Sarah, she’s a swimmer!” — I listen to what people hang on to, and what captivates them.

I can’t possibly capture everything about myself (or my business) in a single sentence. But what I can do is find the most interesting part, and start there.

Conclusions and take-aways: journaling and practice.

What did you take away from this introduction to storytelling?

How can you change your story to make it sweeter, simpler, and easier to understand? Is there anything you’re still curious about? Leave a note in the comments, and I’ll be happy to chat with you.

Here are a few ways to take your work forward in your journal and practice:

  1. Practice: how can you write a one-sentence description of who you are that’s super simple? What three keywords or nouns would you use to describe you? Think of it as a gift to your audience — the less you say, the more they can remember.
  2. Writing exercise: describe your environment, in vivid detail. What is the shape of the space that you are in? What does it smell like, taste like, sound like?
  3. Bookmark 10 great “About” pages that you love and highlight what stands out to you. What techniques and styles are used that you particularly admire?
  4. Take a quick look at your email inbox (but don’t get lost in it!). Take a screen shot of your inbox and print it out. Highlight what’s already been read, and what you’ve skipped. Are there any themes? Look at what you click — which email titles are stories? Which ones are boring? What do you skip over? Your inbox is a great case-study for clues to how storytelling works in your everyday life.

Great storytelling, just like anything else, is a learning journey. The best stand-up comics practice their material dozens (if not hundreds) of times to learn what works best.

And remember: a story is what happens between two people. So get out there, practice your story, and use each experience to get a little bit better.

If you want to know more about marketing, content marketing, and storytelling, check out the free webinar recording we have, or the class I teach on Content Marketing.

What else would you add? What would you like to know more about? Leave a note in the comments and I’ll be happy to respond.