What He Taught
Occasionally in our lives we get the opportunity to see legends in person. Ken Griffey, Jr. playing baseball (in the Kingdome), Marcus Allen playing football. Sammy Hagar (or David Lee Roth if you prefer) playing with Van Halen. All events I have had the good fortune to experience. But recently I was able to see a true master up close and personal.
I attended a workshop put on by a master storyteller and question-creator extraordinaire. His articles have been read by millions, his podcasts have been listened to by similar numbers. His books are hard to find but for those of us in the room on Friday the man himself was available. The one and only Cal Fussman.
I started this post the morning after coming back from München and the Storytelling Master Class with Cal Fussman but it didn’t feel right. So I stopped. And I thought. And thought. And thought. Now the untrained observer might take this as procrastination, or even a lack of desire, but the true writer knows it is neither.
A few nights later as I walked I began pondering the event again. At the halfway point of my walk I had a revelation. You may think it was the Kuchlbauer Hefeweissen I had at my walk’s turnaround point, but I believe it was something more.
Cal writes while he walks. Now again, the untrained eye may think this is crazy. How can you just think about writing and actually be writing? One need look no further than the mildly successful author J. K. Rowling. As she rode the Underground the idea for Harry Potter came to her. She had nothing to write on, so she kept riding and re-playing the important ideas in her head until there was no way she could forget them. For a further example of the power and ability of this technique one need look no further than Cal himself. He went to Florida to interview Harry Crews, a notorious drunk but highly talented author. They began to get accquainted and Cal saw the prodigious quality of Harry’s imbibing, That’s no state for memory so Cal asked how he can remember the things he comes up with when he is out of his mind drunk. To which Harry responded soberly, “The good shit sticks.”
In walk-writing you replay things in your mind. You hit upon the perfect phrase or anecdote and you don’t want to forget it. But the good shit sticks. So you re-play it. You re-work it. You re-write it. And now, you can’t forget it.
The first night of our event was time to get to know one another. We each walked around and talked with almost everyone asking the standard questions: where are you from, what do you do, and how do you know Cal. This was so the next day we would have a pretty good feel for one another.
One of the participants was Christof. But to say he was a participant is an understatement. He is the one who had the idea for the event. Christof is the co-founder and adventurer in charge that runs COKREA in München. An incredible location in the middle of town. Perfect for this event. When he first contacted Kevin the Manager he was shut him down. A few months later Cal himself called up Christof and said he was ready to do it.
The next morning we got started in earnest. Cal shared a story. Not just any story, one of his best that demonstrates his heart, head, soul interview technique. He shared two stories that us regular followers knew. It was truly great to watch a master in action. And I think I realized the only thing better than a Fussman story was watching him tell it. But it also highlighted the key point I think Cal was trying to get each of us to learn.
We did several exercises and both during and in between got to know one another better. It was not just us, though. Cal got to know us better too. Master Story Teller that he is, he also is an awesome editor. He asked us for some of our stories, and after lunch we got down to the heavy lifting.
Cal identified the best type of stories we all had and had us tell them to one another. Then we switched. There was a feedback session after each story followed by a shuffling of groups and re-telling the story. Each time the stories changed a little bit. With feedback they got a little better. Then a little better. By the time we finished we all had a pretty good story that wouldn’t take more than three minutes to tell.
At that point he got to the easy part for him. He pulled short stories about companies from the owners who were there. A main point of the workshop was to be able to tell your company’s story in a better fashion. He pulled some stories out of some participants who at the start would have sworn they had no stories to tell.
Those of us that have followed Cal for years were amazed that there were two participants who had never heard of him. They literally came just for the workshop, not the man. By telling his stories, pulling our stories out of us, and teaching us to tell our own stories better he showed us the important parts of storytelling.
So what was the secret? Cal didn’t say explicitly. But I think I figured it out. There have been two Big Question Podcasts since we all left München. Cal hasn’t talked much about it on his podcast. Maybe I missed my guess, but I think it’s because he has not yet finished editing the story.
Storytellers tell stories, but it’s not just about the story. It’s about the telling. It’s about the experience. Writing is all about the re-writing. The editing, the crumpled papers, the discarded words. The thing that makes a story better is telling it.
Tell it once and watch. Learn where people get engaged, where you lose them, what they want to know. Then edit it. Fix it. Correct it. Most of all, re-tell it. And watch. If you fixed the story listeners got engaged at the same spot, or earlier. They didn’t get lost, or got lost at a different spot. They learned what they wanted to know, or they thirsted for more. Fix it better this time. Correct it and the new issues. Most of all, re-tell it. And watch.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat. The good shit sticks.
At the end of every podcast (save one) Cal always thanks Tim Ferris first. As I sit here in my Sportiqe gear, posting on my Squarespace hosted website, thinking about what to put on my My Intent bracelet I am thankful that I had the chance to meet a master at the height of his game and learn at his feet. Thank you Cal for inviting and teaching me. Thank you for the new friends. And thank you for the lesson. I’ll re-write it tomorrow.