October 21, 2021
This interview with Matthew Dicks was conducted on September 30, 2021 by Gary Bisbee, Ph.D., MBA.
The full interview appears on The Gary Bisbee Show, and it can be viewed on YouTube or heard on your favorite podcast platform including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher and Spotify.
How do you find enough stories to tell?
Everyone has many stories to tell. The problem is, we go through our lives experiencing moments that are meaningful and then walk past it and don’t do anything to hold onto it. So I do “homework for life.” At the end of every day ask yourself, what is the most story worthy moment from the day?
I use an Excel spreadsheet. There’s the A column which has the date and in the B column, I write my moment. I discovered that our lives are filled with stories. I have more stories, hundreds of ideas. Even if you don’t plan on telling stories, it is a process that slows down time and allows you to remember things that you forget. It starts to make your life feel like it has more meaning, because we really do just walk past our memories as if they’re worthless.
Can you outline your concept of “Cinema of the Mind?”
When we tell stories, we’re trying to create a movie in the minds of our audience. The more effective we are at that, the more likely the story is going to hold. Cinema of the Mind is the idea that if we think about the stories we’re telling as movies, the most important thing we can do is give a physical location at all times. Location is a powerful tool because locations are already imbued with 1000s of adjectives. If I say, “I’m standing in the middle of my kitchen,” you’ve already built a kitchen for me without me saying another word. I try to avoid adjectives whenever I can. What I do is choose nouns that cause you to fill in the details for me, so I don’t even have to say them. I’d much rather lean into the power of your imagination than the power of words.
What is the Dinner Test?
The Dinner Test is the idea that no matter when you’re telling a story, whether you’re on stage, in a boardroom, or having dinner, you want the story to sound as if you’re sitting down with someone in an informal way. That means don’t do strange things. People like to open stories with unattributed dialogue: they’ll open the story with “Jim come in for dinner, my wife yelled.” We would never talk that way in real life. It creates this artificiality between you and the story, it makes it feel like you spent hundreds of hours in your bedroom practicing the story before you took the stage. And that’s not what an audience wants. Eliminate all that nonsense, and just speak to people as if you’re having dinner.
How do you think about the use of stories by business people?
I don’t think they’re used often enough. Most of the content I work with in corporate America tends to be vanilla, round, absent of interesting flavors. I’m constantly encouraging people in the corporate world to zig while other people are zagging.
I ask CEOs “after you’re done speaking, 15 minutes later, what can anyone tell you about what you just said.” Frankly, if you don’t tell a story, if you aren’t a little daring, no one remembers what you said because you end up speaking in platitudes. People don’t want to set themselves apart because they feel safe in a crowd. But if you’re migrating towards mediocrity, no one will remember what you said. A lot of people in the corporate world like to talk about storytelling, but when it comes down to storytelling, they tend to take four steps back and lose all of their courage.
You share a lot about yourself, is that hard for you? How do you do that?
When I do ridiculous things, and then tell stories about those ridiculous things, it makes people laugh and feel closer to me. What I’ve discovered over time, standing in front of hundreds of people, is nobody cares about the things I do. I’ll tell a story about some rotten thing I did when I was 32. I’ll step off the stage, and there will always be a person, typically a woman, she’ll come up to me and say, “I loved your story. Aren’t you worried about what people are gonna think about you?” And I always say, “What do you think about me?” And she’ll say, “Oh, no, I loved it.” And I say “You’re not special. They all loved it.” People are drawn to vulnerability in a way that it is hard to understand until you make the leap.
Gary Bisbee 0:02
Washington, D.C., is my home away from home. I’ve worked here for the better part of three decades as a founder, entrepreneur, policy expert and author.
Don Rucker 0:06
Probably the longest title. Everybody sort of shortened it to ONC for sanity’s sake.
Gary Bisbee 0:10
I’ve learned leadership secrets from many health care executives who understand that Washington is the largest payer and regulator of health care.
Nancy-Ann DeParle 0:21
She said, well, because you’ll never get a husband if you do that.
Gary Bisbee 0:25
I began interviewing health care leaders many years ago because what better way to learn how they think, why they make it to the top and how they remain there?
Think about, what was your most challenging engagement.
Greg Carpenter 0:36
Health care has been the most difficult problem, as you said.
Gary Bisbee 0:39
We’ll talk about that later.
Storytelling is everywhere: on stage, in boardrooms, leadership meetings, and most importantly, as we learn from Matthew Dicks, at the dinner table. To learn more about the power of stories and how to best tell them, we had an engaging conversation with Matt, who is an international class storyteller. Matt is a 50-time Moth Story Slam champion and a 6-time Grand Slam champion, in addition to winning numerous other storytelling awards. He’s also a novelist, columnist, blogger, speaking coach, and so much more. But what’s even more impressive are his insights. We discuss the elements that make stories vivid and compelling, like “The Principles of Opposites” and “Cinema of the Mind”. He encourages the storyteller to be vulnerable, embrace your sharp edges, and take risks in telling the stories. And by following a technique he developed, “Homework for Life”, Matt teaches us how to gather an ongoing supply of stories, and at the same time, slow time and make our lives fuller. Good afternoon, Matt, and welcome.
Matthew Dicks 01:57
Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Gary Bisbee 01:59
Well, we’re pleased to have you at this microphone. As we’ve talked, the Gary Bisbee Show, is about peer to peer conversations exploring leadership and my experience is that the better leaders tend to be better storytellers, although we can always improve our technique, and I would put myself at the head of the list of those that need to improve their technique. But Matt, you’re different. You’re a world class storyteller. Why don’t we begin with your view that Jurassic Park is not actually about dinosaurs? Can you explain?
Matthew Dicks 02:34
Well, that is true. You know, it’s one of my favorite films to talk about because, in sort of the lay person’s mind, they have gone to a dinosaur movie. But it is a Spielberg movie. And he is very clever in what he does. So if you watch the movie, right in the very beginning of the movie, you meet the two main characters, Alan Grant and his girlfriend, Ellie Sattler, and they’re at a dinosaur dig, and they found this dinosaur, and there’s a kid there who doesn’t really belong there. But they need the kid to be there. And he’s showing them the dinosaur fossil. And the kid says, “that doesn’t look very scary. It looks like a giant chicken.” And Alan Grant takes this fossilized claw out of his pocket, and he says, “this dinosaur would sort of rip you open and eat you while you were still alive.” He terrifies this little boy. And as they walk away from the boy, you know, Ellie says, “why did you do that?” And he says, “you want one of those?”, you know, and she said, “not that one, but I would like one of those children.” He says, you know, “they’re smelly, they’re expensive. They’re stupid.” And right there is the essence of the story. It is a man and a woman who can’t really fundamentally be together, because the woman wants children and the man does not. It’s sort of an age old problem that we have in this world. And so then as the movie goes on, if you pay attention, what happens to Alan Grant? He ends up in Jurassic Park, protecting two children. He’s the one who ends up with the kids. And as you watch the move through the movie, the kids physically and emotionally become closer and closer to that man. And so the ending of the movie really takes place in a tree. It’s night time, and they’ve sort of sought refuge in the top of this tree. And he’s holding both of the kids in his arms like a father would hold children. And the boy makes a joke. Alan laughs his largest laugh of the movie. And the girl, the little girl says, “what if the bad dinosaurs come back?” And he says, “I’ll stay up all night.” And she says, “all night long?” And he says, “yes.” And he pulls them in close. And then as he pulls them in close, that fossilized claw that he threatened the child with at the beginning of the film falls out of his pocket and lands on the ground because he no longer values that like he values the two children who are in his arms. And that’s why you watch that movie and you leave it and you think that was a really good movie. You know, you’ve seen dinosaur movies before and you might be thinking it’s because it’s great CGI and it was so exciting. But what I believe is that somewhere in the back of your brain, you registered that that was actually a story about human beings and it was a relatable, meaningful story to you. And that’s what great movies do. They use the dinosaurs to bring you in, you know, to eat the popcorn. But they put a real story underneath that captures your heart, even if you’re not aware it’s happening. So that’s really what the story is about. But if I had said to you, hey, Gary, want to go watch a movie about a guy and a girl who can’t fundamentally be together, and then over the course of time, the guy will learn to love children, and then they will be together, you’d probably say, “I’ll pass on that film.” Spielberg knows that. He has it all happened in a dinosaur park, and suddenly, you’re in the seats.
Gary Bisbee 05:33
Well, I never thought about it that way, like probably most of us didn’t, really. But when did you learn to reconstruct movies like that, Matt?
Matthew Dicks 05:42
Well, when I was little when I was like, 10, or 12, I saw ET. And there’s a scene in ET that really bothers me even to this day. And I was so offended by the scene that I wrote a letter to Steven Spielberg. And I gave it to my mother and said, “can you mail this to him?” And essentially, the letter said, “I’ve watched your movies, and in all of your movies, you seem to have like one stupid moment. So if you’ll send me the movie, before you put it in the movie theaters, I’ll tell you the stupid thing and you can take it out.” And, you know, for the longest time, I thought, my mother mailed that letter to Spielberg, and he just didn’t respond. And then one day, it occurred to me, there’s no way my mom mailed that letter, like in ’82, how was she going to find Spielberg? Like, my mom barely parented me already, there’s no way she took my letter and mailed it to him. But from a very early age, I was sort of really interested in how stories operated both in books and in film. So I wasn’t deconstructing them in the way I do today, but I was really starting to look at how they work from a very early age.
Gary Bisbee 06:42
And how does this relate to the “Five Second Moment”, which is really a key to storytelling, and you have an outstanding book, “Storyworthy”, that is really a primer in telling stories, but how does the Jurassic Park example relate to the “Five Second Moment”?
Matthew Dicks 06:59
So in all stories, or at least, let’s say in all good stories, and just about every story that happens in the world, they tend to be about change over time. It’s either a realization, I suddenly discover something new about myself or the world, or transformation, I change fundamentally as a being. And all those stories, there’s a moment where the character, whether it’s you telling your own story, or Alan Grant, you know, in Jurassic Park, there’s a moment when that change happens. And I am convinced that it is an instantaneous change. There is a moment when you were one thing, and then something flips, and you are now another thing. That doesn’t mean that the story takes place in five seconds. Many things lead up to the moment. But that moment of change is what we’re aiming for in stories. When we tell stories, what we really want to do is start at the end. We have to know what we’re trying to say before we understand what to put before it. And so understanding that, at some point in your life, you have a five second, and I say five second, even though one second is probably also true. It is an instantaneous change, where suddenly you are a different person, or you think a different way. That’s the essence of the story. Alan Grant, in that tree, pulls those kids close, lets go of that fossilized claw. That is really the end of the movie. Now it doesn’t end in Jurassic Park because they still have to get off that island. So there is some stuff to still play out. But I argue that’s actually the emotional end of the movie. That man can now be with the woman he loves and they can get married. So whether you’re telling your own story, or you’re looking at a movie, you’re always going to find a moment where the shift happens. And that’s what we’re trying to say as storytellers.
Gary Bisbee 08:38
I’d suspect that you don’t like to tell the same story twice, at least in competition. How do you find enough stories, Matt, to tell?
Matthew Dicks 08:48
Well, you know, I tell everyone that I’m not a unicorn, in terms of finding lots of stories. Everyone has many, many stories to tell. The problem is, we go through our lives, experiencing moments, these five second moments, these moments where someone says something to us, or we see something or we do something that is meaningful to us. And then we just walk past it. And we don’t do anything to hold on to it. So I have lots of ways that I sort of mine my past and look at my present for stories. But the thing I do that is most useful, whether you’re telling stories or not is something I call “Homework for Life”. And that’s just essentially a process where at the end of every day, although now it happens during my day, you take a moment and you ask yourself, what is the most story-worthy moment from the day that you have just lived? Even if that day doesn’t really have a moment you’d ever talk about, take a stage and speak about, the question I always ask myself, the way I like to frame it is, my family has been kidnapped and they will not give my children back and my wife back until I tell a story about something that happened today. If I was forced to do it, what would that story be? And I write it down. I don’t write the whole story down because I think that’s insanity. You know, those are journalers those are people who love to write after they get broken up with and then they stop writing when they fall back in love. I like things to be small, repeatable and practicable. So I use an Excel spreadsheet. It’s two columns. There’s the A column, which has the date. And then I stretch that B column across the screen. And it’s in the B column that I write my moment, what happened over the course of the day. I started doing it hoping I’d get one new story per month, 12 new stories a year, I thought that would be amazing. What happened instead is I discovered, our lives are filled with stories. I have more stories. I have literally hundreds of ideas for stories from my life that I probably will never get to as a result of doing “Homework for Life”. And I’m not special in any way. Because there’s thousands of people all over the world who do “Homework for Life”. And this is not an exaggeration to say that almost every day, twice today already, someone writes to me and says, “I started doing ‘Homework for Life’ and it has changed the way I look at my life.” So even if you don’t plan on telling stories, it is a process that slows down time, allows you to remember things that you forget. It starts to make your life feel like it has more meaning than it currently does because we really do just walk past our memories as if they’re worthless. And what happens is we end up being 50, 60, or 70 wondering, “where did the time go?” The time didn’t go anywhere, you just didn’t bother to mark it, you didn’t bother to take note of those moments. You allowed entire years to slip away without a single memory of those years. So, “Homework for Life” is where I find a vast majority of my stories.
Gary Bisbee 11:29
Well, I’ll pile on and say, after reading the book, “Storyworthy”, I started doing it myself figuring, “Eh, I’ll do it, you know, for a week or so.” I’ve been pretty religious about it, I think it’s a terrific idea. And it really does help kind of mark the progression of your life. It’s very cool.
Matthew Dicks 11:46
I’m really glad. You have to make sure you do it on the days that are hard. That’s what I always tell people. You know, the days where you get married, you know, you watch your son hit his first home run, those are easy days, you know, it’s the day that was just sort of an ordinary day that you really give yourself five minutes to think, “if I had to sell something about the day, what would it be?” Those are the days where I think you strengthen the muscle, and you start to see things that you would not normally see.
Gary Bisbee 12:10
So there’s a number of techniques that you’ve talked about in your TED presentations, and certainly in the book, “Storyworthy”. But one of them is this kind of “Principle of Opposites”. Can you talk about that, Matt?
Matthew Dicks 12:23
Well, I think that sort of contrast or opposites are the engines for most stories. I actually was at the Moth last night and I told a story that was entirely built upon opposites. It was the idea that stories, rather than flowing flat and sort of being an “and” story, the kind of story you hear a first grader tell, “first this and then that and then that and then that”. An opposite story is a story where you’re going to tell the story in such a way that it sounds like this was happening. But then this happened. But then this happened, therefore this happened. You know, it’s the idea that we want to have some sort of structure to our story, we want people to feel like they’re going up and down rather than straight across the road. And so to do that, we have to sort of frame our story so that, constantly, things are rubbing against each other, so that there isn’t sort of a commonality in our story. And it’s just honestly the way we phrase things. You don’t need to find a moment in your life where it’s the, but this, but then that. It’s just the way you phrase the sentence that can allow you to do that. So I’m always looking for opposites. It’s one of the best ways to generate story ideas. It’s essentially, you know, the beginning and ends of stories. The end of my story. If the end of my story is, I discover I’m a schmuck, the beginning of my story must be the opposite, which is, I don’t think I’m a schmuck, right? And that’s how stories essentially work, right? Alan Grant doesn’t love children. And at the end, he does love children. That’s how every story works. Just watch every movie. I say you can watch the first 15 minutes of a movie and essentially know how that movie is going to end. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be a bad movie. But when Harry and Sally tell each other at the beginning of that film that they hate each other, you know that at the end of the movie, they’re going to love each other, right? It’s as clear as day. All movies will start to seem like that to you once you start thinking that way.
Gary Bisbee 14:14
So does that take the fun away from your going to a movie, you kind of know where this thing is going right when you sit down?
Matthew Dicks 14:22
Yeah, it’s true. I mean, there are some indie movies that surprise me sometimes, which is nice. And some movies that don’t make any sense to me. Even those can be kind of interesting to me at times. I don’t think it takes away the fun because I still really enjoy the journey that I’m undergoing. It just means that the ending is apparent to me. I kind of think that, if I asked you, you would also be able to predict the ending. You just don’t. It’s not like a habit you have that I have. I think you could probably do the same thing though.
Gary Bisbee 14:53
One thing I found particularly valuable was “Cinema of the Mind”. Can you outline that one for us?
Matthew Dicks 15:00
I always think it’s like the biggest bang for the buck opportunity that you can have as a storyteller. I think that when we tell stories, what we’re trying to really do is we’re trying to create a movie in the minds of our audience at all times. We’re trying to get them to see things in their heads. And I think the more effective we are at that, the more likely the story is going to hold, the more likely they’re going to get lost in our story. And so “Cinema of the Mind” is the idea that, if we think about the stories we’re telling as movies, the most important thing that we can do to create that cinema is to give a physical location at all times within the confines of the story. We have to know where your character is at all times. And location is an enormously powerful tool because locations become, they’re already imbued with like a thousand adjectives. If I say to you, “I’m standing in the middle of my kitchen”, you’ve already built a kitchen for me without me saying another word. You’ve either chosen your own kitchen, your childhood kitchen, a kitchen from a TV show you watch. And if the specificity of that kitchen is not relative to my story, I’ll let you pick whatever kitchen you want. In fact, I want you to. So many times, people tell me “how do you make story so vivid, like I can see them in my mind’s eye?” And what I say is, I don’t use the adjectives, I try to avoid adjectives whenever I can. What I do is I choose nouns that cause you to fill in the details for me, so I don’t even have to say them, because I’d much rather lean into the power of your imagination than the power of words. You will always be able to imagine a better location than I can ever describe. But if we just tell our stories in such a way that our audience can always see us in a physical location, that movie, I believe, continues to play in the audience’s mind. And that becomes the kind of story people want to hear.
Gary Bisbee 16:47
Can you share with us one of your stories, or at least part of one of the stories, that you think really describes this idea of “Cinema of the Mind” of the location and the importance of it?
Matthew Dicks 16:58
Yeah, sure. Well, this is a story I told this past summer. It’s kind of new, you know, I’ll sort of take you through it a little bit. It opens with something to the effect of: my fifth grade student, Jamie, emerges from the pile of leaves and he’s got a metal object in his hand, and he shows it to me, he says, “look what I found.” And I look at it, and it’s a spoon. It’s just a, it’s just an ordinary kitchen spoon, and I say “it’s a spoon Jamie”. And he says, “yes”, and I say, “but Jamie, it’s a spoon of power.” And the moment I say that, I look at Jamie, and he knows what I’m thinking. And I know he knows what I’m thinking, which is now that I’ve declared it’s a spoon of power, I must have the spoon of power. And so for the next 17 minutes, while I’m supposed to be watching children on recess duty, instead, I am now chasing Jamie across the field, and through a playscape and over swings and across a balance beam and through tubes. And so I do that for a while, so you have a clear sense of, we’re at a school. I’ve told you it’s a pile of leaves, you kind of already figured out what season it is because there’s a pile of leaves. And you know what a playscape in a field in a backyard of a school is. And so eventually end up in the classroom. And so now I’m in the classroom, and I’m teaching math at the board, but Jamie has the spoon on his desk and I’ve got one eye on the board and one eye on the spoon because I’m after the spoon. And when I get into the classroom, I do nothing to describe the classroom whatsoever because you know Jamie’s a fifth grader, so you know it’s an elementary school classroom. Why would I ever take any time to describe a classroom, because every human being on the planet can put a classroom in their head and it doesn’t matter. The layout of my classroom is not relevant to the story. So I just say classroom and you fill it in perfectly for me. And then the next scene takes place the next day inside the classroom. The next scene takes place in a gazebo out in the back of the school. We’re sitting in a gazebo, and all I have to say is “gazebo”. You can tell me what color the gazebo is just by me saying “gazebo”. Why would I ever say “white gazebo”, right, if I know you’re going to imagine a white gazebo. And even if you don’t imagine white, the color doesn’t matter, so I’m not going to say the color, right? When I say gazebo, you’ve already taken a gazebo from somewhere in your life, plopped it down into my story, and that’s why it’s so vivid for you, because I don’t have to create it in words. And so that’s how I take people through stories, I just make sure that one of the first things I say, actually, what I say is the first two things you should say at the top of your story and at the top of every scene is your location and what are you doing? Those are the two most interesting things to grab people’s attention is, I’m in this place, and I’m doing this thing. And then I can move on with my story because now I’ve grabbed them. And now I’ve got their imagination working for me.
Gary Bisbee 19:33
That’s terrific. Let’s build on the beginning and the ending because that’s obviously very important and you make a really good point about that. Can you just share your thinking about the importance of the beginning and the end?
Matthew Dicks 19:46
Yeah, they are the most critical places in a story in my mind. The beginning of a story is sort of the promise to your audience that what I’m about to do is worth your time. And the ending of the story is the fulfillment of that promise. The problem people have is they assume that other people want to listen to them because we spend our lives telling our stories to our loved ones. And so they patiently listen to us tell bad stories because they love us. And therefore they reinforce bad storytelling. To be a good storyteller, what you need to do is stand in front of a bunch of strangers who have no feelings whatsoever for you, and suddenly understand that nobody actually wants to hear you unless you’re good. And that means the first minute of your story is your opportunity to either tell the audience, “you’re in good hands, you’re in for a ride, let’s go”, or “I’m not very good at what I’m doing. If you want it to look at your phone right now, this might be a good time to look at the phone.” Right? So that really is how I feel. My assumption, I was at the Moth last night in Boston, my assumption when I took the stage was, no one cares about me. No one wants to hear a thing I have to say. So what am I going to do in the first minute of my story to convince them that they should do nothing but listen to me for the next six minutes? So that’s the importance of the beginning. And the end is important because you do not want to go through a story and land in a place that doesn’t feel meaningful. So that means, you know, I gave the advice to this storyteller who asked me at the end of the night, “what do you think about my story?” I said, “the problem with your story was, you ended on a joke. You took me through a six minute emotional journey and the last thing you said to me was essentially a pun, which sort of negated the last six minutes because you made the last sentence a joke?” You know, I always say we want to end our stories in our hearts. We want to say something fundamentally important and maybe hard to say about ourselves in the last few sentences of our story. And so that is how people feel like, when you get to the end, it was time well spent because it really says something good, hard, new, interesting about ourselves. So you can mess up the middle, you really can, you can sort of, you can jump around, and you can make a big mess of the middle of the beginning and the end are solid. I really believe that.
Gary Bisbee 22:04
You spend a lot of time working with corporations and businesspeople in the classes you teach. How do you think about that, the use of story in business? I could imagine standing in front of a group for three, four, or five minutes and talking but I’m not going to tell a story for that whole time. So how do you think about stories and the use of stories by businesspeople?
Matthew Dicks 22:27
Well, I don’t think they’re used often enough. I think that most of the content that I work with in corporate America tends to be vanilla, and round. There are no sharp edges, because people are afraid of sharp edges. And it’s, you know, it’s absent of any interesting flavors, because, again, interesting flavors indicate that there might be hazards ahead. And so what I’m constantly encouraging people in the corporate world to do is to zig while other people are zagging. What happens often is, I’ll spend enormous amounts of time working with a CEO, on, you know, a 15 minute speech that they’re going to give, and I will work with the CEO, and we’ll come up with something really great. And then other people will become involved. And by the time the other people are involved and it’s been ripped apart, it is now round and vanilla again. And what happens is, I always ask the CEOs, “after you’re done speaking, 15 minutes later, what can anyone tell you about what you just said?” And frankly, if you don’t tell a story, if you don’t step to the step to the edge of the line, if you don’t be a little daring, if you don’t do any of those things, then no one remembers what you actually said because you end up speaking in platitudes and, you know, in the common speak of corporate world, and you don’t set yourself apart in any way. The thing is, I think people don’t want to set themselves apart because they feel safe in a crowd. But, you know, if you’re just migrating towards mediocrity, no one will ever remember what you said, no one will be inspired by what you said. So I think a lot of people in the corporate world like to talk about storytelling, but when it comes down to storytelling, they tend to take four steps back and lose all of their courage.
Gary Bisbee 24:21
Yeah, that sounds right. You share a lot about yourself, it seems like, when you tell your stories. Is that hard for you? I don’t feel comfortable telling a lot about myself, for example, how do you do that Matt?
Matthew Dicks 24:36
What I discovered and, you know, for me, fortunately, I discovered it in early age, you know, my attempt to essentially get the attention of girls. I discovered that when I do ridiculous things, and then tell stories about those ridiculous things, that makes people laugh and feel closer to me. And that improved my chances of getting a girl to go on a date with me. Literally, that is how I lived my life for a long time. And for whatever reason, that encouraged me to be more vulnerable every day. And so for me, it’s not a problem at all. I share everything. My friend says I live out loud. Essentially, whatever happens to Matt, he will speak about what happened to him. What I’ve discovered over time standing in front of hundreds of people, is that nobody cares about the things that I do. And they always appreciate it when I talk about them. So quite often, I’ll tell a story about some rotten thing I did when I was 32. And then I’ll step off the stage or even, you know, even last year, and I’ll step off the stage, and they’ll always be a person, typically a woman, she’ll come up to me and she’ll say, “I loved your story, aren’t you worried about what people are gonna think about you?” And I always say, “well, what do you think about me?” You know, and she’ll say, “oh, no, I loved it.” And I say, “you’re not special, they all loved it. They’re just at the bar, they just wanted, they wanted a beer more than you and you wanted to come to talk to me”, like people are just drawn to vulnerability in a way that it is hard to understand until you make the leap. You have to sort of do that thing, and then suddenly discover that it’s going to be okay. I was working with a corporate executive, she had this marketing plan which was fantastic, she really did a great job. And part of the story of the plan was, one night, she was drinking a bottle of wine by herself. There was a napkin in front of her. And essentially, she sketched out the whole plan in four words on a napkin, while she was sort of half drunk on wine. And I said that has to be in the marketing, like there has to be in the pitch, like in our deck, there has to be a picture of that napkin, and the story of the Tuesday night, and she wouldn’t do it. Again, vanilla and round. And so we went ahead without it and it went fine. And then she had the opportunity one day to sort of pitch it to a smaller group, you know, a looser group, and she said, “I’ll throw that thing in that you want me to throw in”, because there was less risk. And it changed everything. She said the response was incredible. Suddenly, she shared a little vulnerability. Everyone understands what it’s like to be sitting at a table on a Tuesday night and maybe having a glass of wine too many. And she said, “everyone responded to that aha moment I had on the Tuesday night with a napkin and everyone was talking about it.” That’s because she was vulnerable. And it was because she said something that most people are unwilling to say. So whenever we can get people to do that, inserting a little bit of their life into whatever they’re doing, it changes everything.
Gary Bisbee 27:21
So you make the point in “Storyworthy”, I think it may even be a chapter that’s titled something like “Present Tense is King”. Can you share that with us, Matt?
Matthew Dicks 27:30
Yeah, whenever we tell stories, if you can tell stories in the present tense, I say it’s not required, but if you can tell stories in the present tense, you know, if it’s, I’m standing, you know, on the grass in a field, when my fifth grade student, Jamie emerges from the leaves with a with a silver object in his hand. Two things happen when you can tell stories in the present tense. The first is, it makes it kind of feel like it’s happening right now and increases the stakes because it’s not something that happened in the past. It’s something I want you to imagine happening in your mind right now. And it kind of tricks the mind into feeling like it’s much more visceral and current. But the other thing that happens is, if you use the present tense, you can then use the past tense when you want to talk about backstory, when you want to say “five years ago, I was…” And now you can use past tense and that really makes sense in a person’s mind. You’re using the past tense because we’re in the past. And then when you want to come back to your story, you want to come out of backstory into the main story, you switch back to present tense, and it really helps the listeners or even the readers follow the story better. So using the present tense affords you both tenses. If you start in the past tense, you can never really shift to the present tense, it’s kind of weird, it doesn’t feel right. That being said, I’ve worked with people who have told me, “Matt, for the last 62 years of my life, I have told stories in the past tense, I cannot shift to the present tense, it’s too much of a mental leap.” And I say that’s fine. Most people do tell stories in the past tense. But if you want to like take that next step, level up, try telling stories in the present tense. It really changes all of the dynamics of storytelling.
Gary Bisbee 29:03
You’ve kind of mentioned this, but let me ask the question directly. And that is, telling a story about yourself versus some other person or some other event. What about that Matt?
Matthew Dicks 29:14
You want to tell stories about yourself whenever possible. The problem with telling stories about other people, let’s say, is that there’s no vulnerability in talking about other people. You don’t risk anything in telling the story of someone else. Vulnerability comes when we share something of ourselves. And so if you’re choosing to tell a story about someone else, the goal should be to weave yourself into the story. I’m working with the children of Holocaust survivors this evening, I have a workshop with them. Their goal is to tell the story of their grandparent who survived the Holocaust. But we don’t just tell that story because that’s just history. It’s the story of someone who’s no longer on this earth and so telling that story doesn’t require any vulnerability. So what I teach them to do is, “you’re going to tell your own story. But somewhere over the course of your story, we’re going to connect your life to your grandparents’ or your parents’ life, and talk about how their experiences in the Holocaust have changed the course of your life also.” And so therefore, the storyteller has an opportunity to dip into the past and share some of those experiences that happened during the Holocaust. But they’re essentially telling their own story. So there’s vulnerability wrapped up into history. That is a perfect marriage of the past and the present and it always works beautifully. It also gives those people the opportunity to tell a little bit of the past because they’re always feeling obligated that they have to tell their parents’ four your struggle through the Holocaust. And I say, “no, no, you don’t have to do all four years.” And they say, “oh, thank God. Can I just tell like the one thing I love talking about?? I said, “yes, we’ll just focus on the one moment”, because that’s what people want anyway. Nobody wants to hear the four year struggle through the Holocaust. But the exciting train escape, like when your grandfather escaped the train with the woman who would one day be his wife, and they ran into the forest through this amazing, you know, series of adventures? Yes, let’s use that story. That’s a great one to tell. So you want to somehow be telling stories about yourself whenever possible to allow that vulnerability to come through.
Gary Bisbee 31:13
What is the “Dinner Test”, Matt?
Matthew Dicks 31:16
The “Dinner Test” is the idea that, no matter when you’re telling a story, whether you’re on a stage, in a boardroom, or having dinner, you want the story to sound as if you’re sitting down with someone in an informal way. So even when I’m on a stage, the version of the story that I’m telling on stage should be sort of like a close cousin to the same story I would be telling if you and I were having dinner. And that means we don’t do strange things that so many people do in storytelling, like, people like to open stories with unattributed dialogue. So they’ll open the story with, “‘Jim, come in for dinner’, my wife yelled.” Now that would be weird if you and I were sitting down and you said, “Matt, how was your day?” And I said, “‘well, Matt, come in for dinner’, Elysha yelled.” That’d be a weird way, you wouldn’t have dinner with me anymore. That would be a bizarre thing. But people start stories that way all the time. What it does is it creates this, like, artificiality between you and the story. It makes it feel like you spent hundreds of hours in your bedroom practicing the story before you took the stage. And that’s not what an audience wants. We kind of play a game with our audiences. The game is, “I’m going to pretend that I’m kind of making it up right off the top of my head right now.” Really, I’m not. It is prepared, hopefully not memorized, but prepared. And the audience is going to agree to pretend that this is kind of being made up, you know, off the top of my head. We meet somewhere in the middle. But what they don’t want is to feel like, “he memorized every single word of the story”. Or, “he stared at a mirror for four hours practicing the story”. So we avoid things like that. You know, people who start stories with, “this is a story about”, right? You know, again, if you would ask me at dinner, “how was your day?” I would not say, “this is a story about a moment when I realized that the student sitting in front of me was not as smart as I thought he was”, right? We would never talk that way in real life, so don’t talk that way on stage. Nobody wants it. So eliminate all that nonsense and just speak to people as if you’re having dinner.
Gary Bisbee 33:12
It seems to me that there’s momentum in your stories and you try to get change. You start some place, you kind of change over time. How do you think about that Matt?
Matthew Dicks 33:22
Well, there’s a few things you can do. I agree, momentum is really important in a story. One of the things is that idea of the butts, and the therefores, the idea that we’re going to move a story along by but-ing and therefore-ing and rather than that flat “and”. That will create a lot of momentum. The other thing that we do is, oftentimes in stories, we have stakes to deal with things that we want the audience to worry about, wonder about, be concerned with. And so often, what storytellers will do is they’ll plop down all of their stakes in the first minute of the story. And then so the rest of the story just is sort of like a resolution of those stakes till we get to the end. What I tell people is, figure out all the stakes in the story. What are the things that the audience are going to wonder and worry about? And then strategically placed them throughout the story, like make sure that, you know, there are some stakes right off the top. So, you grab that audience with something to be concerned about, they understand what what world we’re in and what we’re supposed to be concerned with. But then, you know, at minute one, drop another stake, tell us the next thing we’re supposed to be worried about. And then the next thing. Think about it the way movies are the same way, right? You know, any movie, sort of, the problem gets worse and worse as we move along throughout the movie. Otherwise, we would lose interest in the movie. And so we have to kind of do the same thing in our stories by either using the real stakes or sometimes things like laughter You know, if we can we make the audience laugh that creates momentum, it’s sort of like a false stake. It works for a little while, and eventually you actually have to give them something real to worry about. But you want to just make sure that you kind of want to be relentless in the way that I am, which is, at any moment in the story, I ask myself, could people just turn this off right now and be happy? If I ran out of power right now, you know, actually the best example I have is, I attended a movie twice in my life where the power went out. The first time the power went out, they said, “you can come back tomorrow and see it”, I didn’t go back. I didn’t care about what happened to the people on the screen. The movie was not good. And so I didn’t care what the ending was like. The next time it happened, though, I was back the next day, I had to know what happened to those people. That’s the goal you want in your stories. If the power goes out, can people walk away from your story and never think about it again? If that’s the case, you have failed to build momentum, to create stakes, to create concern, all of those things.
Gary Bisbee 35:35
You make the point that the secret to a big story is to make it little. How do you think about that?
Matthew Dicks 35:42
Well, I’m a person who has had a bunch of, like, ridiculous sort of things happen in his life. You know, twice in my life I have died and paramedics have restored my life through CPR. I was arrested and tried for a crime I did not commit. I was homeless for a period of my life. All these crazy things. And I’ve told stories about many of them, not all of them actually. The trick is, if I tell you the story about the time I went through a windshield and died on the side of a road and paramedics restored my life, you and I are not going to connect on a going through the windshield level, unless you are one of the rare people who has also died in a car accident and had someone bring your life back. It’s just going to be like a moment that you listen to, and then you’re going to move past it because I haven’t sort of found my way into your heart. And so when those big stories that I have, and many people have, everyone has sort of like those moments in your life that are crazy. What you have to do is you have to find something universal in that story that will connect with everyone. So you tell the big thing that happened. But what about that big thing is small enough that it is relatable to everybody? So you have to hunt for it. Some of them I haven’t found yet. I was on trial for a crime I didn’t commit, I have yet to tell that story. My storytelling friends can’t believe, “you’ve never told the story of your trial?” I’ve told the story of my arrest. I’ve told the story of my booking, you know, the time they booked me and brought me down to the courthouse. I’ve told the story of the time I spent in jail. All of those, I know what they meant and I could find something to sort of worm into other people’s hearts. But the trial itself, it sort of means a million things to me. And so I haven’t chosen the one. And I haven’t chosen the one that I know other people will relate to yet. So big stories, you gotta find something small that is relatable to other human beings.
Gary Bisbee 37:26
You need to tell the trial story to a bunch of lawyers, Matt, they would probably like that one.
Matthew Dicks 37:34
Yeah, well, I’ll get to it. I worked on it the other day in the shower, the trial story, I decided to start to play around with it. The other thing is, it’s going to be like 17 minutes long. And no one ever wants to hear a 17 minute story. So it’s gonna be a fight. But I’ll get there.
Gary Bisbee 37:47
So I’ve heard you say when you were just a little person that you had aspirations of being a writer and a teacher. Where did that come from do you think?
Matthew Dicks 37:57
Well, I wanted to be a teacher, because I grew up in a very difficult childhood. And the safe place for me was always school. And honestly, probably when I was even 16 years old, if you had sat me down and said what jobs exist in the world, because of the way I grew up and because of the lack of parental attention, I probably would have said, policemen, firemen, lawyer, teacher, doctor, and I kind of would have run out of ideas. So for me, teacher was one of the few. And those were the people who took care of me. And so that made me want to be like them. In terms of writing, I was writing at a very young age, and nobody was sort of paying attention to it. When I was 11, I was actually writing comics on Easter Sunday. I was writing about Reaganomics. I was writing political cartoons about the problems of Reaganomics. And literally no one in the room was sort of aware of me except for my Aunt Diane. She had always sort of noticed that I was writing and cartooning and drawing and things. And she actually saved those cartoons from that Easter and she sent them back to me about two years ago. And she said,” no one noticed what you’re doing. But I want you to know, I noticed. I dug them out of the box and I mailed them to you.” So I don’t know what it was. You know, I think probably, quite honestly, I recognized that writing, cartooning, drawing, those kinds of things garnered me attention from other people. And since I didn’t get a lot of attention from the adults in my life who I wanted it from, I was just constantly looking for attention. And I think that’s why I was telling stories and why I was writing. I think I was just trying to get someone to hear me at a young age and I think it just kind of continues to this day.
Gary Bisbee 39:39
You’re obviously very disciplined, you’ve been writing literally every day for a number of years, right?
Matthew Dicks 39:45
Yeah, since I was 17. I had a moment in English class at the age of 17 that sort of changed my life. It made me understand the power of writing, of storytelling. And the next day I opened my first business. I started selling term papers to my classmates. And I earned enough money to buy my first car selling papers to my friends. But since that day I have written every single day without exception. I wrote, you know, on every day of our honeymoon. I wrote on the day of my marriage. The day both of my children were born, I was writing in the delivery room in between the contractions. There has not been a day when I haven’t written, you know, a blog post, a journal entry. You know, back when the internet was not really the internet, yet it was this BBs, these localized bulletin boards, I was writing columns for, like, the 37 people on the local bulletin board, you know, doing it every single day, thinking that I had to get, like, my content out to my audience, which was probably like literally 13 year old kids who were playing turn-based video games, and then occasionally seeing, like, some opinion piece on, you know, Pizza Hut. But yeah, I’ve written every single day without missing a day since I was 17. And I’ve posted a blog post every single day since 2003. So I’m kind of relentless in that regard.
Gary Bisbee 41:06
So six novels, I believe, six novels, and one nonfiction, which is “Storyworthy”, is that right?
Matthew Dicks 41:13
Yes, that’s correct.
Gary Bisbee 41:14
Plus, you recorded the book, “Storyworthy”, which I actually listened to the book before I got it to read it. What kind of experience was that? I’ve often wondered about how that works.
Matthew Dicks 41:25
It’s not fun. Well they send you to Michigan for reasons you don’t understand because there are plenty of recording studios in Connecticut, New York, Boston. But they send you to Michigan and you sit in a small room with an iPad. And on the other side of the wall, there’s an engineer who is recording things and telling you every time you tapped something, we have to do it again. They listen for, you know, every minute sound you make. And the director listens to you read and says things to you, like, I’ll never forget when he said, “I don’t think you’re really capturing the intention of the author here.” And I said, you know, “I’m the author.” And he said, “I know, I don’t really think you’re getting it.” And so there’s a lot of reading and a lot of rereading. The worst part about it is when you read your book out loud, sort of, you know, six months after you’ve written it, you suddenly find all the places where you want to rewrite it, you’re like, “oh, my God, this sentence is terrible. Can I rewrite the sentence right now?” And you can’t, so you’re stuck with the sentences that you don’t like anymore. So, you know, I was given five days to do it. I did it in three because I wanted to get the hell out of there. So, you know, I worked hard, but it’s literally, you just sit in a booth for eight hours and read your own material out loud while people tell you you’re not doing it very well.
Gary Bisbee 42:34
Well, they frequently say you don’t write a book, you rewrite a book. I think it’s true. What’s on your professional bucket list, Matt, you’ve done a lot.
Matthew Dicks 42:45
Well, you know, I’m doing stand up comedy, which is not super professional, in a sense, I guess. Except that what I’ve discovered is, I started doing stand up because I was afraid of it. I think we should always do the thing that we’re afraid of. I was terrified of it, so I ran at it and said I’m going to go do it. And I thought it would just be fun. I thought I’d get on stage and do these things. And what happened over time was I started to develop strategies for humor, you know, strategies that I kind of already used. But as I used them, I started to deconstruct them for myself. And then I, you know, turn them into 24 strategies of humor that I teach now. And the most useful place my humor now happens is in the corporate world because people will call me and say, “I have a speech, but it has no humor. Can you help me punch it up?” And you know, I’m able to go, well, “yes, I can.” My favorite part is I go, here’s the funniest thing you could say. And you know, that’s level five, I say, and then we can go down all the way to level one, which is, it’s kind of funny, but it is very safe. And they always choose level one, which makes me nuts. Yeah, it just, it’s the worst no one ever chooses, like, the big funny because, again, it’s the greatest risk. So I’m doing that, you know, I’m working with a team now so that we’re recording my lessons, you know, so I can, I don’t have to be at every workshop. So you can, you know, buy my videos and watch my lessons that way and work through a book and you know, that kind of a thing. So I can be a little bit more everywhere instead of, you know, present constantly, and that’ll help. And then there are books in the works. I have a book coming out next year on productivity, personal productivity, so there’s always books coming along, too.
Gary Bisbee 44:18
I view you as a literary entrepreneur, Matt. Have you ever thought of yourself that way?
Matthew Dicks 44:24
Um, no. I tell people, you know, it’s very hard to tell people what I do. I play golf poorly, but I play it a lot. And you know, there’s three of us, let’s say, and then they add a fourth person, you know, some random person joins us. And by the third hole, they say, “what do you do for a living?” You know, and I usually say “teacher”, because I’m an elementary school teacher. It is the job I have to go to every day from, you know, 8:30 to 3:30. But my buddies are always there, you know, and so I’ll say I’m a teacher. And then one of my buddies will say, “he actually writes novels and nonfiction” and another one will say, “he actually is an advice columnist for Slate Magazine. And he’s the humor columnist for Seasons Magazine. And he writes musicals that get produced. And he writes comic books. And you know, and he runs this organization called Speak Up, he produces shows he actually performs on stage.” So it’s crazy because I have a lot of jobs. But I tend to think that they’re all basically dealing with words and sentences, no matter what I’m doing. I’m either speaking out loud or putting my words on a page. So I guess in terms of being a literary entrepreneur, the literary part makes sense to me, the entrepreneur part has always felt a little awkward to me, because I’m not really a great salesperson. I don’t push my product well, I’m terrible with pricing. You know, my wife has to kind of handle those things. Someone says, “how much do you charge?” Having grown up completely poor, having been homeless at a point in my life, the price that I should charge for what I am doing never feels correct to me because there was a time when I had nothing. And so that entrepreneurial business side of me is not well developed. So thankfully, I have people working for me that sort of take care of that end for me. So I like to think I’m just making the stuff and other people are going to help me monetize it, get it into the world, get people to see what I’m doing.
Gary Bisbee 46:12
Well, sometimes entrepreneurs are the idea people, Matt. I think that’s where you excel. This has just been a terrific interview. I have one last question, if I could. A number of our audience are up and coming leaders. What advice do you have for an up and coming leader?
Matthew Dicks 46:28
Well, the first thing I would say is start doing “Homework for Life” because I work with a lot of business folks and the ones that are the most successful with me, I’m thinking of a factory owner, actually, we work together once a month, this factory owner and I, and he does “Homework for Life”. And so once a month, we get together and we go through his “Homework for Life” and we find the stories that he can craft that will be useful in speaking to his workers and speaking to investors and things like that. So doing “Homework for Life”, you have to have the content, or you’re not going to be able to do the speaking that you need to do. The other thing I tell people to do all the time is, you’ve got to be a better listener, I think everyone sort of thinks they’re a good listener. And I kind of think they’re not. You know, I went to school at an all women’s college. I was the only man in class. And so that is where I learned to listen. I quickly realized that these women are not interested in having that white man in the back talk constantly. And so, you know, I’ve developed a very good sense of listening, meaning I’m engaging mentally in the words that people are saying, and I just don’t think people do that. I think people are mostly thinking about what they’re going to say next, instead of really taking in what is being said. And in my experience, the best leaders I’ve known, whether it was when I was in the restaurant industry, or teaching, or anywhere, were the people who actually knew deeply about the people who were working for them, like fundamentally understood them. And the only way you get to do that is through listening. So, listening to podcasts about stories so you can get better at storytelling, listening to the people who work with you, asking people to tell stories, and especially asking women to tell stories because it is my experience that, in most of the people that I work with, I spend an enormous amount of time trying to convince women that some of the things that have happened to them are worth talking about while simultaneously convincing men that not every damn thing that has ever happened to you is worth talking about, and pushing them to the middle. And I just think there are marginalized communities, minorities, women, anyone who is sort of on the outside looking in, I want to bring them in. And so I’m always trying to get people to tell me their stories. And as they tell me their stories, I get to know them better. And I’m just going to have a better, more meaningful, more productive relationship with them. And I just don’t think we do that very often these days. So I think, if you do it, it’s going to be appreciated. It’s going to be recognized and it will change the way that you deal with people.
Gary Bisbee 48:53
Matt, we need to land here. Thank you so much for your time. This has just been an awesome interview.
Matthew Dicks 48:59
Thank you. It’s an honor to speak about it. It is a passion of mine and I’m always thrilled to be able to do things like this. Thanks so much for having me.
Gary Bisbee 49:06
New episodes will debut every Thursday. Join me in conversations to gain advice and wisdom from CEOs, presidents, and healthcare experts. Healthcare leadership is hard work, but it becomes more manageable as we learn from the remarkable lives and careers of our guests. I’ll see you there.