Let me tell you how a Wal-Mart buyer appointment, refurbished iBooks, and one-sentence stories have changed the life of Miguel, a have-not teenager in Guatemala.
Ten years ago, I was in a meeting at Wal-Mart Home Office where three of us shared a five-minute appointment with our busy buyer. We walked in with a one-page outline of one-sentence stories, not an endless stack of data. He looked us in the eye, listened, and trusted us with a multi-million-dollar request. I learned that if the first concise sentence won’t sell your story, the next hundred won’t help you either.
I have worked on good one-sentence stories since then with Hallmark Retirement Communities in Vancouver, Canada, and our company has been volunteering in Guatemala for thirteen years. We are unapologetically profitable, and our social responsibility hangs in our hearts, not on our wall.
Five years ago, my wife Danaya and I couldn’t shake this feeling that we were supposed to teach computers for a few months in the village of Tierra Linda, Guatemala. This made zero sense, since we had work responsibilities, a one-year-old, didn’t yet speak Spanish, and had never taught computers. I sat down in our owner’s office one morning, and shared our one-sentence crazy dream. He leaned back in his chair, looked at me in shock, and said that the village had called a half-hour earlier, asking for computers and a teacher for a few months.
We Googled “Spanish Schools Panajachel”, met our Skype-Spanish teachers Candelaria and Gregorio, and arrived in Guatemala six weeks later, with a bin of refurbished iBooks. Five months later, we left a trained teacher running the classes of proud students. The education district heard a one-sentence story: “Tierra Linda students know how to use computers,”and awarded the village an experimental internet-based junior high.
We told a one-sentence story back in Canada: “Candelaria and Gregorio worked themselves out of poverty, started a successful Spanish school business, and have dedicated themselves to helping motivated teenagers graduate.”
Three years ago, Candelaria called to tell us a one-sentence story about Miguel. He was about to drop out of his rural Guatemalan school, because he couldn’t come up with $183 to finish tenth grade. He was a top-ten student in his state, but he was about to join his illiterate parents for a lifetime of hoeing onions, because of a poor crop.
Miguel heard that in the next town, there was a lady who gave scholarships. He walked all over that town, asking everyone if they knew “the lady who gave scholarships.”Someone finally directed him to Candelaria’s door, and she told him that she could ask her Canadian friends for help.
Miguel’s thank-you letter hangs in our office today, and last October, he became the first person ever in his family to graduate from high school. He is studying business law in a Guatemalan university, mentors dozens of young students, runs a dairy-products sales business from his scooter, and is applying for the Walton Scholarship, a four-year, full-ride scholarship for young Central American leaders.
One year ago, to prepare for a chance at the Walton Scholarship, Miguel needed English. We couldn’t get him a Canadian visitor visa, so we brought English immersion to him. Miguel and eight of his fellow scholarship students lived with our family in a little house in Guatemala for three months, and we practiced English from dawn till late. As a result, seven of them won scholarships to continue studying English in the intensive Access program, sponsored by the American embassy.
Miguel just needed a hand up, at a time when he was drowning. He always talks about his grateful responsibility to pay it forward. When Nelson Mandela passed away this fall, Miguel sat in our little home in Guatemala, watching a documentary on his life, with tears streaming down his face. At the end, he said “I will be like him for my people.”
This year, Miguel stood with me in the Tierra Linda junior high, where we first taught, five years ago. He told them his story, urging them to stay in school and never give up, because “it’s difficult, but not impossible”. He was nearly a statistic, but now he’s a hero.
Many times people are deeply involved in great companies or humanitarian causes, but haven’t worked to hone an attention-grabbing, one-sentence story. They become bitter because others don’t catch the vision of their cause, and criticize the listeners. As the torch-bearers of the causes, we are the quarterbacks, and it is our responsibility to deliver a first-rate pass, not blame the receivers. If we don’t tell the story well, even the best causes can lose.
You may have heard about Don Soderquist telling inspiring one-sentence stories. He spreads his nine-foot arms far apart, opens his eyes wide in excitement, and you can tell that he’s personally enthralled with the story he’s telling…even if he’s told it a thousand times. He is excited because the great story is “new to you”. That’s not a coincidence, but a deliberate choice to be an expert creator and collector of those stories, sharing them forward in the action that we call “culture”. Culture is not a thing. It’s a story in action. Listen for those culture-carrying one-sentence stories in your company or organization, take them to heart, and share them constantly. On tired days, they remind us that we’re all in this together, and that excellent storytelling really can change lives.
Dave MacDonald is the Chief Development Officer at Hallmark Retirement Communities, a developer and operator of seniors housing near Vancouver, Canada. Dave and his wife Danaya are MBA and MSLE graduates of John Brown University and the Soderquist Fellowship, circa 2004, where they learned the finer points of BBQ. They have three children, one on the way, love the outdoors and pioneering, mentoring students, waterfalls, fresh mangoes, homeschooling, ultimate frisbee, German soccer, and tuc-tuc taxis in Guatemala.