Neal Foard: Storytelling From The Heart

Neal Foard teaches us how to tell a story by example and learn what not to do to make your stories more effective.

By SchoolCEO Last Updated: July 27, 2023

EPISODE SUMMARY

Neal Foard is an expert creative director and now is a popular storyteller on YouTube and Instagram. His stories are shareable for their expert delivery and encouraging messages. In this episode, you’ll learn how to tell a story by example and learn what not to do to make your stories more effective. Join this conversation with one of the best storytelling coaches.

EPISODE NOTES

Neal Foard has spent 25 years in advertising and marketing, creating award winning campaigns for global power brands like Budweiser, Lexus and Sony. Most recently, Neal has gained a following on social media for his inspirational videos about the better side of everyday people.

You can find more of his stories on:

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/nealfoard
Instagram https://www.instagram.com/nealfoard/
Website: https://www.nealfoard.com/

For his work on Toyota, Neal ranked among the top ten most awarded creative directors in the world in 2002. As the author of an innovative coaching series, Neal was named Worldwide Director of Creative Learning for global ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi. He has consulted on creative messaging for Fortune 500 companies and universities and been a featured speaker at TEDx conferences.

Subscribe to SchoolCEO Newsletter at https://www.schoolceo.com/subscribe-now/ for more strategies on leadership, influence, and storytelling.

Learn more about Apptegy and how Thrillshare can you tell better stories across your website, social media, and beyond at https://www.apptegy.com/thrillshare/

TRANSCRIPT

[Intro Music]

Neal Foard (Guest): Trust, listening, being open, transparent, genuineness, authenticity. These are not buzzwords. These are the oldest of the human values. They are timeless. And it's funny that we talk about them as though they're some new discovery.

It's just, this is how you behave when you're friends with somebody.

Tyler Vawser (Host): We're about 20 episodes into season two of SchoolCEO Conversations. And one of the best parts of being able to host this podcast for me is that I get to pick the guests that are both interesting and I know that our audience, that's you, will learn from and otherwise might not know about. I'm Tyler Vawser, part of the SchoolCEO team here at Apptegy. Today, I want to introduce Neal Foard. He is a regular in the DMs and conversations here in our office. We share his videos, we discuss them over lunch. Neal Foard has spent 25 years in advertising

He's created award-winning campaigns for global power brands like Anheuser-Busch, Lexus, Sony. For his work on Toyota, Neal ranked among the top 10 most awarded creative directors in the world in 2002. He's the author of an innovative coaching series and was named worldwide director of creative learning for global ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi. Now Neal is mostly known for his inspirational videos about the better side of everyday people.

Neal Foard (Video Clip):

But before he could even round third base, every kid in the stands had rushed the field, and they mobbed the dugout, and players were high-fiving them, and they were handing out free hot dogs, and they posed for a big team photo with the kids in it.

And I've been to some beautiful Major League stadiums, and I've seen games played by literally the best players money can buy. But there is just nothing there for me if five or six kids yelling from the third baseline just don't make any difference.

Tyler Vawser (Host): Well, your videos and your stories are how we discovered you. And you just mentioned it. But long before you started making those videos, your career was in branding and marketing as a creative director and in some other roles. So I'd love for you to just start there and tell us about what your early career looked like, what you focused on, and maybe some stories from that time.

Neal Foard (Guest): I came, I got into advertising, you might say, kind of by accident. I'd been working in the lumber business for a number of years on the sort of blue collar side of it.

I, you know, one day you just sort of wake up and go, I just, I can't, I can't do this anymore. I called every friend that I had and I said, I'm looking for a job. You got anything? Maybe I might slide into. And the very first call I got was, oh, I'm leaving my job as an assistant account executive at this advertising agency. Maybe you could fill my spot. So I ran in there and luckily got hired. And after two years of being an account executive, I decided to switch over to the creative side of things.

I became a copywriter and then later a creative director and eventually an executive creative director, which is kind of that's the terminology we would use in the industry for the sort of top dog at any given shop. And if you could trace sort of why I was able to advance, it really wasn't because I was a tremendous writer or a very, an extremely creative person. It was because I got good at pitching the ideas. I was the one who would go into the room and try to persuade the client to buy it. And it's not quite like sales, because what is actually on display is fairly ethereal. You have to sell an idea, not a product. And in the selling of the idea, if there's anything that advertising teaches you, it is that often it's the way you put something that determines its value.

So my wife and I were in New Orleans. We were walking around the waterfront. It's quite obvious the two of us are tourists. And New Orleans being what it is strangers come up to you all the time on the street So we're walking along the waterfront and I hear this guy say dang those some nice shoes. What'd you get those and I turn and this man is looking at my feet and He says yeah, I want to get some just like that. What'd you get those shoes? And I go, oh well And as I'm thinking about it my wife knows it's a con right because this guy's very down at the heels and While I'm trying to remember where I got these shoes. He goes. Oh, no, wait

I know you got those shoes. And I said, no, I don't think so. I'm from out of town. And he goes, I'll bet you $5 I can tell you where you got those shoes. So I'm thinking, all right, I know this is a gag, but is it worth $5 to find out the punchline to this joke? So like, OK. He says, you bet me $5? Yes. You got those shoes on the end of your feet.

So I start to pull out my wallet. It gets about halfway out of my pocket. My wife says, you're not going to pay him. And I sort of start to push the wallet back down into my pocket. And the guy says, it's cool, man. A lot of fellas at that woman tell him what to do. So I whip out my wallet and pay him. And the coolest thing about that was that I really unpacked it later. And I thought, you know what? That was a display of understanding of status roles and power. He's clearly a panhandler. And I am on vacation, so I have all the money. I'm with an attractive spouse and leisure time. In terms of power balance, I have a lot more power than he does. But he doesn't go in that way, does he? Instead, he starts by putting us on an absolutely equal footing. He says, you have a pair of shoes that I like. I want to get some just like it.

I imagine that I can buy the shoes you can buy. So there we go. He has set the level of we are equal. Then when he says, where did you get them? And I'm trying to remember and he goes, oh, I already know. He's essentially pushing himself a little bit higher than I am, which is even though he doesn't know where I got the shoes, he's figured it out. So he is already on top of me. Doesn't need my answer. So I say, no, I don't think so. And I'm trying to restore my power. And then he says, yeah, no, I do know where you got them.

No, I don't. Yes, you do. OK. He challenges me to a duel. So he's challenged me. The only way I can regain my status is to accept the challenge. Then he tricks me. Right. He wins the bet, but he didn't just win. He outwitted me. So his status, again, is much elevated over mine. But I'm trapped. If I'm any kind of man, I have to pay him. Otherwise.

You know, who welches on bets? Well, no, no gentleman, that's for sure. So I have to pay him. But when he was counting on a couple, remember he's a panhandler. He can pick anybody he wants. Why would he choose a couple deliberately for this moment? Which is if she says, don't pay him. He can say, it's all right. A lot of fellas let their woman tell him what to do. What he's doing is he's saying, I pity you. So in other words, he's dropped my status way down.

Now, what he's done, and brilliantly, is he has made me buy back my self-respect. We're just a couple of strangers, but that's what he's done. And ultimately, if I'm really thinking about it like, you know, like an economist would, I would go, I emerged better for the experience because I used the experience in order to assert my own self-determination. Okay, so in any case, marketing anything. The first lesson of advertising is the way you present something determines its value. And what I often will tell people that are making presentations, whether it's a sales presentation or any kind of presentation for that matter, in front of people they are not familiar with, it's do not walk in and surrender status. Don't walk in and say remarks like, I'm not a very good presenter, or this will only take a minute, or I'll be quick.

Or saying, like, I didn't have very much time to rehearse, you're using the most valuable real estate of the presentation, the first 10 seconds, and you're throat clearing and hemming and hawing and reducing your status. And some people think you will often hear, this is the most common way people start, is they'll say, we're so excited to be here. And that has sort of three problems. The first problem in doing it is, A, that's not true.

If you really were excited, you would begin immediately with what's got you excited. But you know, it would be like you have the job of telling a retiree on a fixed income that she's just won a million dollars. You're not going to start by saying, I'm so excited to be here. You're going to go, hey, you want to hear some really good news? It's this, you know, the second reason, you know, first, it's not true. And the second is you're doing something everybody else does. You're starting with a cliche making you appear very much like everyone else. And if this is the third time somebody's heard that that day, oh God, it's tiresome. So you're not starting on an equal footing. You've actually reduced your status by sounding just like the other two people that came in before you.

And the last reason, and I think this might be the most significant, is when you say something like, we're so excited to be here, what it is a tacit admission of is, You're grateful that they granted you an audience. So what people need to perceive about you is that what you've done, you have arrived there to fix a problem or provide value. You are not ashamed of it. You are proud of it. And if anybody ridicules it or decides not to get it, that's not a problem. That's, hey man, I'm just trying to help. If you don't want the help, okay, I'm not gonna take offense. I'm somebody who knows what he's doing and I'm trying to help you here.

If I were going to give your audience any advice on making a presentation or telling a story, it's get to it. The first 15 seconds, the first 10 seconds is key. Can you make me go, well, okay, you got my attention? And stories are the best way to do it because we are sort of hardwired from 100,000 years of sitting around campfires, you know, talking about how we're going to kill the bison the next day.

Stories are how we imagine. And by the way, interesting thing about stories, and when we used to do radio commercials, we would call it theater of the mind. It's interesting that they would use that term only with radio, never with television. Theater of the mind paints an incredibly vivid picture of what's taking place. It picks all the right colors. It picks all the right actors. It lets you participate in filling in the empty spaces. That is powerful because when your imagination is engaged, you feel like you're participating in the construction of the creativity. You almost feel subconsciously a sense of ownership in it. But to give another piece of advice to anybody telling a story among your audience, never cast yourself as the hero of your story because to do so triggers two involuntary responses from your audience.

The first is now they're not standing next to you. The place you want them to be is standing next to you, watching something that you can both learn from. This is why a presidential candidate, well, a good one anyway, will not stand up there and tell you how wonderful they are. What they will do is they will talk about the concerns of the people they're trying to serve or the admiration they have for someone who has done something spectacular, or the lesson they learn from watching an elder or a child or somebody back in their hometown. You want to be able to stand next to someone shoulder to shoulder and think, I like them because they are in this with me. That's one reason. The next reason is whenever anybody brags about themselves, 90% chance they're lying. There's a great quote from George Orwell, which is, "No autobiography is to be trusted if it paints a good picture of a person. Since anyone who gives a good account of themselves is probably lying as any life when looked at from the inside is merely a matter of defeats."

And when you contemplate that, you go, yeah, if you're not portraying yourself as the one who learned something or was humbled or appreciated something freshness with some freshness in their eyes after having seen someone else, they just won't believe it.

Tyler Vawser (Host): What's interesting about some of what you've shared so far is that you're talking a lot about status, right? So on the one hand, when you're starting out, you don't wanna say I'm excited because it takes you at a lower status. You also don't want to put yourself above your audience either. And I think that's a really interesting thing. One thing I've noticed from your stories that you tell, Neal, is that some of them are your own, but you're not making yourself the hero. And then occasionally there are stories that I don't even think you were there, but the way that you're positioning it, the way that you're telling it, is very much as though you are bringing someone else into an experience, and you're kind of letting them in on that, even if you weren't there, right? Many of your stories are personal, but I think it's the way that you tell it that puts you at a level footing, like I'm gonna let you into this thing, so there's some status there, but also that this isn't so special that it happened to me, but that this is something that I've heard and I think I wanna bring you into.

Neal Foard (Guest): There was one story in particular where I wasn't there, but I just found it so amazing that I told it as though I was sort of there. So the story was about a friend of mine whose car had gotten impounded in New Jersey. And what happened was he had gone into the impound lot and he goes in there and there's this young hearing impaired woman who is nobody in the tow yard speaks American Sign Language. So she's having difficulty being understood.

And likewise, the tow yard owner, who's kind of a tool, I guess he had towed a school bus once with the kids still in it. So he wasn't the devil, but he was on the payroll. So he was yelling at her thinking that the louder he could be and the more belligerent, the better it would go over. But she was practically in tears. And my friend said, oh, to hell with this. So he wound up surrendering a big chunk of his money to help her get her car out of impact. So.

You know, there she gets her thing taken care of. Meanwhile, they've closed the gate on him. So you're screwed. So he's hoofing it back to the train station to ride home. And the young woman pulls up in her freshly retrieved car and says, hey, you want to ride? And she says it with such articulateness that he's like, what the hell? And he goes up and he says, I thought you were deaf. She goes, no, no, no. And she points at her hearing aids that had been locked in her car. And she says, actually, I'm a pretty good listener.

And so the end of the story is, well, they've been married for 12 years now. And the little moral of the story is that sometimes not getting what you want is a really good stroke of luck. And the very, very end of the story is that when they got married, they invited the tow yard owner to the wedding and he came and the best man had his car. Towed. That's amazing.

I tell that story as though I was there, although I did hear it secondhand from the guy because I was the one who had had to go get him, to take him back to get his car when he finally did get the money together. And so he told me that whole tale. And what I love so much about it is that last little footnote, that little epilogue. It's like, oh my God, brilliant. And most people that have seen that video, by the way, they have not seen the ending. Most people bail out as soon as the little quote. moral comes up.

So I'd venture to say two thirds of the people that have watched the video haven't seen it. Which I think is actually its own stroke of genius, right? Because then you're sort of in on it if you hung on to the very end and you've left something else. Yeah. We used to, in the ad business, we used to call that the kiss back. Generally, Anheuser-Busch commercials would always have some very funny gag, and then there would be the little logo and then they would give you two more seconds of, of something else that happened.

And why they wanted to do that, why they kept doing that was, as soon as people were aware that at the end of a Budweiser commercial, there might be a second punchline, they paid extra attention and it was a trigger for attention and yeah, to benefit your audience. When, as soon as people figure out that there's something hidden in the message, like there's some little extra added value, you know, the Marvel movies are fantastic that way. They'll let you watch the entire credit sequence and then they'll give you a tip. You know, they'll give you previews to the next movie or some kind of reveal.

And those marvelous little confections at the end, that added value, it's quite thrilling to people in the know. So what I'm hearing here is, one, get to the point, make it valuable, don't bury the lead, and then two, if you're at the end, make it valuable to listen to the whole thing, right? Don't bail too early. Yeah, there is a, they have a phrase in New Orleans called lagniappe, probably heard of that, little something something. And what it is is, when you go down there and you have like have yourself a coffee in one of these fancy French places, these Cajun places, they will bring out like a little, I forget what they call it, little donut hole. They have a name for it, beignets. Sometimes just bring them out for and they don't charge you for them. That little extra something something is a really sweet way of saying, you know, I suppose we could do this just for the money, but I'd just as soon make a friend.

And your goal in any one of these presentations or sales calls is not to make a sale. Your goal is to earn another conversation. That's why the little extra value, the little I'll lose a little money to make a friend because with a second conversation comes trust. And then we start out in a place where I don't have to sell you on my accolades and my credentials anymore. Let's just talk about your situation.

Tyler Vawser (Host): Let's dive into that a little bit, because I think if you're a superintendent or a communications director at a public school district, you kind of have some suspicion about marketing, right? Marketing or sales gets a bad rap because of the opposite of what you just said, which is it is about the money. It is about getting something from someone and hopefully, you know, having higher status and taking a little bit more than they get from you, that kind of thing. But what I like about your approach and I think this shows up in your past work and in your videos is this idea of generosity and hospitality and that is a big part of public education. So I'd love to hear you talk about your understanding of brand and your understanding of marketing and how it applies to that idea of earning the next conversation and building that relationship.

Neal Foard (Guest): When it came to packaged goods or automobiles or beverages, food and beverages, there was a place that every marketer really wanted to get to, which was loyalty beyond reason.

People are willing to pay a premium for their product because they want you to win. And the great brands will give people a sufficient love and affection, attention and trust. They will earn their customers trust in such a way that by buying the object, they ingest and or wear that same potency and power. Nike had the women's apparel division, you know, footwear and apparel. And they had a fitness division. But the woman who ran that, I had a chance to meet with her about two months ago. She said that they labored for a long time finally arriving at Nike with the idea that there must be a distinction for the women's line. There must be a distinction between fitness and training. And that all Nike apparel must be specifically for training.

They didn't want you to go out and get fit so that you would be superficially attractive. Nike wanted to stand for going out and achieving something you can be proud of. It gives you bragging rights. It makes you feel like you belong to something. So that's one thing that we learned about value is if you can give somebody a sense of participation in something big and important that they can be proud of participating in, you will have given them a gift larger than the functional attributes of the clothes, the shoes, you'll give them something much, much bigger. And you should be, you should be proud of that, of delivering that value.

Another thing is trust turns out to be maybe the most important commodity there is in business. Toyota went through a recall when the Toyota Camry was accused, unfairly, because I was there to see it. They were accused of a mechanical failure that led to unintended acceleration in the Toyota Camry. Turned out it was bogus. But you know, once these things catch a meme, then people are, you know, they're sending videos in of them crashing their Camrys. They think they're stepping on the brake. They're stepping on the get look, it's human driver error, but you are never going to convince them that that's what happened. Toyota wisely decided you can't win that argument. with people.

So we're just going to, unfortunately, we're stuck in this dilemma. We're going to have to take it seriously. And you know what we're going to do? We're going to make good. We're going to recall all these Camrys. Oh God. But we're going to do it. We're going to suck it up. We're going to be really, really good to our customers. We're not going to be impatient at all. We're going to be super accommodating. We're going to set up toll free hotlines. We're going to make our dealers happy because we're going to make it easy for our dealers to do this. And yes it's going to cost us millions. But they sustained the trust of their customers. And they did, as you can imagine, they did questionnaires before the recall, during the recall, and after the recall. Toyota owners were happier about their purchases after the recall than they were before or during. Can you imagine a Toyota Camry buyer whose car apparently has this big safety problem? Toyota recalls it. Well, so far, this is all in that negative.

But because of the way they behave in a trustworthy, friendly, you know, you matter to me manner, people are happier about it in the end. They reckoned at Toyota that despite the millions it cost them, in the end, it was a net economic positive because it created loyalty beyond reason. It created the ability to raise prices slightly to recover that money and nobody squawking about it because they knew that what they were going to doing was and it wasn't just buying a great car. They were buying a great company that would look after them and that proved it. So trust turns out to be, if you have the patience for it, if you have the stomach for it, if you can stomach it's gonna cost you money, what will happen is that you will be out in the universe with a reputation that you can be trusted. And I'm not sure that there is a finer commodity to have in your quiver of attributes than can be trusted.

Tyler Vawser (Host): I think what's interesting about Toyota is one, they have many, many stories like that. You're talking about that consumer or like that customer experience, right? And the story you just painted or shared is such a good example of that. There are some stories from the early days of Toyota, especially in America, where they really approached the entire employee experience differently, right? And it's interesting to draw that line between how they treat employees differently, and then decades, years later, how their customers benefit from that.

So you have probably heard this story, and I think you're based in California, correct? Yeah. So you probably have heard this story when Toyota first tried to come to the US market in like 1960, right? GM has 50% of the market, they're dominant. Toyota says, hey, we'll make you this deal, GM. We'll tell you how we're making cheap cars that are high quality if you teach us how to set up a factory in America, right? And GM goes, this is perfect. We're gonna give them the worst factory. They're never gonna wanna do business in America, and we're gonna learn all their secrets. And they could not have been more wrong.

Toyota is given the worst factory in GM's entire lot, and to their credit, they don't fire any of the employees, but what they do is they bring them to the flagship factory in Japan for three weeks. They teach them what they know, but what transforms is not the people or the factory, the location, or even the cars. What transforms are the people who learn that people trust them, they care about their opinion, and if they have an idea or a suggestion that somebody's going to listen, and if it's the right idea, they're going to implement it right away. There's a lot more to this story, right? But I think it's interesting to contrast that and how it connects to that customer experience probably 50, 40 years later after the Fresno California factory example.

Neal Foard (Guest): Yeah, that Fremont factory was the NUMI plant where they made Saturns. Yeah. Oh no, not Saturns, excuse me. That was the co-op factory where they would send them to Toyota City to learn the Toyota way. And it was a real revelation for the GM people that were doing that. And I met a few of those people later. I did a bunch of work with Toyota and I was out in there.

Lexington, Kentucky factory. It's uh, it was near Lexington near Paris where my granddad grew up and the head of the factory the guy that ran It was a guy named Mike Dodge and my name was Foard So we were both laughing about the fact that you know Dodge and Foard working for Toyota but I had a opportunity to sit down at length with him and talk about the mindset that he brought with him and and what was it like on the factory floor and they had

Quality circles at Toyota factories. Now quality circles are where they would get a certain number of people, volunteers, and people who really cared about the quality of the products. And they would, without being paid, they would stay after work and they would sit around talking about ways to improve the products and little problems that they think they could solve with innovations rather than throwing money at it. And I said to Mike, really, you get UAW people going and doing that for no pay? And he goes, yeah, we sure do. I go, why? And he goes, because we listen.

And I thought, oh, yeah, yeah, for real. Like you listen for real. And he says, oh, all the time. You know, people, you can do an astonishing amount. People will give you an absolute best from them if they feel like you care. And as soon as people realize, oh, you really are listening, well, they'll tell you everything you need to know about how to improve things. And I said, Mike, so they really, they got the on bond line. You can shut the assembly line down.

Because of recurring problem, you can turn it off so they can fix the problem at its source. And I said, Mike, do they really do that? And he goes, you don't think we actually do that? Well, I'm a little suspicious. He goes, yes, not only do we do it, but if you bring me anybody who complains that somebody's trying to fix a problem, please bring them to me. I will give them a foot in their butt so hard, they won't know what hit them. And what's more, we don't.

We're not mad about problems. We're not mad when somebody points out a problem. We're ecstatic. Now why would we be happy that somebody points out a problem? Because when we fix it, we'll be that much closer to perfection, and that's what we're after. We want to knock down every bug, every gremlin, every little last thing. We can't wait to find another one, because we're that much closer. And you know, it's funny, I'm only thinking about it now that we're talking about it, how similar.

The mindset is of "fitness versus training". The Toyota mindset of "I can't wait to find another problem so that I can fix it and we're that much closer to perfection". Like they've got this goal in mind and we're getting closer and we're working on it. But to return to my real point, which was about trust. Trust, listening, being open, transparent, genuineness, authenticity.

These are not buzzwords. These are the oldest of the human values. They are timeless. And it's funny that we talk about them as though there's some new discovery. It's no, no, it's just, this is how you behave when you're friends with somebody. The reframe about problems, I think is really key, right? If you can be a leader that can say like, ah, like good job, you found another problem.

Tyler Vawser (Host): That completely changes the culture, the conversation, that trust factor, right? Because now people are no longer hiding, right? They're actually coming forward and problems require other people to solve, right? And instead of that shame, right? It's like, oh, good, you got it. Like, let's get these other people in the conversation. Let's do this together versus being isolated with a problem that you're kind of holding on to, onto by yourself. And you're a little bit lonely with that problem if you're not bringing it forward.

Neal Foard (Guest): If you give people an opportunity to own their mistakes, then they'll tell you their mistakes and you can fix them quickly. There's that great line from the Godfather. He said, Mr. Corleone is a man who wants to hear bad news right away. Good news can wait. Bad news I hear, I need to hear right now. And if you cultivate a culture in which people are not afraid to tell you the bad news, you will always, you will never be blind to a situation. You'll never get blindsided. You'll never be too late to fix something.

You know, you'll always be ahead of it because it's very old fashioned values, incredibly old fashioned. But you know, when you've spent long enough in an industry, you realize that, you know, you just have, you have to be patient. You have to be honest. You have to try to help. You got to recognize no matter what kind of opinion or good news or bad news you have, somebody's going to disagree. They're not going to like it. You've heard over and over these things like the business plan for FedEx got a C plus.

When the guy turned it in for, you know, for his business school thesis. And you'll see, you know, JK Rowling has to go 12 publishers, turn her down for Harry Potter. Turns out to be the biggest book since the Bible. And, you know, look, people don't know good ideas when they hear them. If they knew if everybody understood a good idea when they saw it, movie studios would never do anything but turn out hits. But 90% of movies are crap. Therefore, you got to be patient and accommodating and understand.

If somebody can't see the brilliance of an idea, maybe they're not the problem. Maybe you're the problem because you're not describing it with sufficient vividness and detail. And another thing that I learned from telling stories to people as a result, you know, trying to get them to buy advertising ideas is that everybody wants to participate, they want to be part of the action. And in the, in the crafting of a story, it's so often, uh, you can get people to be on your side, if you understand where they're coming from, you've probably, I don't know, did you see that story that I told called the Yam dance?

Tyler Vawser (Host): Oh, yeah. I actually, let me talk about that. So I shared this with one of our VPs here because I'm known for having strong opinions. And I sent it to her and I said, well, maybe I should stop having strong opinions.

Neal Foard (Video Clip):

You and I live in the age of strong opinion.

Now there is a time and a place for expressing a strong opinion, but as I have gotten older, I have learned that there are not very many times when expressing a strong opinion benefits you. Let me relate a story and then let me ask you a question. In the Solomon's Sea, near Papua New Guinea, there is a chain of islands that are home to a culture whose primary foodstuff is a particular kind of yam. It's very difficult to grow. So they have very elaborate rituals that guide the planting and the cultivation of these yams. And they have a big festival around the yam planting and the harvest. And since all agriculture involves some element of luck, part of their ritual is a very elaborate and impressive yam dance. And a really good yam dance, the thinking goes, brings in a lot of big yams. So the best yam dancers, well, they have very high status. They get their huts closest to the chief and they get their first choice of mate and, you know, lots of perks. And if you're a really good yam dancer, maybe you even wind up as chief.

Well, in the 18th century, a European ship visited the islands, bringing along with it, among other things, a missionary whose job it was to convert the natives. And he took his assignment, and he learned to speak the local language, and he was charming and knowledgeable and popular. And the chief of the tribe began to treat him a little bit like a favorite pet, bringing him along to everything, always at his side. And after some time, the story goes, at the annual Yam Festival, after the Yam dance, the chief asked the missionary in front of everyone whether he thought that that particular yam dance would bring in a good crop.

And the missionary said, well, the dance was certainly impressively vigorous. And the chief said, well, good, so you think it'll bring in many yams. And the missionary said, well, as beautiful as it is, the dance is superfluous. It doesn't actually affect the yam crop one way or the other. I could say with some confidence that you can skip the dance or you can keep it, but the results will be the same. Here's my question. What do you think happened to the missionary?

Tyler Vawser (Host): Yeah, exactly. Yes. I love that video and it's made me rethink how often I share my own strong opinions.

Neal Foard (Guest): Well, the operating element to that story that's significant is you really ought to be conscious of where someone's power and or self image comes from. Let's say for example, in politics, why it's so difficult lately to talk politics at the dinner table during Thanksgiving is that people's identities are wrapped up in candidates now in ways that they hadn't been before. In the case of the story, the idea is, look man, all of these people's power, all of those people that are in charge, it comes from the very thing they're asking you about.

Tread softly, amigo, because it would really be intelligent when anytime you are making a pitch to someone to have some degree of understanding about what their motives are and how they see themselves. If you are a dyed in the wool, multi-generational sports hunter, or you come from a long line of hippies and new agers, you need to accommodate the fact that everybody sees the world slightly differently. And if you are really gonna persuade them, you're gonna have to do that more by example than by the words you speak because talk is cheap and when you are trying to be persuasive about something you have to demonstrate that you have sufficient belief in it that you use it yourself and to that extent it is the demonstration of your behavior that's the real selling proposition not the words.

Tyler Vawser (Host): Yeah. The identity piece is interesting, right? In particular for schools right now, like we've all heard of board meetings and how that has changed in the last few years. And the audience here is very familiar with that. They're living it firsthand, but you do think about, you know, parents that are arguing against one thing or another at a school board, their identity is very much wrapped in being that protector of their kids. Now, some of those ideas might be really out there and I would have a hard time defending them, but I think it is noteworthy to say.

There's a part of their identity that is driving that. And if you can understand that identity, right, in this case, potentially to be the protector and the keeper of their kids and really wanting what's best for them, you can probably come at it from a different approach, right? And I would think most superintendents have a really good understanding of empathy and they're doing their level best to do that. But it is worth mentioning here.

Neal Foard (Guest): You know, everybody thinks they're the good guy. And...Nobody in history walks around going, yeah, I'm an evil son of a gun. Well, maybe one or two. But that is how the thing that when you get, when you run across somebody who's really inflamed over some issue, just on fire about it, wow, they really think they're the good person and unfortunately what's what they've run away with is this identity of them as the, as the good person. And I, I don't very much think you're going to convince them through argument as much as through example. But I'm not telling anybody anything they don't know already.

Tyler Vawser (Host): Neal, one thing you've said about storytelling is that it really helps people understand that we're all in this together and that you're not alone. And so I wonder if you can, as we kind of get closer to the end here, I'm curious if you can talk a bit more about storytelling and in particular, how leaders can tell stories that, you know, kind of walk someone off the ledge or get them to understand that they're coming from a good perspective as well. And they're trying to do their best.

You can just dive into that because I think you've coached leaders on how to tell better stories. And so many of your stories are about the good natured part of all of us, right?

Neal Foard (Guest): And how there's more of that than we might be told by the news or by each other day to day. Yeah, I consider it a kind of personal mission. I grew so exhausted by the rage machine that is our current media. Algorithms and ratings and so forth have demonstrated that when you can inflame someone's rage, they'll come back for more. It's a bit of a dopamine hit, you know, to be outraged about something. So what's happened is we're now surrounded by an open flame of people being upset. And courtesy of things like reality TV, they show us not normal humans that are being sweet to one another, but rather the train wreck of slightly abnormal psychology, as though it's common. And in fact, it's not common at all. The thing is that...

I had taken it on as a mission to just try to be one small antibody in the system. And what I have found is that I get these brilliant responses from people who describe some niceness that they then did on somebody else's behalf because of something I said. And I thought, what a marvelous gift they gave me just then to make me feel like that actually worked on somebody and that helped in some way.

Look, you need to have kind of, in order to tell stories that are going to have an effect on people, you have to start at the end.

You have to decide, why am I telling this? What is the point of this? How is this going to benefit you? And usually, that will come prepackaged with some kind of sentiment. You know, Aesop's fables have lasted as long as they have because of their usefulness in a current context. Why? Because they all have a moral. There's a conclusion. There's a lesson at the end of each one of them.

If you are a leader in an organization and you want to make a point about being a better listener or being more accommodating to people with neurodivergence or any number of different topics, go out there and find a moral or a quote or some sentiment that's where you want the story to wind up. That's the conclusion. If you work backwards from that, you'll be in pretty good shape. And what's more, you don't have to make the story about you.

You can just make the story about, "I was reading the Washington Post, I came across this image of this man who was homeless and he was feeding this dog with, what little food he had, he was sharing with this animal."

You can tell your story about the illustration of how people deep down, they just don't like to see somebody else suffering. If you see someone struggling at work, do you just abandon them and think that's their problem? Or do you find...

You tell me you don't have three minutes in your day to try to ask them what's bothering them and What always a story helps because it will allow us to participate in the calculus It isn't you lecturing that somebody on being kinder It's you having been affected by watching somebody else demonstrate a capacity for generosity courtesy and kindness under very modest circumstances every little bit helps and that a story will do that more effectively, particularly if it has a component of, it'll make them laugh or it'll make them smile or it'll make them cry.

Tyler Vawser (Host): Jonah Berger's been on this podcast before and he talks about the same thing. Like you have to know what point you're making and then you need to find or go through your own history and find a story that makes that point. Don't just try to find the best story and just fit it in because it sounds good.

Neal Foard (Guest): And, don't make yourself a hero. Don't make yourself a hero, yeah. Good God, that happens a lot. And it's so exhausting to hear somebody say, I was down here and then I did this nice thing. And I protected that woman with the grocery bags from the thugs. And after I picked up all her groceries, and then I posted it to my 500,000 followers, and I did it all because I'm modest. Really?

Tyler Vawser (Host): And I think there's a more subtle version of that that's maybe not quite so on the nose, which people are thinking, I'm gonna be on stage, I wanna look really good, let me go find the best story out there. Even if they're not making themselves a hero, the objective is to make themselves look good, rather than what is it that my audience needs to hear? What's the point that is gonna be best for them? And then where do I go get the story that makes that point?

Neal Foard (Guest): Yeah, it is amazing how easy it is to find things that are negative. And, but as soon as you begin, if you, as soon as you start your day thinking, I wonder if I can come across something that's going to be reassuring. What happens, you spend your day looking for good things and good things start to appear and I'm enjoying myself more now. My, I mean my life more now because I'm on the lookout for good things. And, um, my belief is that in any organization, when the leader is oriented towards looking for good things, the whole organization is going to start taking that on.

Tyler Vawser (Host): For our audience, Neal has so many incredible stories. I think that when you first start listening to your stories, Neal, you go, there's no way all these things are happening to him. This is impossible, right? Does this guy is he making him up? Is he stealing this from other people? But it's exactly what you just said is you've got an ear and now eyes to find those everyday moments, and you're looking for that opportunity, you're looking for the nugget, but the rest of us are just kind of walking past it, or we're looking for the worst in a situation instead of the absolute best.

Neal Foard (Guest): Yep, that's what I'm doing. I'm looking for the best these days.

Tyler Vawser (Host): Well, Neal Foard, thank you so much for joining School CEO Conversations. I really appreciate your time. Well, thank you for having me, Tyler. It's been a pleasure.

[Outro]

Tyler Vawser (Host): If you want to find out more about Neal Foard and watch and share his videos, you can find him on YouTube and on Instagram at Neal Foard, spelled N-E-A-L-F-O-A-R-D. That's Neal Foard on YouTube and on Instagram. If you liked this episode, I encourage you to leave a review, give us five stars, and tell us what you think. SchoolCEO Magazine publishes original research, interviews, and more in our quarterly magazine that's read by more than 15,000 school leaders.

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