The shovel, piano and teapot handles that groomed me as a story marketer

Often in story marketing, you think you have to be epic in your storytelling. But most of us don’t have those stories at the ready. So don’t forget about or underestimate the power of your small stories to own a room.


Can you think of a moment that has shaped you or your brand?

That was the question I posed to our 13 executives in our Storytelling for Leaders workshop last Friday. These events aren’t tectonic occurrences that transform our world. But seemingly innocuous incidents that shape who we are.

When you share these anecdotes you will find they are some of the best ways to connect with your audiences because they feature the humanity tucked inside your professional attire.

For instance, yesterday I was sitting at the family room table with my mom and dad. We were wrapping up my Memorial Day weekend visit from Phoenix over egg salad sandwiches. A particular delicacy of mine.

Pat and Keith, in their early nineties, still live in the same two-story rambler home on 12 acres in Woodinville, WA, where my six siblings and I grew up just north of Seattle. We’re blessed.

Business storytelling started when I was a kid.

That’s me in the middle.

They asked me how business is going. (BTW, they still don’t know what I do.)

“Things are great,” I said.

I told them about training business leaders and communicators on how to tell “small stories” to connect with their people.

“What do you mean by small stories?”

“Here, I’ll give you an example.”

“I bet you don’t remember this dad, but see that fence post out there?” I asked, pointing out the window to one of the moss-covered posts on the cedar fence encircling the front pasture.

“Uh huh.”

“When I was about 12, I was whining about having to dig that fence post hole in the rain. You looked at me and said, “‘If you don’t pick up that shovel, someone else will.'”

“I said that?” he asked. Of course, he didn’t remember. Who would, except me? Coming from my depression era father, it made an impact.

That singular advice, like the fence post sitting there, is frozen in time. It has shaped my work ethic for the past 44 years. I think of it often. Especially when I’m dead tired or discouraged and grasping for an excuse to quit.

I explained to my folks that when I share this story, people have a better understanding of who I am. What drives me. And what kind of effort I’ll bring to every project. And because it’s not your typical story in a business setting, it captures my audience’s attention and sparks their imagination.

It even triggers their own fence post story.

“That’s nice,” they smiled.

Park Howell

My dad an I on a Memorial Day boat ride up the Sammamish Slough near Seattle.

What tales ring true for you?

These tales offer details about us. Here’s another one that speaks to my approach as a story marketer.

When I was around five years old, we visited our Grandpa and Grandma Howell at their two-bedroom red cabin on Lake Lida in Minnesota. The mosquitos were the size of pheasants and the lake leeches I swear would make Stephen King squirm.

I remember my Grandma Mable sitting down to what I thought was a cupboard in the living room. I cozied up beside her.

She lifted the lid and I expected her to grab some dishes. I was startled when a crazy tune sprang from it. Her shoulders raised and swayed as she started playing this bouncing melody. I remember her right foot pumping the damper peddle in rhythm, her Norwegian complexion growing rosy as she belted out the lyrics… “I’ll be down to get you in a taxi, honey. You better be ready about a half past eight…”

Wide-eyed, I was introduced to grandma’s upright piano. And wow, could she play.

“Now dearie, don’t be late. I want to be there when the band starts playing…”

Park HowellIt was magical. Even a miracle. This old lady singing and laughing like she was playing in a honky tonk. Seemed like she grew 30 years younger, her music transporting her.

I was smitten. That moment was the reason I started learning the piano in the third grade. Wrote tons of music through high school. And earned a Bachelor of Arts in Music Composition and Theory from Washington State University.

All thanks to Grandma Mable. She triggered my love for piano music in the time it took to perform the nine lines of this Ragtime classic.

“Goin’ to dance out both my shoes, when they play the “Jelly Roll Blues” tomorrow night, at the Darktown Strutter’s Ball.”

A split second that lasts a lifetime

Of course, these moments sneak up on you: the universe igniting another element of your character in an innocent instant.

Like when I was watching the Purdue Boilermakers football team playing the University of Indiana. I think I was around eight years old. My mom’s dad, Grandpa Red, was a huge football fan. He was in the rocker, and I was splayed out on the couch watching the game.

“Hey grandpa, what’s a Purdue?” I asked.

“It’s not a thing, but a place,” he said. “A university.”

“So what’s a Boilermaker?”

“It’s a guy who makes a boiler. You know, like a furnace that powers a train,” he answered.

“That’s an odd name for a football team,” I noted.

“Yup. Now let’s watch the game, Park.”

Right about then the Purdue quarterback threw a beautiful touchdown pass. He cantered to the sideline under the roar of the crowd. An All-American Midwestern gridiron hero, I thought.

The camera pushed in for a close-up peering over the coach’s shoulder as he high-fived him running off the field. The QB snapped off his chin strap. With two hands in a single motion, he slid his helmet off his head face mask first. Gleaming teeth filled a smile the size of an Indiana summer squash.

His lake blue eyes appeared above a constellation of freckles.

And then… “Boing!”

His enormous ears sprang to attention as if to salute the cheering crowd.

Grandpa sat up. “My God, that boy’s got ears like teapot handles,” he spouted.

I rolled off the couch laughing. “Ears like teapot handles, ah ha ha ha.”

“Well, did you see them?” he asked pointing at the screen.

“Boy did I ever, grandpa. But your description…ah ha ha ha.”

The game continued on with Grandpa Red rolling with every play. But I suddenly was more interested in him. I kept thinking about those “teapot handles for ears.”

How did he come up with that? It was such a perfect illustration of what we had witnessed. The ideal metaphor, even before I knew what a metaphor was.

This is yet another moment that slides into my consciousness like an old friend. When I’m writing and get stuck, I think of Ol’ Teapot Handles to find the right word portrait for the job. Red introduced me to the power of a well-told story, and he didn’t even know it.

I think this moment, like Grandma Mabel playing the piano, was the beginning of my journey to also get a degree in Communications while studying music at WAZZU.

Use small stories for huge impact

These three isolated incidents are not the only events that have helped shape who I am, but they’re powerful anecdotes. They always bob to the surface first when someone asks me how I got where I am today.

What I think they say about me is that I work hard to compose compelling business stories. My objective is to trigger emotions by connecting the shared beliefs and values between the storyteller and his or her audience. My goal is to find common ground and move people to action.  These moments help define my brand purpose: help people live into their most powerful stories.

The previous paragraph carries little weight by itself. But it has a whole new gravity to it when you appreciate the micro-moments at its foundation.

Your simple stories humanize business.

Try it for yourself. What are the three moments that have informed who you are today? Share them in the comments below. Tell them to your family, friends, and colleagues. Watch what happens. They may arrive at a profoundly new view of you in a blink of an eye.

That’s the mighty power of the small story.