My maternal grandfather was a top salesman for Kellogg’s in the 1940s and 1950a. He was funny, outgoing, and he loved practical jokes. In my favorite photo, he sits ramroad straight with the face of a general on a pony so short his toes graze the ground. I never met him but his stories were part of my growing up. Story jokes were popular back in his day. Here is an old one but a good one that helps illustrate the role stories play in communication.
A man walks into a pet store and says, “I want a talking parrot.”
The clerk says, “Yes sir, I have several birds that talk. This large green parrot here is quite a talker.” He taps on the cage, and the bird says, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” He knows the entire Bible by heart. “This red one here is young, but he’s learning.” He prompted, “Polly wants a cracker.” And the bird repeated back, “Polly will want a cracker.” Then I’ve got a mynah bird but he belongs to a sailor, so if you have children you won’t want that one.”
The man says, “I’ll take the younger one, if you can teach me how to make him talk.”
“Sure, I can teach you,” said the pet store owner. He sat down with the man and spent hours teaching him how to train the parrot. Then he put the bird in the cage, took his money, and sent the man home to start his training regimen.
After a week the man came back into the store very irritated. “The bird you sold me doesn’t talk.”
“He doesn’t? Did you follow my instructions?” asked the clerk.
“Yep, to the letter,” replied the man.
“Well, maybe that bird is lonely. I tell you what. I’ll sell you this little mirror here and you put it in the cage. The bird will see his reflection and he will start talking right away,” responded the clerk.
The man did as he was told but three days later was back in the shop. “I’m thinking of asking for my money back, that bird won’t talk.”
The shop owner pondered a bit and said, “I bet that bird is bored. He needs some toys. Here, take this bell—no charge. Put it in the bird’s cage. I bet he’ll start talking once he has something to do.”
In a week, the man was back angrier than ever. He walked in carrying a shoebox. “That bird you sold me died.” He opened the shoebox and there was his poor little dead parrot. “I want my money back.”
The show owner was horrified. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know what happened. But. . . tell me . . . did the bird ever even try to talk?”
“Well,” said the man, “he did say one word, right before he fell off his perch and died.”
“What did he say?” the clerk inquired.
The mean replied, “Fo-o-o-od.”
Poor parrot, he was starving to death. That parrot needed food the way we need stories. Most communications designed to influence are as stimulating to us as a mirror and bell are to a starving parrot. What little substance there is, is like candy—empty calories devoid of nutrition that feeds core human needs. People need more from you. They want to feel your presence in your message, to taste a trace of humanity that proves there is a “you” (individually or collectively) sending them this message. The absence of human presence in today’s high-tech lifestyle leaves people starved for attention. Stories help people feel acknowledged, connected, and less alone. Your stories help them feel more alive by proving there is another live person out there somewhere sending them that message.
This joke does that for you and me: it tells you have me as a person. For instance, you now know my family has a sick sense of humor. You’ve met my grandfather and know that I loved him very much. As a bonus, the joke also illustrates a powerful way to examine your approach to communication. Do you concentrate on “bells and mirrors” like measurable frequencies, reach, and clarity in a way that might cause you to forget the food of human connection that fuels the desire to receive communication in the first place? Communication is never an end goal. Communication is always a means to a goal that ultimately can be boiled down to one simple objective: meeting human needs—yours, theirs, and ours. Once food and shelter needs are met, the rest of our needs are psychological. Our psychological needs are met or unmet based on the stories we tell ourselves and each other about what matters most and who controls it.