Do you know how to tell your story effectively? The story you tell could be at work in conversation with your boss, in a job interview, or perhaps you seek to write a novel? Best-selling author and legal veteran Norman Bacal shares how stories are impactful because they connect us through our emotions and life experiences, how the best lawyers are the best storytellers, why we should all have a rehearsed 60 second infomercial about ourselves, the process of writing fiction and non-fiction, how to address the media, and the power of metaphors.
References & Links
- Website – https://normanbacal.com/
- LinkedIn – https://www.linkedin.com/in/norman-bacal-16772a23/
- “Breakdown” by Norman Bacal – https://amzn.to/2Rk4DHd
- “Odell’s Fall” by Norman Bacal – https://amzn.to/36ndGet
- Recommended book: “TRUE FIT: How to Find the Right Job by Being You” by Jim Beqaj- https://amzn.to/2R8rd5e
Talk About Talk & Dr. Andrea Wojnicki
- ? LISTENING with author, consultant & best-selling author Norman Bacal (podcast episode #41) – https://talkabouttalk.com/41-listening-with-norman-bacal/
- ? STORYTELLING with Harvard professor & author Jerry Zaltman (podcast episode #11) – https://talkabouttalk.com/11-storytelling-with-harvard-professor-author-jerry-zaltman/
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- ? Andrea’s email – Andrea@TalkAboutTalk.com
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- ? Private Facebook group – https://www.facebook.com/groups/2512948625658629/
Dr. Andrea Wojnicki: Thank you so much for joining us, Norman.
Norman Bacal: Oh, thank you for having me.
NB: It’s an interesting question, because it’s got two answers to it. If you had asked me before my 40th birthday or earlier, did I ever think I would write a book? The answer was never. But I actually started my career doing a lot of writing, particularly as a student and young lawyer. My boss was asked to give many speeches, and he had to publish articles and I pretty much wrote all of them for him. So I did a lot of writing early in my career. I wrote my first technical article when I was about a fifth year lawyer. It had to do with actors coming to Canada. So I did a fair amount of writing in the first – probably 10 years of my career. And then as my career advanced, as I became more successful, I discovered what successful lawyers discover, and that is your phone never stops ringing. You spend most of your time either in meetings or on the phone. And all the writing is now done by junior lawyers who are working for you. Then as I advanced forward into management that continued even further, so the higher up I got in the organization, the shorter my attention span got, the less writing I did. And as I said, by my 40th birthday, the one thing I knew for sure was that I was never going to write a book. I was reading good authors on vacation. I can remember the moment it happened to me, I was reading The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje – and I read it I put the book down, at about the halfway point, and I looked at my wife, and I said, I will never write a book.
AW: Oh, you explicitly said that?
AW: that’s amazing.
NB: But career goals change.
AW: Did you ever keep a journal or any kind of – write anything personal like that before?
NB: I kept a journal for six weeks when I was 19 years old on a trip to Israel. I actually filled one of those empty books with writing and that was my summer goal. And from that point on, I never lifted a pen. No interest. Although once I became a managing partner at Heenan Blaikie, I said, you know, it would be really smart to just keep a regular journal of not only what I was going through, but what my feelings were and, and the events. And of course I did none of that.
AW: Right. I think many of us have good intentions.
NB: I can’t tell you how many people I’ve run into who say “I’m sure I have a book in me.” Well, sure, so you can get it out.
AW: And we’ll get into that. Most people do have a story.
AW: So one other question. Just focused on what you said about the career trajectory, perhaps of a typical lawyer. Do you think that lawyers generally make good writers?
NB: I would say probably we’re above average, if you look at the population in terms of writing skills. Because just to survive law school, you have to be able to write. One of the key things that you’re taught, one way or the other, is how to communicate, particularly in writing. And as a young lawyer, particularly if you’re being trained properly, there’s somebody watching you all the time and making very certain you are very precise.
AW: So I’m just going to add this quote here from your book on page seven, you talk about Danny, who taught you to be meticulous, and this is the quote. He says, “Every word has a meaning and every meaning must be applied with precision. Ideas are meant to be expressed in a particular way. As lawyers we craft with words, and our task is to master them.”
NB: I don’t think he particularly meant written word as opposed to spoken word.
AW: He meant both?
NB: Yeah. But he particularly stressed – It was interesting, because Peter Blaikie was probably one of the best litigators that the province of Quebec ever produced. And he actually ran for office a couple of times even. He ran for the leadership of the party. Peter’s name was on the door, the law firm. He was magnificent in court, and he could take a losing argument and find a way to convince a judge that it was the winning argument. But Danny was a big stickler. Anyone can walk into a courtroom with bad facts, create an argument that will fool someone for a short period of time. But it’s only by writing them down and capturing them that you’re able to prove that it works. Because on review, your words aren’t going to hide somewhere. They’re there, they will always be there on the page.
AW: So I know this is getting technical, but when you’re in a court of law, it is being transcribed. Right? So it is it is formally documented.
NB: Yes, but, and I was not a litigator for a living. I litigated, I think, seven cases in my entire career, and they were all early on. But the one thing I’ve discovered, and this was much later in my career, is that success in a courtroom, the people who are the greatest successes are the best storytellers. And it’s not just about who has the best legal brief. It’s sometimes about who tells the best story, who conveys the story, and actually captures the emotion. Because judges are human. They are subject to the same frailties. And when two parties come to court, very often the judge is looking for – it’s not necessarily who wins on the legal technicality, but more so who in his heart or her heart-of-hearts ought to win, based on the details of the case. So if you understand how to tell the story, to tug on those heartstrings, you probably have a much better success record in court than anyone else.
AW: What are some techniques or tactics that a great litigator, for example, might use in crafting that story?
NB: It starts and ends with storytelling, to be able to take a boring set of facts and convey them in a way that captures the judges’ attention. And litigators will tell you this, you can’t afford to lose the judge. The judges are human. They’ve shut their brains down. They’re no longer listening to you. I did some studies. I discovered the average attention span is eight minutes. And at the end of a courtroom, or anyone, anywhere, the average person’s attention span is: they will start to drift after a few minutes unless you come up with little tricks to keep their attention going.
AW: So be honest, eight minutes is higher than I thought.
NB: Well, in this in the computer age, maybe it’s down to two.
NB: But if you can’t figure out a way to continue to be interesting, and to tap into people’s emotions, you know, no one is ever going to remember what you said when you make a speech, but they will always remember how they felt when they left the room.
AW: I’ve heard that. That’s absolutely brilliant. Okay, maybe one of the most important strategies or tactics for developing a good story is to make people feel emotions, bring them on an emotional journey.
NB: You have to take them on the journey you have, and I’ve certainly learned this writing fiction, you have to be able to tap into their experience. So it’s not just your experience. Most people are, you know, they have one subject that interests them far more than any other subject and that’s themselves. So you need to be able to get there to get into their heads to tap into some story that you’re not even telling, but that parallels some story they’ve lived. Great litigators also know how to read people. So you have to read your judge. You know, when you’re losing someone, and I can’t tell you how many lawyers I’ve met, that are completely self-unaware, that they just cannot read people. And if you can’t read people, you can’t possibly win a case.
AW: This is leading a little bit into listening, which is another topic that we’re talking about. But I have to say when I read Breakdown, I had a slightly positive bias coming in because I had met you on the phone and I know people that think very highly of you. So I found Breakdown to be incredibly relevant and compelling. And you know, I consciously wasn’t thinking of myself in the story, but I probably was thinking about what I would do. Anyway, it is absolutely a fantastic story. And the fact that it’s real, makes it all the more compelling. So shifting to your writing of this story. I have a question about when you were living the story before you started writing it. Did you ever think yourself, “this is a story that needs to be told?”
NB: The simple answer to that question is absolutely not. When you are living a crisis, you are living it, you are breathing it, you are taking it to bed with you. You are either sharing it with your loved ones or you’re not. And if you’re not, you’re become slowly but surely this horrible person that’s going through this on your own. But ultimately, the stress of going through a difficult situation. And for us, it was a business breakdown. But the case of other people’s? It could be sickness, or losing a loved-one, or some crisis in your life. You’re focused on only one thing, and that’s getting through the next day. And you might have a path forward in terms of where you think it needs to go. And in my case, that becomes the only driving force in your life. Put everything else aside, this is all you’re going to deal with. There’s no notion that one day I’m going to write a book about it. And even as it was failing, and even in the early days post failure, people would come to me and say, “well, that must have been quite an experience to live through!” And I can remember my thinking was, because they’re trying to make you feel better. And they’re saying, “well, it’ll make you stronger”. And I’m thinking to myself as well, “you live through this and you get stronger – because I can’t see how this is ever going to make me stronger.” And why? Because when you’re in it, and even in the post stress of living through it afterwards, you can’t see anything good coming out of something like this.
AW: I was questioning whether I should actually even ask you that question. Because as a director of the firm, you are responsible for a strategic level of oversight and direction. But then to have that even higher level of meta thinking like, in my life, what does this experience represent? It’s crazy because your very survival depended on what your course of action was and what your direction was to the firm.
NB: So it was interesting. It was fairly simple. If we’re going to jump forward to the end days, just for people who haven’t read the book. There was a one-year period where I was out of management and literally I was a spectator to this, which was probably the worst part. First of all, because it’s one thing when you believe you have the power in your hands to affect the outcome, it’s quite another when you’re a passenger on the ship and you see it’s beginning to sink. And you know, it’s in the hands of a captain, you just cross your fingers and hope they know what they’re doing. And each day starts to feel a little more bleak when you as you slowly come to the realization that things are not getting better. So for a quite a long period of time, I was quite powerless and that is probably the worst possible feeling in the world. I have to say in the final two months, when I step back into a leadership position, the ship was halfway sunk at that point in time. It was. And I’m, in some respects, a little bit embarrassed to say, it was the most exciting and invigorating experience I’ve ever lived. Because here I was with the opportunity to step in. I did a one-week analysis as to how to save the patient. I came up with a plan. I became extremely enthusiastic that we could actually pull this off, that we could save the firm, that life would go on and that things would be okay again. And the adrenaline rush coming from those feelings carried me for almost two months. And in that period I used to feel almost a euphoria. Like I’d say, I’d probably liken it to feeling like Superman. I can do anything. I can do this. We are going to succeed and why? Because your brain cannot allow for an even an inch of doubt. Because as soon as you start doubting yourself, you’re finished. Right? So I had to believe, and this is Norman, in hindsight, looking back, as opposed to Norman prospectively looking at it. I had to believe that this was going to be a success that we were going to be fine. And it wasn’t about ego so much as here’s just one more challenge in my life. I can pull this off.
AW: well, you would have regretted it if you hadn’t tried that.
NB: I can’t even imagine not trying.
AW: So you said that in the couple of weeks after the firm ceased to exist legally, that everyone was coming to you and consoling you. They had words of wisdom to share. And you just kept thinking, “This was such a horrific experience. Why don’t you try it?” You know, you want to talk about resilience! What was your main inspiration to write the story?
NB: My entire adult life was attached to the firm. I spent the last 25 years of my life building it. To me, building it meant the name Heenan Blaikie was on the wall of the building where it was sitting along with the names of three other firms at the corner Bay and Adelaide. So that was a big deal. It was the space we had. It was all of – not just the lawyers, but all the support staff. You know, we had helped create their lives. And I was a big believer that if you’re going to work, you’re going to have fun working, and that this was going to be a great experience in your life. And that was our firm philosophy. So here we were coming out of that and being perceived by the world … the Newspapers called it the greatest Canadian failure in Canadian law firm history. Well, how do you like being associated with that?
AW: that’s not a nice superlative.
NB: No, exactly. Not the one you want to be your legacy. And ultimately, my wife came to me about three months later after the firm’s demise. So it was February. She came to me and in June, with, what they used to call it, a nothing book. It was just a book that’s empty with about 200 pages in it. And she put it down on a table beside me and she said, “Listen, you have two choices. You’ve become a very angry person. And you need to process your feelings. And either you’re going to write them down, or you’re going to go see a therapist. Those are your two options right now, because you can’t continue being this person.” So I thought about it for just a couple days. And just getting back to your diary question. I had never kept a diary. I always wished I had. I didn’t even know where to start. So I said it. You know what I’m going to start from a feeling perspective. I’m going to write what the last day felt like. Because I insisted on being the last person to leave. I felt like literally the captain going down with the ship. It was Valentine’s Day, it was a Friday night and I was looking out the window, it was dark out over Lake Ontario. And there was nobody left and I walked around the hallways and there were these huge boxes that you collect recycling in. And there’s a little bit of literal leftovers, but otherwise it was the place was a tomb.
AW: I have to tell you that it was very vivid image and, and I thought you were talking about the process of writing the story, but you’re also talking about how the book unfolds. So it is written chronologically, I guess, with the exception of the very beginning. It does start with this.
NB: When we were publishing, I concluded that the book has to start at the end because the process started at the end. And once I finished writing that’s how that felt. I said okay, … because there was no way I was emotionally ready to look at the final year and everything that we went through. So I said, you know what? I always talked about keeping a diary. I’m going to go back to day one in law school and bring it forward. And then at some point, I’ll be, I’ll be ready to write about this. And I thought, well, it’s, you know, it’ll be a really nice memento for my children. It’ll be my memoirs. It’ll be for my children only. There’s no more firm. I can’t take them to visit. But what I can do is tell them, this is the story of my life. And it was handwritten. By the time I got to the last year, I had been writing from mid-July to mid-December.
AW: Okay, that’s pretty quick, actually, isn’t it?
NB: It was just every story I could remember. And I just wrote them down. Some of them I couldn’t remember the chronology. I didn’t care. I just wanted to have it. I’d filled up pretty close to six of these books. And I developed an abscess on my finger and that’s when I knew it was time to take a break. And then I came back, we took a family holiday, we came back at the beginning of January, I said okay, now I’m going to type it up. And at that point, I typed it in and that’s how I that’s how I learned how to type. You know, until then I was a hunt and peck kind of email sender. I probably type about 35 words a minute now, but although 34 of them are wrong.
NB: Like, my fingers are dyslexic.
AW: It’s funny, you know, a lot of people know that they should learn to type. And it’s not until it’s not until I was actually writing my dissertation that I really learned how to type fast. But there we go, we are creatures of necessity.
NB: So I wrote it down. And then the Danny fellow I mentioned earlier… I had the 750 pages of manuscript and I hadn’t spoken to him in years, and I picked up the phone and called him. And I said, “Listen, I’ve written a memoir of the firm. I’m a little shaky on the parts in the period that I hadn’t joined the firm yet – in the early years. Would you mind reading that?” He said, “Well send me the whole thing.” He said, “I’m very curious about what happened after I left the firm.” When he and I were finished with it. I called a friend of mine who was an agent and a friend of mine in Los Angeles, who’s a producer. He said, “Listen, send me the first 50 pages.” And he actually sent back some script notes and the agent, we spoke for about 15 minutes and he said, “Listen, call me back when it’s 300 pages, because no one’s that interested in your life!” So that’s exactly what I did. It’s interesting because no one teaches you how to write a book unless I suppose unless you study English and you learn, take creative writing.
AW: It’s true. They tell you how to write essays. And that’s it.
NB: Yeah, the hardest part is to find the storyline in all your stories. So compiling this meant a lot of the 400 pages are on the floor, some of the most salacious stuff. And certainly the one thing I did discover was, I left a lot of my anger on the floor.
AW: Oh, that’s fantastic. So it was cathartic?
NB: And that’s what it was supposed to be – a cathartic experience. And by the time I was about a year out, the anger was gone. And after the book was published, once I started, once I went on a speaking tour and I’m still on it, and talk not just about the experience, but everything I learned about building a career, building an organization, leading an organization, I slowly but surely discovered that I had no anger left. I was actually able to look at it, at least from my perspective, objectively, and come to my own conclusions about what we did right and what we did wrong.
AW: Okay, I have so many questions that I want to ask you, starting with something that occurred to me probably when I was reading the second chapter. If I was a lawyer, writing the story about a law firm with a bunch of lawyers, I would be pretty afraid of other lawyers being litigious. That must have crossed your mind.
NB: Oh, that absolutely crossed my mind. So I had I had a rule of thumb. And this I say, somewhat facetiously, but if I was going to write a story about you, and you had way more money than me, I was going to be very careful. And if I thought you had less money than me, I worried a little bit less. So that it’s a bit of a joke, but there are a few people who I write about where the chapters were probably rewritten at least 15 times and then read by my lawyer to make sure I was on the right side of it. Interestingly enough, I only got one threat. That was before the book was published, by one of the anti-heroes of the book. Yeah, I suppose if you picked it up and read it, you figure it out.
AW: Yeah. I can’t actually remember his name…
NB: It doesn’t matter, because I’m not going to mention it now. And he called and said, Listen, just so you know, I am litigious. And if there is a shred of evidence in here of libel, I won’t hesitate.” I couldn’t help myself. I listened carefully. And I waited till he was finished. And I said, “Well, I guess there’s you only have one choice at this point in time.” He said, “What’s that?” I said, “You’re just gonna have to buy the book and find out.”
AW: Oh, brilliant. I love it. I love it. I thought you were gonna say, “I assumed nothing less.” Which of course is true. Another question that I have is: did it occur to you that this book would make a great movie?
NB: I didn’t really think so. A few people have said maybe a TV show but the problem is with writing about reality is you do have to be extraordinarily careful about libel. So it could turn into a really good fictional show. The problem is no one would believe it – based on what you see about law firms in either in Hollywood or on Canadian television. It’s not real life, probably any more than the hospital shows are
AW: right. It drives doctors crazy. That’s funny. Did you when you were writing it, and maybe even more when you were editing it and refining it, did it cross your mind that you are being implicitly prescriptive and teaching lessons to people who may be creating cultures, creating organizations?
NB: It occurred to me when I sat down, I had breakfast with Jonathan Kay, formerly of the National Post, fantastic writer, and I’ve known him for many years, and I gave him an early draft of this. He looked at it he looked at the draft. He said, “Norman, you’ve written three books here, three books that have never been written before.” One is a case study on how to develop as a professional. He said, “If you separated that out and sold it, that would be a successful book. So then you’ve written a book on how to build an organization and philosophies behind building a successful organization.” He said that too on its own would be a successful book. And he said, “The third one you’ve written, which is also unique,” He said, “You’ve written a book on the elements of the breakdown of an organization as an insider, as opposed to an outside forensic analysis of what happened. Nobody ever writes about their own failures like this.” And I went back, I thought about it for a week. And being the stubborn person that I am said, Okay, I’m not separating this into three books. But internally for organization purposes. That’s exactly what I’m going to call them. So the book is actually set up as book one, book two, book three.
AW: Thank you, Jonathan Kay.
Yeah. And really, that’s what it is, is three separate case studies, and I think makes it a little more compelling. Certainly when I speak at universities, and the theme of my lectures is “I used to be you.” How did I get to be me? It’s really book one of this the first third of the book and better, what are the things that they’re not teaching you in school that you need to add to your playbook in terms of skills in order to succeed as a professional.
AW: I’m wondering what part of this process was the most difficult and also what part was the easiest for you?
NB: The easiest is the writing. The first draft was was easiest. It’s …
AW: I have to stop you right there. So many people say that writing is incredibly difficult and way more difficult than people think it is. And you’re saying that was the easiest,
NB: What I discovered and it’s like anything else, once you once you develop a habit, and I developed a habit of writing, at minimum three hours a day, so I’d come home from work at around nine o’clock, I’d sit down at the kitchen table, and I would start to write and my rule was, I’m not allowed to get up till I’ve written six pages. That was just my rule of thumb and what I discovered after a shorter period of time that I expected it to happen. I read this book once. It’s says you can create or break any habit in 21 days. So if you do anything for 21 days consecutively, it’s a habit and it becomes hard to break. And this was true. It got to the point where I couldn’t go a day. And sometimes I had trouble not writing on the weekends is that
AW: so was that because you thought you were going to lose momentum? Or is that because you were actually starting to internalize this positive reinforcement, the effects of writing?
NB: Once I started writing, the stories just started coming, pouring out, I couldn’t get to them fast enough. And I had 35 years of stories to tell. And many of them were completely disconnected. But they were just interesting stories. And once I was going I had this habit I, you know, got to the point where I couldn’t wait for work to be over — classic work to be over — which I began to dislike more and more every day, as the writing was replacing it. One might call it a preoccupation. In reality had developed into an obsession.
AW: preoccupation, perfect word.
NB: That was the easiest. Ultimately, the hardest part is the flip side. The part that makes it so worthwhile, I can’t think of the exact word but the part that I find the most ….
NB: thank you, the most compelling piece is the teachings that come out of it and my ability to teach. And, you know, and the evolution of my next career, which is as much as anything else, a teacher. So here I am, I’m in this new career, and I’m focused on passing it on. It’s like passing on every bit of wisdom that I learned from others. I don’t pretend to be, you know, wise on my own. It’s all lessons that I picked up from others along the way that I now feel the compulsion to pass along. And the cost? I have some partners who don’t want to talk to me anymore, or who avoid me. There are a lot of them who have refused to read the book. Only a few, on the basis that I never should have written it. That I’ve broken the code by pulling back the curtain to show what happens in law firms.
NB: but then there are others who found this also to be the most troubling part of their life. And even the notion of opening page one is like ripping off the scab. They’ve gone on with their lives, they buried their anger, it’s still there. They haven’t,… I’ve had the opportunity to process my anger.
AW: What you’re really talking about is resilience. And I think back in those decades when this was happening, resilient, the word resilience, obviously existed. But it wasn’t on the tip of our tongues. And nowadays, the audiences of university students that you’re talking to now, resilience is a key trait that we’re all seeking, right?
NB: Yes. And I’ve always considered myself fortunate. It’s in me genetically. It’s not something I had to go out and seek and find. I still remember my first interview at Heenan Blaikie as a law student and they didn’t hire me. They didn’t hire me for quite a number of years …
AW: You came in through the back door, I think?
NB: Yeah, but trying to get through the front door. The question the interviewer asked me – the following question: “How do you behave when you’re under stress?” In the first interview, and I remember I heard the question. I’m thinking to myself, well, the real answer is I don’t usually feel stress. Like what stresses most people just doesn’t stress me. But I know if I answer that, either they’re not gonna believe me or they, they’re going to think I’m a headcase. That was the honest answer. I just don’t process stress the way other people do. I feel it, but when it’s happening, my reaction is usually Okay, let’s deal with it. I’m a “Let’s deal with it” kind of guy, which is quite unusual for lawyers, in fact,..
AW: really? Because I think a lot of successful lawyers seem to be that way. It is exceptional, but maybe not as exceptional in law.
NB: It is. And this by a clinical psychologist, so I’ve studied he’s interviewed well over 10,000 lawyers, his name is Dr. Larry Richards. He’s a doctor as well as being a lawyer.
NB: And his conclusion is, compared to the average population, we are incredibly less resilient.
NB: We are more analytic than the average. Considerably more analytic. We are highly skeptical, and I’m not sure whether the law schools attract that kind of personality or they train it.
AW: Probably a combination.
NB: What he was saying is particularly for law firm leaders, it’s important to understand that we generally assume when we’re reviewing staff, when we do reviews. The common wisdom on reviews was the critical sandwich. So between any piece of criticism, you should have at least two positives, right?
AW: Right! I actually talked about that in another episode.
NB: And when it comes to lawyers, it’s not correct. It’s more like – the ratio is more like – four to one.
AW: Wow. So another great thing about the Breakdown story is that it gave me an insight into what lawyers are like. And as you say, they may not be as resilient as, as we thought they were, or, as I guess as desensitized as I had in my mind, they may be. There was a great quote that I absolutely loved. I stopped. I underlined it. I folded the page. On page 248. He said, “Lawyers with time on their hands are management’s worst nightmare. Like dogs who run in circles, pee on the carpet and chew on furniture when they haven’t been walked in the morning.” and I thought, Wow, that is beautiful. And then I started to think about many of the other metaphors and analogies that you had included. And a few of them would be when you were talking about Danny’s story and the Hotel California – how you could never leave.
AW: and karate lessons. So the story of you signing up for karate with your son and then going through and getting your black belt – in several degrees, I think – a black belt. And how that was a similar story to your career. And then later on in the book, you talked about how a number of partners in the firm deserted the marriage. So I guess as a storyteller, I was wondering if you could share a little bit with us how you come up with these powerful metaphors and analogies when you’re writing?
NB: A great question. And it’s particularly interesting because when I finished Breakdown, I had already started writing my first fiction, again at my wife’s instigation. Because again, I didn’t think I had fiction in me and writing your similes and your metaphors is a much more critical component than it is in writing a nonfiction.
AW: Why? Why is that?
NB: Because, I used to think fiction was you simply make up a story and you write it and you’re done. Which should be a lot easier than writing Breakdown, for example, which is, you have to be careful. Your facts have to be right. When a story is going the wrong way, you’re stuck with it. You can’t fix it, you just have to go with at least what your version of the truth of that story is. Whereas in fiction, as a reader, it all appears to be so random. And it isn’t. Fiction, in fact, is just the opposite. And this is something I had to learn the hard way. And it took me four years to learn it. In fiction, everything is connected right down to the last simile and the final metaphor. So I may be describing this coffee cup on the table sitting between us. But to tell you it’s a red coffee cup is a bore to a reader. But if I can tell you the symbolism of red and what it means to me, and if I take you through the thought process of the red cup that my great grandfather passed along to me as a child, and therefore the fact that you put a red cup on this table is the most meaningful thing you could ever do for me, creates a bond between you and me that you are not aware of, that I’m aware of, that the readers aware of. But suddenly this red coffee cup takes on a whole life of its own in fiction. And if you can do that, as a fiction writer, you have succeeded.
AW: And to your point that you made earlier, it evokes emotion, right?
NB: So when I talk about lawyers in Breakdown, it’s a kind of a standing joke. Some call it herding cats, but I always liken them to a pack of wolves or dogs. And therefore, when I was thinking, when I was just thinking through the writing process of that sentence. Who knows. I can’t tell you why it flashed in my head. But I had always likened lawyers to dogs in one way, shape, or form. And it just, sometimes the ideas just pop into your head and you go with them and you finish writing it and of course, I finished writing it when I’ve rewritten it for the hundredth time. Readers have a tendency to believe that the story kind of writes itself, between first draft and publication. I’m writing frontwards, backwards, sideways, upside down right side up and looking for every possible connection from beginning a book to the end. And it’s about searching for those connections. It was interesting. I had a comment from one reporter who reviewed the book. And in our interview, he said, “I had no idea that lawyers were real people. That they behave just like the rest of us.” And in some respects, they’re worse. But he said, as much as anything else, I had to bring home the humanity of the lawyers in this book. We’re not these gods on pedestals, like we need to be for our clients. Yes, that’s an act we play when somebody comes in, when we ned to be objective. But as soon as you put us into a subjective situation that affects all of our lives, we behave just like you, in fact, sometimes worse.
AW: But the other thing that you were documenting, or maybe reifying, is the fact that successful people can be associated with failure.
NB: Successful people are always associated with failure. What you generally see, there are few of us who have been successes in our life, who have known nothing but success. And I always felt it and it was, it was more when I actually went through what I did go through that I learned way more from my failures. And I had to document them in here. Just – I made some terrible mistakes as managing partner and I learned from them. I learned all kinds of things from them. And it made me a better leader.
AW: One of the top podcasters out there, and also author, Tim Ferriss, he often introduces his interviews with the experts with a reminder to the listeners that we all put our pants on one leg at a time. And this person may have achieved mega stardom, mega celebrity, and mega success, but they learned lessons along the way from their failures that got them there. So that’s the resilience thing, right? What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
NB: Yeah. Looking at, frankly, if you go back to the beginning of the book, I talk about how my first four years of practice, I was going nowhere fast. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I got a review at the end of my fourth year that was less than stellar. And it was to put it in a nutshell, you have all this talent, you should be further ahead of where you are right now. But I can’t tell you why you’re not. So imagine getting that kind of review. And that’s that was the wake up call for me. Actually more for my wife. She was one who spent probably four hours explaining to me what that meant. But I woke up the next morning, literally, I would say a new person. And it was a transformation you’d probably only see in a movie, but I decided that was it. I was until that point.
AW: That was when you provided an ultimatum at that point, right? Based on your wife’s encouragement. You said, you went back and you said, “this is not acceptable.”
NB: I said it’s not acceptable. But I still didn’t understand what it meant. And what I did about it was I took control of my career at that moment in time. I said, “Okay, this is what I’m going to do,” and I started discovering things about myself that were always there to be found, take the initiative, get out ahead of it, never ever cede control if you don’t have to. And I say that in a more of a positive way than it than a negative way. But I mean, if you have the opportunity to achieve something, go for it. Don’t wait for somebody to step up into it. And from a leadership philosophy perspective, sort of became my, my love vacuums. And that is, if you want to succeed, look for the vacuum and fill it. Don’t look around and say, I wonder why nobody’s taking care of this. Do it.
AW: When you said, vacuums, I thought you were talking about your early days.
NB: Yeah. Well,
AW: it’s an interesting choice of metaphors.
NB: I suppose that ever occurred to me until this moment.
AW: fill the vacuum. And there you go. Another metaphor. One other thing before we move on to other types of storytelling. I just, it occurred to me when I was reading it, and now again in this conversation, that your wife had a huge impact on the story of your career, didn’t she?
NB: Yes, she did.
NB: And that brings us back to the marriage metaphor. She’s always been there for me to pick me up when I was down. To sometimes to push me along when I was going too slowly. Most important, she has always held me to a standard that I haven’t always held myself to. She always believed I was capable of more than I might have thought up at the time. She told me I had to trust her.
AW: Well, yeah, I mean, it sounds as if she had so much respect for you. And you knew that and therefore, there was such a positive lens on everything that she was saying. Okay, let’s shift gears then to other types of stories and storytelling. So when I think of storytelling, the first thing that comes to my mind is being in the elevator with the president or the CEO of the organization that I was working for, and thinking, gosh, I wish I had a great answer to when she asked me, “so what’s going on Andrea?” So this it’s not exactly an elevator pitch, but the short form narrative of what’s going on in your career. Can you talk a little bit about how important that is?
NB: Wow, that was a loaded question.
AW: Yeah. So I have this – I honestly have this visceral visual image of it. There was a glass elevator. She gets on and I go, “Oh, God”, and she goes, “Andrea, what are you working on these days?” I’m such a loser. I have no idea what to say.
NB: And we all go through that. Even some of us who’ve had success or in the mid points in our career, we have those moments where we say Oh, God, I wish I had the canned speech ready for that moment. There’s a fellow by the name of Jim Beqaj. He’s written a fascinating, it’s a tiny little book on job interviewing. And it’s all about matching yourself to the place where you work so that you’re aligned. What Jim advises is before you go out and interview you should actually sit down and do your 60 second infomercial on yourself. I know it cold, and that the 60 second infomercial is about who you are, what you think is important, what you want to get out of any job you take. And then you play that when you go for your interviews. And I know we’re all worried when we do that, well, they might not like the real me. I need to project what I think they want me to be, not what I am. And Jim says that’s the recipe for job disaster. You’re way better off not getting hired because the employer looks at you and says, That’s not the kind of person we’re looking for. Then when you take that job, and they discovered two months later, that’s not the kind of person we were looking for. But they made the mistake because you’ve been too busy acting in your interview.
AW: That is fantastic advice. I love that the 60 second infomercial.
NB: So you know flashing forward to that moment when you’re with the CEO in the elevator and they say, “what are you up to?” when they say it because, well, first of all, they’re nice enough to actually know you work there. And they have some ideas about who you are, if not a lot, but they actually couldn’t care less what you’re working on at the time. Really what they want to know is a little bit more about you.
AW: That’s probably true.
NB: And that’s your moment. And if you have that 60 second canned infomercial, your answer is, you know what, here’s what I love about our organization. And this is what I’m doing to help to help make it even better.
AW: Okay, another type of story that I wanted to ask you about is the story that’s being told in the media. So you can answer this however you want, whether you have general advice for how people interact with the media, or maybe it’s with your experience, with Heenan Blaikie, and you knew that the story was hitting the media and how you dealt with that. Do you have any comments about telling your story through the media?
NB: Yes. I’ve done some media training largely for crisis management, because we had a few crises along the way. And the first one in the door was the crisis management expert in terms of what do we say. It’s not just the media. It’s what do you tell the media? What do you tell the people who are working for you? What do you tell your partners? How do you manage the entire process? And we’re going to start with honesty. But the key –and this I learned through experience– is you need to understand your core message. So whatever it is, you’re not going to be able to spin the story because someone else is writing the story, the only thing you can do is stay true to your core message and make sure that gets out. So it doesn’t pretty much matter what the questions are that you’re being asked. So and unless you’re on live TV, everything you say is going to be edited and taken out of context and repurposed as a tool of whoever it is that has the angle on the story they’re going to write. So what you have to do is understand that less is more, and your job going into that interview, is to stick to your core message. This is what I want the world to know. And it doesn’t matter how many times you have to repeat it to get there. And you may frustrate the interviewer. But so what
AW: I’ve heard those interviews on the radio. They ask this question, it’s like no, I got one message for you.
AW: and the less is more, I guess the more you give them, the more they can take out of context.
NB: That’s right. And not only that, the more you say the more you relax and the more likely you are to say something that you swore to yourself, you wouldn’t say.
AW: is there anything else you want to share with the listeners about storytelling?
NB: The one thing that I’ve learned – and it’s interesting because I see it now in my writing. And I see the parallels that I’ve learned, because I’ve been speaking for many, many years. And that is: you need to connect with emotion. And I’ve said it before, but you need to connect with emotion and life experience. And ultimately, the experience of the listener and the experience of the reader is somewhat the same. I need you to feel in some respect that I’ve changed how you see the world.
AW: Another question that I wanted to ask you is, have you inspired anyone else to write their story who otherwise maybe wouldn’t have?
NB: Not to my knowledge, but the nice thing about speaking to a lot of people is you’re inspiring people and you don’t know what the impact is. And I love that. I love not knowing who, 20 years from now will say, I went to listen to on of Norm’s speeches 20 years ago and it changed my life. And occasionally someone will write me and tell me that, and that is better than anything anybody could ever tell me about… about anything. You tell me I had a positive impact on your life. And that’s the reason why I get up in the morning.
AW: Oh, okay. Well, let’s leave it at that. Thank you so much for sharing your time and your expertise about telling your story.
NB: Thank you.
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