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Simple Stories to Inspire

All of us who speak want to not only motivate, but to inspire our audiences. We work earnestly to ensure that we are the best at our craft, that our research is relevant and up-to-date and that we present information that our audiences need and want to hear. And all of us wonder, on occasion, just what it is we do that makes the "magic" happen. Recently, I experienced that "magic" and the experience reminded me that inspiration is not necessarily a complex issue - that many times the simplest of stories creates that awesome moment when we know we've touched the hearts and minds of our audience.

The situation was a showcase: the challenge to create a short segment of my "best" material. Most of us have faced similar situations. As I searched through my programs and memory, nothing seemed to fit. Time was running out. I was representing not only me, but also my PSA Chapter and I needed to be "on." Success was what I desired - and then it struck me - "success" would be the topic. I had done a keynote on success several years ago and it had been well received. I could update it and carve out a segment to fit the time requirements of the showcase.

I chose to challenge my audience to consider success. "How many of you want to be successful? What does success really mean? Before I answer that, let me tell you about the most successful man I've ever met..."

He was born the fifth of eight boys in the hills of northern Missouri. They didn't have much, but they had love and they had each other. He put himself through business college, became a traveling auditor for Swift & Company and toured the Midwest. He met a wonderful woman, they married and after two years she became pregnant. They decided that the road was no longer the place for him to be, so he accepted a position as manager of a produce company in Benson, Minnesota.

All was fine for a while, but then he discovered that the owners of the business had different ethical standards than his. He was unwilling to compromise, so he quit. He loved the business, though, so in true entrepreneurial fashion, he started a competing business catty-corner across the street from the one he'd just left. The business flourished and he branched out into other businesses. He was the type of man who never knew a stranger - only friends he had not yet met. He considered no one his superior or inferior and always had a smile and a bit of conversation for everyone. His wife was a great match for him, gracious and charming; she had the ability to make people comfortable in any situation. They worked hard, they played hard, and they took time to enjoy life.

They had a good life, but then he got sick. He caught pleurisy, a hazard in cold Minnesota, and his doctor advised him to move south for the winters. After several years, they finally "retired" to Florida. But they still worked and played hard: she did exquisite needlework, he made crafts out of wood - they both golfed and fished. And then he got sick again. They had no idea what caused it - they thought he was going to die. One of their friends told the local newspaper up in Minnesota that Howard Ogle was ill. The newspaper printed a brief notice, and over the next two months he received over 95 cards and letters from folks there whose lives he'd touched all those years before. One of the letters was especially heartwarming: "Howard, you may not remember me, I'm 35 years old now, but I wanted to let you know that one of my favorite memories of childhood is coming into your place of business. You always smiled at us, gave us a piece or two of penny candy and asked about our kittens or 4-H projects. You always made us feel special. Thank you, Howard, for giving me one of the warmest memories of my youth!"

One of the last times I saw him, he mused to me, "Shirley and I have had a good life. We've had our ups and downs, all couples do, but looking back, we've lived life well." I smiled at him and replied, "Yes, Dad, you have - and you taught me the value of people and friendships. You taught me that true success is measured by the relationships we share and the people whose lives we touch positively."

That is true success: to get to that point in life where we're mostly looking back, and to be able to say, like my Dad, "I've lived life well!" The challenge is to look at ourselves and what we do, be sure we love each other and our vocations, and to live life well.

As I finished, I received the greatest compliment I've ever had at the end of a speech. Not a standing ovation, but silence - and tears in the eyes of each of the other eight professional speakers who were my audience that day. They'd been moved and touched and challenged and inspired - by a very simple story. The lesson I learned is that if we desire to motivate and inspire others, then we must look first within ourselves at what has moved and inspired us. We'll find that many of the simplest and sometimes forgotten stories of our lives are the most inspiring for us and for our audiences.


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