My “Theory of Connectivity”

“I’m a firefighter. Therefore, I am a storyteller by trade. My wife says I embellish, but I’ve told her a million times: “Don’t exaggerate!”

I use that phrase as an ice-breaker in many of my classes as it relates to my passion for the fire service and all the great stories our service creates. It’s no big secret that the world’s problems are solved around the firehouse kitchen table and other similar settings because that’s where the stories are told. Some stories are funny, some sad and some are told just for the sake of telling stories that connect our team, our friends and our families, but they all have value if we listen intently enough.

In today’s high-tech world, with unlimited access to information and limitless volumes of available information and training – it takes more than just effective communications skills to leave a memorable impression on the listener or student. It takes effective connectivity skills.

The importance of storytelling cannot be overemphasized. In their book “Made to Stick”, Dan and Chip Heath even reference firefighters and their ability to change and save lives via their robust storytelling skills as described in the introduction to their book about why some ideas thrive while others die:

How do we get people to act on our ideas? We tell stories. Firefighters naturally swap stories after every fire, and by doing so they multiply their experience; after years of hearing stories, they have a richer, more complete mental catalog of critical situations they might confront during a fire and the appropriate responses to those situations. Research shows that mentally rehearsing a situation helps us perform better when we encounter that situation in the physical environment. Similarly, hearing stories acts as a kind of mental flight simulator, preparing us to respond more quickly and effectively.

In my “From the Xbox to the Box Alarm” and other classes I relate the events in a video that Mark vonAppen, a captain in the Palo Alto California Fire Department, projects in his “Fully Involved” class that shows a team of firefighters on the flat commercial roof of a building on fire. Soon into the video, the crew, led by their new officer, walks along pounding their tools into the roof to determine its stability. Suddenly the officer stops, turns, and pushes his crew towards the safety of the parapet wall as the roof collapses into the building now consumed by fire.

The officer later related how the only reason he knew that the roof was in danger of imminent collapse and that he had to take immediate action to save his crew – was because of a story his captain had told him earlier in his career. The captain described in great detail an experience he had in a similar situation where he was walking across a flat roof, sounding it out with his tool, when, as he described it, the entire roof “settled” at once. He, like the officer in the video, quickly turned and pushed his crew to safety.

The officer in the video had never had that experience himself until that very moment. Had it not been for the story the captain had shared with him the outcomes could have been catastrophically different.

So, here’s my mathematically represented “Theory of Connectivity” displayed in short and long form in the attached graphics:

Connectivity = ((Great Storytelling) + (Relevant Application) / Genuine Interest in the Listener) = 1.

“Great Storytelling” without “Relevant Application” is just, “Hey, nice story. Thanks for sharing!” Relevant application without a great story to connect it to lacks context. Remove a genuine interest in the listener and no great story or relevant application can save you as a presenter, instructor or storyteller.

But there’s a fine line between just enough and too much storytelling, just as there’s a balance between too much teaching and not enough listening. The dividing line in the equation represents that “fine line” and the “= 1” signifies the importance of balance between the three elements.

In the roof collapse story above, the power of the story to create connectivity was both life changing – and lifesaving. It was not just a story for the sake of telling a story, it included a lesson (relevant application). And when the time came for the new officer to have that experience for the first time, it was that mental flight simulator that his captain had built for him in relating his experience that saved the new officer and his crew that day.

The captain had applied what I call my “theory of connectivity,” balancing a great story with a genuine interest in the safety of the student by giving him context that would create a very relevant application he would use later in his career.

On my site, I credit my dear friend Janet Wilmoth, the former editorial director for Fire Chief Magazine, with “Planting a seed” that sparked my interest in the importance of effective storytelling in the fire service as a means of passing down our knowledge, experiences, values, traditions, history and heritage.

One of my rare original thoughts, I’ve had this mathematical theory bouncing around in my head for quite a while and have even share it often in my classes, but I’ve never been confident that my theory of connectivity actually “connects” with other people. That was until recently I had the opportunity to share my theory over breakfast at #FDIC2018 with my friends Deputy Chief and author Frank Viscuso, and Firefighter Ric Jorge; and my new friend Danny Sheridan, a battalion chief with the FDNY. Danny was relating how he was suffering from writer’s block and was in presenter gridlock because a close friend had told him to stop telling so  many #&%@*! stories. Could you imagine that, someone telling an experienced FDNY Battalion Chief not to tell so many stories??? What a waste of a tremendous resource.

As I scrawled my theory on a napkin at the breakfast table I could see the light go on for Danny. As I described the important and delicate balance between the key elements, he shared that he’d been liberated from his creative “funk”. I shared my love for storytelling and the importance of it. He credits me with helping him get his Mo Jo back, so to speak. (My words, not his! lol). I’m currently helping him edit the first chapters of the book he started writing immediately following our encounter, aptly working-titled: “Parables from the Fireground.”

As we enter an era where I fear we are literally running out of experience in our profession, effective connectivity skills become increasingly important in sharing the perhaps even limited experiences we all carry with those who have not yet had the opportunity to build their own catalog of memorable encounters.

As an instructor, it takes so much more than being just a “channel” – relating or in some instances, only regurgitating information. It takes more than just being informative to connect with today’s highly intelligent student. It takes connectivity to increase our “IQ-Instructor Quotient” from just being interesting to being involved, inspired, inspiring and an innovative instructor.

I truly believe that to take our game to the next level, we need to get back to being better storytellers, lending context to connect the dots between the story and how it applies or may apply to them in the future.

But it all starts with having and maintaining a genuine interest in the listener because, if we do our jobs as instructor, presenter, facilitator, coach and mentor correctly, there will be a lesson in the story that transforms the listener into a lifelong student.

Tell me your story. I’m listening.

Stay safe. Train often.