Five years into my speaking busi- ness, I hit a pothole. My phone stopped ringing. For months.
I was as popular as the Chia Pet. By
Thanksgiving, I was ready to quit. I put
my business woes on hold and decided
to learn how to cook. If I couldn’t be
an entrepreneur, I would be a Martha
In my family, cooking is a rite of
passage. The Thanksgiving kitchen is
their mother ship and my mother’s ham
is their holy grail. Her ham was my first
Any therapists looking for new
clients? Come home with me for
Thanksgiving. It’s like shooting fish in a
barrel. Wine-soaked conversations about
whose kid is more talented and whose kid
is more ungrateful—both getting you
equal street cred. Edna whining about
losing another Lee Press On somewhere
near the mashed potatoes. And taking
bets on when that dangerously long cigarette ash on Aunt Gert’s Pall Mall will
drop into the stuffing. Again.
Each woman has that special dish
she is known for—kind of like gang colors. My mother’s ham recipe had been
passed down for generations. Its lineage
is traced all the way back to Abraham.
My mother was beside herself at my
new interest. First you cut the tips off the
ham, she instructed in slow motion. The
other women nodded solemnly, like nuns
“Why cut the tips off?” I asked. She
looked at me in horror. My aunts stared
at the floor in shame. I had committed
the cardinal sin. Questioning the cook.
“It’s the way I’ve always done it. It’s
the way my mother taught me,” she said.
“But is there a purpose?” I asked.
She paused. “It holds the juices in so
the vitamins don’t seep out. I’m pretty
sure Dr. Oz does it this way.” The women
nodded in tribute to their vitamin-loving
I went to ask my grandmother, who was
napping in the recliner. “Granny,” I said.
“Why do you cut the ends off your ham?”
“I already rinsed off my hands,” she
“No. Ham. Why do you cut the ends off
your ham?” I asked.
“Because that’s the way my mother did
it. I learned it from her.”
She paused. “Keeps it from drying out.”
I went over to my great-grandmother
who had been propped on the back porch
in a rocking chair. She was running up on
100, but sharp as a tack.
“Great-Granny?” I asked. “Why did you
always cut the tips off the end of your ham?”
Without missing a beat, she said, “Easy. It
was the only way I could fit it into the pan.”
These women all swore by a method
that served no purpose, and never thought
to question it. It occurred to me that I was
doing the exact same thing in my business.
I was doing what I had been taught 15 years
ago, in a world that had completely changed.
I didn’t learn how to cook a ham that day.
Turns out I don’t really like ham. Instead,
I went home and created an entirely new
business plan. Three months later the phone
was ringing again. A year later, my business
I learned an important lesson. You can’t
get somewhere different unless you’re
willing to try something different. So, what
about you? Are you still cutting off the tips
of your ham?
Nobody ever questioned my mother’s
ham recipe again. Not even my mother. ■
KELLY SWANSON is an award-winning storyteller, a motivational
speaker, and the author of The Story
Formula and Who Hijacked My Fairy
Tale She teaches people in business
how to harness the power of story
to connect and engage. She truly
believes her ham story is the new
starfish story, and is waiting to see
who will steal it first.
There are several things wrong with
this story that I tried to fix in the
1. It’s not really a story. There’s no
conflict. A story is about a character
with a conflict and a resolution to
that conflict. This story would be
better if it were tweaked to fit a
specific audience or a specific pain
in the listener. When the pain in the
character of this story mirrors the
pain of the listener, the story will
be a better tool for impact in your
2. It’s boring. The payoff at the end
just isn’t that great. It’s not entertaining
or engaging. It sounds canned. Needs
humor, more character development,
and more flavor. If you can’t get more
flavor in the characters or the setting
or the plot, then pull out flavor from the
one telling the story through narrator
3. Not sure why you’re telling me this
story. What’s the point? It needs a
well-defined lesson behind it and an
action step for the listeners to apply
this truth to their daily life.
4. I’m not really connected to this
story because it sounds like you got
it out of a book. You’re removed from
it, so I’m removed from it. It needs to
be more personal to the one telling it.
Tell the story as if it happened to you or
someone you know.
Not only will the story be more
powerful if it happened to you, it will
be more powerful if you point out why
the story matters to you. Sometimes
we don’t really care about your
story as much as you do. Make us
care. Show us what it means to you,
and what it taught you, and how it
changed your life.
5. Characters are flat. If I can’t see the
story, I won’t connect to the story. Give
me something to help me see or relate
to the main character(s).