Lessons in Storytelling from a Sausage Biscuit

This is my Sunday ritual:

  • Get up around 7:30 a.m.
  • Make coffee.
  • Slurp cup after cup until 9 a.m., when I head over to the corner store to pick up the Sunday New York Times and my lottery tickets for the week.
  • Walk to the small grocery store a block away, go straight to the deli and get a biscuit with sausage.

I did this week after week after week, and each time I had to give my order as if it were the first time, even though the same deli attendant was there to make the breakfast sandwich. Each time he asked the rote question: Do you want any butter or jelly on that? (And each time I thought – yuck, does anyone do that, really?) It was early in the morning on a Sunday. We were both just going through the motions, and it was a perfectly nice, completely routine transaction.

The one-sentence story

Then a couple of weeks ago I arrived at the deli counter in a chirpy mood. After putting in my order, I started chattering away at the man fixing this sausage biscuit sandwich for me the same way he had done every Sunday morning for months. I told him that the sandwich was for my husband, who was still sleeping, and that I never got tired of his reaction when he would see it waiting for him by the coffeepot each Sunday. The deli attendant smiled and humored me by responding to my chatter with some chit chat about little things that make a good marriage. Then he handed me the sausage biscuit. I said goodbye. He said goodbye. And that was that.

Until the next Sunday. When I walked in, he waved and smiled and said, “Time to keep those home fires burning, right?” I didn’t have to order. He started making the sausage biscuit. He didn’t ask about butter or jelly.

All in the details

As I walked back home, I realized that I had just seen the power of storytelling in action.

Before, I was just another person coming over to the deli counter to put in an order. As soon as my order had a story behind it, I stood out. The story stuck with him, and he connected it with me. Why? His routine task of putting together yet another breakfast biscuit became something a bit more significant. It was part of a neighborhood couple’s Sunday ritual.

Yes, storytelling has become the latest buzzword in marketing, and its meaning has gotten a bit lost as a result. It is not about putting warm and fuzzy words into sales pitches. Nor is it a lecture from an expert on a topic. Those may be valuable ways of communicating, but they are not storytelling.

Storytelling is something much simpler — a detail that paints a more personal picture. I didn’t tell an amazing tale that Sunday morning, but I did tell a relevant one. My very simple story gave my actions context and the deli attendant’s task meaning. We both benefited. That’s pretty powerful stuff for a sentence and a sausage biscuit.