#67: A Night at the Willard

Bob Ewing
May 6, 2022

Talking Big Ideas.

“I will prepare and someday my chance will come.”
~ Abe Lincoln

I was nervous walking through the front doors of the Willard InterContinental Hotel.

It was my first time stepping into the iconic lobby. I imagined Ulysses Grant sitting in a chair drinking brandy and smoking cigars, as he loved to do as president. I pictured Mark Twain and Walt Whitman walking by.

This is where Julia Ward Howe wrote The Battle Hymn of the Republic, and, a hundred years later, where Martin Luther King Jr. wrote I Have A Dream.

Known as “the residence of presidents,” since the Civil War every U.S. president has visited, stayed, or lived in the hotel. Nathaniel Hawthorne was justified in calling the Willard “the center of Washington.”

This is the place to have conversations with D.C.’s elite. Or – in my case – to help keep those conversations going. After reflecting in the lobby for a few minutes, I walked up the stairs to help facilitate a private dinner on the second floor.

A dozen people mingled and drank before sitting down at a round table. Two were U.S. senators. Others ran commissions or published research. Conversation began quickly and stayed lively. My nerves calmed as I realized there would be no need for me to jump in.

Halfway through the dinner, I noticed the man sitting to my right had yet to speak. He was a researcher named Adam. I was happy to stay quiet and wondered if Adam felt the same.

Eventually, the conversation turned to a topic that Adam had written about. He was asked a question. To my surprise, he answered with a clarity and eloquence that delighted the table.

He got a follow-up question. And knocked it out of the park. Questions continued his way. Everyone wanted more. The rest of the evening was The Adam Show. And when the dinner ended, several people stood around him (instead of the politicians) to continue picking his brain.

After the event, I walked back through the lobby with Adam. I asked my own questions: “How did you do that? How did you crush every question?”

Adam told me his secret: “I save all my best stories.”

He told me that he’d been doing research for more than twenty years. And he makes a point to find the best stories, analogies, and key ideas that clarify his research. He organizes them all in the cloud.

Wherever he is, he can access his most compelling anecdotes.

Adam told me that it only takes a few minutes to review. On his Lyft ride to the Willard dinner, he pulled up his catalog on his phone and asked himself: What are the people I’m having dinner with interested in? Which of my ideas will appeal to them? What insights, analogies, and stories will they appreciate?

Before every important conversation and event, Adam takes a moment to review the relevant parts of his catalog. His content is fresh in his mind. He’s always ready to answer questions.

This approach is brilliant. Yet few people take the time to do it.

Our default is to come unprepared to conversations and then ramble through them. To talk about whatever happens to be on our minds at the moment. We tend to speak first rather than listen. We often focus on what interests us rather than what interests our audience.

I wonder sometimes: how many people have stepped into the Willard over the past two centuries hoping to capture the attention of powerful people as Adam did? I imagine that number is quite high. And, yet, how many succeeded as Adam did?

More broadly, how many people right now would like to be more eloquent and persuasive?

Adam’s approach is as simple as it is effective: listen well and make time to build up your own catalog of stories.



Build your own storytelling catalog.

Set a timer for five minutes. Ask yourself: what are a few stories I like to share? A sentence or two per story is fine. Don’t filter yourself. Write whatever comes to mind.

When you’re done, save your notes. Start simple. Use a physical folder, a Google Doc, or Notion. You can duplicate and try out our storytelling catalog here.

Congrats! You’re officially off to the races.


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