'I Learned it at McDonald's'

The Daily Coach caught up with storytelling expert Matthew Dicks to discuss how McDonald's shaped him, how coaches can be more impactful communicators, and why he can't give up teaching.

As Matthew Dicks lay on the McDonald's floor with a gun pressed against his head, a single thought raced through his mind.

"I was 21 years old and had done nothing," he said. "I was going to go out completely unremembered, having left no mark on the world."

Dicks escaped the robbery that night — but has continued to be influenced by it for the last three decades.

"It makes me move my ass," he said.

Dicks has gone on to pen eight books, has given several TED Talks, and consults with top companies on their storytelling and communication strategies.

The Daily Coach caught up with him recently to discuss how he still draws from his McDonald's background, how coaches can be more impactful in their messaging, and why he can't give up teaching.

This interview has been condensed and edited for brevity.

Matthew, thanks a lot for doing this. Tell us about your childhood and some lessons from it.

It wasn't an easy one. I grew up in a little farm town, Blackstone, Mass., pretty poor. My parents got divorced when I was 7 and I had an evil stepfather enter my life until he left. I was very much on my own from an early age.

When I was 16, I started working at McDonald's, and I found people who weirdly recognized that I could actually do stuff and believed I was a capable human being. When I turned 17, they promoted me to manager. I was in math class in high school and would have a McDonald's binder next to me, and I was doing management training while in math class.

You ended up going to Trinity College in Connecticut. What led you there?

I used to say I want to write for a living and teach for pleasure. When I got kicked out of the house, I moved in with a couple of guys who were going to college and lived the college lifestyle while managing McDonald's. But I got arrested and put on a trial for a crime I didn't commit and became homeless. I was also the victim of that horrific robbery that left me with PTSD.

But eventually, I got through it and went to community college, which was the best education I ever received in my life. Trinity, Wesleyan and Yale all offered me a free ride, but I took Trinity because it was next to the McDonald's I was managing.

A lot of people work in fast food but aren't necessarily proud of it. You seem to be. Why?

Today, I work with all of these corporate leaders teaching them communication and storytelling, and so many of them ask where I learned what I'm talking about. And I tell them, "I learned it at McDonald's."

I learned how to delegate, how to take care of people so they take care of you, I learned about profit-and-loss statements, all of these management strategies I use in the classroom and in the business world. It's the hardest job in the world. You have to manage 60 people, many of whom don't want to be there. Many of them are immigrants, some undocumented who don't speak English, and you have to motivate them and convince them to come to work every day and do the job and give them hope that there's something on the back end.

I loved taking people and promoting them to manager. A Peruvian immigrant who didn't speak English and had nothing when she started and was afraid to touch the money because she thought she'd be arrested. Ex-cons would come through looking for a job. It gave me so much in terms of learning.

How'd you get into storytelling?

I got hired as a second-grade teacher in 1999. They moved me up to fifth grade because they thought I was better suited for older children. I was good at it. I won teacher of the year for my district out of 1,000 teachers. I was also writing books but failing for a long time. I finally broke through in 2009 with my first novel and have published six since then. I was chugging along until 2011 when I went to the Moth Stage, thinking I'd tell one story and never do this again.

But there was a factory owner who saw me do a show one night at a synagogue in Connecticut. When I was done, he said, "I want you to work for me and teach me what you did on stage for my company." I said I have no idea how I can help you. I just stand on stages. But at the end of our meeting, I saw he was doing it all wrong and that I actually could help him. He told another person to work with me, an attorney. I didn't know how I could help him either. Eventually I wrote "Storyworthy," and when that came out, everyone started finding me.

What advice would you give to coaches about trying to reach a team with their storytelling?

The thing I teach people is to speak with what I call adjacency. The most effective lessons you can teach people are when you're talking about one thing while simultaneously talking about another. I had to give a talk at a human trafficking conference once. I showed up and the women said, "You've done your research on human trafficking?" I said, "No, I haven't at all." She was really mad. I said don't worry, it's going to be great. After hearing for three days about human trafficking, this group didn't want to hear more about it. The message I wanted to send was "You're doing incredibly important work. Don't let anyone stand in your way."

I told them a story about letting a student down early in my career, a shy girl who I just thought was a shy girl. One time, I had this miraculous moment with her though where I quote a line from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," and this little shy girl knew the line. We started bantering and it brought her out of her shell and she became the funniest girl in the class. Her mother said I saved her life. It was just luck, but I had given up on a bunch of students prior, and it was my lesson that you can't give up on people. You have to keep trying because they deserve all of your effort.

I told that story and had everyone laughing and I said, "You're doing the same thing here today. You can't give up on people." When you do that, you open up hearts and minds. If Belichick comes in says you're not working hard enough and starts talking about it, they can be defensive and say, "Yes I am."

But if he tells a story and they don't know where it's going like "I wasn't working hard enough that day and neither are you," that snap is so powerful. That's what I tell coaches. You have to tell stories from your own life so that you're vulnerable, honest and authentic, but you have to be thinking content, theme and message. If I want to tell a story of hard work, I should not be telling a story about the importance of hard work. I should be telling a story about something slightly adjacent to it and then snap it over.

You do a lot of consulting and public speaking that likely generates far more money than teaching. Why do you stay in the classroom?

I made as much money today consulting as I will in a week of teaching. But I love kids. I love spending a day with 20 children ages 10-11. I just find them endlessly fascinating and hilarious. I helped an attorney today with his case and a marketer sell a product a little better and, in a little while, I'll help a TED speaker perform better. But I know the biggest impact I have is when I help 10-year-old kids live better lives and divide fractions and be decent human beings.

Q&A Resources

Matthew Dicks ― Website | Book: Storyworthy | Twitter | LinkedIn