Win or lose, it’s the story that captivates your audience

Two days before my first black-belt test, my sensei wanted to give me a taste of the four-hour ordeal ahead. So, he invited me to a sparring match.

We started out standing, with some kicks and punches… then locked horns in a grappling stand-off… then crashed to the ground… and about two minutes into the blurry chaos, I (somehow) rolled over his arm as he dropped his weight on me — and I felt something pop in my left side.

It felt like a tightrope suddenly giving way. A muffled snap… and pain. Lots of pain, as I tapped out and sat up, trying to catch my breath, unable to fill my lungs. Every time I’d try to swallow air, the sharp rod in my left side seemed to sink deeper and deeper. That night, I learned what a broken rib feels like.

It’s hard to fake it in jujitsu. In Japanese, “jitsu” means “sincerity,” “truth” or “reality.” In martial arts, that suffix, “jitsu,” has come to mean “combat.” Unlike martial arts styles that end with a “do,” “jitsu” means “anything goes.” Groin kicks? Yes. Eye-gouging? Sure! Punching at the back of the head? As soon as I get the drop on you, buddy.

In class, you only imitate those kinds of moves, of course. In real life…

In real life, if two thugs in a dark parking lot say they want your car—or your girlfriend—you quickly realize that you need every “jitsu” advantage you can get.

Whenever I deliver a presentation to co-workers or clients, it strikes me how, in a conference room, it’s not all that different. No, it never gets down to a bare-knuckle fight. But if you try to fake it, they’ll know. Your co-workers, your bosses, your potential clients—every presentation is another black-belt test. Every win is a step towards a promotion, a new account, another round of funding.

And every loss is another broken rib.

How do you maximize the wins? Me, I try to be real. Genuine. Honest. I take a deep breath… and open with a story.

Maybe a joke, because what’s a joke if not a tiny story? Research shows that when people hear elements of a story—the setting, the characters, the conflict, the resolution—they can’t help but lean forward a little. And if you manage to make them chuckle in the process, now you’re making friends!

As I arrive at the end of the deck, I always remember to close with the same angle I started with. Lessons from high school composition classes: To make a story feel complete, give them a quick recap at the end. It’ll help them remember you—and your joke, as corny as it may be.

Come to think of it, on the dojo, every sparring match is a story, too. Maybe that’s why it’s so captivating to watch. Or be in the thick of it.


– Vadim Pokhlebkin