The story of how Francisco Mahfuz turned his love of great writing into a superpower – and discovered his own unique voice in the realm of public speaking.
Francisco has had a life-long love affair with books. When his family was packing for their relocation from the US – where he was born – to Brazil – where he grew up – he remembers the panic with which he discovered that all his belongings were gone. They’d been packed, of course, but to his 2-and-a-half year old eyes, they had disappeared. His mother has since recounted how Francisco’s main concern in the moment the realisation dawned on him was that they’d taken everything – even his books.
Books are a big part of all my earliest memories. Pretty much since I could read, I was reading something. I have great memories of what other children would hate – like when my parents had divorced and I went to have lunch with the new wife’s family. My little brother hated it, but they had so many books!
Given his passion for books, one might think that Francisco would pursue storytelling through the medium of just that: novels. But while he has recently written a book (which, incidentally, is on the topic of speaking), his vocation became public speaking. Storytelling in an oral format, to a live audience that he could interact with. Perhaps it was his vast library of other authors’ influences – or his appreciation for stories that are either partly or fully true. Either way, written fiction wasn’t where Francisco’s best creative expression was at.
I tried writing. You know, my strongest subjects in school were Portuguese, English, Literature. But what I did was I pretty much wrote copies of whatever was an existing, famous character at the time (…) and I did very good impressions of them with my own characters – and I wrote them well – you know, people would say ‘That sounds just like him.’ (…) I tried poetry, I tried short stories, but they always felt a little forced – so I quickly fell out of fictional writing, and eventually it disappeared altogether.
When Francisco began working with public speaking as a profession, however, he found his written voice. From the roots of his own stories, he had to build arguments, create narratives that worked in spoken format, use literary tools when necessary, and flesh out experiences relevant to his audience. Writing speeches was still writing, and it was the perfect kind of writing for him. Within it, he accessed the storytelling he loves so much, and since it became his professional focus and endeavour to make a living as a public speaker, he hasn’t looked back. It’s a new love affair in its own right, and a direction that allows Francisco to be uninhibitedly himself.
I’ve always been the guy who had no filter. ‘Too much information’ was always something I heard. And it turns out that when it comes to telling stories or speaking in public, that’s a benefit. It’s an advantage being able to tap into those things.
At its core, storytelling is about authenticity and relatability – and so when Francisco tells stories about himself, they are purposefully universal. Applying his own experiences as the details. The universal experience as the stories’ pillars. He finds something personal to talk about, and then connects that to a broader subject. Francisco also believes that this is the only way to create that connection storytelling holds the power to cultivate, both in the context of public speaking and in the general context of stories.
I don’t think that the things I write are just my own, or just for amusement – and even if they were, that wouldn’t work (…) I’m talking about me, so I can talk to you. The opposite doesn’t work; if I try to talk about ‘people’ when I’m trying to talk about me or you, it’s not specific enough to feel real. When I talk about me, you can see yourself or find yourself in my story.
According to Francisco, there’s a story for every context. There’s the story for the business pitch, where you tell your origin story. There’s the story for the client conversations, where you recount other people you’ve helped and what that looked like. There’s the story for the leader-team interactions, where the narrative that defines your mission can make or break morale. He calls these kinds of stories the purest form of storytelling, that fit into the person-to-person interactions in business.
But no matter where you are, no matter where an interaction is taking place – there should be a story. For Francisco, almost every space or sphere is a potential stage; a potential for another story that will illuminate, fascinate, uplift or simply communicate.
We are made for stories. That’s what triggers all the stuff that captivates us (…) and apart from the way stories take over your brain, they are just an incredible learning tool. An incredible experience tool. They are windows into the lives you haven’t lived.
In a business context, Francisco believes that these windows should be used to understand how you can help your customers or audience on their professional journey. Stories shouldn’t just appeal to them when they’re coming from you; by understanding the stories of your audience you become more effective, whether that’s as an advertiser, a copywriter, an advisor or a public speaker. And the key to that mutuality lies in the narrative.
Sales people should be telling stories. Anyone who has meetings should tell stories. Anyone who has presentations should tell stories. There are parts of your work where telling a story is not going to be the best idea, where you might want to use elements of a story. But the lessons you get out of stories should permeate most of communication, because story is the communication our brains evolved to understand, believe and remember.
You know, millions of years perfecting this imperfect machine, but one thing we can say for sure is that story or elements of story makes your brain go ‘Ah, I know what that is. I know how that works. And that information I’m going to retain.’ Why try to reinvent the wheel?