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Story Like You Mean It

I get a lot of requests from people to write more often, but I have learned that I can only write from my own experiences. This story, which deals with manipulating people through story telling, came to mind when I read about the emerging Trump University scandal. Donald Trump’s “university” brought to mind a a pint-sized Trump U where I spent some time after making the acquaintance of a Trumpish little squirt who I like to call the Bow Tied Bandit. The Bow Tied Bandit’s stock in trade is story telling—telling his own, and teaching others to tell stories as well.

My adventure in the halls of bogus academia began when I met the Bow Tied Bandit in 2011, and ended before he could inflict too much damage to my checkbook and ego. I am not usually susceptible to exploitation, but at the time of my ill-fated encounter with the Bow Tied Bandit, I was a little bit vulnerable.

In 2004 the multi-national toy company where I worked laid me off in what they euphemistically called a “reorganization”. Following the layoff, I floundered around for the next few years but never quite get my legs under me again. After my mother died in 2006 and left me with too much unstructured time, I wasted day after day on LinkedIn, craigslist and various other depressing ghettos of joblessness and underemployment. Eventually I had to face up to the fact that my glory days were over, so I took a job as a production assistant at Ocean State Job Lot to get health benefits and a steady pay check.

Just when things seemed truly dire (and they were dire—I spent my days typing signs that said JUMBO WALNUTS $2.99/lb PLU 324981), I got a miraculous break that allowed me to imagine myself starting a small design business here my hometown. To that end I took some courses in computer programming and web design to round out my extensive print design background.

I knew that with my strong portfolio and recommendations from impressive former clients, I couldn’t help but be successful. Obviously, well executed graphic design and consistent branding is a worthy investment. How else can a small business hope to cut through the clutter?

My assumptions about starting a small business and selling to other small businesses were desperately and hopelessly misguided. As I soon learned, small business owners are chronically cash strapped. If they do hire a graphic designer, they are highly anxious throughout the entire process about the money they are spending, and they don’t really care if you are a designer or not. What I soon learned was that a successful design experience with a small business client is an experience that does not involve tantrums, Helvetica, or being ripped off.

I flung myself wholeheartedly into my local design business endeavor and began attending weekly meetings at a business organization called BNI, which stands for Business Networking International. Each chapter has one representative from various professions, and the idea is to benefit oneself by benefitting others. Like utopia, BNI is a good idea in theory, but in practice, it only works for certain types of businesses and certain types of people.

To prepare myself for the BNI meeting, which convened at 7 a.m., I would arise at 6 a.m. and stagger into the bathroom to apply cotton balls soaked in witch hazel to the area under my eyes. Then I would go make coffee and try to eat something, so as to give my face enough time to solidify into a surface that could accept the application of cosmetics. These early morning sessions with eyeliner made me feel like my own mortician. By the time I arrived at the Elks Club, where the BNI meeting was held, I would be in possession of the necessary intestinal fortitude to manage the reek of bacon, coffee, powdered eggs and rank cologne.

The heart and soul of the BNI meeting is the 60-second pitch that each member gives to the rest of the group each week. Ours was a very large BNI Chapter. Sixty seconds multiplied by thirty members would seem like an unsustainable amount of time, but strangely enough, a mere sixty seconds is even longer than anything you can possibly imagine when you have to stand up and talk about yourself.

During those sixty seconds, clocks ran backward. My mind would go blank and off-script utterances would squirt out of my mouth like diarrhea. When the eternal minute ended I would fall back into my chair, limp, as though I had just been through an exorcism.

When I wasn’t busy feverishly networking with the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker, I was enduring painful business-to-business meet and greets that involved plumbing the depths of the local dry cleaner, or asking thoughtful questions of the flooring contractor.

To say that BNI and the one-to-ones with people who had no intention of ever availing themselves of graphic design was a rewarding way to spend my time would be incorrect. I kept my game face on, but it wasn’t easy. I wanted to work with people who were visually literate and were used to purchasing design services from design professionals. I wanted to work for art directors again.

Before joining BNI, I had sent out some direct mail pieces to local businesses and then followed up with visits. In the course of my wanderings one day, I stopped into a mysterious storefront in our town that I had always wondered about. Ambiguously named University Business Consultants, it emanated a vaguely academic vibe that conspired with the word “business” to create something truly confounding.

The day I poked my head into University Business Consultants, a friendly and intelligent young woman swooped over and gathered me up in a cradle of encouraging interest. Being listened to and engaged by such a nice and obviously astute woman was deeply gratifying. I could feel the serotonin gush through my blood as we talked. She made me feel validated and gave me hope that I would eventually master the art of selling myself to others.

A few days later, the young woman from University Business Consultants invited me to come back and have an audience with her boss. Not knowing exactly why I had been summoned, I dutifully appeared at the agreed upon time and made the acquaintance of the Bow Tied Bandit for the first time.

The Bow tied Bandit—as you might imagine—wore a fetching bow-tie, a starchy oxford, meticulously tailored trousers and a well made blazer. His glossy black hair was nattily parted at the side and slicked over in an adorably nerdy style. A pair of glasses completed the Poindexter look, giving the Bow Tied Bandit the academic bona fides that his storefront, University Business Consultants, demanded.

My first assignation with the Bow Tied Bandit was a love fest. The man proved to be witty, entertaining, erudite and extremely enjoyable to spend time with. My tiresome slog down the road to small business success had finally lead me to the person who would help me connect with potential clients, and not only would I be successful, I would enjoy traveling the road to success with this intellectually stimulating mentor who would not think I was putting on airs every time I revealed yet another facet of my excellent liberal arts education.

A few days later, the young woman who worked for the Bow Tied Bandit called to invite me his Monday morning “class” at University Business Consultants. It was a lecture generally reserved for his “students”, but he thought that I might enjoy it. Flattered, I accepted the invitation.

Before I describe the utterly specious and ridiculous nature of this man’s content, please know that I have been called intelligent by people more intelligent than I. During the lecture, which was designed to “teach” small business owners how to close deals with clients, The Bow Tied Bandit paid homage to Jung, and peppered his language with Greek. I was soon swooning. Not only did I love being reacquainted with Jungian archetypes after so many years away from Psych 101 at Sarah Lawrence, I urgently needed to know how to close a deal with a potential client.

Like a secret lover, the Bow Tied Bandit sent me subtle signals throughout the morning, designed to let me know that he was thinking of me and was fully aware of my staggering intellect. Yes, he knew that I needed some polish to achieve my goals, but because I was so talented and so unique, there was no reason I would not succeed with a little coaching.

Time marched on and my love affair with the Bow Tied Bandit only deepened. I reached deep into my wallet and happily offered up $1,200 for a sales “course” enigmatically named AS3, which stands for Approach Sensitive Systematic Storytelling, which was going to make selling come easily to me. Rife with role-playing and brimming over with attentive flattery doled out in equal measure to his loyal subjects, we comrades in foolishness wallowed in “our personal narratives”, an experience not unlike smoking crack.

The Bow Tied Bandit was in the business of “teaching” people to develop a “narrative” about how they arrived at their chosen profession so that they could “story” to a potential client and then draw the client out. I can see how if you are profoundly autistic or socially awkward, being taught how to participate in the normal give and take of conversation could be helpful within the context of sales. But for most people, this sort of thing comes naturally. In my defense, I was so nonplussed by the whole sales enterprise that he could have taught a course in client fellatio and I would have taken it seriously.

To complement his lectures in the AS3 “class” he had ginned up and codified a “textbook” that I now deeply regret tossing after I had come to my senses. To illustrate his incomprehensible nonsense, the booklet was studded with meaningless infographics.

It only speaks to my deep and profound insecurity that I was not fazed by this gem, lifted verbatim, and unexpurgated, from the Bow Tied Bandit’s LinkedIn profile:

Design and built a Business Development Center from ground up–including staffing, work flow automation, and process maps. After the process integrate (9) auto brands, an IMPACT training program was created for: WINNING FOLLOWERSHIP, ATTITUDE-have the outlook that employers desperaately desire,Low Profile Selling Styles, and Motivation Matters(tm). I handle the platform training of this program to (150) plus folks while engaging in national initiatives re: betterment of BDC Centers throughout the Penske Organizations with folks from San Diego and Detroit.

My relationship with the Bow Tied Bandit ended abruptly after  he fatally misjudged the depth of my vanity and I threatened to hire a lawyer if he did not refund me $1,400 that he had extracted from me in a bogus collaboration. To my immense satisfaction, the Bow Tied Bandit was rendered completely compliant within twenty minutes of receiving my sternly worded email, and even offered to deliver the check to me in person. In one final paroxysm of sleaze, he did try to buy my silence, but obviously I declined.

Not long after my dust up with the Bow Tied Bandit, I happened to notice that like the famously chimerical portal to Hogwart’s Express, AKA Platform Nine and Three Quarters, University Business Consultants’ storefront  disappeared overnight without a trace. It seemed that the Bow Tied Bandit, and his equally vacuous side kick, a man who passed himself off as a college counselor, had evacuated the premises. The self styled “college tracker” had also gotten his hands into my pockets when my older son suffered a setback during his freshman year in college and I was unequivocally freaking out. I later learned from a seat mate on an airplane that my “college counselor” relied entirely upon a digital personality assay that I could have purchased at any Barnes & Noble myself.

After stalking the internet in vain for any sort of clue to what had become of University Business Consultants, I finally called another “student” and learned that The Bow Tied Bandit had gotten on the bandwagon of a Rhode Island jewelry startup called Alex & Ani.

To put it bluntly, Alex & Ani makes overpriced little trinkets for white women. Through flummery, smoke and mirrors, the company designs cheap, environmentally questionable charms and transforms them into new-age power objects that “empower the light in you.” The charms sell for $24 and up.

Continuing in the academic vein, the Bow Tied Bandit got Alex & Ani to agree to lend their name to “Alex & Ani University”. Because “Alex & Ani University” was in no way, shape or form an institution of higher learning, the Bow Tied Bandit was required to change the name to the Alex & Ani Evolutionary Leadership Institute. Right now, courses such as “ORG 110 CORE PLUS™ and “Positivity Training” and “Story Like You Mean It” are only available to Alex & Ani employees, but that is set to change, so that those in search of positive energy can go on a $3,785 “Narrative Retreat.”

It is interesting to note that the URL for the Alex & Ani Institute no longer takes you to the courses but instead redirects you to their retail site. According the The Providence Phoenix, the narrative retreats will give you the opportunity to “reflect, story, and create.” “Through this self-reflection, you will begin to understand the connectedness of your seemingly disconnected story. Learn how to articulate your personal plot line to the world and create your life’s next chapter — story your dream™.

The Alex & Ani Facebook page describes their mission as: AAI offers workshops, Learning Journeys & Courses birthed to awaken, nurture, and inspire human development through self-understanding and systems thinking. 

Looking back, I have to admire the elegance of the Bow Tied Bandit’s modus operandi and how beautifully it dovetails with the nonsensical premise of Alex & Ani. “Storying like you mean it” simply means rearranging your past experiences into a logical sequence that validates whatever it is you are doing in the present. It is a very basic idea, but gussied up and packaged into a system or turned into a magical charm, it becomes imbued with the power to get you where you want to go. Sitting around in a fake classroom and talking about yourself is extremely gratifying when you are feeling insecure and alone in your endeavor.

As I mentioned earlier, after the Bow Tied Bandit had capitulated and agreed to refund the money he had attempted to steal from me, he became uncharacteristically opposed to storying. In fact, he left me with the distinct impression that when it came to him, I should not story at all! It took me many years to story like I mean it, and for that I thank Donald Trump.

Related: I (heart) Dicks

http://providence.thephoenix.com/news/157945-is-alex-and-ani-university-a-university/

11 comments

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  1. Jody says:

    The Bow Tied Bandit is obviously just a puddle of grease disguised as a human being. Glad you got away before loosing too much money!

    1. admin says:

      Ugh, karma will take care of him eventually

  2. Not my real name says:

    Hmmm, I may have been more successful as a entrepreneur had I taken a client fel­la­tio course.

  3. jcnorton says:

    Being a freelance graphic designer along the way (and realizing that I have absolutely no business acumen whatsoever, and never will), I so relate to what you’re sharing. Who knew that cotton balls soaked in witch hazel got rid of under-eye bags? Thanks for the tip 🙂

    1. admin says:

      Yes! Witch Hazel, one of the active ingredients in hemmorhoid (sp?) treatment will help under-eye bags. Preparation H under your eyes can be used but only in extreme circumstances because it has a steroidal component as well that will ruin your skin over time, and will ruin your eye immediately if you get any in it. I save the ‘roid cream for only the most dire of circumstances.

  4. Wayne Rocheleau says:

    Good story. And, I can tell you really mean it.

    1. admin says:

      Oooh I really do mean it. I know a few other people who would like to story like they mean it as well.

  5. Kathy says:

    You could be an investigative reporter! So many of us have fallen for these stupid scams, but rarely admit it! Bow tie bandits are everywhere! Thanks for putting it so comically.

  6. Ken Orabone says:

    I can relate to this in many ways, except I was lucky enough to not have met Bow Tied Bandit. We moved back to RI in the middle of 2008 as the economy was tanking. I went through similar fun starting up my own computer support business; clients who counted the minutes I was working on their computer, god-awful “business community” meetings socializing with people who would never buy my services (nor I theirs), and desperate to make it all work somehow.

    Bow Tie guy would have eaten me for lunch if he had gotten his hands on me around that time…

    1. admin says:

      But you stuck with it and made it work, which is more than I can say for myself. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment.

      1. Ken Orabone says:

        Actually, I finally got the point where I realized I was not going to be able to support myself with the few clients that were calling. I finally had to make the decision to go back to working for someone else in order to make enough to survive here in RI.

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