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Fallen Favorites

A disturbing thing happened to me this past week. I finished re-reading my favorite book, THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald…and found that it was no longer my Favorite.

Perhaps this shouldn’t seem too unsettling. After all, people change. When I was a child, I was particularly enamored of the Encyclopedia Brown book series, and a book called THE RUNAWAY ROBOT by Lester Del Rey almost caused me to write my first fan letter to an author. (I was stopped by the worry that he would find the letter from an elementary school student to be more amusing than adoring…definitely a missed opportunity!)

As we grow up, things that had been cherished fall more into the realm of nostalgia…something fondly remembered, but with much less intense personal meaning. That’s the nature of life.

But, THE GREAT GATSBY has held the unassailable top position in my estimation since college which has been…well, let’s just say that it’s been some time ago. I considered it to be the perfect book; one that left no room for improvement. It has survived five readings, and my estimation has not budged an inch.

…Until the recent sixth reading.

Oh, I still hold the work in very high regard. It is just that, for the first time, I saw two things that I thought Fitzgerald could have done better. (Talk about the height of ego…me criticizing the writing style of F. Scott Fitzgerald!) But, there they were and they would not go away.

Here’s what bothers me even more. I don’t have a replacement Favorite. There are some titles that I consider to be exceptional, but they fall a bit short of THE GREAT GATSBY overall, although they excel in specific areas. (I blame much of this on my recent Good Reads experiment, which I detailed in an earlier posting.) All I know is that if I’m asked for my Favorite book, my answer is not currently THE GREAT GATSBY.

This started me thinking about similar experiences with corporate storytelling. (You just knew I’d get around to that, didn’t you?) There have been many stories that have held my exalted title of “Favorite” through the years.

There was the KFC “Short People” story…and my Alfred Hitchcock claim story…and my Delta Airlines “bizarre claim” story…and the customer service tale of “Bubba’s Tie.” Ah, yes, and we mustn’t forget the real life soap opera of “The Smokehouse Inn”…the giant crab encounter during a flooded home inspection…or the smoker doing spray painting.

I’ve related these stories in many, many training sessions. The danger, of course, is that so many people heard them that they lost their impact when they were repeated. Also, I began to see them as performance pieces rather than illustrations, because the reactions to them had always been so positive. I could hear the “mental applause” after every retelling.

So, it was to my benefit that all of these passed through my personal “Favorites” phase and were retired to the filing cabinet for possible future use if an appropriate venue appeared. My presentations became more vital, alive and relevant. And I was not perceived as the doddering fellow lost in his glory years.

If you find yourself reaching for a very familiar story time after time in your corporate storytelling presentations, or if the story has become one that you could essentially recite in your sleep, it is probably an excellent time to search for a new Favorite. Your audience will be more attentive…and grateful.

In the meantime, I’ll admit to being a bit nervous about sitting down again with my Favorite movie, CITIZEN KANE. What if I’ve lost both of them?

Thanks for reading.

This morning, my daughter was talking about a favorite book of hers from several years ago that she re-discovered last night. Between then and this morning, she had read all 390-pages and loved every moment of it.

The book is called SKULLDUGGERY PLEASANT, a fantasy novel about a combination of an undead sorcerer and a detective. (The Irish heritage of the author would appeal to me, but that’s neither here nor there.)

But, this is more than rediscovering a beloved book. My daughter had a presentation due for school, and she found in her re-reading just the elements she needed. In short, a project that had been trekking along a rocky road had suddenly opened with possibilities.

Suffice it to say that SKULLDUGGERY PLEASANT is unlikely to be found on any honors program reading list. Those types of seemingly mildly diverting time-passers are more equated with junk food for the mind with no relevance to the important scholastic topics at hand.

Yet, my daughter made a connection…and with that connection came an enthusiasm for the project. A chore became more enjoyable, and a lifeless report was infused with passion.

This insight has important ramifications for corporate storytelling. How often do we discard potentially relevant stories that we’ve enjoyed when faced with presentations in the corporate world because…well, they just won’t be accepted as having merit?

Let’s think about that for a moment. One of the delightful attributes of effective storytelling is illustrating topics or concepts in a way that brings them alive for audiences. The stories make them easier to understand because we now have a readily remembered example to bring to mind when considering them.

My daughter’s undead sorcerer may not be the stuff of honors readings, but his unusual adventures are easy to follow and will be readily called to mind when an illustration is needed.

Which leads me to a personal favorite of mine…Godzilla.

American viewers associate Godzilla with the 1955 dubbed and re-edited version called GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS, complete with added scenes of Raymond Burr as a friendly, familiar face explaining the happenings in a non-threatening manner. It was this film, along with others in the series, which created the image in American minds of a man dressed in a rubber monster suit stomping on model buildings.

Now, I need to say up front that I enjoy the American version. Compared to other retreads of Japanese films of the period, this one was much more respectful of the original content.

However, the original is an entirely different viewing experience. Released in Japan a year earlier, GOJIRA took its home country by storm, literally becoming a blockbuster that audiences waited in line for extended periods of time to view.

How is this possible? Is the Japanese taste in entertainment so much less refined than ours?

No, not at all. GOJIRA, in its original form, is an engrossing story of the cost of human arrogance and the price we pay when we push honor to the background. The gigantic monster that comes ashore to level Tokyo may be the embodiment of the Japanese souls lost in the war. An argument in support of this (cut from the American version) is when GOJIRA turns his back on the Emperor’s palace, showing contempt for the decisions that resulted in so much loss of life.

That’s quite a bit different from the ridiculous image of a man in a rubber suit stomping through a model city.

I’ve used GODZILLA as an example in a number of corporate presentations. The most recent was an illustration to leaders of how our misunderstanding of the value of some incidents to others leads to our failure to provide meaningful leadership. For instance, an event that I would brush away as something easily handled in my life may be a nerve-wracking experience for someone else, influencing their behavior in ways that I don’t understand.

In other words, seeing the man in the rubber monster suit causes me to miss the far more important message that is governing behavior.

It is always a pleasure when an attendee tells me afterward, “You know, I had no idea where you were going with this, but you’ve really started me thinking.” Or, just as enjoyable is, “I’m going to have to rent GOJIRA.”

Stories that we have found to be personally enjoyable usually carry messages that speak to the person who we really are deep inside. They have power because they help us to understand ourselves a little better, and to reflect on what they have to say about life.

Don’t be ashamed to share those stories. Uncover why they have remained important to you, and bring that discovery to others. You will find that they bring illumination to many darkened solutions.

Thank you for reading.

Corporate Storytelling & The News Flash

News stories are an excellent resource for the corporate storyteller. The mere fact that the story has appeared in print or as part of a recorded news story lends an air of authority to its presentation…regardless of whether or not the premise is true.

This came to mind as I was preparing a presentation this past week. I wanted to make reference to the topic being both timely and in the public eye. I realized that by referencing that it had been “in the news” was sufficient to meet both criteria.

I have seen this approach backfire, too. It is very important to avoid taking a stance on a controversial topic if your purpose is to seek audience understanding. If I chose to use recent news stories as support for how health care reform was an example of the most positive governmental legislation ever enacted, I would immediately lose a significant portion of my audience who do not agree with the steps that have been taken.

In a similar way, it would be important to avoid making reference to health care reform as Obamacare. Once more, tying the program to a controversial individual would cause alienation within a significant portion of my audience. They would hear “Obamacare,” and my further words would be lost behind a haze of internal static.

On the other hand, using news stories to support the argument for all of us to give serious thought about health care works well. There is enough evidence to support that health care reform is well on its way. If we do not make intelligent, considered selections, we could well end up with coverage that does not fit our needs. It would be a relatively small proportion of our audience who does not feel that we should be smart consumers.

When faced with significant opposition, the best the corporate storyteller can hope for is to be perceived as a trusted resource. If my intent is to specifically support the President’s health care reform initiative, it is highly unlikely that I will be changing the minds of my opposition listeners during my presentation. I will be a success if I can have them like or trust me to the extent that they will truly “hear” what I am saying. My goal is not to change minds, but to turn off the internal static.

It is interesting to read some of the printed versions of the historic Lincoln – Douglas debates. Abraham Lincoln frequently ran into verbal opposition from the crowds who were in attendance. His practice was to give a very brief response…no more than a sentence or two…and then ask for the attendees to allow him to continue. He appealed to them to be polite. If the news accounts are correct, this approach worked.

Could the corporate storyteller today appeal to the better nature of a hostile audience? It is certainly an approach to consider. There is a commonality in the corporate world. We want job security and we know that the company needs to survive for us to have job security. Given that, it would be possible to appeal to the audience to listen to an explanation of the thought process behind a news event before judging. Not everyone will be convinced, but “on the fence” listeners could be swayed to further consideration.

The news story carries a built-in authority level that a corporate storyteller can use as “expert support.” Just be careful not to stray into highly emotional territory unless you know your audience very well, or your purpose is to challenge their thinking.

Thank you for reading.

My company, like so many others, is very interested in the level of engagement among its associates. Measurements are taken by survey at least every other year, the results are pondered, and action plans are put in place to make us even better.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do know of an engagement measurement that has had amazing accuracy: Storytelling.

When folks tell me that they love their jobs, my first response is often, “That’s wonderful! Tell me about it!” Those who are truly engaged in what they are doing immediately launch into details. It is very seldom only a list of their projects. They enhance each item with an example of success or a glowing report of why it is just perfect for them.

It’s a great way to uncover insincerity, too. If I’m being told something that they think is the “correct” response that I want to hear, it very quickly becomes evident that the engagement level is low:

“I just love my job.”

“That’s wonderful. Tell me about it!”

“Well, I get to work with so many interesting people, and every day is a new challenge.”

“Really? Such as?”

If the sincerity level is low, this question is met with something akin to a “trapped” look and a fumbling for words. Yes, it happens this quickly.

People who are engaged often have so many stories to tell that it is difficult to find an end to them. While they are telling their stories, they are reliving the experience, and the pleasure behind that experience shows.

I’m also able to use this as a self-test. It is an equally effective review of my own engagement level. Sometimes, I surprise myself, such as when I’m under a tight deadline and nothing seems to be going right. My answer to “Tell me about it” doesn’t recall the problem…it heads unerringly to what is best about my job. It is still there, after all. It’s just temporarily buried under a layer of day-to-day cares.

Why not try it for yourself? You may be more engaged than you imagined!

Thank you for reading.

Hey, That's Not What Happened!

One of my favorite corporate storytelling modes is the “What if” story. This is essentially telling a story with a known ending, and changing the events so that the resolution is different. Few other storytelling techniques guarantee such a return of attendee attention!

I used this method some months ago in a session with colleagues in the corporate learning industry. Many learning suppliers were struggling at that time as companies looked for home-grown solutions instead of adding more figures to the cost side of the budget.

Anyhow, I was talking about a major supplier who provided learning modules to many of the companies in attendance…and I put them out of business. Immediately, I could see that a few folks who were checking smartphone messages snapped back to attention. Their look read, “Huh? What did he just say?”

For those who were already actively engaged, the expressions ranged from individual frowns to exchanged glances with other attendees. I continued as if I had not noticed any reactions, explaining alternatives that were being adopted by some companies as critical learning content was lost.

To say that I now had everyone’s attention was an understatement. There was some skepticism, but most of my audience was wondering why they hadn’t heard of this, and what they would do next. Some hands were twitching by the side, waiting to acknowledge a question…even though the Q & A time hadn’t yet arrived.

At this point, I took pity on my audience and admitted that they had been listening to a “What if” scenario. There was instant relief. The trick, of course, was to keep them on my side before they started to think that I had heartlessly duped them.

“Stop and consider for a moment the reality of what you were considering. At a time when learning budgets are dropping, what would be the result on our individual operations if a major resource such as ***** had to close its doors? In other words, are there budgets that we can’t afford to cut, and how do we make the argument to those outside of our field that they need to be maintained?”

The remainder of the talk was about the elements that needed to go into those arguments…and time was allotted for brainstorming. In all, it was a most effective presentation.

Book writers and screenplay writers have been playing with revisionist history for a long time. They know the value of keeping their audience thinking, “What would I do in this situation?” or “What would the world be like now if this had happened?”

There are rules when we do this in the corporate storytelling field. Unlike movies or books, it should never be done merely for entertainment value. It is not that attendees at corporate meetings don’t want to be entertained, but they are so busy that they need to see something of value in the offering. Entertainment by itself is best left for off-hours.

Tie the “What if” into a situation the audience can understand. The two main reasons for taking this approach are either to persuade them that the point you are making is valid, or to introduce a brainstorming session. “What if” stories are also great for introducing critical thinking exercises.

Finally, never make the “What if” story mean-spirited…or, as the phrase goes, “Just to prove a point.” One of the worst uses I’ve seen of this method was a presenter who was trying to teach career survival skills. His story involved the company closing its doors…a fear that was already instilled in much of the audience. Instead of engaging the audience in useful contemplation, they wanted to know what news he had that they didn’t…and when they learned it was only a technique employed to stir emotions, they turned off the remainder of his presentation.

On the plus side, he wasn’t lynched.

“What if” stories can be an excellent tool for engaging attention. Just remember to use them carefully and respectfully. When you do, the reward can be impressive.

Thank you for reading.

The Music of Storytelling

I was preparing a story for one of my presentations this past week and, as I usually do, I asked a friend to listen and provide a critique. She’s a songwriter, so I especially appreciate her thoughts regarding brevity, descriptive phrasing, and modulated rhythm.

After listening to one run-through, she asked if I’d mind if she improvised something on the piano while I told the story. Rehearsal time is a great opportunity to experiment and I readily agreed to the idea.

The result was something just short of magical for me.

I don’t know if my enthusiasm comes from years of movie-watching and enjoying the larger-than-life scores that play in the background, but her improvisation improved the flow of my narrative. She built upon what I was saying, and her choice of melody inspired my pace…especially the “wait for it” pauses.

I’m not certain why the experience took me so much by surprise. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to present the poem, “Life Is Fine” by Langston Hughes. A jazz group played behind the words, and I loved the empathy generated. (They made it easy for me to tell what was just right, and what needed to be “punched” a little more.)

Music tells its own story. Lyrics aren’t essential. The notes alone tug at our emotions, and they have a special power when they highlight an especially poignant moment.

If you are not sure about using unobtrusive music as a background to your story, I strongly recommend the film, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Pay special attention to the music playing behind the older Scout’s voiceover narration when it appears in the movie. The combination is haunting.

In the meantime, I’m planning to experiment some more with musical accompaniment. The scope of possibilities that open with that combination are exciting to consider!

Thank you for reading.

Can Goodreads Tell Me Who I Am?

I was recently introduced to the Goodreads app which allows users to list, rate, review and share what they have read. The “selling” point is that you not only let folks know about what is of interest to you, but can also quickly gather a recommendation list for your own future reading.

It was while I was looking through what connected friends had on their reading lists that a related thought came to mind. I remember hearing it said that you could tell a great deal about people based on the books they had on their reading shelf.

Is this true?

Think about it. Could there be, in row upon row of various tomes in public display, an insight into the personality of the owner?

If so, take it one step further. Which of those many books held special influence? After all, many of the displayed volumes could be the result of recommendations from others, or an impulse purchase of the latest best seller.

If I could separate “the ones with influence” from all of the others, what information would emerge about me? Would I be able to determine why certain stories resonate with me, and why I use the ones that I do in my learning presentations?

I don’t know, but I have officially launched the experiment.

There are certain limits because I am now a very devoted reader of electronic books, and Goodreads isn’t nearly as Kindle friendly as it is with hard copy books with readable bar codes. For instance, I was recently very impressed with Susan Cain’s QUIET…and, unless I find a way to “trick” it into my list, it will need to reside off to the side with my other Kindle books.

For the next month or so, I’m going to collect as many of the books that had a profound influence on me and describe them in my Goodreads account. Initially, my list will be very sparse, but feel free to check Jim Dooley’s account in the next month or so.

I may surprise us both.

Thank you for reading…literally!

Helping Others To Share Their Stories

Recently, I wrote about allowing others to share their stories. After all, storytelling tends to be an “I’m in the spotlight” activity, and it is not always easy to remain quiet enough to permit others to “stand center stage.”

I encountered a related problem this past week, but from a different perspective. A co-worker has a wealth of wonderful stories to tell. Two of them have definite business applications and involve his personal contact with two legends of the corporate world. The points he is able to illustrate with his stories are very easy to understand and decidedly memorable.

There’s just one problem. He does not want to do presentations in public.

If you have experienced wonderful information that you know will help others, but cannot get the holder of that knowledge past the public speaking barrier, you know that feeling of frustration. I’m told, “Oh, you can use my stories however you want”…but, it doesn’t have the same power coming second-hand.

I can give you a completely accurate account of what it was like to make a daring rescue. Or you can listen to exactly the same account coming from the person who actually made the rescue. The only difference is that my story is told in the third person, and the hero is speaking in the first person.

Which will carry more weight for you?

Although people readily acknowledge that public speaking can be a nerve-wracking experience, it is often difficult for those who are comfortable with the experience to fully sympathize with those who approach it with stark terror. After all, what’s the worst that can happen?

However, my feeling that it is “no big deal” will do nothing to ease the very real pain experienced by someone else. Tiresome “Man Up” suggestions, envisioning the audience in various states of undress, or pretending to hold a casual conversation about a well-learned topic offer no support.

Forcing the issue can have disastrous consequences. Good storytelling has its own rhythm, flow and energy. A person who fears the public speaking process will not be able to provide a good story. Consequently, the value of the “first person” message is lost on the audience.

I do have a suggestion that has worked for five different reluctant presenters. Bring the story out in a guided discussion or interview. (You may want to use the word “interview” sparingly, as it also suggests a performance judgment.)

In each instance, I had established a good rapport with the storytellers and they trusted that I wasn’t going to “let go of them” during the presentation. I arranged for a stage with two chairs facing one another. The storyteller was to concentrate on me. The audience would only need to be referenced if a level of comfort was achieved.

We began with a brief series of completely rehearsed questions. All of them established either who the storyteller was or why the storyteller was with us today.

The next few questions came directly from the events of the story to be told. Instead of segueing into, “Well, I hear you have an interesting story to tell us,” I asked questions that led to the exact way that the storyteller was accustomed to relating the story.

For instance, Steve began one story with, “I’ll never forget the scariest day of my life. It happened in Omaha, right in the middle of a cloudburst so sudden and so strong that it took my breath away.”

My lead-in began with, “Steve, I understand you had a remarkable experience in Omaha a few years ago.”

“Yes,” Steve replied. “That I did.”

“So tell me, what was so unusual about that day?”

Steve straightened up. “Well, it happened right in the middle of a cloudburst that came up so sudden and was so strong that it took my breath away.”

…And with that, Steve was off to the races. If he paused too long or looked worried, I would cue him with the lead-in to the next event of the story. That wasn’t needed for long, though. Steve was soon in familiar territory and, when he finished, even felt comfortable enough to answer questions from the audience.

If you use the interviewer approach, it is of vital importance to become almost invisible. That is, it is not your job to provide entertainment for the audience…no jokes, and definitely no “points” at the storyteller’s expense. Your job is to be there for support…to appear to be nothing more than a listener. On occasion, you can provide a cue as you would to an actor who has “gone up” on a line. Otherwise, it is the storyteller’s spotlight.

As I mentioned earlier, I have used this technique successfully with five different storytellers who shied away from public speaking. The result was that the audience received great information from the experts, and the storytellers realized that they had the power to move an audience.

It’s more work, but the reward justifies the effort.

Thank you for reading.

The Best Low Tech Learning

In my job as a learning consultant, I am often asked about the best tech tools out there for improving learning retention. I understand the desire. It seems right that if we can find just the right tool to engage the learner, then professional growth will soon follow.

There are many wonderful learning tools. They can make your presentations look very slick, and grab attention with noisy and/or glitzy interactive events. The feedback received often cites how awesome the program looked or how energizing it was to be a part of it.

And that’s great!

When we make a presentation, be it online, in a virtual environment, or a live presence, we want attendees to be engaged. That connection is a vital step in setting up the learning process.

The difficulty arises when it also ends there. Think back on highly motivational programs you may have attended…and how much of the material you were able to recall a scant month later. The Wow Factor impresses at the time. You need to build upon it if you hope to have your learners retain the important aspects of your message.

Storytelling is probably the best low tech learning tool available. It’s also among the least expensive, which is terrific news for cash-strapped learning developers.

The Camtasias, the Captivates, and the Prezis of the world are tremendous enhancers of content. They draw attention and allow the learner to feel more a part of what is going on.

They are also empty containers awaiting packages of content to be placed in them. They are capable of supporting great content or emptiness. If they support the latter, they are not unlike a great pinball game. We feel a momentary elation when our “skill” allows us to receive an extra game, but the precise details are lost soon afterward.

When those tools are used to enhance great story content, they can immerse a learner into the experience. The trick is to make certain that the technique doesn’t get in the way of the story. Again, people shouldn’t remember the starburst effect when the subject of a story reaches her goal. If that is the main thing they remember, they have focused on the wrong thing.

I frequently have people come back to me and segue into “Remember when you talked about…” or some related phrase. Sometimes I’ll pretend to forget details of the tale or why I told it in the first place. I’m amazed by how often they are able to recall those details. The lesson was embedded.

In my early days of presentations, it was important to me to impress people. I threw tremendous amounts of energy into my talks, became very animated so that no one would be able to fall asleep, and timed PowerPoint presentations so that amazing slides would arrive at just the precise moment when they were needed.

People remembered enjoying those presentations. “You had so much energy!” and “The time just flew!” were frequent comments. Not once did I receive feedback about the content other than they liked it. It was a verbal form of the “smiley face” review sheet.

It was not long before that kind of a response became an empty victory. Oh, yes, it felt great at the time. But, when I reflected on what difference I had made, I was forced to concede that the answer was, “Not much.”

When good storytelling principles were used, I still received the “enjoyable presentation” comments, but I also heard valuable points recounted. The message was received and retained.

Now that is a value proposition.

Thank you for reading.

Allowing Others To Tell Their Stories

I had an interesting storytelling wake-up call this past week. You see, the previous Saturday, my daughter passed her driver’s exam and became a fully licensed driver. We had a weekend filled with celebration, and I wanted to share the details with others.

When I came to work the following Monday, I was all ready to share our weekend adventures…from the unsmiling patrol officer who seemed to dare my daughter to be successful to the parental woes of having my child venture forth solo into the world of distracted drivers.

My Lesson began with the magic words, “My daughter got her driver’s license this past weekend.” …And I didn’t get the chance to progress any further.

You see, I had handed out the golden invitation for others to tell me their stories. At those words, everyone became animated and responded with either “I remember when I got my license” or “”Oh, I remember when my (son or daughter) got (his or her) license.”

What followed was about five-minutes of storytelling…some bittersweet, some conciliatory, but almost all universally funny. EVERYONE had a driver’s license story to tell, and it was as if I had pressed their “Play” button with my opening words.

My reaction to this was especially interesting to me. I quickly grew impatient. After all, I had started this conversation. I had introduced the topic. Didn’t they know that, by doing so, I had earned the right to proceed with my story? They could certainly tell their stories, but I had gotten there first and had earned squatter’s rights!

If it had happened once, I would likely have laughed it off. By the fifth time, I could tell that I was becoming annoyed. When it reached the point that I decided not to tell anyone else, I learned that word had spread because people came up to me and said, “I heard your daughter got her license last weekend.” My “Yes” response was taken as an immediate invitation for them to tell me their stories.

This started me thinking on two levels. The first, of course, was what my reaction said about me. Obviously, I needed the “spotlight” more than I would like to admit.

The second was how the desire for that spotlight served to shut off potentially significant contributions from others in the corporate storytelling environment that would have resonated with others. Outside of lectures, participation is often at the heart of effective learning.

How often in training sessions had I focused solely on telling my story and ignored the signals that others had stories that they were willing and wanting to share? What wonderful and inspiring examples had I cast by the wayside in my desire to perform?

Of course, it would be incredibly unprofessional for me to go into a session unprepared. I couldn’t say to myself, “I’ll start the class by asking if anyone has a story they want to share about the topic and then let the session run itself.” The outcome would likely be far from what it needed to be more often than not.

However, it does mean that I should be more aware of my audience. Good stories tend to almost burst through to the surface. You can see them in the expressions of those around you, just waiting to escape and be enjoyed by others.

On that Monday, I recall that I managed to tell two people the story surrounding my daughter’s obtaining of her license. Everyone else told me their stories…and all of them were interesting, some were surprising, and most of them were funny. They were true gifts.

I realize that now. And I resolve to be more attentive.

Thank you for reading.

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