- Leverage the hidden story structures inherent in great communication
- Connect with your audience empathetically
- Create captivating content
- Craft ideas that get repeated
- Inspire enthusiasm and support for your vision
My parents are both storytellers.
My dad makes everyday life seem epic, with sound effects and humour. He embellishes tales to make them more dramatic. He tells stories in conversation, and is often the center of attention in a large crowd.
My mom keeps the stories of generations, revealing unexpected connections with grandparents or great-grandparents. She tries to stick as close to the truth as she can remember. She tells stories in intimate conversation and through her writing. I look forward to our weekly Skype conversations because of the mix of stories she shares: some about the past, some about recent adventures.
I’m really lucky that my parents both love telling stories. Growing up, I saw how the stories they told inspired and energized and connected people. Good stories don’t have to have morals, points, or storybook villains threatening to destroy the universe. Sometimes a slice of life can make an unexpected connection.
I want to learn how to tell stories like that. My sister Kathy tells stories like my dad does, and I tell stories like my mom. I want to get better at saving and telling stories, particularly the difficult ones, and writing is my way of remembering.
Of the three phrases in my e-mail signature and business card, storyteller draws the most smiles. People visibly relax. They ask me questions. They talk to me in a way they might not talk to an IT specialist or a consultant. Geek gets grins from people in the know, but storyteller is the one that crosses boundaries.
I added storyteller to my self-descriptors when I noticed technology evangelist needed a lot of explanation. The idea was simple: you can’t get people to explore social media by just showing it to them. You have to show them real people using it to create real value, and stories are a great way to do that. I collected examples from different industries and business units, and I used anecdotes to help people understand.
I was reading Solitude: A Return to the Self (a psychoanalytic exploration of introversion and creativity, drawing on historical examples), and I came across an interesting distinction between dramatists and patterns: people who retell stories and relieve experiences, and people who focus on patterns and regularities.
I stopped, reflected on it, and recognized more of myself in the patterner than the dramatist. At the family table, my father and my sister were always the ones telling stories with accents and sound effects. I spent more of my time thinking and reading, drawing connections among the dozens of books I read on a topic, teasing out common topics and threads.
I didn’t fully recognize that part of myself until I had the words to describe it.
I am more of a pattern-maker than a storyteller. Yes, I sprinkle anecdotes through talks to make them more alive, and I share stories through my blog. But the real value I find myself creating at work is in documenting and improving the way people do things. I build Drupal systems, and more than that, I build people’s ability to build Drupal systems. I use social software, and I train people how to do so. I facilitate workshops, and I improve the way we organize and facilitate those engagements.
What does this mean in terms of playing to my strengths? I’ll write about more processes and look for more ways to improve them. I’ll organize what I create so that it’s easy for people to learn and contribute. I’ll work on being able to see and being able to communicate. I’ll learn about lots of different kinds of patterns, so that I can bring them together.
I’ll still work on storytelling skills. Stories are essential for leadership and connection. I’ll keep blogging, and I’ll keep using lots of examples in talks.
But it’s nice to have a name for what I do.
Here’s a link to the book:
|Solitude: A Return to the Self|
Most of it is about Freud and Jung, and various writers and poets who’ve had solitary lives (mostly troubled solitary lives). The key message is probably that being alone isn’t as bad as people think it is. =) And you might pick up something completely different, like I did…
Angelina Gan asked me if my storytelling approach is based on Peter Orton's (wonderful!) presentation on using storytelling in business, so I thought I'd share how I started telling stories and what my favorite resources are.
I don't know exactly why I started telling stories instead of listing bullet points. Maybe it was because of the never-ending march of bullet-ridden presentations. Maybe it was because I kept skimming through business books that were all numbers or pithy sayings without anecdotes to make those statements come alive. Maybe it was because I watched terrific presentations highlighted on the Presentation Zen blog. Maybe it was because of the books I read about telling success stories to deepen your relationships with people, influencing change through story-telling, and telling effective stories. Whatever it was, I started collecting stories and sharing my own.
I'd taken up writing flash fiction (really short stories, typically 55 words long) in 2005, and that turned out to be surprisingly useful. Reading other people's flash fiction stories taught me that you could tell a story with conflict and character development in a paragraph or two, and that it was fun keeping an eye out for story material. I had originally gotten interested in flash fiction because it felt like a code optimization challenge, and because the stories were short enough for me to write during lunch or a subway ride, on pieces of paper or even on my cellphone. I never felt particularly literary (and in fact had gotten Ds in my English classes in university for lack of effort), but finding and telling stories (or in this case, making them up!) turned out to be a lot of fun.
So when I came across the business applications of storytelling--from social networking to influencing technology adoption--and I saw how it dovetailed with my passions, I jumped right into it. I started collecting stories. For example, I started my master's research by collecting stories about how people used Dogear (an enterprise social bookmarking system by IBM) so that I could figure out how people were using it in their work and how they could use it even more effectively. I collected stories to help me not only convince people to try out new tools but also give them models to follow and people they could relate to. I also told stories about what I was doing and how I was doing it, and that helped me get to know a lot of people as well. Besides, I love "catching other people doing well"--telling other people's success stories, especially when they don't realize they're doing well.
The results? People act on what I share. They make my stories their own. Not only that, people also tell me that they enjoy my presentations and that my enthusiasm is contagious. Giving presentations - telling stories, having conversations - has become a lot more fun.
How do I find stories? I keep an eye out for things that happen in real life, like this conversation I had with J-. There's a seed of a story in there, and by telling part of the story, I make it easier to remember later on. I also enjoy reading people's blogs, because they tell stories from their experiences as well. I read a lot - it certainly helps to have a public library within walking distance. Whenever I come across a particularly good story in any of these sources, I write it down, I bookmark it, I add it to my notes. When I work on presentations, I've got a general idea of relevant stories that I've come across, and then I use my notes to look up the details.
For example, I was preparing a presentation about University Relations and the Net generation. I didn't want it to be a boring list of bullet points or advice. I could've rehashed the presentation I gave at the Technical Leadership Exchange, but I wanted to make the most of my opportunity to speak with a group that could really make the most of Web 2.0. I remembered that some months ago, I had come across a terrific internal blog post about how a demonstration of IBM's internal social tools got an audience of university students really interested. I had bookmarked it as a story about Web 2.0 and recruiting, knowing that it would be useful someday. Well, that someday had come! I checked my bookmarks, went back to the blog post, refreshed my memory, and added it to my presentation. I'm sure that the story will make my point more effectively than a list of bullet points.
How can you get started with storytelling? Keep an eye out for story material. Develop a system for filing those stories so that you can find them again when you need them. Tell stories. I've linked to some of my favorite books in this post - check them out for more tips. Storytelling is effective and fun. Enjoy!