June 15, 2017 / Esther Choy

What do you do when you want to get to know your colleagues’ stories? How do you know how to ask for stories in a way that gets them to connect on a personal level?

Claudia V. Gamboa of SC Johnson found herself asking questions like this in September 2016 as she prepared an event for National Hispanic Heritage Month. Along with other members of SC Johnson’s Hispanic Business Council, she was planning to ask colleagues to write true stories and send them to the HBC. Participants would then be entered in a drawing to win free tickets to Hamilton – created by Puerto Rican-American Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Claudia knew, with good reason, that simply saying, “Write me a story,” would be deadly. People would immediately shut down.

So, how do you figure out how to ask for stories? How do you inspire good stories? Claudia worked with Leadership Story Lab to refine her prompts. At Leadership Story Lab, we believe asking story-prompting questions is as important as telling good stories! A good story prompt should ask a question that is specific enough to get people thinking, yet open-ended enough to inspire curiosity.

The Questions

In the end, Claudia gave her colleagues a choice of three questions:

1. If you could interview any author, poet, playwright, scientist, or management leader, who would it be? Why?

2. Cervantes is credited (for the most part) with inventing the modern novel. Lin-Manuel Miranda has reinvented our experience of a musical. What would be the best future invention? The invention can be in any area, such as an SCJ business, social, political, medical, financial, etc.

3. Colombian writer Gabriel García Marquez published his most popular novel, “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” in 1967. His parents’ relationship adventures inspired this great piece of literature which won him the Nobel Prize on Literature in 1982. What story did your parents tell you that has inspired you to accomplish great things?

What We Like About These Questions

Question 1: We love how this question starts to set up a scenario, but then leaves it up to the storyteller to finish it. Did you find yourself starting to think about who you would interview? I did!

And why does Claudia ask about interviewing somebody you admire? Why not just “who would you like to meet?” Well, interviewing really allows you to spend time with someone. So that word choice is powerful! Can’t you just start to picture grabbing coffee with this person or sitting next to them on the set of a talk show?

One last thing about this question. Since it’s being asked to a diverse group of people, it’s great that Claudia lets the storytellers choose from many fields—not just scientists, not just poets.

Question 2: We love that this question shows a strong connection to National Hispanic Heritage Month. The references to Cervantes and Miranda do this well.

But that’s not all. The connection with those authors provides a great example of how storytellers could think outside the box when it comes to “inventions.” We don’t always think of novels and musicals as inventions, but once upon a time they didn’t exist!

Claudia’s last sentence helps storytellers know where to look for ideas about new inventions. This gives storytellers one last push in the right direction.

And again, the examples cited reflect the diversity of the participants—inviting ideas for business inventions, and social, political, medical and financial innovations as well.

Question 3: This last question inspired the most emotional stories, says Claudia. We love the way it shares Marquez’s story, allowing storytellers to learn more about his novel and what inspired him.

And we like how the question lets storytellers use Marquez as a model. It invites them to reflect on what they know about their parents, just as Marquez did. This is an encouraging question, too, because it tells us how successful Marquez was. Storytellers can take courage from the fact that he met with such success when he reflected on his childhood!

We also like how specific this question is. It’s not just “tell me about your childhood,” but “tell me about this specific part of your childhood.” Not only that, the question primes storytellers to reflect on positive experiences in their childhood—the good stories their parents told them that inspired their current success.

Asking Good Questions:

  • Get storytellers to start imagining a scenario.
  • Provide examples from a range of fields.
  • Help storytellers think outside the box.
  • Give clues about where to look for ideas.
  • Provide a model.
  • Focus on the positive.

The Result at SC Johnson

Claudia and the council got their wish. Eighty-five people shared their stories! The Hispanic Business Council read the stories amongst themselves and got to know their colleagues on a deeper level. Outside of the group, stories were kept confidential. Claudia says this was key to making people feel free to open up and send in their stories. “This helped us understand the soul of our membership,” she says.

Half of those who responded were not Hispanic themselves, so it was a great opportunity for connections. Each person who entered automatically became a member of the Hispanic Business Council, so this added to the diversity of its membership.

Encouraging a Storytelling Culture

Storytelling is an official mandate at SC Johnson, and Claudia knows how valuable business storytelling is. In her own department, Research, Development & Engineering, many on her team have PhDs in chemistry, physics, Computation Fluid Dynamics and other highly technical fields. Storytelling allows RD&E to show the human side of the technologies they are discovering.

“We understand it,” says Claudia of these technologies, but people without technical backgrounds might not. Sharing stories with colleagues from sales, marketing and other departments is especially important, since those departments need to tell the public why the technology makes sense to adopt.

Claudia adds that storytelling makes the content more fun and more memorable: “Storytelling helps us connect better— with each other and then with the users.”

If you want to make storytelling an active part of your workplace culture, Claudia recommends leading by example in your workplace presentations, and encouraging others to reflect on which had more impact: the traditional data-filled presentation, or the one with storytelling?

It’s not always easy for everyone to make the switch to storytelling. Many people think “only creatives can do it,” she says. But Claudia urges people to consider the ways that storytelling makes content relevant to audiences. “It’s not about you,” she says of presenters. It’s about the connection the presenter can have with the audience.

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If you want to know how to ask for stories in your own business context, give us a shout! Schedule a complimentary communication training consultation today. For more tips and insights on storytelling, sign up for our monthly guide.

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Esther Choy

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.
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