October 30, 2022 / Esther Choy
As discussed in my recent Forbes article about storytelling techniques for explaining complex ideas, there are different strategies you can use to make sure your audience understands what you mean when you are using common, but complex abstract ideas. Here is one more business storytelling strategy to use when you feel stumped and need help finding your own pathway into understanding a common but complex topic.
Tell a story…by exploring the topic with a thought exercise
Some ideas are so simple and universal, you think you know what they mean. But when you are asked to talk about them you find your mind goes blank. Hope, for example, is one of those words. What exactly does it mean to have hope? How does it feel? Why is it important?
American poet Emily Dickinson’s canonized poem answers all these complex questions with an image: “Hope is a thing with feathers / that perches in the soul, / and sings the tune without the words, / And never stops at all.” In this poem, Dickinson conjures the image of a tenacious bird perched inside of you singing through wind and rain. The image is able to convey the complexity of hope demonstrating its strength, its urgency, and its lightness simultaneously with an emotion-laden image.
We are not all poets equal to Emily Dickinson, but we can use her format of creating images to get at the heart of the idea we want to understand. Here’s how:
- Choose your word/idea: Maybe it’s “leadership” or “teamwork” or “privilege.”
- Now on a sheet of paper, write “Leadership is…leadership is…” etc. and fill in the blanks with the first image that comes into your mind. The key here is to pair the abstract noun that you want to understand better with a concrete image—something you can see, touch, taste, smell or hear.
- Don’t censor yourself. Write quickly, keeping your hand moving across the page.
- Fill the page.
While some of what you write during this exercise may make no sense at all, the practice of reflecting on your concept will help you uncover at least one or two stories or metaphors that will help you explain the concept you are trying to communicate. When you have completed your quick write, go back and underline the one phrase that stands out above the rest. Now like Emily Dickinson, take time to flesh out this image into an extended metaphor or story.
Here Certified Story Facilitator Luawanna Hallstrom has developed a story about home remodeling as an illustration for what it’s like to go on a journey of rediscovery.
About 3 years ago, somewhere pre-pandemic, my husband and I embarked on a home remodel. What that meant for us was a do-it-yourself adventure; only purchases that would allow the necessary changes desired to our home would be allowed.
It turns out that this re-imagining of our home, while accomplishing our goal within the boundaries set, had an even bigger lesson for us. Breathing new life into our home, old became new.
We realized we certainly had already collected plenty of furniture and objects over our 40 plus year journey together, and in fact we could discard a few things. We learned that buying decorative home objects should come to a halt; because let’s face it, at some point where are you going to put all that stuff?
In the end, and with the help of a good consultant, we learned that the things we had could be relocated and re-grouped, changing our perspective. And in that light emerged what we could not see before. The process breathed new life into our home that truly reflected who we are today.
This story gives a concrete example of what it feels like to see something familiar in a new way and helps us understand what Hallstrom means when she starts talking about rediscovery.
In light of the Great Resignation, more companies are trying to understand how to put into practice the abstract concept of gratitude. How do you make your team members feel valued and appreciated?
By doing this exercise with your team using the word “gratitude” you will learn how your team members understand the concept and have a chance to listen to their stories. The insight gained from this session will help your company better show its appreciation to your unique team members.
This exercise can also be used as a brainstorming tool. What is a tough subject your team is working on together and needs to share with others outside your team? Perhaps it’s cryptocurrency or AI customer service. Whatever the term, this exercise can help you work as a group to figure out the best methods for communicating its meaning with an outside audience.
Join us at our next Story Lab to practice this and other business storytelling strategies.
Better Every Story
"This is an amazing and insightful post! I hadn’t thought of that so you broadened my perspective. I always appreciate your insight!" - Dan B.
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