November 12, 2020 / Esther Choy

The holiday season can always be stressful, and 2020 comes with extra challenges. Every invitation requires a risk analysis. And if we “go virtual” with friends and family, we may worry about finding true connections. Not only that, grief and loneliness may surface. These are stressful times. Storytelling can’t turn the clock back to earlier holiday seasons, but it can help us navigate this year better. Here’s your storytelling holiday survival guide.

    1. Storytelling diminishes holiday stress.
    2. Storytelling turns small talk into strong connections.
    3. Storytelling makes families stronger.

1. Storytelling reduces holiday stress.

Studies have shown that reminiscing can reduce stress. Reminding yourself of the stories of your past is good for your brain! 

“Reminiscing can help boost the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin,” says Alex Korb, neuroscientist, postdoctoral researcher at UCLA. Serotonin, in turn, increases positive feelings. 

Research from Loyola University uncovered a similar finding: 20 minutes of reminiscing each day cheered people up. And if your stress stems from loneliness, nostalgia is a good way to fight those overwhelming waves of isolation.

“Nostalgia counteracts loneliness by reminding you that you have social support,” according to a 2008 study published in Psychological Science.

Nostalgia, the study’s four researchers found, is a “psychological resource that protects and fosters mental health.” 

Loyola professor Fred Bryant adds that reminiscing can give you “a sense of being rooted, a sense of meaning and purpose—instead of being blown around by the whims of everyday life.”

However, it’s vital to truly reminisce, rather than ruminating. 

Being specific about your memories is one way to reminisce rather than ruminating, as University of New Brunswick psychology professor emeritus David A. Clark points out in his book Mood Repair Toolkit.

When we’re depressed, our memories tend to be less specific. We think, “sure, winter activities can be fun,” instead of “sledding with my kids last Saturday was fun.” The specific memory of the kids’ rosy faces, their laughter, the taste of hot chocolate afterward is the one that will lift your mood—it contains specific sensory details that help you experience the event all over again.

Even better news? Usually, thinking about one positive memory will lead you to other positive memories.

So don’t be afraid to be nostalgic this season. 

“When you’re nostalgic about something, there’s a little bit of a sense of loss—[the moment has] happened, it’s gone—but usually the net result is happiness,” says, social psychologist Clay Routledge of North Dakota State University, who has spent a decade studying the phenomenon.

Reminiscing—the kind that does boost your mood— can take practice.

“It needs to become almost habitual,” says Bryant, “spending time daily or weekly looking back on those moments. If you create a routine it may eventually become automatic.”

I’ve found a method for capturing such stories in just one minute a day. I shared that method here.

2. Storytelling turns small talk into strong connections.

Whether we see others virtually or in person this season, we’ll want to make the most of every opportunity to connect. 

Any time we spend with others offers a chance to do some serious story collecting. In fact, if you’re someone who dislikes small talk, the best thing to do is to start listening aggressively to anyone you’re in conversation with. Focus on getting them talking, and the conversation can easily become more meaningful.

Here are three tips.

a) Let your body language say, “I’m all ears.”

To listen aggressively, look at the other person most of the time while they’re speaking. 

When you aren’t looking directly at them, focus on a nearby empty space. This not only helps you avoid “staring them down,” it also communicates that you’re thinking deeply about what they are saying. 

Also, uncross your arms and legs to avoid looking defensive or closed. When you need to come across as especially engaged, lean forward with your loose fist supporting your chin (like the sculpture “The Thinker.”) 

Your body language should say, “I’m listening!”

b) Let others impress you.

When someone mentions something that reminds you of your accomplishments, you might be tempted to interject with your story.


Interjecting can be seen as stealing the spotlight. Focus on their story. Stick with it, asking good questions, and thinking through what it means.

c) Ask crazy good questions.

When you ask good questions, you enrich conversations and walk away learning new things, hearing vivid stories and building stronger relationships. And asking questions naturally leads to story collecting.

Use these questions to get you started:

  • “What has surprised you the most this past year?”
  • “How has this year at your company been different from last year?”
  • “What is your favorite place you’ve ever traveled to?”

After the conversations, reflect on the stories you’ve heard. How do they make you feel? What do they mean to you? 

Share your impressions back to the person who told you the story. Their response can help you decide whether you might have just heard a story you want to share with others later (with permission, if the story is a personal one).

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Story collecting can give you a full “story library” to peruse so that, in the workplace, you can pick out the story that is best suited to each type of audience you want to persuade.

And all that from simple holiday “chit-chat.”

3. Storytelling makes families stronger.


If you are having a smaller-than-usual family gathering this year, it’s an ideal moment to collect and preserve family stories.

Why take the time for this?

Instilling confidence

The family memories that get preserved mean a great deal, especially for the next generation. 

Children who have the most confidence have a sense of “intergenerational self,” reports Sarah Williamson in her New York Times article, The Stories That Bind Us. “They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.”

Bolstering resilience

Preserving family memories builds and bolsters resilience, as well. 

Children who grew up hearing family stories could moderate the effects of stress more easily, says Williamson. 

And this benefit is not just for families. The same advantages, she notes, extend to “successful human enterprises of any kind, from companies to countries.”

Making meaning

“In telling the story of how you became who you are, and of who you’re on your way to becoming, the story itself becomes a part of who you are,” says Julie Beck in “Life’s Stories.”

Making meaning is the job of a parent, in essence. 

Parents can outsource childcare responsibilities to trustworthy caretakers through carefully laid out parameters. But parents cannot outsource the responsibility of instilling values, molding identity, and shaping personalities. 

They cannot outsource collecting family memories. The holidays and the new year offer opportunities to intentionally set aside time.

One final word about storytelling this season… 

Look for storytelling lessons all around you.

For instance, you know those catchy (some would say annoying) holiday songs that get stuck in our heads this time of year?

They’re the perfect learning opportunity.

After all, as a leader, don’t you want your own messages to be just as memorable?

Here are three lessons to take from some of the most popular Christmas songs of all time.

1) Match Message & Delivery

Silent Night is an example of a Christmas song that matches message and delivery. Sure, it’s possible to belt out the lyrics if you want to, but as Peter Tregear of the University of Melbourne notes, the melody encourages soft, gentle singing. The tune “has the contours and style of a lullaby,” notes Tregear. 

Likewise, business leaders must ensure their delivery matches the message they want to convey. In interviewing, presentation delivery or even when you have to deliver bad news, matching your message and delivery is important.

Also, if you are excited about your work and think your listener should be too, make sure ALL aspects of your delivery convey this sentiment. 

For instance, one of our individual coaching clients told us he felt enthusiastic about his work, but his tone of voice and his facial expressions did not reflect that. His message was falling flat. We helped him align message and delivery. 

I often say during trainings, “If you are talking about something exciting, make sure your face knows it too!”

2) Repeat, repeat, repeat

I was fascinated to learn that the human brain actually likes repetitive songs. Research from The Music, Mind and Brain group at Goldsmiths University of London found that most of the 1,000 catchiest songs are incredibly repetitive. 

That’s part of what has made Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” the third most popular Christmas song of all time.

The takeaway for leaders? Turn your most important point into a refrain. Say it often–even more than you think you need to. Give people something to hang on to and remember.

If you are delivering a data-heavy presentation, you can repeat the key number you want them to remember multiple times (for instance, “20% increase in revenue”). Repeating key numbers is helpful for fundraising, too: “Donate $500. $500 feeds 100 children. Your gift of $500…”

3) Champion the Underdog

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer galloped to the top of the charts because of its heartwarming story of an unlikely hero.

The “underdog” plot is one of the basic plots that works especially well in a business context. 

In my book, Let the Story Do the Work, I mention billionaire John Paul DeJoria of Paul Mitchell hair care system and the Patrón Spirits Company. DeJoria exemplifies the underdog or rags-to-riches story, having been homeless twice before starting Paul Mitchell with just $700.

DeJoria tells this story frequently. And no wonder! When people hear stories that follow this plot, they feel empathy toward the protagonist’s plight, and then inspired and motivated by the teller’s victory. 

They begin to think, “well, if they succeeded in such adverse circumstances, why can’t I succeed too?”

Tell that story to your team when you most want to inspire them.

As you tune in to holiday songs this season (or try to tune them out), consider what makes them so popular. Then, at the next meeting or presentation you find yourself in, consider whether the speaker is using the same techniques to make their message get stuck in your head. Finally, consider how you could you apply these techniques yourself.

From all of us at Leadership Story Lab, we hope you have a peaceful holiday season, full of meaningful stories. If we can help with your storytelling this season or in the coming year, please feel free to contact us.

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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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