October 8, 2021 / Esther Choy

Storytelling culture changes a workplace!

Storytelling at a meeting? You bet it works.

Brian suspected that his all-department meeting had become a waste of an hour each week. A few people were sure to skip, while others would stare into space or constantly glance at the cell phone in front of them. The same two to three people gave input or asked questions when he presented company-wide updates, and a prolonged silence fell after he asked for feedback on proposed new projects. Brian felt he was missing out on valuable insights because of disengagement and maybe even people’s discomfort about speaking up. 

One Tuesday, at their usual time, Brian began by telling this story: “When I first heard they were making a watch that connected to your phone—that would give you alerts and measure your heart rate, and you could even take a phone call on it—I thought that was the dumbest idea I’d ever heard. Who in the world was going to take a call on a watch? Why would you want your texts on a screen that small? Not long after it came out, my wife’s friend got one, and when my wife saw her enjoying the different features, she wanted one too. And when I saw my wife enjoying her new smart watch, I got curious and jealous and got myself one too. Now,” he said, raising his shirt sleeve, “I wear this gadget every day. I never miss a call or message from my wife or my son, I get reminders to stand up and walk around, and I even skim emails quickly when I’m on the train coming to work. I was dead wrong about the success of this gadget and my feelings about it. So let me ask you all: what is something you were wrong about? When did you make a judgment that was wrong?”

Brian’s team were thrown off. This wasn’t their usual Tuesday morning meeting. When Brian told a personal story, they were suddenly interested in what was going on. When he shared a story of a time he was wrong, they found it relatable, and they felt comfortable enough to volunteer their own similar stories. When he got them thinking about the reality that we’re all wrong sometimes, he started their wheels turning and opened their minds to deeply consider the updates and projects he was about to show them. 

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That Tuesday, the department had an engaged meeting with participation and feedback. Brian used story to generate interest, make connections, and stimulate reflection.

Last time, we covered how business storytelling culture can change a company and improve your organization. Your natural follow-up question might be, how exactly do you create a storytelling culture? How do you take Brian’s example and leverage that into total cultural change? Here are some starting points.

1. Be a role model.

Brian opened the floor by volunteering his own story first. This was important for making people comfortable enough to share. Their own response and the responses of others to Brian’s modeled behavior motivated them to imitate him.

The first step to bringing storytelling culture to your organization is, simply, get people comfortable telling stories. You go first. 

2. Ask good questions.

Sometimes, you need to ask the right question to get the right story from people—the story that will get them to think or give you the information you are seeking. 

Some years ago, an SC Johnson Global Project Manager was strategizing how to get members of the company’s Hispanic Business Council to volunteer stories for National Hispanic Heritage Month. Working with us, she crafted carefully-workshopped prompts to accomplish her goal, commenting that they successfully “helped us understand the soul of our membership.”

Tell the right story for any business situation - we'll give you the tools.

3. Break out of conversation patterns.

I’ve told the story of my friend “Jane” and her listening vs. speaking demeanor here and in my book. An unenthusiastic listener will shut down a storyteller, breaking connection and possibly keep them from telling you vital information. This is why it’s so important to prioritize aggressive listening

Imagine Brian got his team to start offering helpful critiques of his project presentation, but then, he scrolled on his phone while they talked, or he interrupted people who spoke up. What effect would this have? Aggressive listening strategies like engaged body language (leaning forward, cupping your chin, eye contact, and others), asking clarifying questions, and paraphrasing what you’re told all send a message of validation and encourage others to keep sharing.

4. Turn data into stories.

Simply presenting data is a mistake. Without interpretation or implications, why should your audience get invested? If you don’t tell them what action you want them to take, what can they walk away with?

Use stories to make data consequential and to make it stick. Narrative components are crucial to understanding and remembering information, as neurologist and teacher Judy Willis wrote for Edutopia: “The four-step structure of narrative—beginning (Once upon a time…), problem, resolution, and ending (…and they all lived happily ever after)—forms a mental map onto which new information can be laid. When that new information, whether from algebra or history, is presented in the familiar narrative form, the memory structure facilitates the brain’s retention of that information.”

Our simple hack for structuring a narrative is IRS, which you can use in any setting.

At the heart of leadership lies persuasion. At the heart of persuasion lies storytelling. Leaders trained in storytelling have the tools to win support and enthusiasm for their projects and initiatives. If this resonates with you, become the force for bringing storytelling culture to your organization. Learn with us, and have fun doing it!


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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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