March 29, 2024 / Esther Choy

When it comes to leadership storytelling, most people imagine the “sage on stage” sharing personal stories to inspire and persuade their audiences. But leadership storytelling has another side to it: story facilitation. It’s equally important and impactful to listen and help draw out stories  from other people and give them the space to tell stories. Every story needs a listener. And some of the most urgent stories of our time need a story facilitator to draw them out.

This is why some leaders invested in leading a change toward a more equitable world are learning to implement story facilitation in their practices. As a “guide on the side,” they help other people share stories. The impact of story facilitation is no less great or important than storytelling. Through facilitation, leaders are raising up new storytellers and amplifying their impact.

Ellis-Smith Builds Trust And Amplifies Impact Through Story Facilitation

Stephanie Ellis-Smith is the CEO and founder of Phīla Engaged Giving, a philanthropic advisory firm that works with donors to activate their assets for social change. “We intend and hope that our charitable guidance helps bring about transformative solutions for ultra high net worth families, their offices, and also the communities that they hope to serve,” Ellis-Smith explained.

Though she’s never felt comfortable stepping into the spotlight to tell her own stories, she understands that storytelling is a key to unleashing the kind of transformation her firm is engaged in.

She came to storytelling facilitation through the fundraising profession. On her fundraising calls, she found many high-net-worth individuals had a lot of questions and experiences they were wrestling with in their philanthropy.  “I am good at listening to other people’s stories…” said Ellis-Smith. “And a lot of people do want to talk. They want to share their experiences, their concerns, insecurities about certain things.” Through these free-ranging conversations, Ellis-Smith learned she was well suited for the role of listening, drawing other people’s stories, and helping them understand the through line.

She now proactively practices this skill of story facilitation with her clients at Phila Engaged Giving. In her role as an advisor, she believes her most important responsibility is to “create the environment where they can do their own best thinking.” By listening and engaging with her client’s stories, she is able to help to step outside their comfort zone and create the impact they desire with their philanthropy.

But her story facilitation isn’t limited to private conversations, she often helps her clients like Bill and Holly Marklyn craft their stories for public storytelling. This form of storytelling helps highlights innovative ways of enacting charitable giving. “Wealth can come with isolation,” Ellis-Smith explained. “And if you can connect to peers, you feel like you’re not the only one out there doing something different or radical all by yourself.”

A banner describing Story Lab, a complimentary service to workshop stories with a facilitator.

The Power Of Story Facilitation

Whether or not we realize it, the stories we tell shape our identity and how we see the world. Community organizer and executive director of The Hearth, Mark Yaconelli believes in the power of story facilitation as a means to achieve more equity and a kinder world. In his book, “Between the Listening and the Telling: How Stories Can Save Us,” (Broadleaf Books, 2022) he shares how storytelling facilitation can help heal, transform, and connect communities that have been traumatized. He has worked with groups of refugees, mass shooting survivors, and many others to help them tell their stories in community.

Neuroscientists describe the power of listening to storytelling as transportation. When a story is well told, and a community listens, they are transported into the time, space, and emotion of the storyteller. “We are all sharing this story together,” Yaconelli explained in an interview, “It’s a kind of communion.” Yaconelli believes that these storytelling moments allow us to connect others, even those with different worldviews. If we are able to listen to other people’s stories, we are able to see ourselves in their lives, he said.

In his book, he describes the power of story facilitation like this: “If humanity is to survive and flourish, we need to do the slow work of congregating and exchanging stories and lessons from what we have lived. We need to nurture our capacities to listen well and speak honestly…We have to pay attention to who is talking and who is listening. We have to notice who is there and who is missing. We have to go out and coax those who have been excluded from the conversation to share what they know to be true.”

An Invitation To Facilitate Storytelling

Ellis-Smith and Yaconelli are finding ways to create space for storytelling among the people around them. They are doing the often unnoticed work of listening and asking good questions. They are sitting forward in their seats, ready to be transported.

Do you know someone or a community with stories that needs to be told? How will you help them tell their stories? Are you ready to listen?

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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"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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