July 6, 2020 / Esther Choy

storytelling exercise

After months of lockdown, companies around the country have been opening up. As new office layouts and social protocols are emerging, many leaders are concerned with their teams’ productivity. So what if there were a 15-minute storytelling exercise that, when done daily for ten days, could boost work performance by 23%?

Research has shown that when employees spent just 15 minutes per day reflecting on what they learned that day, they began to perform 23% better after just 10 days.

We can encourage a culture of reflection when we ask our coworkers for stories. When we ask questions that prompt others to tell stories, we’re asking them to tease meaning out of a random event. Often, people don’t draw out the meaning from events unless they are asked to—despite the benefits!

Encouraging reflection by asking each other for stories does two things. It makes our work more productive, and it also makes our conversations feel more meaningful as our offices re-open.

Let’s face it. We need meaningful conversations. We’re dangerously starved for variety in conversation these days. We crave conversation with a new set of people who have new sets of interests that can enlighten us.

When we go back to work, it’s going to be hard not to overdo some aspects of our interactions. It’s like opening the fridge when we’re over-hungry and suddenly finding that we’re gorging ourselves indiscriminately. Finally… after months and months, we have new listeners! People outside of those we were quarantining with!

Specifically, it will be tempting to unload on our listeners rather than making sure our interactions are meaningful and well paced. It will be tempting to whine or talk about ourselves, rather than asking, “what good does this conversation do?”

Taking Inventory: A Simple Storytelling Exercise

But we can make every conversation more meaningful. How? Try this simple storytelling exercise. Take inventory of shared experiences— all the things you’ve gone through during your time of social isolation that your co-workers are likely to have gone through too. Have you started a new hobby? Met a crazy deadline? Learned a new skill you’ve been meaning to learn for years? These are all experiences many people share and can relate to, and that will prompt their own reflections.

As you take inventory, look for experiences that my colleague Kelly Standing calls “not too shiny” and “not too whiny.” Storytelling is about bonding with other people. It’s about finding what we have in common. What did you do with the kids when there was no summer camp, for instance? What kinds of interruptions did you have to handle? How did you rise to the challenge?

Veer toward stories about overcoming something. These stories are gems because they showcase your character. And, in turn, they can make others reflect on what they themselves have overcome recently.

Craft Your Story

When I emerge from social isolation, I might share the following simple story. During our sheltering-in-place, my husband and I had to continue working without any extra help around the house. Now, my kids are at the age where they should start learning to pitch in with more household chores. They understand this, but they are not used to it. It was time for them to buckle up and pitch in.

This, of course, takes patience from mom and dad. We couldn’t expect our kids to go from 0 to 100 on the perfect housekeeping scale in a matter of days.

So we had to calibrate our expectations. My oldest daughter began to learn, for instance, that when she washes the dishes, cleaning the sink is also part of the job. And now she cleans the sink and the countertops as well. But it took weeks and about ten thousand reminders!

This brief story works well because I can quickly set up the scene (we have more work and less help), present the main challenge (training our kids to pitch in), and what we learned (recalibrate our expectations).

Ask Others For Stories

The best way to encourage others to tell stories is not to just ask point blank, “tell me a story,” but to have two or three go-to questions ready. For instance, you might ask, “what was most surprising to you during the lockdown?” Or “what changed in your work routine from the beginning of the time to the end of it?”

Is it possible to ask for stories without coming across as nosy? That’s always a delicate balance. I try to ask questions that will prompt stories that are personal but not private. They should be personal enough to be meaningful, but not so private it feels like therapy.

Little changes—such as asking questions that inspire stories— could create big impact, but even little changes require preparation and reflection. Your team’s productivity, their sense of connection with your organization, and their feeling of belonging could benefit from how you approach conversations during this transition period as offices reopen.


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Want to incorporate a storytelling exercise like this into your corporate culture? We can help. Schedule a complimentary working session with us. For more examples of the right stories to tell at the right time, sign up for our monthly guide. My book, Let the Story Do the Work (published by HarperCollins Leadership), is now available and serves as your business storytelling toolkit.

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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