March 27, 2020 / Esther Choy

work from home

As coronavirus has begun to spread in the U.S., many companies have urged or mandated that employees work from home. However, the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that working remotely is only possible for 29% of the American workforce. The rest of the U.S. workforce has jobs that must be done in person—there’s no virtual option for them. If we are part of the group for whom remote work is possible, we must acknowledge that working from home is an enormous privilege.

Of course, it can also be a learning curve, requiring not only self-discipline but also extra effort to bring our full selves to each virtual interaction. Leadership storytelling can certainly help with the latter. My company, Leadership Story Lab, has a dedicated and far-flung staff—from Illinois to Florida to Pennsylvania—that have long been working remotely. Since our founding in 2010, we have seen first-hand how leadership storytelling techniques enhance our work as we work from home.

1. Leadership Storytelling Helps Us Hook Attention.

Let’s be honest with ourselves here. Paying full attention while we work from home is hard. The kids are calling you, the refrigerator is beckoning you…. and how come all these notifications are still coming in despite you having turned them off?

So, if you’re in charge of a virtual meeting, what’s the best way to sustain everyone’s attention? Plant a hook. You can also do this in a meeting when it’s your turn to introduce yourself or present. You can mention something enticing you can follow up on later. For instance, “Hi, I’m Sara from the Data Analytics team. The recent analysis from last week revealed something surprising— something we need to act upon now! Thanks for calling this meeting today so we can create a plan.”

A strong hook usually involves conflict, contrast, or contradiction. To get it right, you must think about and understand your audience, as well as what it needs and finds interesting.

1. Conflict is a clash of forces or needs going in opposite directions. For people living in states with late primaries, for instance, how do you decide whether or not to go vote in the middle of the coronavirus outbreak? How do you balance the need to be a good participant in democracy with the need to keep people in that democracy healthy?

Here’s an example of a conflict business leaders might find themselves presenting: “Sales have been way down now that people are really practicing social distancing. The cost pressure is so high now and that’s precisely why we have to keep our entire hourly staff.”

2. Contrast juxtaposes opposite qualities like heavy and light, plentiful and meager or active and apathetic. For instance, consider the way Italian neighbors who were separated because of coronavirus began to sing together from their windows and balconies. The beauty and togetherness of this act contrasts with the uncertainty and social isolation caused by the virus.

Here’s an example of a business-related conflict: “We started the month with a full schedule of clients, and now, just two weeks later, our calendar is clear. What value-added services can we offer now to generate revenue?”

3. Contradiction goes against your audience’s expectations.

For example: “I recently pitched a new learning opportunity to a team. They were intrigued, and one of them immediately suggested that they use Zoom to get the most out of the experience. In this case, the ‘team’ happened to be my kids, the learning opportunity was a chance to learn Hindi from their grandma, and my son who suggested using Zoom is only five years old! I laughed out loud, surprised he knew what Zoom was! Kids are leading the way in adapting to work from home technology!”

From there, you can shape your story using classic storytelling structures. Kurt Vonnegut famously identified the shapes of stories, which I’ve adapted to business contexts here. The main thing to remember: straight lines are boring! Make sure to structure a story with peaks and valleys.

2. Leadership Storytelling Helps Us Illustrate A Point.

While we work from home, we don’t have the same big screens with PowerPoint decks. We don’t have glossy booklets to pass around. It can be more of a challenge to make our points stick when we don’t have these tools. But what we do have is a tool humans have used for generations to help reinforce the points or lessons they want to convey: storytelling!

My ski instructor Scott Palmer has done this more effectively than many other leaders do! One Presidents’ Day, the line to use the gondola to go up the mountain was extremely long—even longer than one would expect on one of the busiest days of the ski resort’s year.

By the time we were finally ready and arrived at the gondola, I was already tired from getting myself and the children ready with several layers of clothes, hand and feet warmers, ski boots, goggles, snacks, water, cash, helmets… the list just goes on…. So, when I saw the line at the gondola I already felt a sense of hopelessness.

Luckily, Scott had the idea to ask his supervisor to see if he could take us through the shortcut. Even as he was approaching his boss, a colleague of his was standing guard telling all of us in line that “everyone has to stand in line— no exceptions.”

Seeing someone in uniform and hearing an authoritative voice, most people would’ve just turned back. Not Scott. He asked for permission, and lo and behold, we were allowed to use the shortcut! We bypassed the line that snaked around the base of the resort and saved at least an hour.

As we happily settled into the gondola, Scott told us this fable.

Once there was a bear that had a list of animals he’d like to eat. Word got out and all the animals were scared. A deer approached the bear and asked, “Is it true that you have a list of animals you’d like to eat?”

The bear answered, “Yes.” So the deer inquired, “Am I on it?”

“Yes, you are,” said the bear and then proceeded to eat the deer.

Then came a sheep, and you can guess what happened next. On and on, as each animal posed the same question to the bear, and each ended with the same fate.

Finally, a duck went up to the bear and asked, “Is it true that you have a list of animals you’d like to eat?”

The bear answered, “Yes.” So the duck inquired, “Am I on it?”

“Yes, you are,” said the bear.

But before the bear could eat the duck, the duck asked, “May I please be taken off of your list?”

The bear thought about it for a moment, and then said, “okay.”

It can never hurt to ask, especially if you ask nicely!

As we ascended up the mountain on our gondola, I knew I would never forget Scott’s story.

Moreover, because I had not only witnessed and benefitted from an “it-never-hurts-to-ask” perspective, but had also been treated to this fable, I feel more empowered to ask for what I want even when I’m in situations where I might be afraid to do so.

Sharing the right stories at the right moment has a transformative power. Reinforce your point by telling stories.

3. Leadership Storytelling Helps Us Remember Each Other’s Humanity.

It’s almost impossible to interact with a child for even half an hour before hearing a story. They’ll tell you a story about their day. They’ll recount the plot of a favorite movie or show. They’ll invite you into a story about some fantasy world of their own creation.

But somewhere on the way to adulthood, we suppress this natural tendency, especially in the workplace, and even more so when we want to have efficient, transactional virtual meetings.

But that doesn’t change the fact that we still crave stories. In fact, Americans on average spend up to four hours a day immersing themselves in narrative-based activities.

Sharing stories is the most natural human thing to do. As the weeks of isolation wear on, we will crave human interactions that feel actually human—not merely transactional. So be prepared with stories that are short and to-the-point.

A few tips:

  • Set concrete goals. What do you hope your stories will accomplish? A stronger connection between co-workers? A deeper understanding of the data? How do you hope you’ll come across?
  • Pre-craft your examples and get feedback. Many of us struggle to come up with succinct examples that clarify, rather than muddy, our points. Rather than scrambling for a story on the spot, plan your basic story beforehand. Then run it by a friend or family member beforehand to see if it accomplishes what you hope.
  • Consider your Pitch, Pace and Pause. Controlling your voice in these three ways can add depth and interest in your story. Try changing one of these three, and see how the meaning of what you are saying changes. Also, make sure the verbal and nonverbal pair together. For instance, if what you are communicating needs reflection, say it slowly enough for people to think about it, and pause longer than you think you might need to afterwards. This is essential!

It’s not a performance. As email and texting have replaced phone calls, our anxiety about talking on the phone often feels like we’ve gone back to the anxiety people felt when telephones were first invented—when people worried that if they stood too close to one during a storm they might get struck by lightning! But each phone call is about forming connections. You aren’t being graded, and no one will think less of you if you stumble over a few words. No doubt they will have many other conversations during the day and this one’s fumbles will be quickly forgotten.

And in a video chat, don’t forget the basics:

  • Test your technology in advance.
  • Dress like you could at the office, even if it’s just your top half. Small, fussy patterns and extreme colors (red, white, black) fare poorly on camera. Pastels, cool blues and natural tones, on the other hand, do well.
  • Pay attention to the background. Mute your end of the video chat when you’re not speaking.
  • Look into the lens (it’s like looking them in the eye), especially when presenting or telling a story.
  • Make sure the camera is focused at your eye level.
  • Check that everything is disconnected afterward!
  • If you can only connect via audio, be sure to introduce yourself when you’re about to speak— “Hi, it’s Esther, and I wanted to add…” You never know if people will think your voice sounds just like someone else’s!

Armed with stories and tips, you will make the most of each virtual interaction, which we will need to do in coming weeks—not just for efficiency but also for the chance to enjoy these ever-briefer moments of interacting with people who are outside of our own homes.

Of course, when we work from home, conveying professionalism can be a challenge (especially if kids are in the next room!). In this article, I show how storytelling can help you establish your credibility.


Related Articles

Keeping Meetings Efficient When Data Is Involved

How Leaders Use Storytelling To Inform And Influence


If you need to weave stories into your virtual interactions when you work from home, we can help. We provide customized services to help you succeed. Give us a shout! Schedule a complimentary working session with us today. For more tips and insights on storytelling, sign up for our monthly guide. Also, my book, Let the Story Do the Work (published by HarperCollins Leadership), is full of storytelling advice, tools and templates!

This article by Esther Choy originally appeared on Forbes.com.

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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