Leading with Impact Through Storytelling

Do you ever have complicated data to share with a diverse audience?  Maybe you create detailed, colourful tables and charts that get deeply granular?  Do you ever think that maybe you’ve lost your audience when presenting important results orally or in print?  If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, it’s time for you to work on your storytelling skills.  You’ve mastered your science or subject matter and now need to shift focus on how to share it with others in a way that leads to action.

On July 23, 2020, I participated as a Coach for the Multicultural Women’s National Conference where I connected with three women leaders on the benefits of applying a storytelling approach to telling personal and business stories. 

While these women represent various industries and their experience spans from early in career to later-career, they shared the desire to lead with impact through storytelling.  Using a structure influenced by the work of Nancy Duarte and Simon Sinek, I was able to provide them with a method for stringing together their stories, pearl by pearl, until they had a necklace.

Why Storytelling
If you are asking yourself “Why storytelling,” you are already on the right track. One of the first steps in the process is understanding your “Why.”  Why am I telling this story?  Why am I giving this presentation?  What do I believe so strongly in that I want to drive people towards action?

Stories have been an essential driver of change throughout human history.  There are remarkable benefits of sharing your story.  Emotional, autobiographical storytelling can be a path to truly owning your story.  It can also lead to more cohesive teams and stronger organizational performance.

A well-known benefit of storytelling is finding your own voice.  What does it mean to find your voice?  It means learning how to express yourself and learning how to think about what has happened in your life in a way that makes sense.  Further, by ‘giving it away’ you can use your own journey to help others on theirs.  Helen Keller was the first blind and deaf person to learn how to read, write and speak.  She used her story to help fight for more opportunities for people with disabilities.

With clarity on the “why” we talked about the value of a strong and engaging opening.  What ideas might you have for a strong opener?  A SHOCKING story with a surprising twist serves as an excellent opener.  So too, do questions that immediately engage the audience, bringing them into your story.  Questions such as “Can you imagine…” and “I wonder if could ….”

Data Mining and More
The next step is probably the easiest – content gathering.  Using sticky note pads, I advised these women to write everything they knew to be true about their topic, one idea per sticky.  Spend time on Google, reading literature, if it’s a personal story, look in your diary.  Once the ideas are generated and documented, we discussed that the characteristics of a “good” story including a blend of emotional and analytical data.  Sorting through your stickies and denoting which ones contain analytical data, and which contain emotional, is the next step.  Do you think most people start this process with an equal balance?  Nope and that’s why this exercise is so important.

Now that we have balance, let’s analyze the content again but this time ask ourselves does the sticky of “signal” or “noise”?  Signal is a must-have, it’s content that needs to be part of your story because it adds a tremendous amount of value.  Noise is anything that distracts the audience from your story or the reader from your narrative.  Think about when you’re on the phone with someone and don’t have a clear connection and you can only understand every fifth word the other person is saying.  That’s distracting and prevents you from truly understanding what they are saying.  Content that is deemed noise might not have a place in this story but certainly save it for another.

Next, we talked about the importance of incorporating multi-sensory augmentation into one’s presentation or story.  This step along with the others is critical for both oral and written storytelling, and, it’s fun!  This is when you describe what things look like, feel like, sound like, taste like.  Let me offer an example from my own TED talk.  “I was naked, freezing, exposed.  My feet were especially cold atop the metal platform of the scale.”  How can you allow your audience to “marvel at the magnitude” (Duarte, 2019) of your data?  What metaphors might you use to ensure you are connecting with all?

The End
Let’s make sure that you’re clear on WHAT you want your audience to do.  What behavior do you want them to change as a result of reading your article or listening to your talk?  Do you want them to say “yes” to something?  Then clearly end with something like, “You’ve heard the story of how providing water filters to tribes living in remote villages in Africa impacts overall public health and well-being, enables parents to work and children to learn in school.  Will you join me on this journey to provide 100,00 filters by end of 2020?”  By using a storytelling approach to data sharing, people will connect with your why and say “yes” to your ask.  Perhaps an unintended consequence of using this approach is increased speaker confidence, especially after rehearsing. A lot!

In Action
Storytelling may seem like just another business buzzword, but, unlike other fads it’s a skill that has been around since the beginning of time.  Corporations around the world are training their end-to-end business partners in storytelling; I personally provide storytelling workshops to people around the world.  People are naturally more receptive to stories than to facts and figures.  Let me share a real-life example.

A team of volunteers at an international corporation had successfully designed and delivered a mentoring program with inner city high school students.  These students acquired knowledge, developed personally and delivered for the business.  After a few years the volunteers acknowledged that perhaps these students should be compensated for their time (this was a 2- year program that met most Saturdays).  After conducting external benchmarking, they decided that $5,000 per summer was fair.  They had a BIG decision to make on HOW to approach senior leadership. 

Imagine if you are that leader and someone says, “We need $5,000 per student for the mentoring program, okay?”  You might roll your eyes and say, “budgets are tight.”  Instead, this team approached senior leadership and tapped into their humanity.  “Mrs. VP, if you could change the trajectory of an inner-city high school students’ life for just $5,000, would you do it?  This is a future leader who shows up most Saturdays for the mentoring program and dreams of being the first family member to attend college.  What do you think?”  Using this storytelling approach that immediately engaged the leaders emotionally, every leader said “yes”!

Storytelling influences behavior.  I am seeing all different types of business development and sales executives use this approach with their clients.  They listen to their customer’s stories and then develop solutions to meet those needs by telling the story of their solution.  In one example a pharmaceutical sales executive chooses to connect with her oncology customers by being vulnerable and sharing that she, too, is a patient and she relies on this product.

In Summary
In her Ted Talk on the power of vulnerability, Brene Brown says, ‘Stories are data with soul’ and that ‘connections give us purpose in life.’  It is true, storytelling connects us and reminds us that we are not alone in the world.  To learn more about using storytelling in the workplace or personally, visit robynshumer.com

About the author

Robyn Shumer

Robyn Shumer

Johnson & Johnson, Associate Director Bridges – Talent Development & Leadership Development Program

Robyn Shumer is a leadership development expert and storyteller who seeks to amplify the skills and competencies, including ‘un-tapped’ genius, in all.  She is a storyteller and teaches the craft so that people are better able to share their personal and business stories successfully and in an engaging way.  “Preparing for and delivering a TED talk has been more impactful in my overall well-being, than all of the hours of therapy I’ve had,” she says.

She finds the bright spots amidst disorder and can make an audience laugh and cry.  Working mom, CEO of the family home, yoga teacher, executive coach, TEDx speaker and advocate for all thing’s mental health and well-being.  She enjoys helping people to see their strengths and HOW to leverage them coupled with a focus on reengineering fitness into their lives in a way that sets them up for success.  She is an engaging speaker who connects with all audiences. 

She is on the leadership team of Johnson & Johnson’s Mental Health Diplomats – a group dedicated to eliminating stigma around mental health.  She is also a national ambassador for the eating disorder non-profit, Project HEAL, adjunct faculty for the JNJ Centers for Leadership & Growth, facilitating “Captivating Communications” and is certified by the Wiseman Group to facilitate their training, “Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter,” at Johnson & Johnson.  Most recently she founded ‘What’s Your Story, USA,’ www.wysusa.com, an initiative that teaches storytelling and organizes storytelling events that also raise money for non-profits.  Connected to her community, she has been recognized as the volunteer of the year multiple times.

Robyn’s graduate work was in public health and a lifelong learner, she is a certified Executive Coach, certified yoga teacher and earned her Lean Six Sigma Greenbelt.

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