What's Your Story?

Biz Narrative Blog by Ruth Halpern

Observations and anecdotes about business narrative in the corporate world.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Crafting Your Business Narrative--a Lifelong Process

As a Business Narrative consultant, my job is helping people craft and tell the business stories that will help them win audiences. For both themselves and their organizations, they need stories that show:

• Who they are--what makes them unique and trustworthy?

• How they got to where they are today--how did their journey shape their destiny?

• Where they’re headed--what's their vision of the future, and their role in it?

Some of my clients are surprised to learn that, while I can easily help them with their stories, it’s been a long journey for me to develop my own business story.

I’ve been a Business Narrative consultant for over ten years. In that time, I’ve told people the story of what I do—helping people and organizations tell their best stories—at least 500 times. Each time, I lean in close, I study their faces as I tell my story, I look for the flash of understanding and the gleam of shared passion—I watch their faces to judge how my story is working. Then I go back to my dream space (aka, the corner chair in my office) to refine, rework, and retell the story. How best can I convey what I do? How can I vividly illustrate the benefits of working with me to create a powerful story?

This process takes time. And the best way to do the work is to tell your story, over and over, to a thoughtful, receptive listener who can help you take your story to the next level. What details should you include? How long should the story be? How technical? What images and metaphors are buried within the work itself that you can highlight and weave through the entire story?

I take each of my clients through this process. We begin with informal exercises that take us far afield from our final goal of a 10-second introductory story. We expand, explore, explain, digging for the buried treasure of their work stories. Only after we’ve collected a rich assortment of images and anecdotes do we begin to prune and shape the material into the actual story that they might tell to a prospect, colleague, or acquaintance at a social event.

As I tell them, a story is far more memorable than the “dead fish” of a job title or a business card. Stories build bridges between people, helping establish the relationships that all successful businesses thrive on.

By going through the story-crafting process consciously, my clients are able to expand and adapt their stories to fit different audiences and occasions. And when the core nature of their work changes, they come back to me again to help them modify or craft a new story.

If you’re ready to embark on the story crafting process, please contact me at info@rhalpernassociates.com.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Spreading the Word: How to Collect Your Organization's Stories

Want to motivate donors to give to your cause? Studies have shown that telling a story is the single most effective way to motivate donations—more than statistics, and even more than statistics and stories combined.

So: if you want to expand awareness of your organization, start collecting stories from everyone who comes in contact with you. Not only the beneficiaries of your work, but the employees, volunteers, and donors who make your work possible. This applies to both private and public sector organizations—because all of us need to motivate our target audiences to commit themselves to working with us.

Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking about the power of narrative to 150 people from non-profit food banks and soup kitchens. They were attending the annual Harvest of Knowledge Agency Conference hosted by the Second Harvest Food Bank. Their challenge, as assigned by Second Harvest's CEO, Kathy Jackson, is to collect stories from their clientele and share them with the Second Harvest Food Bank, so that the Food Bank will be better able to gather more donations.

I encouraged the group to broaden their definition of those whose stories they should collect to include food recipients, volunteers, individual and organizational donors, and themselves. All of these people are characters in the story of how Second Harvest nourishes people, in body, mind, and heart.

In order to fulfill their assignment of gathering stories, every one of the agency workers I spoke to must expand their focus--because food banks and soup kitchens are nourishing more than just the bodies of their hungry clientele. They’re not just moving food from storehouse to kitchen table. When they listen to their clients’ stories, they also nurture their sense of self-worth, and their ability to create meaning from their experiences.

All the members of the Second Harvest community can tell stories that answer:

• Who am I?

• What has led me to this place in my life?

• How do I envision the journey unfolding from here?

• What tools do I bring with me?

• What outside help is available to me?

• How is my journey enriched by my traveling companions, the obstacles I've overcome, the character strengths I've employed?

The challenge is to create the time and the place where these stories can be exchanged. In the day-to-day hustle of business, checking items off of to-do lists and making sure that perishable groceries are delivered on time and to the right place, how do you create an opportunity to hear people's stories? It can't be done through a written questionnaire or an online survey. Stories thrive on face-to-face interaction, on intimacy, on the listening ear and the delighted glance.

What does that mean for organizations in general? It means that story collecting needs to be a full-time, all-hands-on-deck, organization-wide activity. Everyone needs to make time for sharing stories, because your stories are the seeds that help your organization grow.

I encourage my clients to make a physical space for storytelling: Create a comfortable area for sharing stories, a table with two chairs facing each other, a pot of something delicious to share, an inconspicuous recording system, and most importantly, an eager ear waiting to be delighted by a story.

Then, create new ways to share the stories you collect. A website is classic, a newsletter works well, even a “tale of the week” email that celebrates both a story and the person who collected it. Your stories preserve and pass on your organization’s culture and values—don’t let them slip away.

If you would like to learn more about using stories to increase awareness of your organization, please contact me at rh@rhalpernassociates.com.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Power of Storytelling: Service Above Self

Last Thursday, I was invited to the Oakland Rotary Club to give a speech on “Galvanizing Your Colleagues with the Power of Storytelling.” To my delight, in a completely unplanned moment of synergy, the meeting opened with an electrifying illustration of my message: that a memorable story can transmit and reinforce the culture and values of an entire organization.

The motto of the Rotary Club is Service Above Self. Brief, concise, accurate. But how amazing when that abstract motto is embodied in a story like the one told by Past District Governor Brad Howard. In simple, direct language, he described the plight of a German family whose son fell into some kind of depression while on a Rotary Youth Exchange in Mexico City. His father flew from Germany to pick the boy up. Their return flight included a plane change in San Francisco. As they were changing planes, the boy collapsed, unable to walk.

The boy was sent to Oakland Kaiser, while Brad Howard contacted the Oakland club’s Executive Director, Lori Sinclair. She got on the phone with all the Rotarians in the region, and managed to find one who was fluent in German. This man went directly to the hospital, where he translated the terrible medical news for father and son: the boy had a brain tumor. It was growing so quickly that the boy was already starting to lose facial recognition and language. Surgery was required.

While the man was helping the father and son at the hospital, his wife was at Target, buying sweat pants, pajamas, toothbrushes and shaving gear—all the daily equipment that had been sent on to Germany when the father and son had to leave their flight. The Rotarian and his wife, two working parents, invited the German father to live with them and their children while his son was in the hospital. By sharing their home with him, they provided him with the daily routines and comforts of family that he would never have found in a hotel, alone and in crisis in a foreign country.

Soon the boy’s mother flew over from Germany to be with her son and husband. She, too, was invited into the Rotarian’s home, and received their care during the three weeks her son was in treatment.

The surgery was successful, but the cancer was so fast-growing that the boy needed chemotherapy as well. The question was whether he should remain at Oakland Kaiser, or return home to Germany. His parents, awash in the crisis of the moment, didn’t know what to do. So the Rotarian contacted the German health care system directly, explained the problem, and made all the arrangements to have the family flown home to Germany for treatment.

The boy is now responding well to treatment at home in Germany. And the Rotarian, Rich Hallock, has received a Paul Harris Fellowship in honor of his generous service.

I had the privilege of hearing this story from the stage. This meant I could watch the story's effect on the audience: I saw people’s shoulders relax, their faces open, their bodies lean forward, caught up in the emotional current of the story. At the end, that room of over 100 people gave Rich a standing ovation, and not a single eye was dry.

I was so moved I wasn't sure I'd be able to stand up and tell my own story, about the importance of using narrative to create a memorable, moving message. Everyone in the room was already on board, though--because the best example of the power of narrative had already been delivered.

Through workshops, keynote presentations, and one-on-one coaching, I can teach you how to galvanize your colleagues with the power of storytelling. If you would like to turn the experiences and anecdotes from a typical workday into a story that embodies your organization’s values and goals, please give me a call at 510-338-0241 or write to info@rhalpernassociates.com.

Learn more about the Oakland Rotary Club.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Cooking Up a Delicious Message

They say that if you can read, you can cook: Just follow the recipe, and you’re guaranteed success.

But just look at the sad form of this flattened-out chicken (the first time I’ve ever roasted a whole chicken). The recipe said “place in the pan,” so I did—wrong-side up, my chef-husband later told me, and all splayed out, he explained, because I didn’t truss it.

“But I followed the directions,” I complained. The recipe didn’t say “This side up,” nor did it say to truss the bird, nor how, nor where, nor why. I just did as I was told, and ended up with this funny-looking result.

How often the words on the page, or the sentences we speak, are based on assumptions and premises about the audience that are absolutely incorrect. Not everyone went to cooking school in Paris. Not everyone knows what you know about policies, histories, the Way Things Should Be Done.

How do we figure out what our audience doesn’t know, and make sure to address those gaps when we communicate?

• Question yourself—how did I learn how to do this?

• Put yourself in your audience’s place—what will make the process easy, clear, and rewarding for them?

• Test your communication on a sample audience with the same background/knowledge level you anticipate in your real audience.

Before you communicate, make sure you’ve included all the ingredients needed to cook up a satisfying exchange.

And by the way, as funny-looking as this chicken was, it tasted delicious.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Get inside the life of an outsider

One of my goals in delivering diversity training is to help participants develop understanding for the world-views of people from different backgrounds than their own. This is hard work: you have to want to do it, because it takes energy, empathy, openness, and patience.

This year, one way to expand your awareness of diversity is to go to the movies. Rarely have movie-goers had a chance to feel life outside the mainstream as strongly and viscerally as they do in the movie "Precious: Based on the novel 'Push' by Sapphire." Precious Jones is a quintuple outsider: African-American, female, a teenage mother, an incest survivor, and obese. She is also a deeply feeling, strong character, who we quickly come to identify with, root for, and love. For her, an "ordinary day" is fraught with threats and dangers--harassment, humiliation, physical and sexual assault--that many of us have never had to contend with, yet we follow her because she pushes forward with persistence, sass, and a powerful imagination. This is why storytellers say that "you can never hate a person once you know her story."

This movie is a gift: an opportunity to inhabit a world that, while it may seem foreign in some respects, is as passion-filled and worthy of respect as any that has been portrayed in more "mainstream" movies.

I emerged from it shaken, and enlightened.

What more could a diversity trainer ask for?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

When the facts defy our beliefs

This week, NPR aired the story of Brian Korbon, a 9 year old boy who, it appears, knew he was going to die shortly before he did. The story was recorded at a Storycorps booth, which is part of a national project to record people's stories about friends and family, nationwide.

In addition to being a powerful, loving tale of a vibrant boy and his parents' loss, I find myself pondering this statement: The father, Gregg Korbon, says, "It wasn't in my belief system that something like that could happen."

There he was, an anesthesiologist, watching his son gather his possessions, write goodbye notes to his friends, and announce that he "wasn't going to see double-digits" (meaning wasn't going to live till he was 10), but the father couldn't HEAR this.

The father's belief system did not allow for the possibility of losing his beloved child, never mind that the son might know that this was going to happen.

This story gives me shivers for so many reasons: The boy's foreknowledge, the mother and father being forced to accept the son's wisdom about his imminent departure, and most of all, the reminder that this story gives all of us: There are realities that all of us are unable to see because they don't fit into our belief systems.

How does this play out on an organizational level? What realities are invisible because they don't fit into our organizational vision of what is possible? Attainable? Real?

How vital it is that we listen, pay attention to the facts, try to see past the filter of our beliefs to what is possible--and real.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Public Speaking--Read Your Audience, Not Your Notes

Last night I had the honor of speaking at the Commonwealth Club of California, a historic institution dedicated to sharing knowledge and information on many subjects. It was a great honor to be there, and I had worked hard to prepare.

My session was on "Galvanize Your Colleagues with the Power of Storytelling," and it was very well-attended. Business people know that they need excellent communication skills in order to succeed, and knowing how to craft and deliver an effective story is a key tool. The crowd was engaged and curious, which was a delight.

My favorite part of any presentation is the Q&A, when I get to learn more about the questions that my ideas have inspired in other people. There were many interesting comments, but one in particular really stood out for me:

One woman asked whether there's a particular personality type (think Myers-Briggs or another personality profiling tool) that is especially adept at telling stories, or one for which it's harder to become a good storyteller?

What a great question! So many of us are fearful of public speaking, and more so if we think, "Oh, I'm not a good enough storyteller to stand up there and talk. It doesn't come naturally to me. I'm too dull/nervous/verbose/fill-in-the-blank."

As a business narrative coach and teacher, I believe that everyone of all personality types has a story to tell, and everyone can learn to tell it effectively. So much of the challenge in crafting a story is knowing what to include and what to leave out. What level of detail is appropriate? When is it OK to digress? How do you keep people engaged enough in the overall suspense of the story that they're willing to follow you into more technical material?

The best way to determine how much to say on each of your story points is audience awareness and responsiveness:

• Learn as much as possible about your audience BEFORE you speak to them.

• While you're talking, DO NOT read your PowerPoint, your script, your detailed notes.

• Do not rotely repeat a memorized program.

• Instead, read the audience. Are they looking at you? Are their faces confused/blank/disinterested? Are heads nodding because people are in enthusiastic agreement, or because they're on the verge of dozing off?

• Be prepared to adapt your story. If you see that you're losing people, move forward towards your conclusion--the happy ending, the call to action, the REASON you're speaking in the first place.

• Don't be afraid to ask questions. Draw your audience in by asking for a show of hands on a relevant topic. Don't answer for them. Allow silence in the room, time for people to think, digest, and respond.

No matter your personality type, when you can read and respond to your audience, and you know your material intimately, you can deliver a powerful, memorable business story. And sometimes, the best way to master your story and deliver it well is to work with an experienced story coach. Call me next time you have an important presentation to give, and you'll see what a difference it can make.