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.