What's Your Story?

Biz Narrative Blog by Ruth Halpern

Observations and anecdotes about business narrative in the corporate world.

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.

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