“I am not really comfortable with storytelling. I don’t see how I can use it in my work”. This is a typical response from senior managers/executives to the idea of attending a storytelling workshop. And what’s more, I understand where they are coming from. As a BBC journalist, I was a professional storyteller – every day looking for the nugget of gold that I could mine to tell a story about something that had changed in the world.
But telling other people’s stories was much easier than telling my own. Journalists don’t like being the centre of the story – it makes them, among other things, feel vulnerable. What I have learned as a trainer, moderator and coach is that storytelling is about sharing experiences – either your own or someone else’s – so that you connect and build rapport, trust and credibility with those around you.
Research shows that our brains are hardwired to listen and to tell stories. Stories are how we think, make meaning of life and explain how things work. They help us make decisions, persuade others, create identities and teach social values.
In a business or organisational setting storytelling helps to sell, educate, inspire and motivate. It is a strategic tool that can bring you closer to your colleagues, clients and peers and transform how you and your organisation are perceived.
How to tell stories
All of the above holds true if the story is well told. It needs to have a clear structure so that it is easy to follow and relevant to the audience. In everyday life, we tell stories to our friends without necessarily drawing a morale or lesson learnt. If you are telling a story in a professional context you must always have a point.
In my workshops, I often tell a personal story about how I lost the equivalent of my annual salary when I first joined the BBC, due to poor advice by a former financial advisor in Geneva. He put me in funds that were far too risky for my investment profile, and which either collapsed or were suspended by the regulator. I explain how I then tried (and am still trying!) to expose his wrongdoing. I tell this story showing that there are different structures that you can use to achieve different impacts, as well as different rhetorical techniques to make it memorable.
It is a story that shows who I am – illustrating my values – trust, perseverance and quest for justice. It is a story that I could use to show people the type of person I am and why they should believe in me or want to work with me.
But it is also a story that can be used to teach a lesson – underlining the importance of assuming responsibility for your finances. I could also tell this story to motivate change by shedding light on what is wrong about the present way Swiss independent financial advisors are regulated and the need for tougher regulation.
Everyone is a storyteller
I hope that none of you have to tell a story like this, but if you are looking for a story, one of the simplest ways is to think about a key moment in your life – positive or negative – and reflect on the lesson learnt.
I also advise people to start to build a library of stories. Think about:
• Moments that made you who you are or who clarified your values
• Moments when you discovered your voice or leadership potential
• Difficult moments in business but worthwhile struggles or extraordinary feats
• Dangerous mistakes in business
• Stories of how your company handled the past
• Stories of how the future could look bright or dark
Start to catalogue stories that might serve as powerful illustrations of your ideas, register other peoples or institutional stories (anecdotes) that could illustrate a point you want to make or think about universal myths and fables that you can use as metaphors and analogies.
We are all storytellers but we are not always aware of it. Have the courage to tell a story and you will see that it can be your most valuable asset and even give you competitive advantage.
PS If you would like to know more about the story of my financial advisor, please email me. My purpose is naturally to warn you against using him!
PPS If you are interested in learning how to become a master storyteller, I run two courses – on public speaking and on storytelling in business.
Please get in touch by email or book a 30-minute discovery call.
I vividly remember getting criticised on Twitter for moderating two “manels” – all male panels – during a half-day event at the European Parliament in Brussels some years ago. It would have been a “manference” – a conference where only men speak – if the organisers hadn’t remembered to invite one woman to give a presentation.
The organisation, EU Panel Watch, was right to criticise. I should have refused to moderate the all male panels. Unfortunately, moderators rarely get a say in the selection of speakers. I now advise clients on how to design panels and conferences which are diverse, balanced and engaging – these are the principles I applied when editing BBC radio and TV news programmes.
Still EU Panel Watch’s latest annual report on women’s representation and speaker diversity on policy panels in Brussels shows change is slow and much more effort is required.
In 2018, out of 1583 speakers at conferences the organisation monitored in the “Brussels bubble”, only around one third were women – this held true for panels and keynote speeches. Shockingly, 26% of panels were all men and three quarters of them also had a male moderator. At these rates, EU Panel Watch estimates we can expect to see gender parity in 80 years!
The organisation recommends that event organisers take a pledge to never organise an all male panel, and strive for a diverse list of speakers to reflect wider societal views and standpoints.
It’s a pledge that hundreds of diplomatic missions, international organisations and NGOs have taken as part of the Geneva-based International Gender Champions initiative. In their words “50 per cent of the population warrants the same visibility as the other 50 per cent.”
However, event organisers have told me it can be difficult to find women with the right expertise and status – no doubt a consequence of the glass ceiling that women experience in many professions.
At a recent medical conference where I was training moderators, women said all male panels were a systemic problem in their field. They feared this would put off young women from joining the profession and contribute to undermining the credibility of women in science in general. A fear confirmed in an analysis by Nature magazine. The piece documents eight years of medical panels and concludes by pointing out that the situation is improving, yet it is easy to fall back into old habits.
The article also points out that while it is important to invite women to speak, it is more important to listen to them.
The women at the medical conference told me about the gender discrimination happening there. One female colleague witnessed a male co-facilitator trying to muscle in both physically and verbally to take over from the female co-facilitator. In another panel, two male moderators were patronising towards the two female speakers – an observation she said were shared by other women in the sessions.
This unacceptable behaviour only underlines the importance of the moderator ensuring all speakers get equivalent speaking time and challenging those who interrupt or talk over other speakers. Men who dominate the discussion or who are sexist have to be held to account
Change can happen
A few months before Emmanuel Macron became President of France, he was on a panel I was moderating on gender parity. During the discussion, I gave him the card of a women I had met at the conference who was a gender parity expert. His team invited her afterwards to speak at his En Marche political rallies.
The current gender imbalance on panels and at conferences mirrors the gender gap in wider society. That is why UN Gender Champions asks not only for a pledge for panel parity from member organisations, but also for two commitments to move gender equality forward in their institution.
Mounting an exhibition is one of the most challenging but potentially rich types of storytelling, as you have the scope to appeal to the senses of sight, hearing and, in some cases, touch. Curators must find a theme, and weave a red thread or “fil rouge” through the lives of their famous and talented subjects to create a story that gives deeper insight and meaning to their work.
Unfortunately, the exhibition “L’aventure de la beauté” about the life of Helena Rubenstein failed to bring alive the story of the woman who invented skincare and make-up as we know it.
As I went around the exhibition at the Museum of Art and Jewish History in Paris, I realised that there was no red thread drawing you in to a life that defied convention. It failed on several levels in the art of storytelling.
A logical structure that inspires interest
There are many ways to structure a story so that it is easy to follow:
• Problem v Solution
• Challenge v Opportunity
The curators structured the story geographically: Krakow – Vienna – Melbourne – London – Paris – New York – Tel Aviv. This is fine as a concept, but the story became very disjointed and confusing as Helena travelled back and forth between many of these cities during her 93 years.
The titles by themselves do not say much. However, you could generate much more interest by simply adding a sentence such as “Melbourne – a fortune is made”. It was there that Helena built her multimillion-beauty empire as a result of her business acumen in selling her mother’s face cream.
Match the words and the pictures
One of the basic rules of presenting is to make sure that your slides or other audio-visual support reinforce your message and don’t detract from it.
However, as you see from the text below the curators of the museum do not follow this rule. It says that Helena used to wear a white coat when visiting her factories. Unfortunately, the image next to the text is a portrait painting of Helena wearing a red dress.
The photos of Helena in her white coat are displayed in another room further on in the exhibition. Although she didn’t have a medical degree, she knew the value of pseudo-science to boost sales!
Helena was a passionate art collector – Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse were among her favourites. The exhibition includes works by these masters as well as by Marc Chagall and Maurice Utrillo. But have a look at the accompanying text to this work by Picasso.
Are you confused? For me there are a number of problems with the text. Firstly, it only makes the link to Helena – the subject of the exhibition – at the end. Secondly, it starts by describing not the collage we are seeing – “Confidences” – but another Picasso – “Glass and Pipe”. Thirdly, it introduces the house of Myrbor without any explanation. Fourthly, the text doesn’t clearly make the link with Marie Cuttoli who commissioned Picassos first collages. And fourthly, who is Albert Barnes?
How about if we match the text to the subject of the exhibition immediately and then bring in the other points?
Helena Rubenstein bought the first edition of Pablo Picasso’s collage “Confidences” – conceived by the Spanish master in 1934. Since 1917 he had been producing collage paintings for the House of Myrbor, created by Maria Cuttoli to sell collages designed by famous artists.
Add some flavour to your storytelling
The text below says that make-up was considered the preserve of tarts and actresses in the UK in the 1920’s. It says that aware society was rapidly changing, she created a make-up line to sell in her beauty salons. It jumps from cause to effect without telling us how Helena overcame the challenge.
Yet in a fascinating article in the Daily Mail we learn that she persuaded her influential friends such as the wife of the Prime Minister to wear her make-up and they became trendsetters – the equivalent of today’s YouTube influencers!
If you really want to know about Helena Rubenstein, read the Daily Mail article extracted from the biography by Michele Fitoussi. It is an example of great storytelling with a clear angle – how Rubenstein’s success came at a terrible emotional cost as she put her career ahead of her personal relationships.
The writer leads you seamlessly through the challenges Rubenstein faced – making you want to know more about an astute businesswoman who was ahead of her time.
In my opinion and that of a couple of friends who also saw the exhibition, the exhibition was a missed opportunity; the curators had all the ingredients but served up a dish devoid of flavour by not following the basics of storytelling.