Storytime with Madelyn Blair

Recently, I had the privilege of participating in a workshop in which Madelyn Blair led us through several exercises focused around storytelling.  She began her session by telling a phenomenal story drawn from her youth.  She had us hooked with her voice, the rich 1st-person perspective, the details in the story, the suspense, etc.  AND, she ended at just the right place, leaving us wanting more; leaving us to draw connections and to make meaning of it for ourselves.  So many times, we jump right into explaining what the story means. Madelyn taught us that it is more powerful to design the story so that it engages the listener and makes her think about the “moral” or “so what?” for herself (or, better yet, also in conversation with each other).

Although “we live in a sea of stories,” we aren’t necessarily naturally good story tellers.  Maybe we are in the right setting (picture a bar with friends or around the family dinner table)–but to use stories in a professional setting?  Usually, we flip right into the third-person mode and focus on lessons learned and what “you” should do–rather than describing what “I” actually did. You can take away the PowerPoint slides, but many of us stay right with that bullet-point approach.
To take us from theory to practice, Madelyn had us practice.  She had us tell each other stories!  She told us that “stories are made up of words, and words are made up of stories.”  I love that line!  (That doesn’t mean I understand it, but I love that line!).  Using the UN Charter, Madelyn asked us to pick out a word in the charter and to think of a personal story to tell that relates to that word.  I was amazed at how much we not only learned about each other through the stories that emerged, but also how it connected us to the words of the charter in new ways.
This made me think about the team I work with.  We have a vision as well as a set of operating values that act as filters for the decisions that we make day to day.  The values really describe what is most important to us.  As we bring in new team members, we talk a lot about the values and what they mean to us.  Thanks to Madelyn, I’m seeing a new way to bring those values alive, especially for new team members that might not initially feel as connected to that set of values as are team members that were there in the beginning.  To pick a value and to craft a personal story related to that value could draw out new meaning and more powerfully connect individuals to those “words” as well as to each other.

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In addition to work with storytelling, Madelyn is passionate about understanding how successful people learn and stay on the cutting-edge–keeping their knowledge perpetually “fresh”–even as the world around us changes at a tiring pace.  She has written a book to capture some of her insights on this, which she titled Riding the Current: How to deal with the daily deluge of data.

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