Recently, a group of us spent the evening talking about leadership. The way we did it was this: we told one-minute “Leadership in Action” stories to each other (that is not a lot of time). Picture 25 leaders in small groups, 3-4 per table, each telling a story about an experience that impacted them and that stands out as an example of a leader leading. We kept a clock, keeping us to one-minute each. After we were done at that first table, we each rotated to a different table and the clock started again: we told our story to fresh faces and listened to several new stories. We did three rounds of this. By the time the “speed dating” was over, we had shared our story three times and had listened to at least 9 great stories. It was energizing and even inspiring. We came away from the experience fired up and plugged back into what we value most in a leader.
ASIDE: This can work as an ice breaker for new groups or an energizing experience for those who have been together for a long time. In addition to the learning around the topic of leadership, there are two skills that participants get to practice in this workshop: 1. The art of storytelling; 2. The art of engaged listening. As a facilitator, it helps to mention this. We like to interrupt the workshop after round 1 to talk specifically about how to be an engaged listener.
After round 3, we asked everyone to stand up and said: “Each of us is now going to put a hand on the shoulder of one person whose story really connected with us.” Picture the chaos. I have my hand on your shoulder, and you have to pull me across the room in order to get your hand on someone else’s shoulder. Big thanks to Nancy Dixon who shared this “shoulder touching” idea with us. Once everyone had their hand on one person’s shoulder, there were some participants who had many hands on them. We finished the workshop by asking these particular people to share their story one more time, this time with the entire group.
A week later, we did this again with a group of 27 Army lieutenants. We didn’t have time to do the full-blown version, so we introduced the idea and paired everyone up. Two minutes later, every person in the room had shared their story and heard a story. We closed out by inviting people whose buddy had shared an especially good story to “nominate” him or her to tell the story to the entire group. After five people shared their story to the entire group, we talked briefly about observations or insights that had emerged for people and, bam, we were done. Ten minutes incredibly well spent!
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.
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.