Angela was excited to start her new role as director of talent development. Her team was excited, as well. But one comment by a direct report during the interview process stood out to Angela: “We need vision and leadership around here. We haven’t had that for a long time.” Angela noted the comment and couldn’t help wondering whether it foreshadowed challenges to come.
During her first week it became clear that the team lacked focus and direction. Many of the early meetings were overrun with discussions about the team’s identity, mission, and values. Angela had to confront that she hadn’t considered that she would need to establish that foundation so soon. The team’s previous manager had been there for 10 years, so she’d assumed that, at least initially, the team would be guided by the status quo until she got her bearings. Instead, she'd inherited a marooned ship that she had to make seaworthy again.
After weeks of discussions and research, Angela was able to articulate her vision—to the mirror. Now, she needed to tell her team. Angela designed a presentation and shared it during the last 10 minutes of the weekly team meeting. Between the blank stares and the smattering of questions, Angela could only conclude that no one cared.
As they filed out of the meeting room, Angela sighed and turned to collect her laptop.
“Angela!” Her team lead, Andrew, had stayed behind. “I have a few questions for you if you don’t mind.”
“Sure. What’s up?”
“Why this vision? What does it mean to you? What should it mean to us?”
Angela’s inability to answer Andrew’s questions convinced her that the missing connections might lay within them. But what was even more problematic for her was the place within Andrew from which the questions were emerging.
The time for diagrams, charts, and data would come, but that time was not now. Angela’s relationship with the team was still new. They didn’t yet know her, or her values and beliefs. Knowing more about her might foster trust, build rapport, and help her demonstrate competence as the team learned about her experiences.
She knew that she must start to lay that foundation before anything built upon it could stand. Sharing her story could facilitate the process.
Angela is a seasoned professional and presenter who has used storytelling to explain complex concepts and sell ideas to upper management and customers. She’s never purposefully used storytelling to essentially “sell herself” or her personal beliefs. Because she’s new to this, she’ll have to begin with answering Andrew’s questions for herself.
Here are four principles that Angela can follow to help her find both her vision and her voice.
- Experiences carry stories
- Start with intent
- Meaning matters
- Transformation is transformative
Experiences carry stories
Storytelling is not a “magical cure” that transforms boring content into—well—magic. When I ask people why stories help communicate content, I usually hear answers like stories build empathy, evoke emotion, and make the content memorable.
But stories inherently do none of the things people list. The storyteller must first have the insight into what ideas trigger empathy, emotion, and recall—and then do the work to build a narrative around them. That process begins with identifying the experiences that, when shared, will facilitate bringing about the needed response. Stories aren’t magic. They are simply carriers that provide the structures and strategies to bring what we put into them to life.
Angela needs to consider which experiences she had in her personal or professional career informed the vision she wants to share with her team. Just saying you believe in an idea may not be enough to get others to believe it too. Ideas may gain credibility if they are supported by sharing your lived experience. If nothing else, seeing how affected you are by the experience and the profound impact it had on your worldview can be convincing.
Start with intent
While a story is the result of our efforts, the journey doesn’t begin there. It begins with the desire to share an experience that shaped you and what you learned during that process. This distinction is important because it’s not about what you want that story to do; rather, it’s about what you want people to do after hearing your experience.
This call to action is your intent. Once people know your vision and know the experiences you’ve had that support its existence, they need to know what this means for them and what they should do about it. Only they can decide how what you say aligns with their values, but you must have a clear idea of what action you want them to take.
Angela wants her vision to put everyone on the same page and moving in the same direction going forward. She hopes that if she reinforces her vision through word and deed, everyone will engage in behavior that supports manifesting that vision in all they do. So, her intent is to incorporate the behaviors that align with her vision into their everyday work and that, ultimately, their vision for what the team is in some way supports hers.
Mining your memories looking for experiences that support your intent is an essential early step. But how do you know which experiences will make good stories?
The answer lies in what those experiences mean to you. There are many ways to interpret the word “meaning” in this context. I define “meaning” as how the experience ultimately changed my thoughts, perspectives, feelings, or beliefs.
The meanings of experiences are not always readily apparent. The best storytellers try to find meaning in those experiences, an intention that becomes organic over time. While ruminating and dwelling for too long is a bad idea, being purposeful about making meaning out of the events that shape you is crucial for developing as a personal storyteller.
The meanings of some experiences can change over time and as you gain more life experience. For example, 10 years ago, when you were fired from your dream job, you may have concluded that the experience meant that you weren’t good enough. But now you realize that what you thought was the career you wanted wasn’t a good fit, and that being fired reset your path positively.
As Angela searches her memory for experiences with meanings that support both her vision and her intent, she’ll have to be honest with herself. Meanings are not always wonderful, neatly packaged conclusions where we came out on the other side as a better person. Part of what makes life beautifully complicated is how we view what we do and what happens to us. Are we the hero or the villain? The perpetrator or the victim? Or both?
Recognize that the meanings you identify are subjective, and listeners may not come to the same conclusion. It’s your story, but new versions emerge that belong to the listeners once you tell it. These variants are of you telling the story and the listening filtering what you share through their own experiences. Telling your story requires letting it go.
This is why understanding your intent matters. In Angela’s case, she is not trying to get her team to change their beliefs. She wants them to understand her vision, get them to empathize with why she feels this way, and then encourage them to find connections between their beliefs and hers.
Transformation is transformative
While you can find meaning in all experiences, the ones worth intentionally mining for meaning are the ones that transformed you. I mentioned that I define meaning as how the experience ultimately changed my thoughts, perspectives, feelings, or beliefs.
That’s a transformation. The types of experiences that we are looking for tell the story of growth and change. They map the journey from starting point to destination. You may not remember the journey clearly or you may not want to remember it at all, but if you expect others to “transform,” your story can provide the roadmap. Ultimately, the story is not about being at the destination, it’s in getting there.
In Angela’s case, the vision is the destination, so only explaining that vision as a story is not enough. It doesn’t provide a roadmap to how they could make the transformation that supporting Angela’s vision may require. Her story must be about what she experienced that helped her conclude that her vision is what’s right for this team, right now.
Before Angela approaches her team again about her vision, she’ll make sure to mine her memories for experiences that meant so much to her that they led to a transformation. She’ll select one that supports her vision and consider what she wants the team to do with that information. Then, she can use what she knows about crafting stories to bring it to life and share her experiences with her team.
Storytelling doesn’t start with a story. It starts with living, learning, and then, letting go.
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