It’s been a hard week. I lost a bid to do work I was perfect for. Ouch! It’s hard to step back and take a rejection objectively.
A good friend reminded me that losing a proposal bid is rarely personal–but more often about politics and preferences. I later found out that I hadn’t really lost–the organization just decided to do the work internally. But I only learned this after spending a day scraping myself off the floor.
Telling me not to take things personally is like telling a Springer Spaniel not to chase a squirrel. Good advice, but…
On my little spiral down into questioning everything, I began to wonder why I do my work. Fortunately, that night I had an online meeting with a group of three other women, super-talented artist/entrepreneurs. When it was my turn to share, the last thing I wanted to do was talk about my work. Viewing my body language on the computer screen, I saw someone who looked cramped and collapsed, like a moth trying to squeeze her way back into a cocoon.
My voice sounded like I had been swatted. But as I talked about why I thought I would have been so good for the project, I said with some animation, “What I love, love, love about my work is watching people tell their stories in a circle and come alive.”
Bingo. Something happened. I started to come alive. Pepped up. Gestured. Started to fly again.
One of my wise colleagues picked up on this and noticed that my expression, “What I love, love, love…” had helped turn things around.
She suggested an exercise that I pass on to you.
Love, love, love: an exercise
There are days, like the one I just experienced, when asking yourself what you like to do or even love to do doesn’t cut it.
It’s so easy to sound reasonable (yawn.)
But when you ask yourself what you love, love, love to do, you aren’t asking for reasonableness. You’re asking for passion, energy, and sparkle. You’re asking about work that is so irrefutably yours that you would do it without being paid–although hopefully you’ll be paid a lot because you’re so good at it.
This is GREAT practice for writing about yourself or creating an “About” page for your website (see below).
What about your work do you love, love, love?
(I did the exercise thinking about work but you could do it about other areas of your life as well.)
Write it out. If you are unsure about what you’re writing, speak the words out loud and check out the energy. Can you hear excitement?
Gone was the jargon designed to look good. Gone were the words like efficiency, effectiveness, value-added, strategic, or results-oriented. What came to me instead were real examples of working at my best and helping others.
From my list:
I love, love, love guiding a group to tell stories and then watching them be moved by each other.
I love, love, love helping someone develop a story that leaves her or him feeling proud and competent.
I love, love, love helping a team get out of its own way.
I love, love, love performing a story and hearing from audience members about how they were moved.
I love, love, love watching board members tell stories about why they’re committed to their organization.
I love, love, love project-planning on a big, clean whiteboard.
I love, love, love supporting someone to take a risk to speak up.
I love, love, love writing posts, and seeing the chimp from Mailchimp give me the high five that lets me know the post is on the way to you.
My list goes on, but I’ll spare you.
In describing my work, if I’m tempted to use a word like empowerment, I think about a specific example and remember the look in someone’s eyes. Thinking about the story always grounds my words.
If you have your own website with an “About” page, this exercise will take you into the heart of what you do and invigorate your copy. Spare yourself the weighty, well-written, important-sounding words I used for too many years. They keep people from feeling your special greatness.
Once you’ve tapped into the energy of love, love, love, you can edit your copy accordingly. You don’t have to include those words to convey the freshness and passion you’ve discovered. People will feel you more.
And remember what they love, love, love about you.
Isn’t it time to get a little bolder, to speak up for the truths you hold in your heart, challenging the inequities you see around you? You don’t need to be on the streets, or on the frontlines of the revolution to have your own potent message. The stand I’m referring to isn’t about regurgitating political positions or philosophical doctrines, but sharing the truth of your own embodied experience, the wisdom you have gained through living.
Speaking up doesn’t require a megaphone or even an audience. You can hold a subtle message in your heart and when the time comes speak out. Your voice may be gentle, or you may roar like a lion. There are many ways to take a stand.
I believe that standing for what you believe in is one of the keys to a long life.
If you want to see a beautiful example of standing for something, watch Oprah Winfrey’s speech to the 2018 Golden Globes. It’s getting a lot of press so you may have seen it. I could watch it again and again, just to soak in some of her prowess and power.
For those who study and teach presentation skills, as I do, Oprah’s remarks demonstrate what a great speech looks like. She starts with a story; acknowledges her audience; uses her powerful, resonate voice in varied ways; weaves emotion throughout; and moves us on an emotional arc that ends with a relevant and poignant story. She closes with a compelling call to action.
All of that represents fantastic technique. But the greatness of the speech came from how she shared her heart, rather than the technique she used. She won me with three special factors:
She owned who she was. There was no apology, no thinking small. She knows the power she wields. Oprah is Oprah–and she stood tall on that stage.
She embodied what she was saying. There wasn’t a gratuitous or abstract word in her presentation.You knew that she had lived or witnessed what she spoke about. She held the truths she knew in her heart, in her body, as well as in her head. Listening to her voice, you felt a credibility that extended way beyond her celebrityhood.
She took a stand and inspired us to do the same.
The issue of the hour (or the year) at Hollywood’s Golden Globes was #MeToo, a hashtag that became a movement, emerging from the brave testimonies of women who dared to reveal how they had been sexually maltreated over the years by men in power. Oprah spoke right to the issue and acknowledged the courage of women, in media and throughout the culture, who dared to speak out. She addressed the courage of celebrities and also of the laborers, the forgotten, and the poor, black women whose histories haven’t been publicized, but who have endured atrocities. She made it clear that she stood for social justice, the empowerment of women and the end of sexual misconduct.
Oprah is undoubtedly the most powerful woman in America. Unlike some of her male peers who rival her in wealth and influence, yet do not speak out, Unlike some of her male peers who rival her in wealth and influence, yet do not speak out, Oprah knows how to use her influence and fame to shed light on issues, to offer support to those who have been denied a voice, and to encourage us all to take action.
I hope many of us, women and men, will be inspired by Oprah to stand up for what matters most to us. This is key to staying vital–at any age. There’s so much that needs to be addressed in our culture; all of our voices are needed.
It’s time to let your words be heard. Take a stand on the issues you care about.
When it comes to changing the world, in your particular way, it’s time to say,“Me, too.”
weaving shuttles and multi-colored yarn in a basket
Last week, I had the privilege of once again participating in a Story Bridge event in Seattle. A very diverse group came together to share and perform our stories as a way of exploring issues facing Seattle’s historic African-American neighborhood, the Central District, now challenged by gentrification.
In an early exercise we each shared a story with a partner, in response to a story prompt to talk about a time when we rose to an occasion in our lives. My partner-in-story was a tall African-American man who offered a poignant story about surviving a health crisis. I offered him my story about moving to New York City, lonely and afraid, only to be mugged during my first week living in Brooklyn. As I started to share my story, I looked at my partner and wondered if it would be offensive to mention that the assailant who had pointed a gun at my head was a tall African-American man. But my partner, who had lived for years in Harlem, listened with warm attention, and said, “That’s terrible, How did that feel?” And once again, through the magic of Story Bridge, I found myself feeling held and supported, and falling in love with this partner whom I had only met thirty minutes earlier.
What a gift it is to be able to see in the lives of people whose lives have been so different than ours!
When I can’t be participating in a live experience like Story Bridge, another way I learn about people’s lives is by reading memoirs. Unlike an autobiography, a memoir gives us a slice of a life, not the whole pie. A memoir is an author’s attempt to make meaning out of the shards, scraps, and stories of her or his life.
I’ve heard it said that there are too many memoirs being written today–I disagree. That’s like saying there are too many stories! Memoirs offer a way to travel into lives we would never otherwise know.
Love her or hate her, Jane Fonda’s has had a lot of influence throughout her seventy-plus years. Who would have known that behind the curtain, she was a very vulnerable woman, born to a father who could only express himself emotionally when he acted. Fonda ended up subordinating herself to men, making some bad decisions, and only beginning to feel like she could really be herself when she turned sixty. This isn’t a “poor me” story, which would have been ridiculous from a woman with such a global presence. Fonda transported me back into memories of my own youth, growing up in the 50’s and then at college during the Vietnam war when social change was exploding everywhere. Fonda, like all of us humans, is complicated: a woman who was a sex-object in some of her films, but also a feminist; a social justice advocate who married and divorced a former radical and then married a multi-millionaire; a bulimic who brought health and fitness to millions of American women. Today, she continues acting but spends much of her time helping young, indigent women in Georgia. She’s definitely not done yet.
When Trevor Noah took over The Daily Show on TV’s Comedy Central, he began as “Not Jon Stewart” (the famous former host). Reading Noah’s memoir, Born a Crime, I see Trevor Noah now as his own guy and a great choice for the show. In his book, Noah brings humor and history together, offering us a view into South Africa’s stratified society during the apartheid and post-apartheid periods–as seen by someone whose mixed-race status and education insured that he didn’t fit in anywhere. Unlike the satirical books authored by Daily Show alumni Steven Colbert and Jon Stewart that flamed and faded, Noah’s book is built to last: funny, gritty, and worth reading.
Who’d think that a high school student could write such a magical tale of growing up in New York City’s famous Chelsea Hotel, home to artists, derelicts, poets, and prostitutes? The setting is fascinating, her writing fresh and engaging. And, as quirky as life in the Chelsea was, Rips spins a story that reminds us of what it was l like to never-quite-fit-in at school and in our pre-adolescent years. I was captivated!
How do you take a truly terrible childhood, and bring it to life without trashing the people who should have taken care of you but didn’t? Jeanette Walls does this in The Glass Castle. She begins the book with an opening scene of her, as a successful adult, happening upon her mother dumpster diving in New York City. I was riveted and continued so throughout the book. This book has been already made into a movie–but I wouldn’t want to have missed her heartfelt and gripping prose.
Another way to learn from the power of storytelling is to write about your own life, whether it be in a book, journal, or on the back of napkins. In writing, we learn that stories aren’t static and we can reshape the narratives we grew up with.
Whether it be through live community events like Story Bridge, memoirs we read, or our own writings, we create a rich tapestry of community as our stories are woven together.
Remember when you were in grade school and you returned from your summer break, knowing that your new teacher would ask you, once again, to write a story called My Summer Vacation.
Why not write a story now that can convey the essence of your summer, in only six words?
You know that images can say so much, and it takes very few words to evoke an image.
But don’t take my word for it, have some fun and try it!
Here’s the assignment I give to managers in my class on Leading Through Story: Write a story in six words. It will test your ability to create an image in a few words–and it’s really easy. No poetry or great art required. Hopefully, it can stir the imagination of your readers, regardless of whether they see exactly what you see.
I’m looking forward to helping a new friend work on a grant application for his nonprofit. He does critically important work inspiring disadvantaged teenagers to recognize their greatness and stay in school. He uses his own story to show how a bad choice can affect your life forever.
I was moved to help because I heard him share his story. I now carry it in my heart, thanks to an event last weekend that turned thirty “I” stories into “We” Stories.
A diverse, multi-racial, intergenerational group gathered as strangers and friends for a “Story Bridge” event. Within thirty minutes of following the artful facilitation of Richard Geer and Qinghong Wei, we began to become a community.
Tell me about a moment when your life changed
One exercise in particular shifted the space for me.
We paired up and Richard asked the question: “Tell about a moment when your life changed.”
Soon I was sharing a two minute, improvised, unpolished recounting of an episode from my life. While I spoke, my partner listened–deeply.
An instruction was then given to him: “Tell your partner back the story you just heard.” My partner captured its essence as he recounted my story. Even though he missed a few details, I felt truly heard. He then shared his story and I spoke it back to him.
Within this short period of story-sharing, you could sense a new spirit entering the room, one that would buoy us through a long day. I don’t use the word love lightly, but that’s the word I heard as people described their experiences.
Meeting a big challenge
Then Richard gave the group a big assignment: to select eight stories from those that had been told, and arrange them in an order, a narrative arc, so that they could be performed as a play. With an audience arriving at 7 pm, we had to make decisions and start practicing immediately.
The heat was on. I’ve done story-to-stage work before using processes like Tanya Taylor Rubinstein’s Story Healers work. With her process, we used four days to prepare individuals to create a story and read it on stage. Richard and Qinghong gave us little more than four hours.
From I to We
With Tanya’s work, participants performed as individuals. With Story Bridge, the work is about community. While the stories started out as the creations of individuals, once the group negotiated the final selection of pieces, and each of us took on roles, either as actors or musicians, the stories belonged to us all.
Our “I” stories had morphed into a “We” performance. Former gang members, refugees, Native Americans, Mexican-Americans, Caucasians, teenagers and elders stood in front of a small, caring audience at seven o’clock. I didn’t fret that my story wasn’t performed because I was so enmeshed in the stories of others, watching them be woven into my heart.
I’ve never known what it was like to lose a buddy in a drive-by shooting, leave my tribe, or be beat up in high school. Yet my soul heard, under all of the differences, some deeply human commonalities. We had found the magic of community.
I loved Story Bridge. It’s the kind of process that lets “We” emerge in communities with big divides. Even though our event occurred in “blue” Washington State, Story Bridge has strong roots in some of the South’s most disadvantaged small towns. It has helped distressed, rural communities find their pride and get back on their feet.
Richard Geer says that Story Bridge succeeds because it taps a deeply seated human instinct to come together and share, especially in times of crisis.
Qinghong Wei documented some of the elements that make Story Bridge succeed in her doctoral work, noting that it:
opens up a space that is welcoming and safe enough to encourage risk taking;
fosters the collective creation of beauty in a way that also validates individuals;
engages great diversity;
offers participants a big challenge that requires them to pull together.
Richard’s background is in theatre, but experience has taught him that Story Bridge thrives when the direction for a show comes from the community, not from the director.
As Richard writes, the processes of Story Bridge aren’t proprietary but reflective of what humans do when they band together to support each other. They can be adapted. So why not use story to experiment in your own way:
As people who are different from you tell their stories, listen deeply to what has meaning to them.
Dare to share your own story with people you don’t know.
Create spaces where people feel safe to come together and talk about their experiences.
Trust the collective wisdom that can emerge in a group that is diverse yet connected in spirit.
Make art, theatre, music, or creative stuff together, as an antidote to the growing, collective discouragement experienced by many today.
And test whether the arts, and story, can help heal our divided world.
I’d love to hear what emerges for you. And, special favor, would you throw some good thoughts and fairy dust on a deserving grant application!!!
In my business writing class in B-school, I learned to be succinct, concise and make my point quickly. Unlike the meandering essays of my earlier college days, business writing was about producing summaries in a page or less for executives to skim. In a time-pressed business environment, being able to boil a complex issue down to a half page, or even a paragraph, was a critically important skill.
It still is. But it’s only half the picture. Because critical insights without a story can fall flat.
A condensed, reasoned argument appeals to our intellect, but if we want our message to stick we’d better bring in some emotion. Stories that can give meaning to a fact or help us picture an issue compliment our terse communications by helping listeners viscerally imagine, feel and sense the merits of a recommended decision or path. It’s almost impossible to do that in an executive summary.
As Brené Brown once wrote: “Stories are just data with a soul.”
Stories give readers a portal to their imaginations, where they can picture a proposed scenario or discover for themselves the context for a recommended action.
How much is too long
Sometimes a story can take too long to tell, or put on paper. But how much is too long.
When I taught small business marketing, I used this adage: “Q: When is your marketing too expensive?” “A: When it doesn’t work.” The same could be said for business writing. If the words behind your message are few, but they don’t move your audience, it’s too long. If you take more words to tell a story and your message has impact, the length is probably just right.
I remember sitting at a women’s leadership conference watching the high-energy opening speaker on stage. She moved across the stage with passion and conviction, championing new approaches to leadership to a tribe of bright-eyed, already convinced, audience members. Yet after about ten minutes of listening to her, the bright eyes of audience members started to dull and their enthusiasm waned. Why? She was speaking in platitudes without telling stories. By the time she hit the twenty minute mark, audience members were looking at their phones, continuing to smile pleasantly, and tuning out.
The ever-popular message to presenters: “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and tell them what you told them?” is all tell, tell, tell. What about helping them feel? Why not paint a picture of that future for people that helps them care?
Here’s the challenge for people like me. We have to balance our left-brain analytic skills with a new set of awarenesses. To effectively create stories, we need to nurture a more right-brain kind of intelligence that thrives on images, sensory awareness and imagination. We have to smell the roses in our imaginations before we can invite our listeners to do the same.
How to create a story that captivates
Many of the story-telling techniques used in branding are message-based. You start with a concept and then map out your story. But my colleague, master story-coach and storyteller Doug Lipman sees it differently. Story, he says, starts with an image. A specific image from a specific moment helps you to remember and recreate a scene for an audience.
By making a connection with an imaginal world, storytellers invite listeners to join them in an experience that can lead to a message.
Building our image gathering awareness
Trouble is, some of us, like me, are occasionally crippled by our desire to be concise. We may blitz over the intriguing details in a scene that would help bring to life a story we want to create. How often I have wished I were a better observer! For the sake of story, I’m practicing remedial remembering, trying to recount what I was seeing, tasting, feeling, hearing, touching, etc. at a particular moment.
I am trying to pause more to notice the small vignettes taking place all around me, from the garden to a client office. Just today on the island, the hummingbird made a loud swooshing sound as he dive bombed into the water coming out of my hose in the garden. The six foot oriental lilies, now towering in the flower bed, have a sweet, hypnotic fragrance. I swam by a great blue heron fishing on the dock of a local park, testing how near I could come to him. He watched me out of his little yellow O shaped eyes while continuing to stretch his neck towards the buffet of small fish in the water below. Finally, tired of my presence, he sauntered to the end of the dock, and with a great swoop lifted himself into the sky.
None of these little vignettes are stories. But noticing them helps me rebuild my capacity to use my senses and remember my memories. When I craft a story to bring data or a finding to life, I will be better tuned to describe a moment and help listeners enter my world and hear my message.
Maybe that’s something you’d like to try: stop, feel, notice, and imagine the world around you as if it was a scene that you could someday paint for another. It will only enrich your stories to come.