Category Archives for Organizational storytelling

American politics: may the best story win

Photo by skeeze, via

Photo by skeeze, via

When the endless American election season got underway, I was absolutely certain Donald Trump would not even get out of the starting gate before being dumped. That was before it became clear the Republican party had so completely lost its bearings it couldn’t come up with a candidate who gave a fig about people and planet, let alone politics.

With New Hampshire having delivered Trump crowing rights, I’ve been giving even more thought than usual to storytelling. So much of it is going on, and so much of it is making me crazy.

Viewed purely as storytelling, the presidential election is a fascinating contest to see which story has the greatest appeal to the voting public. The Republicans are all about fear, anger, hatred, and big business. That story has always sold well. Think of the Romans and their gladiatorial spectacles, the horrors of the Inquisition, the witch hunts of Salem, the pseudo news from Fox, the dire warnings of the American gun lobby. Republican debate rhetoric harkens back to every demagogue who’s ever walked the earth. If their story wins, America’s in deep doo-doo.

In the Democratic camp, Clinton was promoting a cautious, status-quo, slightly-right-of-center story. Then along came social-democrat Bernie Sanders, a guy old enough to retire comfortably, passionate enough to keep working until his last breath. His success with young people who are widely assumed to have little interest in politics has forced Clinton to tweak her story and call for a more progressive tale than she really represents. The difference between the two of them is quantifiable, as you can read in a good piece in Salon. Sanders is progressive. Clinton occasionally flirts with it.

It’s all a matter of stories, and the whole world will be affected by the big story American embraces in November 2016. The best story for America and the world is one that embraces the environment, social equity, and compassion. May that be the winning story.

The storytelling that’s trashing your investments

You sit down with your financial adviser. She offers you a slate of options she expects will weather the stormy economy and give you solid returns. You plunk down your hard-earned cash, sign the risk waiver, and wait.

You don’t wait long, of course. You start tracking the bouncing ball that shows your principle is disappearing with the Chinese stock market tumble. Those alternative energy stocks? They are tanking as oil prices fall.

What is happening here? How will you survive retirement now that your savings are slumping?

Storytelling. That’s what’s happening.

In her talk on The Dark Side of Storytelling, Suzanne Duncan of the Center for Applied Research says your financial adviser is so caught up in her own stories she is unable to give you solid, objective advice. And she is totally incapable of accepting the role storytelling is playing in her investment successes and failures.

Suzanne Duncan giving a TED talk

Of course, it is not just your finances that are in jeopardy. So are your children, when your parenting stories go awry. So is their teacher, when his education stories are misguided. So is the planet, when our stories about its future are so short sighted we think we can get away with trashing the environment and heating up the earth.

The good news is that we can change those stories. We have done it many times before.

An example in my lifetime: Doctors used to promote cigarette brands. Tobacco companies kept the smoking as health-neutral story alive for a long time, but now even the secondhand-smoke-is-safe story has been turned on its head.

We can counter the dark side of storytelling by being detectives. Look inside the stories you’re told. Examine the stories you believe. Figure out what they’re based on. Be willing to adopt new, better stories.

The world is counting on our stories. Let’s make them good ones.

A story brought him home

Epilogo by Daniel Zedda, via Flickr Creative Commons

Epilogo by Daniel Zedda, via Flickr Creative Commons

The children from the Seattle hospital’s burn unit were brought in on stretchers and in wheelchairs. Some were ambulatory and pushed IV poles. The youngest was 5, the oldest 15. The 15-year-old was burned over most of his body. He faced years of skin grafts and a lifetime of unwanted attention from people who would not know how to react.

I was having the same trouble people outside the hospital would have with these children, wondering where to put my eyes, how to reach beyond the disfigured surface to the spirit within. The stories I had chosen seemed puny in the face of their overwhelming needs.

I decided to tell them a story I had learned from Bill Harley called “The Freedom Bird.” It is the story of a hunter who shoots a magnificent golden bird, only to find that he cannot kill it, no matter what he does. It is the Freedom Bird, irrepressible, rising from any adversity. The violence often makes adults uncomfortable, but children love it.

Halfway into the story, I looked at the 15-year-old. In my mouth was a story of hacking, boiling, and burying. In front of me was a boy who had lived the bird’s fate, through fire, surgeries, and pain. I wanted the floor to open and swallow me.

The floor refused. I finished the story, tucked my tail between my legs, and slunk home. For the next week I practiced mental flagellation, knowing I should call the burn unit and apologize, putting it off until tomorrow.

The burn unit called first. One of the staff members wanted to tell me about the 15-year-old boy. He had been despondent, wishing he could die. The story changed his mind. Each time the hunter shot or hacked or buried the bird, the creature rose like the phoenix, until at last the hunter realized that he was trying to destroy an indomitable spirit. The boy decided he was the Freedom Bird. No fire or surgery or pain, no insensitive staring or comment would destroy his spirit. He would rise and rise again.

That boy taught me to trust the stories that call to me, to give them truly, knowing that they may heal or harm, but that I cannot predict how anyone hearing them will react. Life is in control, not me. A burned child may see the Freedom Bird as a reflection of the years of agony and reversals he faces. Or he may see in it the soaring of his own brave spirit.

I continue to learn to let go of the need to control. If we believe we can always choose the right stories and tell them at the right time, we are fooling ourselves. Everyone who hears our stories filters them through the lens of experience. We cannot know the hearts and lives of all our listeners. What we can do is tell with care and love, sharing the stories that touch our own lives, that make us laugh or cry or ponder. Release stories like butterflies, knowing they will fly their own crooked paths and land wherever they will.

[This essay first appeared in The Healing Heart: Communities as part of a longer piece, “Seven Lessons”.]

Your job search just got easier


In spite of the long hiatus since the last post, StoryRoute keeps welcoming visitors from around the world. Recently one of those visitors contacted me about a storytelling service unlike any I had ever come across.

Andrea Martins is the founder of Story Resumes, a company that promises to “transform ordinary resumes into extraordinary ones.” A quick look around the site convinced me the company can deliver the goods. I was on screening committees for new hires many times and can attest that nearly every resume is yawningly similar. If any of them had come through with the pizzazz of a Story Resume, I would have put it right on the top of the pile.

Obviously you still have to deliver the goods in an interview and at work, but a Story Resume just might be the difference between being overlooked and landing the right job.

In the interview below you will meet the creative woman behind this refreshing new approach to standing out from the crowd of job seekers.

Cathryn: Andrea, I really enjoyed your personal success story (shown here in comic form). Can you tell us more about how your job search experience inspired Story Resumes?

Andrea Martins

Andrea Martins, founder of Story Resumes

Andrea: Sure. Looking for work can be an incredibly frustrating experience. It starts with the thrill of possibility, but it often quickly sours into a deafening silence of no responses. Inexplicably, recruiters overlook your superpowers and before you know it, you’ve fallen into a self-doubting pit that’s hard to climb out of. My experience was no different.

In late 2012, after months of getting nowhere, I tried a different approach. I turned my resume into a story (one sentence for each of my ten PowerPoint slides) and had my story illustrated to add flavor and feeling.

At the time, my approach was a little experimental, and I wasn’t sure how it would go. But thankfully it turned out to be the tipping point that I had needed all along because recruiters and company founders (on the other side of the world) started writing responses to my job applications and phoning me within hours of receiving my creative resume — offering me interviews, and later, offering me jobs.

I accepted a few of the jobs/projects, but on the side I started developing Story Resumes to help fellow frustrated job seekers shoot to the top of a recruiter’s job applications pile.

Cathryn: Can you share more examples like yours of how storytelling is being used successfully in job search?

Andrea: Absolutely. Jens Lennartsson is one of my favorites. He created and mailed out 400 GI-Joe-type action figures of himself (with a brochure showcasing a sample portfolio of his work), to relay his story and value in a very visual, touchable and tangible way.

Pharmaceutical copywriter Jon Ryder is another favorite. He made a fake medicine box that incorporated his resume on (and in) the box. Such creative genius to spin your resume into a story like that!

We’ve also interviewed some wonderful success stories on our site. For example: James Corne created an Alcoholics Anonymous parody video to tell his story; Miruna Macri designed a fake passport and conveniently lost it in the ad agencies she wanted to work in so that the right kind of people would pick it up and be curious about her story; Joshua Drummond shared his resume story as a comic book; and Jack DeManche turned his resume story into a subway map!

Cathryn: Do you see these examples as a passing fad, or as an indication of what’s in store for the future?

Andrea: I see storytelling being used more, not less, in job search. Very few people stand out on a traditional black-and-white paper resume, and judging by the number of creative resume stories now being promoted in mainstream media, I believe that job seekers are starting to realize this. In the years to come (in some industries), I see more creative/storytelling resumes being submitted than traditional resumes. Because if you’re not doing it, your competitors will be. And it’s no surprise which candidate would grab my attention more if I were a recruiter!

Cathryn: Thank you very much, Andrea, for sharing these inspiring examples and insights. I wish you and Story Resumes every success.

Qualcomm’s clever bus-stop campaign

Storytelling is the buzzword for ad writers these days. Occasionally one of them is so good at it their campaign not only works as a marketing tool, it also goes viral.

Qualcomm’s Born Mobile is one of those. The company posted signs on a New York bus stop, with a URL for the ad campaign. Those who tried it might be picked up by a sports car, a circus bus or a husky-pulled sled.

Another transportation option was a puppy-filled bus, spreading smiles and licks and cuddles. Watch these two, and then check out the Lamborghini Surprise, the Dog Sled Surprise, and the Horse and Carriage Surprise.

On an ordinary day, your mobile will not connect with puppies, sled dogs or a horse-drawn carriage, but Qualcomm is not just selling the convenience of its mobiles with this stunt. It’s selling fantasies.

I have no idea what the marketing stunt did for mobile sales, but as storytelling I’m sure it worked well. The compilation ad below, “Best Bus Stop Ever”, has had over 1.5 million hits as of February 24, 2013.

The Art of Medicine in Metaphors

Photo by mconnors, via morgueFile

Photo by mconnors, via morgueFile

In our western, disease-care system, the power of stories has been pushed to the periphery, even though they are central to the spirit that promotes or undermines our healing. Fortunately, a whole field of narrative medicine is blossoming. Rachel Naomi Remen was one of the first people to introduce me to the field, then Rita Charon and Jack Coulehan.

After I moved to British Columbia, I met Arthur Frank and read his powerful book, The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics. I became aware of a B.C. program to honour stories, the Patient Voices Network and Columbia University’s Narrative Medicine program.

So when James Borton contacted me about his new book, The Art of Medicine in Metaphor – A Collection of Poems and Narratives, he piqued my interest.

Borton is a teaching associate in the Department of English at Coastal Carolina University. He is also a blogger (All Heart Matters) and writer on medical humanities. Here’s how he describes the incident that prompted him to collect the poems and stories of people’s experiences with health care:

Three years ago I learned a painful lesson about how a patient bleeds a story. Following a triple bypass, I emerged after nine dark days from a coma after losing all of my blood from a ruptured coronary artery. It’s no wonder that my call to others to learn about their broken health stories met with remarkable responses.

In 2011 he organized a symposium for physicians and professors, “The Art of Medicine: Metaphors & Narratives.” And in courses and workshops, he gathered the stories of medical personnel and patients. Now he has published an anthology of illness narratives, told through stories and poetry. In his foreword to the book, Dr. Coulehan writes:

The Art of Medicine in Metaphors represents the process of encountering illness by dividing it into three stages—recognition, tension, and transformation—that form sequential sections of the book. While there is often overlap, the stages constitute a useful way of conceptualizing the material. First, the person’s familiar world is swept away. A wave of new images and alien feelings overwhelms them and he or she must attend to (recognize) the changed reality. Second, the person’s language, beliefs, and emotional resources confront this new world of illness, creating tension. Finally, but unfortunately not always, the person emerges with greater self-understanding (transformation). The dynamo that drives this process is language with many resources—mental, emotional, verbal, and written.

Borton sent several searing excerpts from the book, including Debra McQueen’s story of a young man dying of AIDS and his determination to travel to the Philippines to see a faith healer. Sam Watson contributed a poem about the moments between being wheeled into the operating room and succumbing to ether, ending in a breathtaking moment of clarity. Patricia Dale’s story of depression and self cutting was painful to read, yet ended with hope.

The seed of healing lies within our illness narratives. Our bodies eventually succumb to age, illness, accidents and death. No matter how much our medically trained allies patch our bodies, we all carry around an expiry date. We give meaning to our fleeting journey through our stories.

Barry Lopez described it well in Crow and Weasel:

The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other’s memory. This is how people care for themselves.

The Non-Profit Narrative: A Review

When I made the shift from performing storyteller to storytelling consultant, I had no Dan Portnoy to hold my hand. His new book, The Non-Profit Narrative, could have shortened the journey.

My switch from performer to consultant was a matter of survival. For years I suffered from the “imposter syndrome”. Storytelling was what I knew. Consulting was what I was learning with each new contract.

Yet everything storytelling taught me proved absolutely on target, whether clients were developing a mission statement, launching a fundraising campaign, writing proposals or evaluating their work.

In his book, Dan comes at these things through a narrative lens. What I struggled to articulate, with no guides to follow, he lays out in a friendly, simple methodology, shot through with stories.

What sets this book apart from what I learned in my consulting years (the early days of public-use Web), is that Dan is thoroughly steeped in the new technology. He takes his audience’s hand and walks them through a social media campaign that starts with developing the story line and ends with a full-blown plan for moving an organization forward.

The first part of the book will be of particular to help to those not quite certain how to create an organizational narrative. He writes, “If your organization is barely surviving, I would argue that you’ve likely lost the ability to unearth or communicate your true story.” And then he tells the reader how to do it.

We all know intuitively what draws us into a story, but Portnoy digs into it and identifies the elements. Numerous examples of good organizational storytelling help the reader understand what he’s driving at, such as Domino’s narrative about going from a cardboard pizza to a product they could be proud of.

For every element of the good non-profit story, Portnoy gives an example that will be recognizable to most readers. He calls on such cultural icons as Harry Potter and Star Wars to illustrate each part of a good story.

With story structure out of the way, he dives into the broader issue of what organizations can do with their stories. Non-profits will find bite-sized advice to follow, whether they are redefining their mission, raising funds for a particular project, keeping supporters engaged, or reporting to funders.

The book is well laid out and a whole lot more attractive than most e-books. A good proofreader could have caught some of the errors, and a good editor might have given the book a smoother flow. But Portnoy delivers on what he sets out to do, give non-profits a story-based approach to success.

This is a book to add to your shelf or tuck onto your e-reader and refer to at each stage of organizational planning, marketing and evaluation.

The power of a good story

This Gives Me Hope has been keeping me so busy that posts to Story Route and Catching Courage have become sporadic. That is likely to continue until I reach my goal of 1001 reasons for hope.

But this ad, sent by a friend in Brisbane, was too funny and story-related to wait. The ad was created by CANAL+, a Pay-TV provider in the Nordic region.

The original, French version ends with a statement that the company creates extraordinary stories for its audience. However, it was the English “translation” that made me laugh: “Never underestimate the power of a good story.”

See for yourself the sly humour of this story.

No Story, No Fans – a review

No Story, No Fans is available on Amazon as an e-book

If I don’t have a story, I won’t have fans. I believe Raf Stevens when he delivers this message in dozens of ways, through dozens of captivating stories and through concrete steps to find and deliver that story. I believe him because I know what he says is true. I know it in the only way one can truly know anything, through direct experience.

I wish I had had a copy of No Story, No Fans when I was floundering to reinvent myself as an organizational narrative consultant (aka community developer, though that’s not how I thought of myself). Annette Simmons held my hand, with her Story Factor. David Armstrong led me too, with his Managing By Storying Around.

Mostly I felt like a lonely charlatan, waving the flag of storytelling without really knowing how to make the leap from performing storyteller to organizational narrative consultant. I managed, and even succeeded, but it was a scary journey.

Earning trust by demonstrating it

Things are different now. A lot of books and Web sites explore what storytelling means within the context of defining a vision, conveying it, and trying to turn it into sales. And sales are obviously important. A company with fabulous stories that operates in the red is going to sink.

Raf talks a lot about trust. That’s what his subtitle refers to: “Build Your Business through Stories that Resonate. Using the power of corporate storytelling to create loyal customers, fans, and friends.”

He earned my trust right off the bat. In an era of smartphones, I don’t even carry a cell phone. When I’m away from my right arm, er, computer, I don’t want a leash. So when I clicked on the PDF of Raf’s book and saw all the QR codes, I bristled. “Oh, yeah. He’s going to make me feel like an outsider.”

I was wrong. If I’d had a smartphone, I could have pointed it at those squiggly squares and called up fascinating Web sites. Instead, I accidentally moved the cursor over the first one and was startled by a dialog box asking me if I trusted the link or wanted to block it.

That Raf Stevens! So smart. He wanted even semi-Luddites like me to enter the realm of wonder. I ended up clicking on every link. Darn you, Raf Stevens! I’m busy. I don’t have time for all this Web wandering, but your links were so good I was afraid I’d regret not clicking on any one of them.

So here I am, weeks after accepting Raf’s invitation to download his book in exchange for a review, just starting to formulate a response to a book that makes me want to rewind the clock and re-start my consulting career with No Story, No Fans in hand.

A generous book

One thing that leaps out for me, in reading the book, is generosity. Raf gives a lot away. Stories, links, ideas, tips, resources. He just keeps dishing them out, some within the text itself and others a click away. By the time I start Part I: Trading Stories, I’m already feeling as if I’ve stumbled onto a gift exchange. He has already demonstrated his advice to first give something away, to engage emotionally, and to promote trust by promoting other people’s stories.

Partway through Chapter 2, “Flipping Your Script!”, two sentences stop me in my tracks:

Most communication nowadays fails to connect and is not trustworthy because it is too descriptive of situations and facts instead of sharing actual stories about what occurred. That is the script that needs flipping.

I think maybe Raf got hold of the first reports I did for clients when I started my community development career. I was so afraid they would find out I was really a storyteller in consultant’s clothing they wouldn’t trust my work. I overwhelmed them with numbers and facts and insider language so they could see I knew what I was doing.

Only thing was, it was never the heavyweight data that worked. It was always the stories. I could have spared a lot of trees if I’d had Raf’s book to hold my hand while I was learning the ropes.

So I feel like cheering when he writes:

It is tempting to continue to use terms like internal branding, positioning, brand voice, brand identity and so on, while explaining the power of story and storytelling in relation to brand and organizations. Many business leaders are more familiar with these terms than they are with storytelling. Storytelling is for wimps, right? But I am not giving in. We need to flip the script!

Make room for this book

Raf doesn’t try to impose one good model of storytelling. Instead, through dozens of examples, some solid advice, and some well-formulated tips, he encourages readers to find their own storytelling voices. That makes the book useful to a wide range of audiences in both the corporate and non-profit worlds. The book will hold an important place alongside books by Annette Simmons, Stephen Denning, Peter Guber, and Lori Silverman, but it will occupy its own niche.

The field of storytelling books has a lot of entries these days, but No Story, No Fans proves not only was there room for one more. There was a need for this book.

[Note: You can read the first part free on the Web site.]

Selling experience

Marketing is an interesting field. I’m thinking about that a lot these days, in relationship to storytelling, because I’m reading Raf Stevens’s new book, No Story, No Fans (which I’ll review here soon). He writes,

We live in an experience economy. The experience economy is about people looking for thrills and experiences, and companies selling those as if they were an economic product.

That’s what Sharp is selling in this ad for its Touch Wood SH-08C handsets. The video is a three-minute experience that is absolutely captivating. Right up to the end, there is not a hint of what they are selling. It sells an experience you will not soon forget. And not only is it a small story in itself, you will probably be telling the story of the ad to friends.

In case you haven’t yet seen the video, I won’t give away anything except a promise if you watch the video, you will feel as it it was three minutes well spent.

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