We’re interested in hearing from you. What did you think about this Storytelling series?

From The Washington Post – January 14, 2010

Over the last decade we’ve had villainous leaders who have brought us “shock and awe,” Axes of Evil, greed, corruption, fiscal mismanagement, soaring international debt, destructive political partisanship, Enron, Worldcom, and AIG. These stories are embedded in our public consciousness and over time they become our reality, a collective tale of the power of leadership at work in our lives — for the worse.

We’re in a cultural, as much as an economic, recession, and this narrative often includes themes like, “Others are to blame” or, “There’s nothing I can do about it,” or “That’s just the way things are.” The recession happened, and we’re all victims.

But while powerful forces are at work in the world around us, we deceive ourselves if we fail to recognize that each of us plays a role in constructing this reality. We also deceive ourselves by thinking the current story of our world condition is the only possible scenario. If we simply preserve the status quo, we deserve to be vilified by our children.

Here’s my advice for shedding the narrative of cultural malaise and finding the narrative you want to inhabit.

Raise your sights. During this series I’ve invited you to concentrate on the narratives you want to tell in your business, the stories you want your people to create, and those that will uncover new alignment in your company. Cumulatively, this will have a sizeable impact.

Now look beyond that for a moment. Imagine you could influence positive change in the world over the coming decade. How can we influence something larger than just ourselves or our businesses? How can each of us play a part in creating a new reality? Can stories be powerful instruments for change?

In other words, what’s the story we want to craft versus the story we must live with?

Meeting the moment. Just as 9/11 was a defining moment, the world after the recession of ’09 will never be the same. This is a critical juncture. And while the challenges are huge, I prefer to call this moment a creative juncture because of the many possibilities open to us all.

This is precisely the moment to examine and articulate your personal values and principles, and incorporate them in new narratives about your business.

Feed your imagination. Clif Bar Founder Gary Erickson faced a critical moment when the dominant story about his company was that it would never become successful without a buyout to enable him to scale the business and pay off his crippling debt. At the last minute, Erickson rejected that doomsday scenario, challenging the conventional wisdom.

He began by asking himself two questions: “Why does Clif Bar exist?” and “What are our reasons for being?” Very different questions than just how to maximize profit and shareholder value, but they had foundational meaning for him and his people. Answering these questions guided them all towards shaping a new narrative going forward — one based on impact and the company’s core values: the ability to sustain its brands, business, people, community, and planet. Outsiders called him crazy, but now that he’s a success, he’s called “inspirational”.

Or take your lead from Body Shop founder Anita Roddick whose business and campaigning were both founded on the power of stories. Anita’s core questions included: “Why waste a container when you can refill it?” “Why buy more of something than you need?” She combined this approach with a belief that businesses have the power to do good and she used her stores and products to communicate human rights and environmental issues.

After stepping down as co-chairman of the firm in 2002, Roddick spent most of her time advancing important causes and campaigns against human rights abuses and the exploitation of the underprivileged. She founded charitable organizations, spoke at conferences worldwide and participated in think tank councils. In her book, “Business As Unusual” she advocated that every business had a story which could both attract customers and influence positive change in the world. “If you think you’re too small to have an impact, try going to sleep with a mosquito in the room.”

Our legacies are built upon the stories we tell, not the quotas we meet. In the words of the Celtic musician and storyteller Charles de Lint, “We’re all made of stories. When they finally put us underground, the stories are what will go on. It’s a kind of immortality…”

If an energy bar business or a cosmetics shop can be a platform to improve lives, then so can yours. What new steps can you take and how can your business become a force for change?

Practice time

Ask yourself and your team these questions:

1. Beyond the service you provide, what can your business be a platform for?

2. What impact do you want your company to have in the world?

3. What stories do you want people to tell about your company when you’re gone?

Finding the answer may be the first step in creating a new and better narrative for yourself and those you lead.


Read below and let us know how the exercises are progressing.

Why become an effective storyteller? Yes, you can repair your reputation, deliver more effective messages and have a greater impact on your people. But, ultimately, storytelling also enables you to create a more powerful organization.

Narratives promote alignment, and a more cohesive culture yields greater performance and productivity. But alignment doesn’t mean coercing others to agree with you. When people are encouraged to share the fundamental principles that are essential to their lives and work, they discover commonalities. An enduring bond forms, outlasting daily disagreements, pressures and stress. Over time, this organic approach can shape your new legacy and lift your company to a higher level of effectiveness.

Here are five ways to use storytelling to promote alignment in your organization.

Beware the superficial. It’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to “build” or “impose” alignment from the outside. Many businesses take this superficial approach. Consider the CEO of a newly-merged company who hired an advertising agency to define the values and vision. Based on one “brainstorming” session with only the senior team, they constructed a “new narrative.” At the expensive launch party, they rolled out some hip new slogans, logos and giveaways. It was the perfect “outsourced solution.” Within three months, however, 25 percent of the staff had departed. Productivity and customer service collapsed.

Uncover authentic alignment. Imposed or assumed alignment isn’t real. True alignment must be uncovered. It’s there within your company no matter how divisive the behaviors may appear. Stories uncover shared identities and principles. Once your people begin to articulate their values through stories, they’ll reach out to each other in new ways. Your job as chief storyteller is to fully promote that bonding.

I’m encouraged that more companies are using the transformative power of storytelling. One multinational I know of has struggled for years with a damaging market perception. Despite playing a crucial role in global commerce, they have a reputation for only driving profits and dominating markets. Compelling scientific data and aggressive marketing campaigns have not been effective.

But now senior management is undertaking a radical experiment. People at all levels are being encouraged to tell their own stories. The themes include: “Why are you passionate about your work?” and “What’s the impact you want to have through it?” Already there is evidence of renewed vitality and partnership. Perceptions and experience are shifting “one story at a time.”

Storytelling is contagious. We all experience how stories prompt sharing: “Your story reminds me of the time…” While you’re the Chief Storyteller, yours isn’t the only important account waiting to be told. You’re just the catalyst. It’s your job to help other narratives find the light of day by:

• Inviting people to tell you how they see the company going forward and what their role will be in making that happen; and,

• Creating opportunities for them to speak in team meetings, conferences, town halls and through internal publications.

This is essential. Stories form the basis of a collective identity and they are the first step towards the deep-seated alignment I’m referring to.

Keep asking questions. As you craft your own narrative, ask people about the issues on their minds. What do they need you to address? Ask good questions and people will know you’re listening.

When you deliver your narrative, remember your listeners are carrying on a dialogue with you in their own minds. Encourage this “virtual” participation with questions like: “What does that mean for your work going forward?” or “Will this change your approach? If so, how?” Acknowledge what they might be thinking: “I appreciate this might change your thinking.” Or “This is a new approach. Let’s think it through.”

By the way, never ask rhetorical questions — they always sounds like you’re talking to yourself.

After your presentation, the real work starts. Seek feedback. Do people relate to you and identify with the mission? How? You’ll hear similar themes and ideas, both pro and con. No matter how divided you think people might be, you’ll also hear shared themes. Point them out. They’re the bedrock of your new culture.

The power of inclusion. The language you use to convey your narrative is powerful. Don’t take it for granted. Encourage shared ownership and strong relationships. Use words like “we”, “us” and “our”, rather than “I”, “me” and “mine”.

And in all discussions, replace “Yes, but…” with “Yes, and…” This approach invites collaboration and exploration.

PRACTICE TIME. Ask your people about meaningful moments they’ve had at work. What made them noteworthy and how can they be replicated?

Invite exploration. Where do they see the company going? What’s the impact they’d like to have? What support do they need from you? When you hear common themes, acknowledge the similarities in viewpoints and aspirations.
Earlier posts in this series:

Crafting the irresistible narrative

Mastering the three ‘I’s’ of storytelling

From CEO to chief story teller: Part one, the challenge.”

A Communicating with Power & Presence alumnae shares her experience as a participant in one of The TAI Group’s signature workshops.

Making Friends With Terror – Overcoming Fear Of Public Speaking

There’s a joke told by Jerry Seinfeld which goes something like this: “According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Wait a minute, death is number two? This means that to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy!”

Ever since reading about The TAI Group here in New York, I’ve been longing to take one of their courses in public speaking. Two weeks ago, I finally had that opportunity. The course I took is their popular 2-day foundation course, entitled “Communicating With Power And Presence.”

Truth be told, I’ve actually had some training. Unfortunately, most of it was in grammar school when I managed to maintain a strong presence on the Forensics Team. Since that time, speaking as a part of my job has forced me to confront some of my own issues. When called on to present, I sometimes find myself searching for excuses. But since one of my coaching values is to “stretch” – get beyond the comfort zone – I knew the time had come for me to really tackle this head on.

Drawing upon roots in theater, psychology and leadership development, TAI teaches people how to properly engage an audience. Without an engaged audience, you are literally talking to yourself. First, let me say how much I enjoyed this workshop. It was challenging, experiential, humbling and…absolutely brilliant. For anyone who presents on a regular basis, this course should be mandatory. Hell, even if you never need to present, this would still be worth doing.

Gifford Booth, Director and Co-Founder of TAI, taught the class along with coach-in-training, Michael Filan. Both gentlemen were friendly and inviting. One of the things I loved was the democracy of it—there was no regard given to title or rank. Most in attendance were senior or C-level people, but in this little room for 2 days, we were just 9 people wanting to learn how to communicate more effectively. I came away with a whole arsenal of tools, some of which are worth sharing here.

Character is King

The conventional wisdom holds that “content is king” when it comes to presentation. But according to The Actor’s Institute, this is only a small part of it. In their world, the essence of a great presentation involves:

Character – 55%

Craft – 38%

Content – 7%

Yes, good content is necessary, but it is not sufficient. This means that we should step out from behind Powerpoint and give the audience a little piece of ourselves – our personality. When I first stood up in front of the group – under bright stage lights, feeling nervous – I was concerned that my message wasn’t useful and that I didn’t have the chops. I was terrified that they would hear every mistake or ‘um’ that I’d say. Instead, what I came to learn from Gifford was that I was a “natural”. A “natural”? Yep. Once I allowed my authentic self to come through, I actually had a gift as a presenter. The same skills that make me a good “private” one-on-one speaker during my coaching sessions are the exact same ones that enable me to be an exceptional public speaker: good eye-contact, listening, gesturing and animated facial expressions. The goal is not to “give a speech” (like I used to back in the 7th grade), but rather to make your presentation a “conversation” – even though the audience is not talking. When I did this, I noticed my credibility and presence increase.
Tell Me A Story

Since our early ancestors first gathered around the campfire, people have been hardwired to respond to story. The response to shared human experience is deep-seated within all of us, and we’d be foolish not to use it in our presentations. Think you’re not a storyteller? Nonsense! We all do it naturally in our day-to-day life all the time: “You won’t believe what happened to me today…” “Are you sitting down? Cos I’m gonna tell you something that is going to rock your world…” Companies, governments, advertisers and good speakers all understand the inherent power of narrative. Telling a story is the surest way to hook a listener’s imagination, and then when you have their attention – get your message across. The great success of the Obama election campaign was due in no small part to the power of narrative. His personal story combined with his sweeping narrative of “change” galvanized his followers and secured his election over John McCain.

Wait For It To Land

When you’re out in front of a crowd, time seems to move very quickly. What feels like an eternity to you, may in fact, be only a half second to your audience. The tendency for most people is to hurry – rushing headlong to get to the end. Throughout the workshop, we were encouraged to slow down, giving our words a moment to “land.” Look people in the eye, give them a chance to acknowledge and respond to what you are actually saying – just like you would in a real conversation. In practice, this is really hard to do. Most people tend to just glance furtively at an audience without really connecting. All good speakers understand the power of looking at their audience, pausing for effect – leaving space so that your words have room to be heard.

Connect With One Person At A Time

Great politicians understand that connecting on an individual level is key. Probably the greatest example in modern history is Bill Clinton. Like him or not, the man was a masterful “connector.” If he was speaking in a town hall setting and someone asked a question, he would speak directly to that person like they were the only one in the room. You would think that other people might feel left out, but in fact, the opposite is true. When the speaker is connecting with someone in the audience, we unconsciously “lean in” to observe what is going on. The same phenomenon known as “rubbernecking” – which causes the highway to be backed up for miles – can actually help you as a presenter, if you know how to use it. What people call “magnetism” is really the ability to fully engage one person, so that they feel special.


Coach Mike was especially good at reminding us of our breathing, or lack thereof. While standing in front of the audience, Mike told us to scan our bodies for tension, to feel our feet on the floor and to take a minute to see the audience. He showed us how to take deep breaths that result from diaphragm movement. During this exercise we let air in slowly for 5 counts, then we held the breath for 5 counts and then slowly let the air out for 5 counts and repeated when necessary. Neglect of proper breathing results in fast, breathless speech and plain old discomfort on the part of the speaker. After a while, I could spot when a speaker was not breathing properly during their talk because my own breath often resonated theirs. According to Gifford, “the difference between fear and excitement…is breathing.”


How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, he mentions the “10,000-Hour Rule”, claiming that the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours. Keeping in mind that we are not born with public speaking skills, we need to practice in order to see results. For me, this means prepping for hours before I deliver a presentation and over time, increasing the number of talks I give. A great leader is able to influence because she/he knows their craft. You need be so familiar with your content that you can easily go “off message” – and still find your way back into the presentation without missing a beat. How do you do that? Know your material.

It’s Not About You

After I had finished my piece, Gifford instructed each of the participants to share what they saw and felt as they listened to me. What astonished me most was that the audience found pieces of my story to be compelling for entirely different reasons. What each person heard was unique to their individual lens – just as two people can read the same book, and have an entirely different experience. I thought I had control over that, but I didn’t. Nobody does. When it comes to speaking, power and control are polar opposites. On the other hand, power and vulnerability go hand in hand. If you have the courage to reveal your true character in front of an audience, your message will resonate. All the audience really wants is a well-prepared, honest speaker who believes in her message and is willing to passionately communicate that belief. So give up the need to “control” the audience. Because ultimately, it’s not about you – it’s about them.

The TAI Group is a boutique consulting firm pioneering new directions in executive leadership and organizational change. For 31 years, The TAI Group has been at the forefront of developing customized programs for businesses and individuals that fosters meaningful collaboration, promotes an environment in which creativity and innovation thrive and cultivates inspired leaders and high performing organizations. Their most popular foundation program, “Communicating with Power and Presence” is for professionals who make client presentations, speak in public, lead team meetings and groups, and want to sharpen their communication skills. While the end result is more effective speaking and presenting, “Communicating with Power and Presence” goes far beyond these areas. For more information contact: info@thetaigroup.com

Ann Mehl