By Rachana Bhide
In my work as a change management leader and diversity researcher, I’ve been delighted to see how the concept of storytelling has evolved into a well-respected and sought-after skill for leaders. Storytelling is used in a variety of industries and functions, including marketing and sales — with many improvisation and theater companies specializing in training leaders in this verbal art.
Storytelling as a verbal art in the business world can take on many forms, depending upon both the storyteller and the key objective of what the story must convey. Some stories become narrative descriptions of a product. Other stories relay the spirit of a customer journey. And some stories recount personal examples from the storyteller, in order to raise awareness of a key issue, or build buy-in for change. This last approach to storytelling is what I will focus on in this article, specifically around simple tactics that will help Male Champions of diversity be more effective in telling their stories, to influence others in this important topic.
Why is Effective Storytelling Important for Male Champions?
In my research, one of the most critical findings I had was that men who were strong champions of diversity were able to recount an experience from their own lives that, when reflected upon, helped build their own case for why diversity matters. And these specific examples are the foundation of great, compelling stories — they must be shared and leveraged in a positive way that will not just set the stage for change, but help Male Champions be as convincing as is their own conviction, to galvanize others toward supporting their efforts.
The targeted techniques I will share below are an amalgamation of various training courses, books (references below), and “trial-and-error” in coaching Male Champions specifically to tell effective stories. I’ll illustrate four tactics for verbal storytelling that will help listeners build an emotional commitment toward change. I’ll highlight with an example for each tactic and explain why the tactic is important; in a few instances I’ll share what specifically happens in the brain when stories are told in this manner.
Because the tactics below are for verbal stories, it will help, as you read this article, to read any examples out loud.
How to Tell a Compelling Story: Four Tactics for Male Champions
Tactic 1: Use Present Tense
As speakers, we assume that our listener is as interested as we are in the story we have to tell. That may or may not be the case. So, no matter how compelling an example we pick, when we “recount” a story of our own from the past, even with the most mesmerizing of words, we are still telling it from our own vantage point, making the listener effectively a “consumer.” However, when we shift our narrative to present tense, something happens: The wall between speaker and listener comes down; in effect, we as speaker are inviting our listeners INTO the story with us.
Compare: “I was sitting in the boardroom that day.”
To: “I am sitting in the boardroom.”
Immediately, the stage is set and every participant in the room is now part of the scene. This is very important for Male Champions when they talk about diversity to both large and small groups, so that their stories and experiences are no longer just their own; in the moment they now belong also to their listeners.
Tactic 2: Use. Short. Sentences.
When telling a story to an audience, short sentences show power and confidence. They also allow the listener to process every word, when a deliberate pause is inserted after each sentence. Written stories may look better with longer clauses and use of complex sentence structure; but for effective verbal storytelling, shorter is better. I recommend you read this out loud:
Compare: “As I sit, I notice the expression on the Chairman’s face, and note an intense fear in his green eyes.”
To: “I sit. (Pause). I notice the expression on the Chairman’s face. (Pause). His eyes are green. (Pause, extra). I see fear.”
What is the difference? In both instances, the listener’s brain is being activated primarily in Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area — the language processing parts of the brain — where the listener decodes the words into meaning. Unless a deliberate action is taken by the storyteller to “do something with those words,” the message just sits there in the listener’s brain with no real emotional commitment.
With short sentences and each pause, however, the listener is able to not only decode the words into meaning more readily, but is primed to take those words into other parts of the brain where they will be further experienced as though the listener is in the story him/herself. This happens in the next step:
Tactic 3: Like Van Gogh’s Starry Night — Choose Illustrative Imagery
Before telling our story, it is helpful to have a detailed mental picture of what we want to convey. If we are telling the story of the boardroom, we must take ourselves back to that moment in our minds, and pay attention to what was happening that day — was the air conditioner humming? Was the door slamming shut? Were chairs swiveling? Details that we can add to our story — again, in short sentences and present tense — help paint a complete picture for the listener.
In the story, are board members swiveling in their chairs? The listener is now receiving the story in the motor cortex, where motion is experienced. If the vice-chairman in the story is eating a succulent, icing-covered doughnut, the listener’s sensory cortex now lights up. All of these details then help the story be further encoded into the listener’s brain and be fully experienced by the listener. Advanced storytellers may also use movement to convey description (for example, acting as the vice-chairman and demonstrating the manner in which he ate the doughnut).
Tactic 4: Pick a Specific Point in Time
Stories that intend to convey an experience and build commitment are most effective when they describe a particular moment. We don’t need to set up the story with a lot of details or explanations of what was happening before the scene that we are telling a story about. We can trust that if we tell the story using the above tactics, the listener’s ears and brains will fill in the necessary information, so that the focus remains on the moment itself.
Compare: “I was about to attend my first board meeting and I was really nervous. I prepared a ton for the session, but I still felt nervous in the hours before the meeting. Then I walked to the boardroom and saw the Chairman. He looked at me and I completely froze.””
To: “I walk into the boardroom. (Pause). The Chairman swivels in his chair. (Pause). His green eyes find me. (Pause). I freeze.”
Both examples convey a sense of nerves, but the second is more powerful when told aloud — foregoing any setup before the actual story in favor of allowing the listener to experience and feel what is happening in the room, and in the storyteller’s head, at that very moment.
Putting it All Together: Making it Work for Male Champions
Now that you’ve read the four simple tactics, compare the following two verbal stories, adapted from one of the Male Champions I interviewed:
Version 1: “I was at the pool one day, watching my daughter’s swim meet. I was so proud of her but then shocked, after she won a ribbon in the 200m backstroke. She seemed more concerned with whether her friends approved of her victory than being proud of her own accomplishment. It was at that moment I realized how difficult it would be for her to visibly shine in her own accomplishments. I had never realized it before, and that was the day that I said I would be a champion for gender diversity.”
Version 2: “Maddie emerges from the pool. (pause purposefully after each sentence). She is victorious. She picks up her blue towel. It is sopping wet. I notice her face. Her eyes. Her eyes, are sad. She turns from the pool. Maddie walks, toward her friends. Her feet leave hard, wet footprints across the concrete. Her friends greet her. There is no joy. They do not congratulate her. I remain standing, frozen — in the distance. The 11am sun is beating down. My head is hot. I finally see what her struggle will be. I finally understand. I am a changed father.”
Both versions accurately depict what has happened that day at the pool, and the tension occurring in the father’s head. The first story is compelling and honest, and works in many settings and business environments.
But the second story, when read aloud, brings the listener to the pool that day, along the journey with the father describing the story. The listener feels his pain, experiences his a-ha moment, and can empathize on a far more emotional level with him, why he has now chosen to tell this story and become a champion for equality. Additionally, the listener may also become curious about the others in the story — what is his daughter feeling as she leaves wet footprints toward her friends? What insecurities did her friends show that day? What about all the other people — parents, children — at the swim meet? The storytelling technique has opened up many more possibilities for discussion, which is what the Male Champion’s real role is: To spark commitment, dialogue and action for change.
So how can Male Champions use this technique? Often Male Champions use their position to influence colleagues — men and women — to support workplace equality initiatives and further the diversity agenda. Male Champions can and should take their personal reflections and use the above technique to create a solid, compelling story; one that can readily be shared in front of audiences, on panels or even in 1:1 settings.
In fact, even if the Male Champion isn’t verbally telling his story in such a setting, when the time is taken to craft the story in this precise and descriptive way, the Male Champion himself typically finds a renewed sense of purpose and deep emotion toward his own commitment. This is important, as the process of being an active champion requires both reinforcement and ongoing reflection; this process is ultimately a solid step toward becoming an even stronger leader of change.
If you would like more information on how to build effective Male Champions for diversity, or tell a powerful story for change, feel free to contact me. And for some great written stories from the flip side, check out The Corner of the Court where women share their own written words about a Male Champion who has influenced them.
For added information, I recommend reading Leadership Presence by Belle Linda Halpern and Kathy Lubar, or checking out The Ariel Group executive presence training.