Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Power of Stories

I have never been a story teller. I’ve never developed the flair, pacing, and audience connections needed to tell a good story. So when I attended the “Women in Business – Transitioning to Leadership” workshop at the University of North Carolina’s (UNC)Kenan-Flagler Business School in May, I wasn’t expecting to tell a story. Dr. Heidi Schultz, Clinical Professor of Management and Corporate Communication at UNC and the facilitator of our Wednesday afternoon session, told us that the story a speaker tells is often the only thing an audience remembers! Once I heard that, I realized that I wanted to know more about the power of stories.

In her article for Forbes Magazine, How To Tell A Good Story, contributor Kristi Hedges shares the reasons why most people don’t consider themselves good storytellers.
  • I never think of it
  • I tend to ramble and lose the point
  • I have a hard time gauging interest
  • I am never sure how much detail to use
  • I don’t have good stories to share

I myself could check off half of these. Hedges assures us that learning to tell stories with confidence is worth the effort. One important piece of advice is to use good story structure. A good story isn’t complicated – it’s actually quite simple. Here’s the suggested structure:
  • Clear moral or purpose – there’s a reason why you’re telling this story, to this audience, at this time
  • Personal connection – the story involves either you, or someone you feel connected to
  • Common reference points – the audience understands the context and situation of the story
  • Detailed characters and imagery – have enough visual description that we can see what you’re seeing
  • Conflict, vulnerability, or achievement we can relate to – similar to the last point, show us the challenges
  • Pacing – there’s a clear beginning, ending, and segue way back to the topic
There are articles, advice, and instructions all over the web on how to improve your storytelling. Arguably, the most important advice is to practice telling a story a few (many?) times before you tell it to other people. You want to feel comfortable with the phrasing and content. Only then can you engage and interact with your audience. Some people are natural storytellers (e.g., Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan) and some can even bring a sense of humor to a story. The rest of us can develop this ability with practice and even learn to make an audience laugh (it took me years to do this effectively!). Another piece of good advice is to be authentic. Some people can lie convincingly. Some can tell a fairy tale as if it really happened, but if your audience finds out, you can lose credibility.

Since we were telling our stories in a kind of vacuum – a workshop about telling stories – we were encouraged to set the stage for our audience. I would tell my story at the beginning of a seminar that was based on my World View column in NATURE, Change the System to Halt Harassment. I had been motivated to write this article after conversations with senior men who had shared with me their reasons for not saying/doing anything when they had known about the actions of a particular sexual harasser:
  •          It was none of my business
  •          I didn’t want to intrude
  •          I didn’t know what to do
  •          I thought I might make it worse
  •          It’s not my problem
  •          Boys will be boys
Here’s a quote I gave to a reporter:

We have to find a way to change the system - to take the pressure off the young women in the most vulnerable stages of their careers and shift it to the senior men, many of whom have admitted to knowing this “open secret” for years if not decades.
--Joan Schmelz (Oct 2015)

The purpose of this seminar is to train those with privilege, especially senior men, to become allies who can support individuals and advocates who will add their voices and prestige to fight against sexual harassment. Here’s the story I told to my group:

In 2011, I blogged about my own experience with sexual harassment. To my knowledge, I was the first woman in astronomy to do this non-anonymously. As a result, young women from across the country began contacting me about their own situations. These were women that I didn’t know and had never met. They were reaching out to a stranger, asking for help.

After a few years, I realized that I had spoken to several women who had been harassed by the same harasser. I began thinking of this person as a serial harasser, as an actual predator. But what could I do? These stories were secret. These women didn’t even know about each other. In fact, many thought that they had a special relationship with the harasser. I had to find a way – invent a way – to stop this.

I decided to ask each woman a question, “If your harasser had harassed others, would you want to know about it?” This set up a dialogue about the special relationship myth, and several women decided they wanted to talk to each other. Four later filed Title IX complaints. When the university found the harasser “responsible” but “punished” him with a mere slap on the wrists, the complainants decided to go to the media. BuzzFeed published their story in October 2015. Suddenly, it seemed like everyone in astronomy was talking about the sexual harassment problem.

This seminar – about Changing the System – was put together to help each of you become part of the solution.

Remember that this is a script, not an essay. This is a story that is meant to be told, not read. Perhaps reading it aloud can mimic the effect, perhaps not, but you could feel the energy in the room as I finished. I was shaking and the audience seemed like it was holding its breath. We all let the power of the story wash over us.

What did you think? Dr. Schultz asked the audience after a few moments of silence. I’m paraphrasing here, because I was in a kind of fog. I remember things like,
  •         I’m so glad I stayed for that.
  •         We’ve been together all week, and I had no idea you did that.
  •         It shows that one person can make a difference.
Although this story did not start with the classic, “Once upon a time . . . ,” we are still waiting to see if it has a happy ending.

Please check out these other posts inspired by the Women in Leadership workshop: