As Deloitte’s Human Sustainability Leader, I get asked for advice a lot. And while I have plenty of it, the best way to move people and motivate them to incorporate ways of living and working that will make their lives, and the planet, more sustainable is through stories.
I love stories and I love reading (you can read my summer reading recommendations here). And I know that, while science and data about well-being are important, the way to really reach people is through stories.
I recently tried to put that into practice in my first TEDx Talk, delivered, appropriately, during Mental Health Awareness Month. In the talk, I tell my own story — about the lessons I learned about well-being after experiencing burnout and my subsequent cancer diagnosis.
As much as I love stories, I don’t love public speaking! Which, yes, is somewhat weird given that a big part of my job is public speaking. But a TED Talk is a different animal — meant to be a story that’s both authentic and polished. And that’s why I was so incredibly lucky to have Karen Eber as my story coach. She not only taught me how to tell my own story better, but also about how important stories are to advancing well-being and human sustainability — for ourselves, our teams, and our organizations. And that’s no accident, since that’s the subject of her fantastic new book, The Perfect Story: How to Tell Stories that Inform, Influence, and Inspire. Karen details the science of storytelling and what it does to our brains, why stories are so essential, how to tell a good story, and includes great examples of how different storytellers have approached their craft.
I sat down with her recently, and here’s what Karen had to say about what stories can do for us.
• Sharing stories protects us from burnout in three ways:
- “It creates community. We recognize others that have similar struggles, aspirations, and experiences. Having someone that not only has experienced what you have, but can see your experiences, makes you feel less isolated. These moments of community create belonging and share thinking for ways to manage those feelings.”
- “It can help alleviate stress. There is some interesting research that says sharing those things that are fears or stresses with others helps lower our stress indicators. The ability to articulate what you are experiencing with someone listening and holding space for you often shows immediate results in cortisol and blood pressure.”
- “It creates bonding. As you share stories, the bonding hormone oxytocin is released in the audience as they listen. They experience an increase in empathy and trust in the storyteller. Teams and communities that incorporate storytelling as part of their meetings can learn from each other. They can identify the pain points that need changing before they fester and burnout sprouts.”
• Stories drive company culture:
“Many people think of culture as the values hanging in the lobby or on the website, or what the CEO says on stage, but that isn’t quite right. Culture is experienced each day at the team level through interactions and is shaped by what is encouraged or discouraged.
“Stories play a key role in highlighting what is encouraged and reinforced or discouraged. Teams that have a habit of discussing their mistakes use stories to process the learning and what they are taking from it. Teams that tell the stories of what their great leaders and teams look like help elevate thinking and provide examples for development and growth. People can internalize the story and reflect on what they want to take forward. Stories also extend leadership. They become the things that are discussed, even when the leader isn’t there.”
• Stories create psychological safety
“When people experience psychological safety, they feel vulnerable enough to discuss mistakes and lessons learned without fear of blame. Stories can help establish trust between employees and forge psychological safety. As you share stories with others, you are vulnerable. The audience experiences an increase in empathy towards you. It also sends the silent signal to your brain, ‘This person is safe to be around.’”
And finally, I couldn’t let such a great story coach go without getting her advice for how we can all bring the power of stories into our lives. Here are three ways Karen says we can do just that:
- Create a habit of sharing stories about mistakes or lessons learned to help share group learning. Trust must be present in these moments or people won’t share for fear of blame. Leaders can role model this and send the signal that it’s welcome and encouraged.
- Share professional journeys. Teams become strengthened when they gain empathy from each other. Have team members share stories about a personal or professional event that has impacted who they are today. This allows for vulnerability and creates empathy in better understanding one another.
- What great looks like. Highlight stories of examples of great leaders, teams, or projects that reinforce what is valued or encouraged. These stories don’t have to be about heroes. Sharing how someone navigated challenges to a successful outcome can help others consider how to do the same thing when facing similar circumstances.
If we’re going to create a more sustainable world for ourselves and our planet, we’re going to have to use more than just data — we need stories to inspire us for the journey and to provide a roadmap for how to get there.