When was the last time you narrated a story? I assume you believe you’d have to think too hard to answer that but trust me, you don’t. When you narrate something exciting that happened this week to your friends, it’s a story! I always enjoyed reading and writing stories but little did I know then that it would be helpful in professional contexts as well.
It was not too long ago when I came across two very different kinds of speakers. One who unlocked a bundle of stories about his thoughts and experiences, and the other who was so immaculate with his speech full of broad vocabulary and spectacular diction. Although I enjoyed both as a listener, if someone were to ask me which speaker I connected with the most and whose speech I happen to accurately remember to this date, it would be the first speaker who rightfully happens to be the founder of a Storytelling start-up in India. That is one of the early instances of realisation for me about how storytelling can be incorporated in our day to day life at work to elicit what a normal conversation or a Powerpoint presentation cannot.
During my tenure as a Team leader at AIESEC (a youth leadership organisation that works towards fulfilling humankind’s potential through volunteering opportunities across the world), there were several instances where nothing but stories worked for me to help members understand our values and purpose as an organisation and subscribe to doing their best at the job everyday. I clearly remember a few members asking me how I woke up feeling so energetic everyday about sales and marketing especially amidst all the struggle with Covid 19 back in 2021 as I had another well paid internship going on alongside. It did not take me too long to read that this question about my motivation was coming from a bunch who probably weren’t feeling very motivated themselves.
Shortly after, I brought them together for a meeting which was kickstarted with listening to what they were thinking and feeling. I believe this is the first step to becoming a good storyteller – listen well enough to understand how a story needs to be knit together and produced to the audience in context. Otherwise it would just be talking and not storytelling.
I gathered that their issues stemmed from ambiguities about balancing college and AIESEC, Covid and the work, listening to their mind and their leader, I narrated to them a very simple story about how our organisation runs on helping people with volunteering opportunities to underdeveloped nations using our previous Vice President’s personal experience. It is now more than ever that they need us to be working harder because selling the opportunity would mean someone is going to be helped in some corner of the world.
At AIESEC, the Vice President of the Global Volunteering team used to narrate his own personal experience at a teaching exchange programme in Vietnam. He would start off every single Global Volunteering event that we used to host in order to build a pipeline of interested volunteers by talking about how he went on this exchange as a teenager who was barely aware of the kind of difference he was making and dealt with smoking addiction for the longest time during those years. On one of those evenings in the city of Ho Chi Minh, he was walking on the streets and found a girl of 13-14 years of age selling flowers and he happened to strike a conversation with her about her age and background because she seemed fairly young. It was not too long before the girl timidly revealed that she belonged with the sex workers in the area, the VP was absolutely taken aback and described the feeling as “heartwrenching” to learn the atrocities that underprivileged children go through in these underdeveloped countries, with no one to care about their well being. He went on to say that he may not have been able to educate her in the short span of time, but the volunteering project he had taken on did contribute towards the education of about 20-25 such underprivileged children. That not only instilled a sense of empathy and motivation to continue working in AIESEC, it helped him get rid of his addictions in personal life as well because he was now working towards a greater good than himself.
It is a real and genuine story for sure but the fact that he realised that people were intrigued by this story, made him use it as part of every presentation – it instilled empathy and intention to contribute to the cause AIESEC was working towards by taking up our volunteer exchanges. The VP’s story stuck with all the people he met, spoke to and also worked with – like us because we woke up everyday wanting to give our best so this organisation could succeed in its mission. This made him a better leader among us with no doubt.
Once they seemed to be on board with the mission after listening to this story, I went on to help each of them individually figure out routines that could fit this responsibility in, asked for suggestions on making the system efficient and reassured them that I would look out for them and help them at all times. I don’t know if I could have employed any other method but this one definitely worked for us and I was ecstatic about it.
To put it together precisely, leaders need a humanistic touch to their power – something that would motivate, guide, influence, and direct people towards a positive output. It would help the members develop a mental map to understand how and why something is to be done as a part of their contribution. The storytelling styles might differ from one person to another, nonetheless the purpose is served if it instils trust, hope and a sense of the vision which are intangibles to which plain text and words cannot do justice. This is why it is referred to as an “art of communication”. It is an age-old belief that stories have always brought people together towards something and if that is not the purpose of a leader, I don’t know what is.
This blog was authored by Shriya Joshi, a Zest intern and recent graduate of Msc Organisational and Business Psychology at University College London.