Welcome to the Telling of Story podcast. I’m your host storyteller Jewels, and along with my guests, it’s my endeavor to explore the art and science of storytelling, to attract, engage, and retain a business audience, and to unpack why it works for some and not for the many that try. In today’s episode, I have the pleasure of talking with Denise Withers.
[00:00:24] Jewels: Listen in as she shares an how to spot a story worth telling.
[00:00:31] Denise: So I have an acronym that I use quite a lot in my work, so I call them SURE stories, right? So ‘S’ for Keep It Simple U for keep it unpredictable. ‘R’ for Keep it Relevant, and ‘E’ for Keep It extraordinary. So for me, a story has to be about something extraordinary and unpredictable.
[00:00:52] Denise: Otherwise, it’s probably not a story worth telling. And then once you have those two elements, everything else is in the way that you tell it.[00:01:00]
[00:01:03] Jewels: In this episode, I have the pleasure of talking with Denise Withers, launching her career as a whitewater filmmaker in the Ottawa River, spending every day paddling big water with the best kayakers in the world, telling their life or death stories. Denise has spent a decade writing, directing, and producing marketing and training videos in tech a decade, making a hundred plus documentaries and yet another, working as an innovation coach and consultant, a student of engagement and design thinking, taking deep dives into the psychology and science behind learning and decision-making, breaking down the key barriers to leading change, culture, capacity, and communication.
[00:01:39] Jewels: Today, Denise leverages all she has learned about change, design, leadership, storytelling, innovation, behavior science, and engagement to help social profit leaders grow their impact for good. A three times author, a blogger, a podcaster, and a presenter at TEDx on using stories to drive change. A lifelong [00:02:00] storyteller, and much, much more.
[00:02:02] Jewels: Denise, welcome to the show.
[00:02:05] Denise: Thanks so much for having me. I’m really looking forward to this conversation.
[00:02:08] Jewels: Denise, clearly this conversation could go in absolutely any direction based on your vast experience, but I’d like you to take me back to when you were a filmmaker in the Whitewater filmmaker and developing what you call the Whitewater mindset.
[00:02:24] Denise: Yeah. You know, it’s one of those things in hindsight that I now realize was a really transformational moment for me, so right out of university, I had studied radio and television arts, and I had just stumbled across whitewater kayaking. And so landed my dream job for the summertime, which was making marketing videos for a whitewater rafting company on the Ottawa River, which has some of the biggest whitewater in the world.
[00:02:47] Denise: And the whitewater rafting industry was really just taking off at the time, and I was really fortunate to work with some of the best paddlers in the world. And these people are fearless. They’re incredible athletes. [00:03:00] And to do what they do, it takes a different mindset. You definitely need to be adventurous.
[00:03:06] Denise: You need to be willing to take risks. But you know, whitewater can kill you. Any water can kill you. And so a big part of learning to be a kayaker, a whitewater kayaker is understanding when not to go and when not to paddle. And you know how to take calculated risks. And I remember one of the best lessons, one of my buddies, who’s still a friend now, taught me, we were standing at the top of a wrap and we were scouting it.
[00:03:29] Denise: He looked at me and he said, if you’re too scared to whistle, don’t go. You know, if your mouth is so dry from fear that you can’t whistle, this is not the the right thing for you to do. And so spending six months working with these people who went on to become the best, the best paddlers in the world, their kids now are all the whitewater champions in the world, really helped me learn a few things.
[00:03:51] Denise: So it was how do you take calculated risks? You know, how do you learn to support each other? Because you rarely paddle white water alone. You’re [00:04:00] always gonna have somebody there who’s gonna bail you out. And I’ll tell you, these guys saved my life again and again and again. I can’t count the number of times I ended up in a heap at the end of a rapid, you know, swimming away.
[00:04:11] Denise: And it really teaches you how to get to know yourself and get to know your strengths. And so that was really foundational for me kicking off my career. And it was also a good step, realizing that I wasn’t gonna have a career in the box. I was gonna be working outside of the box. And so what was that going to look like for me?
[00:04:31] Denise: And
[00:04:32] Jewels: so how did you get into storytelling? Was it accidental that you landed this particular job and that led you down that direction, or was it a. Been a passion of yours since, you know, since
[00:04:41] Denise: you were a kid. I think it was definitely a passion of mine, but I didn’t have a framework for it. I didn’t really know what it was going to look like.
[00:04:48] Denise: So I wrote, when I was in high school, I wrote a lot. When I was studying at university, I was really interested in what was, I was calling at the time, the mini [00:05:00]documentary, and so we see it now and it’s kind of like the news magazine style, you know, the five of the six minute story, and here in Canada, W five was doing a lot of that kind of work.
[00:05:09] Denise: So I was really interested in that kind of storytelling, but I didn’t think of it as storytelling at the time. I thought of it more as reporting or journalism, and so it wasn’t really until I got my break and started doing work for Discovery Channel that I really started to appreciate the power of storytelling, and I was really lucky to work with.
[00:05:29] Denise: Great producers at Discovery Channel and also at the C B C, which is the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which is like p bs in the US and like B B C in the uk. I’m not sure what your version is. And they were really good at helping me discover the difference between a narrative or a chronicle, which is basically just a list of things that happened.
[00:05:52] Denise: You know, I got up and then I went to the store, and then I bought some donuts, and then I came home, and then I had a nap. Not very interesting. It’s [00:06:00] informative, but it’s not very interesting. And what is a story which has some dramatic tension to it and some element of the unexpected or the unknown? So, you know, I got up and I got in my car, but my car wouldn’t start.
[00:06:14] Denise: Or I got up and I got in my car and suddenly I saw a gorilla. You know, now you’ve got a story. Now you’ve introduced some element of the, of the unknown. And so that was really kind of my introduction to it, and I. So for a lot of the documentary work we were doing, we were essentially trying to sneak science into entertainment.
[00:06:32] Denise: So one of the shows that I worked on was a, a series called Storm Warning. And so it was all about severe storms all around the world and the people that survived them. And so the reason most of the people tuned into the show was they wanted to see all of these extreme rescues and all this crazy stuff that happened to people, but we really wanted to teach them the science of the weather and the science behind what was going on.
[00:06:52] Denise: And so, We would be telling the story of somebody who was, uh, you know, their boat had sunk off of, uh, Papa New Guinea or [00:07:00] something like that, their sailboat, and they’re in the water and. And just as they’re about to die, we would break away and talk about the signs of hurricanes or things like that. And so that was when I really started to appreciate the power of story to engage people and weave in information at the same time.
[00:07:17] Denise: And so that was really what I did that those kind of 10 or 15 years where I was working with Discovery Channel, that was really the focus of the work that we did, was using story as a framework. More for education than anything. And then essentially what happened was around the turn of the century, reality TV came along and I don’t know what happened in Australia, but the broadcasters here in North America loved it because it was dead cheap to produce, and they really didn’t care what the content was.
[00:07:44] Denise: So I tried to do it. I worked on a few series for a while and it just really wasn’t satisfying for me. And so I took a step back and I said, okay, what was the piece that I really loved about the documentary work? And it wasn’t just the storytelling, it was the education piece. And that’s what led me back to grad school to start [00:08:00] to say, okay, there’s all these new digital technologies coming along.
[00:08:03] Denise: How are we going to use them for education? And that’s when I discovered that having worked in TV and especially at a time when. VCRs were something new. You know, PVS didn’t exist. People watched a lot of live tv. We had to be engaging, we had to create engaging content because if you didn’t, people had their remote control and they clicked and they changed the channel and you essentially lost your job.
[00:08:29] Denise: So when I got to grad school, I realized that I had this skill that nobody else had. And it was this thing called engagement that nobody was talking about at the time. So that’s what I decided to do my master of science research on was engagement. And in fact, there was no academic research available at all into what engagement was or how you created, so that’s what I ended up studying for a few years and came out with some design guidelines for how you create engagement.
[00:08:54] Denise: And of course, along the way I. Discovered that story is the most powerful [00:09:00] tool that we have to get and hold people’s attention because of the way we’re wired, because of the way that we process stories. And then that’s kind of how it all started to come together for me. So that was about, I left grad school in 2007, and so now using that new knowledge has really been the focus of the work that I’ve been doing since then.
[00:09:18] Jewels: So as part of documentaries, obviously documentaries are need to be incredibly engaging, particularly in a time, as you described, you know, when it was live TV and people had a remote control. So not only does that have to be super engaging, so that’s one really strong aspect that needs to be there. But there’s a second part to documentary as well.
[00:09:38] Jewels: There’s obviously getting it across the line within the organization, so you know, if you’re working for the Discovery Channel, not every documentary gets produced, I imagine. So you have to pitch your idea and come forward with concept that’s going to grab somebody’s attention. So what did you learn through that process about using stories to actually get an idea across?
[00:09:59] Denise: That’s all [00:10:00] very true, and that wasn’t part of my job. Okay. So. I was really lucky to work primarily as a writer director, so somebody else did that work. So they pitched Discovery Channel, they pitched the series, they put together the package, and they got the money and then they brought me on as the creative to tell the stories.
[00:10:17] Denise: So you’re absolutely right, and that’s a lot of the work that I’m doing now is using stories to pitch. But it did, it was not part of what I did as a documentary. I only executive produced a few of my things. It was hard work. And the other thing I will say, you know, looking back, I realize now I’ve got a little bit of a chip on my shoulder because I had a business partner at the time.
[00:10:37] Denise: She and I pitched a lot of incredibly compelling stories and we didn’t get a nibble because it was very much a boys’ world, a boys’ market, old boys school at the time. And so, I felt grateful actually to be able to do the work that I was doing. I was the only woman doing a lot of the work that I was doing, and there was no way that I was gonna be able to crack that glass ceiling to actually [00:11:00] be able to sell my own stories.
[00:11:01] Denise: The couple that I did sell, they were such compelling stories. It was frankly, pretty hard to screw it up. But again, and I will say, and this is maybe not what your audience wants to hear, maybe not what you wanna hear, but. I still believe that pitching is more about relationships than having a good story right now.
[00:11:21] Denise: So yes, if you don’t have the relationship, a story is a great tool to have. But I think there’s a lot of ways that you can use stories to build the relationships before you come in cold with a pitch. I think that would be my order of operations, would be build the relationship first and then come in with your pitch.
[00:11:38] Denise: And using stories is a great way to build those relationships.
[00:11:41] Jewels: So tell me a little bit about perhaps the story that you told that had the most impact.
[00:11:48] Denise: Yeah, so this was actually not a Discovery Channel project. This was in, I think it was 1996. I don’t know how much you know about the Rwandan genocide and what happened in the mid nineties.[00:12:00]
[00:12:00] Denise: Canada had some peacekeepers there when everything happened, and there was Canadian general named Romeo Dele who was in charge of the peacekeeping mission in Kigali when the genocide happened. And essentially what we found out he knew at the time what we found out the rest of the world in after the fact was.
[00:12:18] Denise: They knew what was coming. They had enough intelligence to know the massacre was coming. They warned the UN what was coming, and they were ordered to stand down. So they were essentially ordered to stand and witness a genocide. And there were only, there were not very many of them. There were only like six or 10 of them.
[00:12:38] Denise: It just destroyed them personally as human beings. And then, you know, after the genocide, the worst of it was over. Canada also sent in a lot of peacekeepers to deal with the aftermath. So it was things like finding mass graves, trying to find, uh, war criminals, basically put life back together for the people of Rwanda.
[00:12:57] Denise: So when General [00:13:00] Delaer came back to Canada, he had become suicidal. It was just such a traumatic event for him, and he made it his mission to get the Canadian Armed Forces to do more, to prepare and treat Canadian soldiers and personnel for post-traumatic stress disorder. It really wasn’t something that was recognized at the time.
[00:13:20] Denise: It was one of those things where you were just expected to suck it up and walk it off and just not talk about it. So he hired one of my clients, a production company to produce a documentary about what had happened and what his personnel had gone through in Rwanda. And he gave me unlimited access to all of their footage.
[00:13:38] Denise: They had video crews on the ground the whole time, so they had incredible footage and we also got quite a lot of news access. And then I did interviews with his people and I had my first conversation with him. And again, I was the only woman in the room. We were sitting, and he looked at me and he said, who are you?
[00:13:51] Denise: And I said, I’m gonna direct your documentary. And the only thing he said to me was he looked me in the eye and he said, if you don’t make the audience cry, you failed. [00:14:00] I said, all right. And it was pretty hard not to cry. We all cried through the interviews. Everybody was being interviewed, cried. One fellow actually had a breakdown right on camera.
[00:14:10] Denise: We had to stop rolling, and he walked straight into a treatment center. It was just really, really horrific stuff. And so the documentary became mandatory viewing for everybody in the Canadian Armed Forces. And it did what he wanted it to do, which was it forced a policy change to start to train forces people who were being deployed overseas to be better prepared for those kinds of situations.
[00:14:34] Denise: And it also put supports in place for post-traumatic stress disorder. So it was a really, really transformational piece of storytelling. And I mean, it changed me forever just having to go through that and, and live through the story secondhand.
[00:14:48] Jewels: And so that particular story, how did he go on to then get some of those policy changes?
[00:14:53] Jewels: Was there an actual set of steps that he took to take those stories out to the right people to make sure the story [00:15:00] was told? Or did he just let it air and then it sort of grew on its
[00:15:03] Denise: own? I think it was a bit of both. So he was a relatively senior ranking officer, so he would’ve had a fair bit of bit of power to do that.
[00:15:11] Denise: So he made everybody watch it, and the stories were so compelling, it was really impossible not to say we absolutely have to do something about this. So it carried a lot of weight on its own and. One of the things that happened was, again, C B C, our local public broadcaster picked it up and it became so compelling that he went on and made another broadcast documentary.
[00:15:31] Denise: He also released his book at the time, and so I think it just became part of a bigger movement that he led to drive the policy change from there.
[00:15:39] Jewels: Sounds like an incredibly powerful story. And is it still available? Is it something people can find and see anymore?
[00:15:47] Denise: No, it is not. And probably for good reason.
[00:15:50] Denise: I don’t think, you know, d and d really wants it out there. It’s, it would not be one of their finest moments, and it’s not. They’ve come a long, to their credit, they’ve come a long way since then. So, you know, it’s, it’s [00:16:00] not, it was something that came out before the days of digital when everything lives forever.
[00:16:04] Denise: So, yeah.
[00:16:05] Jewels: Shifting gear just a little bit. Take me forward now to some of the work that you do in sort of leadership development and how do you use stories to build leaders and to get leaders out in front?
[00:16:17] Denise: Yeah, so one of the things that I’ve come to realize over the last few years, and we’re seeing a lot of scientific evidence for this and a lot of business research as well, is that despite the fact that we like to think of ourselves as rational beings, we are not.
[00:16:32] Denise: We make decisions primarily based on emotion, which is essentially the stories we tell ourselves about a thing, and then we rationalize or justify those decisions with facts. And so one of the things that I’m trying to do through my work with leaders is help them recognize that. Essentially being a leader means you’re trying to make change.
[00:16:52] Denise: You’re trying to move people from one place, the status quo to a better place. So helping them see the power of story to [00:17:00] do that, and that doesn’t mean just starting with a blank slate and starting with your vision of happily ever after. It also means that you have to recognize that. People are already telling themselves stories about a thing.
[00:17:13] Denise: So whether you are looking to do digital transformation within your organization, or you’re looking to develop a new climate action plan, or you are taking over your, you’re merging with another organization. There are already stories at work within your organization about what people believe is going on.
[00:17:32] Denise: And so as you design your narrative strategy to lead change, you absolutely need to start with what are the stories that are already happening? What’s the future story of where we want to go to? And then the third story is, okay, based on all of that, what’s our strategy story? Or I call it our change story.
[00:17:52] Denise: For how we want to get there. And one of the great examples of, you know, how stories are already happening was [00:18:00] what happened during Covid and during the pandemic when all of these leaders were struggling to try to figure out how do they manage a, a remote workforce? And they just didn’t have the contact with their people that they were used to having.
[00:18:11] Denise: And so in the absence of that contact, people were telling themselves all kinds of stories about what was going on. You know, my boss hasn’t talked to me in seven days. Does that mean I’m doing a bad job? Are we gonna get fired? Right. Like these stories, they just spread like wildfire and they feed on each other.
[00:18:27] Denise: And so this idea that for me, communication really is the backbone of leadership. If you don’t get out in front of those stories, you’re never gonna be able to move your people to where you wanna take them to. So I. One of the ways that we, this was working with a leadership team at a small town here on Vancouver Island.
[00:18:43] Denise: Actually, one of the ways that we used story to get out in front was they were, as a municipality, they were getting ready to develop their climate action plan. I. They knew that they were going to need a really strong story to be able to do that. So rather than starting with all the data about [00:19:00] what was happening within the town, and this is what we need to do about sea level rise and all of these kinds of things, the first thing that I got them to do was I actually got my clients, not a research firm, I got my clients to go out and talk to people outside their regular circle and get them to tell them the stories about.
[00:19:18] Denise: What kinds of things they’re already doing to take climate action or why they’re not taking climate action or what they know about climate change. Just to get a sense of what’s the existing narrative out there about climate action. And that was transformational for my clients. They came back with all kinds of new knowledge because it turned out the audience they were going to have to engage wasn’t where they thought they were at all.
[00:19:41] Denise: In some ways, they were much farther ahead and in other ways they were not nearly as far along. And what we ended up doing was as part of that research, I also got them to find out what do people want more of? One of the tools I use a lot in my work is appreciative inquiry, which is really focusing on what you want in the future instead of [00:20:00] solving problems.
[00:20:01] Denise: And so what people want more of is the same as what everybody wants. They want more time, they want more money, they want, you know, time with their friends here on Vancouver Island. They wanna spend more time in nature. So, When we got around to designing the climate action plan, rather than focusing on trying to get people to change their behavior and practices because it’s the right thing to do for the climate.
[00:20:24] Denise: We took all that research that we did, and we designed a climate action plan that gave them more of what they wanted. So it’s a commuter community, so if you can get an electric car or you get in a carpool, or you can work remotely, you’re gonna save money. You’re gonna get more time with your family, you’re gonna have less stress.
[00:20:42] Denise: You know, if you get a heat pump in your house, we’re having more and more heat waves these days. You’re gonna keep your family safe, you’re gonna increase your, the value of your real estate, all of those kinds of things. So what we know, who got fired, when, who got promoted, when, all of those kinds of things.
[00:20:58] Denise: So there’s always stories [00:21:00] around you. So I think because I have clients say that to me too, I don’t have any good stories to tell. And I think part of what’s happening there is they think they need a big, epic life-changing story to tell and, and we don’t celebrate the power of the small stories often enough.
[00:21:17] Denise: And so I was actually running a workshop a month or so ago for an organization here called the Fraser Basin Council for Young Climate Leaders. And this is exactly what happened. You know, we went through how to tell a great story. And then they were gonna spend some time practicing putting their story together.
[00:21:32] Denise: And they looked at me with blank faces, faces, and they said, we don’t have a story to tell. And so we chatted a bit more about it and I gave them an example of, A time when I’d gone out looking for a job and I didn’t get it, and they realized that not all stories have to be epic. Success stories. You can tell the story of a failure as a way of demonstrating how you learn to do something better or you learned a new skill that now makes you an expert in your [00:22:00] field.
[00:22:00] Denise: So that’s one place where you can look for stories, things that went wrong, that you can use as learning stories. Another place you can look for stories is things that your employees have done, right? So I worked with an organization here and they really wanted to build a culture of storytelling, and one of the things we did was we actually embedded storytelling into their performance review process.
[00:22:22] Denise: So every time an employee had a win or had a success, They filled in a little form, like a Google form about what happened. Telling the story of what happened. When they submitted the form, their manager got a little pinging, a little email. John just submitted a form. The manager would go in and read it.
[00:22:41] Denise: Get to read the story of what happened and could use that then as an opportunity to go and engage with the employee. So rather than waiting for an annual review process when nobody can remember anything to say, and it’s all filled with stress, now you’re building these engagement moments in all the way along where you can [00:23:00] go in and you can congratulate the employee.
[00:23:02] Denise: You can talk about how that maybe sets them up to take on some new responsibility. And then the other beautiful thing that happened was if it was a really good story, it got fed to the internal communications department, who then also picked it up as something that they could tell in their, you know, whether it was an internal newsletter or whatever.
[00:23:18] Denise: So there’s lots of ways that we can build this kind of storytelling in. I have an a client who used to send out a story to his staff every Friday, and there were often really little stories about things that happened. And then he got really busy and he stopped doing it, and there was an uproar across his organization because they missed the stories.
[00:23:38] Denise: He was not just building culture within his organization. He was building a shared history and shared experience that connected everybody together. I. I love
[00:23:47] Jewels: the idea of celebrating the small stories and you know, not every story needs to be an epic blockbuster movie style story to be told. I have a, a vivid memory of when I was quite [00:24:00] young, you know, back in my probably early twenties, a friend of mine shared a story of, and it’s sounds really.
[00:24:07] Jewels: Quite boring when I say it out loud like this, but he literally told a story and took 20 minutes to tell this story of him going to the shopping center and buying a packet of crisps, 20 minute story, and it was so engaging and so hilarious. He was a pretty funny guy as well, that he just managed to keep my attention or keep the group’s attention for the entire 20 minutes.
[00:24:31] Jewels: How much of the story, how much in the story is about the story itself and how much is about the delivery? I mean, comedians are great at this, right? They tell pretty, you know, if you just break it down and what they’re actually talking about, it’s really just everyday events they talk about, but they engage, they keep the audience entertained.
[00:24:49] Jewels: They’re able to keep your attention for long periods of time. How much of it is delivery versus the story itself?
[00:24:56] Denise: Yeah, that’s a really great point. I would say most of it is, [00:25:00] For me, delivery and the story are kind of kind of the same thing. So I would say it’s the way that you structure the story is really the most important thing.
[00:25:07] Denise: So I have an acronym that I use quite a lot in my work, so I call them Sure stories, right? So SS for Keep It Simple, U for Keep It Unpredictable. R for keep it relevant and E for keep. It extraordinary. So for me, a story has to be about something extraordinary and unpredictable. Otherwise, it’s probably not a story worth telling.
[00:25:30] Denise: And then once you have those two elements, everything else is in the way that you tell it. And I talk a lot about some of the epics give us really great tips on story structure. So whether you look at Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, or any of these big, long things like. You know, how did those authors manage to keep us engaged over six or seven books or, you know, 14 hours of movies?
[00:25:54] Denise: I. And this comes back to my graduate research actually, which was the biggest thing that [00:26:00] keeps us engaged is a problem. So we as humans are hardwired for problem solving. And as soon as we get introduced to a problem, we naturally wanna help solve it. So, you know, if I’m sitting talking to you and all of a sudden I see a gorilla walk by behind you, I need to know what’s the gorilla doing there.
[00:26:18] Denise: So, you know, there’s a problem space that’s been opened, and so as we’re listening to somebody tell us a story, I. There’s a problem in the story. That’s how I define a story. Every story describes a hero’s experience of solving a problem. So as we’re listening to the story, we hear the problem and we get drawn into it.
[00:26:36] Denise: And as somebody’s telling us the story, we’re mentally playing along with the hero trying to figure out how they’re gonna solve the problem. You know, if I were them, I would do this, or I wonder if he’s gonna do that. And so the open problem space is how you keep engagement going. I. The minute the problem is solved, engagement ends.
[00:26:56] Denise: And that’s like cognitive science. That’s not just me making it up. That’s how [00:27:00] the brain works. And so if as your friend did you wanna keep people engaged over a very simple story, you need to keep expanding or shifting the problem as the story goes along, or introducing a new problem to keep people going.
[00:27:14] Denise: So the Lord of the Ring starts out with a very simple problem. You know, the hobbit comes into possession of the ring of power. And knows that he has to keep it away from the bad guys. Well, that problem evolves and evolves and evolves. Initially, Gandalf, the wizard says, I’m gonna go figure out what to do.
[00:27:31] Denise: You meet me in the village of Brie and Frodo puts the ring in his pocket and says, I can cut across country easily enough. And so Frodo thinks his initial problem is just to get to the village of Brie. The Wizard’s gonna have an answer and that’ll be it. Well, of course that’s not what happens. He runs into the bad guys.
[00:27:48] Denise: Along the way. He almost gets killed. And when he finally gets to the village of Brie, the wizard’s not there. Now Frodo’s got a new problem, right? And this is what goes on over 13 hours of movie and [00:28:00] this is how we stay engaged. And so really good storytellers know how to keep that problem space open.
[00:28:06] Denise: That’s how we keep people engaged.
[00:28:08] Jewels: I’m glad you went there because in a business context, one of the things that I talk to my clients about is, To help people identify the problem right upfront, what is the problem that you are solving for that particular person? And if once somebody is aware of a problem, like once you know something is wrong, you’ve got two choices.
[00:28:30] Jewels: One is to completely ignore it, but if it’s painful enough, if the problem is big enough, they’ve got no choice other than to fix it. If you are there taking them along that journey and helping ’em along that path, then you’re obviously in a key position to solve, help them solve that particular problem.
[00:28:49] Jewels: So starting with the problem to me is huge, and it’s a part of your story is actually helping those that may are unaware of the problem that they might have to bring it [00:29:00] to the awareness so that then they have the choice to solve it or not. And the bigger the problem, the more likely it is they are to solve it.
[00:29:08] Denise: To want to. Yeah, I love that. And you know, this is, we could have another whole conversation about this idea of narrative intelligence, which is our ability to use stories to help us solve problems. And that’s actually what I go into in my TEDx talk. And so that’s where a lot of my work combines this idea of design thinking and storytelling, because they’re both about problem definition.
[00:29:29] Denise: Problem definition is the key to everything. You know, Einstein has a great quote that says, If I had an hour, you know, to solve the world’s biggest problem, I’d use 59 minutes to figure out what the problem is in one minute to design the solution. The hardest part isn’t coming up with solutions. The hardest part is figuring out what problem do we really need to solve?
[00:29:49] Denise: And when I work with leaders and we practice finding the problem in stories, they then realize that this is sense-making skill. This narrative [00:30:00] intelligence is actually an essential skill to them in their leadership work. They start to apply that lens to everything else that they do. And exactly as you said, once they see that it’s all about defining the problem, then they’re much better able to help their people.
[00:30:15] Jewels: Yeah. ’cause a lot of my clients, or a lot of clients in the early stages, at least come from a place of solving the problem. But if somebody doesn’t know they’ve got the problem or they don’t believe they are the right person, or the problem isn’t strong enough in their world, And it doesn’t matter what the solution looks like because I don’t want it.
[00:30:34] Jewels: And if I, so if I don’t want something, I’m not going to engage. I’m not going to listen to your entire pitch if I don’t believe I’m the right person to be speaking to if I don’t believe that I have that particular problem. And so the narrative is never about you as in the business. It’s never about what you can do at the end that comes once you have predefined, that you are speaking to the right person with the biggest problem that they have.
[00:30:59] Jewels: And. [00:31:00] It’s a priority problem that they want to fix. Without those key ingredients, you’re going to struggle to keep them engaged. You’re not going to get the chance or the opportunity to continue that conversation, speak further on and help them solve that problem if they don’t believe they have it in the first place.
[00:31:16] Jewels: A
[00:31:16] Denise: hundred percent. And that comes back to what I was talking about earlier, which is that. We’re all controlled by the stories that we tell ourselves. And so if you don’t know what stories your clients are already telling themselves, you don’t stand a chance. And so the only way that we can get so stories, control everything that we think, say and do.
[00:31:38] Denise: So the only way that we can make change. And change includes getting them to buy your thing or change their behavior or do something differently. The only way we can make change is to change the stories that they’re telling themselves by offering them a better story of the future. Absolutely. And if you don’t get that as a leader, you’re never ever going to be able to get people to [00:32:00] change.
[00:32:00] Denise: So
[00:32:00] Jewels: if you had the opportunity to speak to some people that perhaps were early in the stage of redefining, Storytelling in their, in their enterprise, in their business, whether it’s at the c e o level, whether it’s at the entire business level. What sort of advice would you give a, a company or a, or a person who’s maybe just getting started and wants to do better at this, and where do they look?
[00:32:23] Jewels: What do they start with? What are the few hints and tips you could share?
[00:32:27] Denise: I think the first thing I would encourage you to do, especially if you’re trying to build a storytelling culture, is to just open up spaces for storytelling to happen. ’cause people are dying to tell their stories. You can’t shut them up once you give them space to do that.
[00:32:44] Denise: And so if you’re running a meeting or you’re running a workshop or hosting a lunch or anything like that, you know my favorite activity to kick things off is, I just do a, I call it a story share, and it’s just five minutes work in pairs and tell each other about a [00:33:00] time when you did blah, you know, your, your favorite meal that you had, the best trip that you had, or time you ran into trouble on a trip.
[00:33:07] Denise: And just try that and see what happens to the energy in the room. It’s phenomenal, right? The energy in the room just goes through the roof, and so just doing that with a group of maybe story non-believers is a really great way to make the power of story visible. So that’s a good thing that you can do.
[00:33:25] Denise: The other story listening activity you can do is to. Ask people to share hidden stories about the organization. So I just did this with a big organization here where we were talking about, they were just rolling out their strategic plan and we were talking about the stories that control their culture and how hidden they were.
[00:33:43] Denise: And the director of people in operations piped up and she said, I. Oh my God. She said, you’re so right. When I was onboarded, you know, I spent three days going through the process of here’s how the organization works, here’s all the processes and everything she said. And then the minute that I walked out of the room, somebody pulled me aside and told me how things really [00:34:00] work and told me all the stories of what really goes on behind the scenes.
[00:34:04] Denise: And that lit everybody up. They all had stories about how the organization really worked that weren’t written in any manual. So that’s another invitation that you can put out there. Then I guess in terms of practicing telling your own stories, again, look for really small, safe places where you can practice.
[00:34:22] Denise: Practice with your team, practice with your family practice, just telling really small stories and remember to always look for the unsolved problem and think about keeping that open. So those are a few of the things that you might want to try. I love
[00:34:36] Jewels: that advice. Um, opening up space to tell stories. You know, I have something similar where I tell people that everything is a story.
[00:34:43] Jewels: Every day is a story. You just gotta be open to it. You just gotta listen for it, and you gotta keep your options open, right? Keep be ready to listen for that story and then capture it somehow so that you can then have the opportunity to tell that story. I love story in culture and how it helps build, you know, [00:35:00] comradery in, in, within an organization.
[00:35:02] Jewels: But what about telling your story externally? A lot of people are quite afraid to tell these micro stories, these personal stories externally. Tell me a little bit about that. What advice you’d give it to somebody? You know, I always talk about a lot of organizations of the world’s best kept secret because they don’t share their stories.
[00:35:21] Jewels: You know, they might have the best product in the world, but the best product in the world. Never really seems to stick. Tell me a bit about telling stories
[00:35:29] Denise: externally. Yeah, and so a lot of the work I’ve been doing the last couple of years has been with, I call them innovation companies and for exactly the reason that you just talked about, which is, you know, we need all hands on deck if we’re gonna save the planet.
[00:35:41] Denise: And the last thing we need is great companies going outta business because nobody knows about what they’re doing. So they, they do need to get out and tell their stories. I think there’s a few reasons that they don’t do it. One is that they’re just too busy to tell a great story. It actually takes time, as you and I know, it is a craft.
[00:35:58] Denise: It is an art, and so it [00:36:00] takes time to build that story and, and get it right, and they just don’t have the time or money or resources to invest in doing it. So that’s one barrier. But I think the biggest barrier is either as an organization, They are the best stories talk include a failure. They include the obstacles that you had to overcome along the way, and we’ve been brought up to think that talking about things going wrong makes you look weak and makes you look bad when in fact, every origin story for every product pretty much comes from.
[00:36:33] Denise: Something that went wrong or a problem that needed to be solved. So whether you’re doing it as an organization or you’re doing it as an individual, telling the stories of how you overcame an obstacle are ways for you to build up credibility in the eyes of your audience to show that you can overcome adversity.
[00:36:52] Denise: You have the smarts and the skills to be able to do the tough work that needs to be done, and that because of that, you’ve been [00:37:00] able to create this one of a kind solution. The world desperately needs. So I think it’s finding a way to walk through that fear of being, making yourself vulnerable, being willing to be different and be personal is very scary for a lot of people.
[00:37:17] Denise: And we’re seeing more and more people try to do that. And for, it’s a relatively new thing for me too. A lot of my writing and blogging over the last couple years has been much more personal. And it’s actually, I found it very empowering to start to share that my stories from my career and start to share a lot of what I’ve learned.
[00:37:35] Denise: But it took some time for me to get comfortable doing that. And one of the biggest things that I’ve learned doing it is it’s a key differentiator for me. How many other storytellers do you know, came from a whitewater background? You know, all of those kinds of things. And so those are some of the reasons to tell your stories.
[00:37:50] Denise: Stories make you memorable, you know, going back to the cognitive science of, of it all. The way that we process and store information is we do [00:38:00] that in the framework of a story. So if you tell me a story about a personal experience you had, that’s how I’m going to remember you. If you just tell me some fact, I’m not gonna attach that to you and I’m not gonna remember you.
[00:38:13] Denise: So, you know, it’s just a matter of practice and really getting comfortable with it, trying to maybe work with a trusted audience a little bit. To get more, more comfortable and see what resonates and what doesn’t. But really acknowledging that your story is your brand. And if you are not willing to tell your story, you’re never gonna survive in today’s marketplace.
[00:38:35] Jewels: Denise, that’s fabulous advice. I’ve I. So enjoyed having our conversation. I think you and I could talk about storytelling for about a decade, and that would make this podcast way too long. Love to have you back someday, and perhaps we could continue this conversation. Where could the audience find out a little bit more
[00:38:52] Denise: about you?
[00:38:53] Denise: Yeah, you know, you Google Denise Withers, you’re gonna find me all over the place, so you can go to LinkedIn, find me there. My [00:39:00] website is denise withers.com. I’ve been publishing a lot now, and so I have an online leadership journal called The Quest for Good. So that’s Q W E S T for good.com. My podcast is the same title, so you can check that out, that stories of innovation leaders and how they overcome obstacles to make change.
[00:39:18] Denise: So yeah, I’m kind of all over the place. Just Google away and you’ll find me somewhere and you’ll find some of my stories there too. Thank you, Denise. I appreciate you. Thank you so much for the work that you’re doing and for really helping businesses and leaders out there discover the power of stories these days more than ever.
[00:39:34] Denise: We need to be telling our stories and we need to be using stories to engage people in making the kind of change that the world desperately needs. So I really appreciate you too. Thank you.
[00:39:43] Jewels: Thank you. Thank you very much. I thoroughly enjoyed my chat with Denise. She shared some interesting insights. If you get a chance, check out her TEDx talk on narrative intelligence.
[00:39:57] Jewels: I love how she said. To make [00:40:00] stories interesting, it must have a dramatic element or tension to engage and inform. Use stories to build a relationship first before you pitch an idea or ask for something. We are not rational beings. We make decisions based on emotion. We are a compilation of the stories we tell ourselves.
[00:40:19] Jewels: So I ask you this question, is it time to change your story? Much love Chat soon.