Best Practice Series: 10 rules for story telling for deeper engagement, start with yourself

This week I’m captaining and moderating some panels for an event that is growing in popularity here in Seattle - Women in Tech Regatta, founded by Melody Beringer.

The term vulnerability is used a lot at the start of every talk, and is one of the defining characteristics of the conference. The term risks being overplayed against the backdrop of popular self-help books. But when people pause long enough to tell stories about real difficulties and struggles they have had in their careers—that kind of authenticity gives the audience pause. Some of the stories I heard in previous years, from senior leaders, both shocked and inspired me—so much so I’m getting involved.

The lesson here is that you don’t need to be a panelist at an event to share deeply and connect with people. That kind of engagement is needed at all levels of the organization, all the time. It takes practice. You need to practice stillness to find the stories you want to tell and you need to recruit witnesses to hear them. This is something I’m working on myself as I craft my own message about my work.

Photo by  Nong Vang

Photo by Nong Vang

10 Rules For Story Telling For Deeper Engagement, start with yourself

While the environment contributes to the tenor of a conversation, how you show up in that moment matters, whether you like it or not. It’s the difference between a hurried, canned, recited speech, or a speech by someone who is present, pacing well, and feeling into their words.

Effective leaders know that telling a story is the most effective way to connect with people—whether it’s one-on-one or a full room. Here are ten things to consider when you are looking to engage.

  1. Use stories selectively. Stories activate the listener’s imagination and emotions by conveying a real or imagined human experience. That is their particular strength and limitation. Use stories for what they’re good at and don’t overload them with data, analysis, opinions, argument, etc.

  2. Listen before you speak. Know your audience and what it cares about. You can be challenging if that is what’s called for, but people are more likely to pay attention to what you have to say if you begin by acknowledging the realities of their situation. Good storytelling is a two-way process.

  3. Aim carefully. Think about the point you want to make and what effect you want to your story to have and choose a story that illustrates your point in action. An audience works out the point of a well-told story for themselves because it gives them a vicarious experience for their imaginations, and emotions to work with.

  4. Make it personal. The story does not have to be about you. In fact, it’s often more persuasive if you make someone else the hero or heroine. But you do need to find a personal connection with the story, which might reveal your part in it or be as simple as letting the audience know how you are touched, inspired or affected by the events you have recounted.

  5. Make it real. Stories are always about particular characters doing something specific at a certain time in a particular place. They are essentially about how characters meet the obstacles that thwart their desires. Bring your story alive with concrete descriptions, 3D characters, dramatic moments, humor, and passion.

  6. Learn the story, not the words. Avoid the common error of killing a story by writing it out or reciting it from memory. Make sure you know how the story works: the sequence of events and key turning points and trust your innate ability to find the words. Practice telling it aloud and get feedback from a colleague.

  7. Connect with the audience. When you tell your story to an audience, use eye contact, both to see and be seen. Your relationship with the audience moment by moment is your best support, even if you are nervous. The power of your story comes as much from your mutual connection with the audience as it does from the words.

  8. Use simple language. The ear favors informal, straightforward language. If the audience has to spend its energy untangling complex sub-clauses and trying to make sense of unfamiliar jargon, it won’t get the point. Tell the story in your own words and avoid clichés like the plague (for real).

  9. Let the story do the work. Do listeners the courtesy of allowing them to make sense of your story for themselves. Resist the temptation to tell them its moral or what it means. Tell it with conviction and it will stand for itself.

  10. Remember we are all storytellers. Stories are how we make sense of our lives and always have been. There have been civilizations that have flourished without the benefit of the wheel, but none has ever been devoid of stories or storytellers. If you can tell a good story, you’ll always have a willing audience.

Thought Series: What smooth jazz can teach us about innovation

Thought Series provides actionable ideas and anchors for reflection on your life or your work.


Kenneth Bruce Gorlick (Kenny G), in addition to playing the longest sax note, has sold 48 million records. There are those that will say other artists are more authentic or talented. However, there is no denying he was doing something right–forty-eight million records. He revolutionized jazz by creating a boiler plate template. Others did this too, he was just more successful at it.

Smooth jazz as a construct, brought money into the jazz industry like it had never seen. Kenny G was the best selling jazz musician of all time. His template, along with some best selling albums, created a money printing machine. He invented, for lack of a better metaphor, the $25 WordPress template for the music world. This probably makes Thelonious Monk the broken, non-deployable web site that you continue to go back to time and time again–because his is work just that good.

The template created a low barrier to entry–for the customer. While technically very gifted, there’s little that is controversial or thought provoking about his work. His music is appropriate for any venue: a wedding, getting the kids to nap, an elevator…. When Kenny G was popular other artists opted for the template in order to make money.

Among music fans, the question gets tossed around: If it’s so ubiquitous–so everything to everyone–is smooth jazz really jazz?

Right now, we are in the era of “smooth design” and “smooth products.” This translates to “smooth leadership.” Everything is very clean….very Apple-esque. It’s acceptable to everyone. It works. But, it isn’t interesting.

This happens with leadership too. “Smooth leadership” is when the leader opts for industrial model, plug-and-play tactics proven to work (from their pantheon). GE‘s calibration system was popular for a while, so Ballmer adopted it for Microsoft. It worked (said no manager, ever). It served a purpose from an operations perspective, but ruined cultures.

What do you get from smooth leadership? The same products you had before, only more efficient, cheaper, using less resources.

Up until now, a CEO was doing a good job if the company met its financial targets, the Board was happy and shareholders were rewarded. The formula of getting a good education and landing a good job continued to play out, further supporting the conveyor belt relationship between education and industry. Leaders implemented traditional business school formulas for economic success, profits increase. This myopic association reduces education to a mere employment agency.

But after a while, the job gets route. People start to feel a void every day at the office. Employees, go through the motions, doing just enough to earn a paycheck so they can find some contentment in life outside the office. The job starts to feel like factory work—precisely what our parents and grandparents wanted us to avoid!

But when is a product or brand going to stand up and be Jimmy Hendricks (only 24 million records)? or Prince (only 39 million records)? and say, “I’m willing to sell half as much, but I’m going to be unique.” This attitude made him a legend.

There is no “Kenny G experience.”

There is a very definitive “Jimmy Hendricks experience.”

The wheel doesn’t need to be reinvented in every job. This isn’t about “creating great art” or being the “Jimmy Hendricks of product development, UX, or leadership.” This is about trying to innovate within a space, versus allowing the space to dictate the boundaries.

New ideas belong on a canvas, not constrained by a box.


  1. Are the ideas in your organizations doing something useful or different?

  2. Is creativity coming in last in the execution queue?

  3. The easy way is not necessarily the best solution.

“But, Apple did X. Google did Y.”

Perhaps, but these companies initially took risk and were innovative in order to achieve their simplicity. Don’t confuse ubiquity with being unique. They were unique and became ubiquitous. To follow them is to simply ride the coattails of what has come before and hope for crumbs of their revenue.

We are trying to get people through the funnel so fast, that we aren’t engaging them (as customers, employees, suppliers). Even if you are tied up in the data, the bounce rates always come back to “what is the story we are trying to engage them in?”

So take a stand – what story are you in?

Thought Series: The need for creative questions


Thought Series provides actionable ideas and anchors for reflection on your life or your work.


Other disciplines make for great inspiration and sources of inquiry.

In a diner, for example, food needs to hot and fast. There is no room for personal expression.

But, consider modern art on large canvas. Why do we eat food on plates which are determined by plate manufacturers and not chefs?

And, think about how smells influence us. What if you had salt, fat, sweet, protein….and nostalgia?

Experimentation is key, but costs time and money. What if you took your slowest night and everything on the menu is an experiment, getting the customers to participate in your discovery process?

What if what fed you in your gut also stimulated you in your mind?

Grant Achatz is an American chef and restaurateur often identified as one of the leaders in molecular gastronomy or progressive cuisine. In 2007, Achatz announced that he had been diagnosed with stage 4 squamous cell carcinoma of the mouth, which may have spread to his lymph nodes.The chemo process temporarily took his taste buds.

Alinea Revisited – A Life Worth Eating “The dish never got boring. Since this was a shared dessert for three people, each person picked and played with different combinations of ingredients making every bite taste different. This is the most memorable dessert I have ever had.”

Responding to what would have potentially crushed others, he prepared dishes by drawing them first and handing them off to his staff to interpret. “It’s not in here (the mouth), it’s in here (the mind).

Slowly regaining his sense of taste one flavor at a time revolutionized his ability to create.

At what point do you break out of the rules that go you where you are, and start to express your own point of view? 

At what point will you destroy what you know to begin a new train of thought? 

Thought Series: Creativity is about combinations


Thought Series provides actionable ideas and anchors for reflection on your life or your work.


You don’t have a climb a mountain and wait for an idea no one has ever thought about. When you learn about something new, you combine them into something new. The newness is your uniqueness. It is the sum of your values, beliefs, ideals, motivations and traditions that guide your ability to learn and even your identity.

Angry birds. Genius.

What ideas are you playing with?