Video and transcript from Reagan Pugh‘s talk at Austin’s 1st Annual Facilitator Summit, Control the Room

This is part of the 2019 Control The Room speaker video series.

Control the Room 2019 was Austin’s 1st Annual Facilitator Summit with the goal of bringing together facilitators of all kinds to build rapport, learn, and grow together.

The conference opened with a talk by Priya Parker, author of “The Art of Gathering.” After that, we moved onto 15 quick-and-powerful presentations by facilitators of all kinds.

Within that group of amazing speakers, we were lucky enough to have Reagan Pugh.

Reagan Pugh, Speaker, Facilitator, Founding Partner at Assemble
Reagan Pugh, Speaker, Facilitator, Founding Partner at Assemble

“It’s a powerful thing when you’re able to gather together with people who speak your language. Facilitating is rewarding work, but it can be lonely sometimes when you move from client to client or team to team. Control the Room reminded us we’re not alone in the work we do, and being together served as a source of encouragement to keep doing the good work facilitators do: gathering folks together, guiding them toward clarity, and creating a sense of belonging.” — Reagan Pugh

In Reagan’s session, facilitators were run through the process and framework of “Creating a Storytelling Organization” workshop and walked away with techniques to use for any event where group storytelling might be useful.

Watch Reagan Pugh’s talk “Creating a Storytelling Organization”:

Read the Transcript:

Reagan Pugh: Thank you, guys. I am honored to be here. I don’t take your attention lightly. Let’s talk about how to use stories to create connections with one another. How about it?

So, if you’re anything like me, you have a birthday once a year. It’s Joey’s 40th birthday. Let’s give him a round of applause again. If you’re anything like my ex-girlfriend that you have something called a half-birthday where you got to find the dates, you do something, you know what I mean? I love birthdays. I love celebrating birthdays. I love what Priya said about not confusing the category with the purpose.

Every year for the last 10 years, I’ve had a gathering for my birthday. My birthday is in October. Anybody have an October birthday? That’s a good time to have a birthday. You meet someone that has your birthday month, and you like them better than other people, you know what I mean? October. It’s kind of cool outside. It’s not that cool in Texas in October. I remember one year I wanted to go as a mummy for Halloween, and so I wrapped it all up and I was in the gauze, and I sweat straight through the gauze. I wanted to go as a mummy, but I went to this Christian charter school and my father’s a pastor, and so my mom said I was allowed to wear the gauze but I couldn’t tell people I was a mummy. I had to tell them that I was Lazarus and Jesus had brought me back from the dead.

But anyway, October is a nice time for a birthday. Because it’s October, what I do is I have everyone bring a pumpkin for my birthday party. I say, “All I want for my birthday is I want you to bring a pumpkin and I want you to think about a story,” just like Priya said earlier, “of something that I don’t know about you that I would’ve never otherwise known. That’s the only gift that I want you to bring.” So, what people do is they bring these pumpkins and I say, “Okay, you’re going to use the pumpkin as a presentation tool.” We have all types of cutlery abounding and they cut into the pumpkin something that’s going to tell me a little bit, that’s going to be a presentation aid for their story.

One time, I had this woman who was a friend of mine who I did not know was not born in the United States. In her pumpkin, she’d just taken an icepick and poked holes all around the pumpkin. When she put the candle inside to tell her stories, we ran out, went around the circle. It was like starlight, the way that the light came out. When she told this story, she said that those holes, they represented chickenpox. She told me the story about a time that her grandmother nursed her back to health whenever she was in Bosnia and she couldn’t go to hospital when she had this case of chickenpox.

Then I remember another time, there was a girl who shaped with a T. She did a Texas Rangers T on her pumpkin, and she told me this story about how her and her father would go to these Rangers games, and they would eat hotdogs and they would drink a Coca-Cola. But then she finished her story by saying, “The last Rangers game I went to with my dad, we got home, and my dad and my mom, they sat me down. That’s when they told me that we were not going to be a family, a complete family anymore.” She said, “I don’t go to baseball games anymore.” As she was leaving, she grabbed me by the elbow and she told me, “I’ve heard about these storytelling birthdays of yours. I did not want to come to this thing, but I’m so glad that I did, and I’ll be back next year.”

There’s something about this power of stories, friends, to connect us. I thought, “Well, this can’t only be my birthday. There might be other applications for this.” So, I was a 10th grade English teacher, and I said, “What would it look like if I had my students” … I did Teach for America, and I went to go teach on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, population 400. I got P.O. box number four. That means someone died and I got it from them. So, my students started telling stories, and then we had a storytelling night where I told the parents that they could come to the storytelling night, but their ticket of admission was to think of a story about their family that their kids didn’t know and they had to tell that story from the stage.

Then like Priya said, at Thanksgiving, I started asking my family to tell stories of my family and what our family meant that we had never otherwise heard. Started doing trainings for MBAs coming into the consulting firm that I was working with. After lunch every day for a five-day training, we would tell stories to one another, because when we tell stories to one another, we show one another who we are. If you’ve ever taken a fiction writing class, they’ll tell you there’s a big difference between showing and telling when you’re writing. Don’t tell me. Show me through the story. We can tell each other what we think all day long. We can tell each other our opinions all day long, but when we tell stories, we show one another who we are because we drop ourselves and the listener into a scene, not here where we can see them behaving in such a way that they’re not tailoring their language to try to answer a particular question. They’re just showing us who it is that they are.

Robert McKee, the storytelling guru who wrote the tome on storytelling that’s this thick says, “Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact.” This is the way that we trade meaning: stories with one another.

I have these stats about things like employees who feel their voice is heard are 4.6 times more likely to perform better, and 96% of employees believe that showing empathy … We get that. That’s why we’re here. That’s why they’re here. So, I think let’s do a few … I want to walk you through a few conversations in storytelling that are game-changing, my friends, because when we use stories, we can guide our teams to respect one another’s unique perspectives because we’re not arguing about things. We’re telling stories. We can deepen relationships with coworkers, we can understand the similarities that we have with one another, and we can create a sense of safety amongst our people to help them want to make meaningful contributions. Because we listened to their story, we affirm them by our attention.

So, there’s three guided conversations that I really love to use to experience the power of story. We’re going to do one together and then I’m going going to run through the last two, but I just want to make sure that you have them. So, three conversations are, one, “Tell me a story, show me who you are.” Here’s that show-and-tell thing, a story I’m telling myself about work and the stories about our work. Conversation one is, “Tell me a story, show me who you are.”

Let’s find a partner. We’ve done the partner thing. I’m not going to complicate it and have us get up. Find someone that you can tell a story to at a table that you’re with. Here’s this wonderful wheel of emotions. Of course, I’m the guy that has the slide that says, “You probably can’t read this, but there’s this wheel of emotions.” It’s a powerful tool. Bottom line is I want you to think of a moment when you felt an extreme emotion. I want you to take a minute and I want you to think of a time that you felt excitement or anger or embarrassment or joy or fear or anticipation, a moment where the feeling was so intense that it came out of your pores. Judgment or hope or belonging or separation. Think of a moment, think of a story that when one of those words pops in your head, you say, “I got the very tale for you, Reagan.”

Okay, so with your partner now, here’s a little Mad Lib that we can use to tell a story because a lot of times when we work with groups, they’re not necessarily hip to this and it takes a while to warm people up, so we can follow along with this Mad Lib. You’re going to tell me story. You’re going to say, “So, I was” … “You know what? I was 11 years old, and I was playing soccer on the soccer team. Our team was the Turtles. Then all of a sudden, I tried to jump over this fence, this chain-link fence, and I had these mesh shorts. But then when I jumped over the fence, they caught on the fence. As I descended, my crotch, that gave way. The material, it split. Now my waist is up amongst my armpits and my little Batman underwear is showing. Because of that, I felt embarrassed and I didn’t feel like I belonged on the team, etc., etc. Now I continue to think” … What’s that?

Speaker 2: I avoid fences.

Reagan Pugh: “And now I avoid fences, or now I continue to worry about what other people think about me.” You get the idea. I want you to find a partner, and I want you to tell … Pick who’s going to tell the story first and just have one person tell a story to the other person. I’m going to give you two minutes. Find a partner. Tell me a story of an extreme emotion you felt. Use this script. Go.

Okay. Okay. Very good. This is a hard one to stop. Who enjoyed the story they were listening to? Oh, I love it. Feel the energy in the room. In one minute, in one minute, what I want the listener to do is provide one of these responses. “Now I understand blank about you that I never knew before,” or “I can totally relate to that part of your story when” … One minute. Go.

Okay. Oh, I love it. Can I hear a few folks share out, what did you notice? What happened? What did you notice? Go.

Speaker 3: Erica woke up.

Reagan Pugh: Erica woke up. She’s alive. I love it. What else? What happened? Let me tell you a quick story about the waking up. Whenever I used to teach 10th grade English students how to write thesis statements on a reservation whenever it was negative 20 and it got dark at three o’clock in the afternoon, when I learned to start my class with, “Let me tell you a story,” instead of, “Here’s what we’re going to learn today,” can you imagine the difference? What else did we see? Give me a couple more. Come on.

Joey: I had a warm feeling towards my partner being included in something new.

Reagan Pugh: Thank you for that comment, Joey. Happy birthday to you. One more. Thank you.

Speaker 5: We have similarities I didn’t know existed.

Reagan Pugh: “We have similarities I know existed.” I will Venmo you later. Thank you. We have, yes. We see ourselves in one another. Meryl Streep was brought up earlier in an example. She has this beautiful line where she says, “People do not go to the theater to see me. They go to the theater to see themselves.” That is why stories are powerful. I’ve never climbed Mount Everest, but I’ll go to watch a movie about Mount Everest and I’ll believe I can do anything because the stories call upon the greater parts of who we are. When we can share those with one another can, we dance with that.

Let’s run through two other quick activities that I want to show you that help with stories. I would use this after lunch breaks. If you’ve got a multiple-day thing, I’d use it every single day because then all of a sudden you get people leaving a three-day thing where they didn’t know one another be like, “Hey, you’re the Jell-O guy. I’m never going to forget that.” Stuff like that happens, okay?

So, the story that I’m telling myself about work, I basically stole this from Brené Brown and all the stuff that she does. When it comes to sitting down with people who you’re on a team with, this is for dedicated team most likely, but you want to say, “The story that I’m telling myself about the challenges I’m facing at work is this.” This is the loop that’s playing. We all know the tape. We’ve got the tape to place, or “A story that I’m telling myself about my capabilities and my potential is this,” because we do a great job of putting off a front. Whenever we can tell someone, “Actually, my story about what I’m doing is this,” that gives them an opportunity to either validate us in ways that we’ve been unable to validate ourselves, or that enables, if you’re talking with a leader, for that leader to say, “Oh, my gosh. I didn’t know that this was a mindset of my people. I didn’t know that my people went around feeling insecure about this thing. This might be a hole that we need to plug.” Then as you do this activity, your listener is going to say something like, “It sounds like you’re feeling blank. Do I have that right?” Of course, that’s an easy one.

Here’s what I love if you want to do the conversation one and two in tandem: “How does that story that you tell yourself about work connect with an earlier story about who you are?” Let’s multiply the effect here. Help me understand how your identity, who you are, a story in your life, is being brought into work so that I can better understand how to interact with you, how to lead you, how to support you, how to challenge you, and how to ask you questions. “Story that I’m telling myself about my work is” …

This next tool is our stories about our work, conversation number three. This looks eerily similar to a tool that John gave you earlier. I’m really excited to see the mashup here. So, [inaudible 00:14:13] together with a team, and you’re going to ask your people to drop you into the middle of a scene, no context, no explanation, simply begin, of a time that they don’t really awesome about the team and a time they felt really crappy about the team. All right? They can put it on a Post-it Note and give it a title. They’re going to say, “The moment the team performed exceptionally well” … This is just a Mad Lib of what we had earlier. “So, I was … and then I … and then I.”

So, you say, “So, we were about to launch that one product and things were going really well. The reason why that felt like it worked well is because it was all hands on deck. People across different roles showed up, and that mattered, and I felt validated.” Then we’re going to do one where we say, “Here’s where the team really missed the mark. Here’s where I feel like our communication channels broke down and everybody assumed that we knew what was going on. The next thing you know, up shit’s creek without a paddle.” Right?

Now what we do is we’re going to map these things. You’re going to draw me a timeline for whatever timeline that you want to have. On the positive side is the stories that were really great, that you’re proud of. On the negative side is those stories that you say, “Man, this is when we were at our worst and we need to fix things a little bit.” Then what we’re going to do is, on the backend, we’re going to talk about the goals that we’ve got for ourselves, for this period of time, for the quarter or for the year. The goals that we met, we’re going to have up on that positive side. The goals that we didn’t meet, we’re going to have on that negative side.

Imagine this is January through June of 2019. We’re going to put the stuff we wanted to happen up top, stuff that didn’t happen that we wanted to happen but didn’t down below. Then we’re going to go back through our stories and look at the similarities amongst the stories. We’re going to break it into three categories and say, “What behaviors or actions were present?” What behaviors or actions were present, what mindsets or beliefs existed, and what people in relationships contributed to those positive stories and to those negative stories. Then we’ve got a playbook. Then we’ve got a playbook for success when we look at the real stories of things that happened for how to continue creating stories like that, and we’ve got a playbook for disappointment where we say, “Well, it’s clear by the stories and the experiences of our people, we’ve got to be careful around this mindset or belief or this action or habit or these relationships or these people.” Oh, my gosh. I love doing this one with the team.

So, those are the three: tell me a story and showing me who you are, a story I’m telling myself about work, and stories about our work. When we tell stories, we create connection. The most beautiful moment in any interaction is, “I thought I was the only one. You telling me you too?” We retain wisdom. Remember that story about … It’s not just a number on the sheet, that, “Oh, yeah. Remember we were down in compliance.” No, I remember a story when someone told me that that didn’t work. We understand what matters to our people and to our customers because they show us. They don’t tell us.

Let’s talk about a whole other component for this. We create messaging and marketing language. These stories turn into blog posts and social media posts because we’ve got real language about the story of our organization and we understand the needs of our people. Stories do not equal entertainment. They do not equal engagement. Stories equal connection, and my goodness, what a powerful thing for us to be able to do this and tell our stories together. Let’s go do it. Thank you.