A conversation with Denise Withers, Founder and Story Coach at Denise Withers.
“I firmly believe that culture is essentially just a collection of stories that define how we think and how we behave. In a very simple organizational example, if you’re sitting in a meeting and somebody speaks up to question what their boss says and their boss tells them to shut up, that’s a story that everybody’s going to remember, everybody’s going to file away in their own story database and that story is going to define the way they behave and it’s going to influence whether or not they decide to speak up the next time in a meeting. And so you can come up with all the nice sayings that you want about how your organization works, but it’s the stories that we tell each other, it’s the stories that we see, it’s the stories that we experience that we actually internalize and remember and use to guide our decisions and our behaviors going forward.” –Denise Withers
In this episode of Control the Room, I had the pleasure of speaking with Denise Withers about her journey becoming a Story Coach and helping leaders drive change. She shares the importance of developing your Narrative Intelligence to improve our abilities to learn, solve problems, and make sense of the world. We then discuss stories’ influence on culture, change initiatives, and leadership development. Listen in to learn more about why we need to think beyond just telling stories and start noticing the problem the story is solving.
[2:10] How Denise Got Her Start As A Story Coach
[9:30] How To Use Story To Learn, Solve Problems, And Make Sense Of The World.
[16:20] How To Use Story In Change Initiatives.
[30:00] How To Use Backcasting To Free Up Resources.
[39:00] Helping People Think Beyond Just Telling Stories
Links | Resources
Denise on Twitter
Denise on LinkedIn
About the Guest
Denise Withers has spent the last 30+ years helping leaders use stories to drive change, through her work as an award-winning filmmaker and certified coach. Working with clients across sectors, she’s inspired millions of people to take action on issues like climate change, clean energy, and equity, through channels from Discovery to the UN.
About Voltage Control
Voltage Control is a change agency that helps enterprises sustain innovation and teams work better together with custom-designed meetings and workshops, both in-person and virtual. Our master facilitators offer trusted guidance and custom coaching to companies who want to transform ineffective meetings, reignite stalled projects, and cut through assumptions. Based in Austin, Voltage Control designs and leads public and private workshops that range from small meetings to large conference-style gatherings.
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Douglas: Welcome to the Control the Room Podcast, a series devoted to the exploration of meeting culture and uncovering cures for the common meeting. Some meetings have tight control and others are loose. To control the room means achieving outcomes while striking a balance between imposing and removing structure, asserting and distributing power, leaning in and leaning out, all in the service of having a truly magical meeting. Thanks for listening. If you’d like to join us live for a session sometime, you can join our weekly Control the Room Facilitation Lab. It’s a free event to meet fellow facilitators and explore new techniques so you can apply the things you learn in the podcast in real-time with other facilitators. Sign up today at voltagecontrol.com/facilitation-lab.
If you’d like to learn more about my new book, Magical Meetings, you can download the Magical Meetings Quick Start Guide, a free PDF reference with some of the most important pieces of advice from the book. Download a copy today at voltagecontrol.com/magical-meetings-quick-guide. Today I’m with Denise Withers, story coach for the planet. Denise helps leaders use stories to solve tough problems and create narrative change. She’s also the author of the book Story Design: The Creative Way to Innovate, and the host of the podcast Forward: How stories drive change. Welcome to the show, Denise.
Denise: Thanks so much for having me. I’m really excited about our conversation.
Douglas: I am excited as well. I’ve been looking forward to this for a while. Picked up the book. Gosh, it’s been a while. I think we first spoke, it’s been months now and we’re finally here doing the recording, so really looking forward to digging in. So far my conversations with you have been really, I would say, inspiring. I know we’ll probably go even deeper now, so really looking forward to it.
Denise: Yeah, that’s great. There’s so much you can do with stories. We could talk for hours.
Douglas: Absolutely. I guess before we get into kind of more current events, I’d love to hear how you got your start in the work of story design.
Denise: Yeah. I guess I started back in the ’80s. I studied radio and television arts and I ended up becoming a documentary filmmaker for about 20 years. I was really lucky in my career that I launched my career just a little bit before all the specialty cable channels started out in Canada, if anybody remembers cable, and Discovery Channel had just gone on the air. So they were really hungry for content. So I was quite lucky to be able to get hired by a lot of the different shows on Discovery Channel and spent 20 years doing documentaries on everything from life and space to endangered species, to topics like HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa. It was literally, it really was the best job in the world. I was traveling around the world, learning all kinds of new things and really helping leaders and organizations spread the word about the good work they were doing and make a change.
It all kind of came crashing to a halt around 2001, 2002 when reality TV took off. That just changed the business model for television and they weren’t really interested in documentaries anymore. So I tried reality TV for a year or so and I really just couldn’t do it. I literally woke up one morning and said, “This is no way for a grown-up to make a living,” and I walked away from TV. I ended up going to grad school, a new program here in British Columbia, Canada, focused on interactive arts and technology. This was when digital media was really starting to take off. I thought it was going to look at how we use different kinds of media, video versus audio, for different kinds of learning, because I really loved the learning part of the work that I’d been doing.
But what I discovered was at the time, nobody was talking about this thing called engagement that was second nature for us in television. If you didn’t make your program engaging, people would change the channel and the show would get terrible ratings and you’d be out of a job. So I ended up doing a Master of Science on what engagement is, how it works. So looking at the cognitive science behind it, the behavioral science, the developmental psychology, and then really exploring how do you put that all together? Are there ways that you can actually design media or design experiences to be more engaging? I ended up developing a set of guidelines for how you do that.
Ironically, it turned out that the most powerful tool we have for engagement is story. And so as part of that research, I started exploring this concept of narrative intelligence. I also was exposed to the idea of design, which now it’s really popular this idea of design thinking in business as a problem solving framework. That’s when it really all came together for me. I realized that what I’d been doing during my documentary work was really this thing called story design where you have basically a communications problem or an education problem that you need to solve and you design a story to solve that problem. The process I was using as a creative was very similar to the process that organizations and businesses and entrepreneurs are using in design thinking.
When I graduated, I ended up doing quite a lot of work in the post-secondary world because that’s where design thinking was really starting to take off. I spent the next few years really weaving together all of these tools. So everything from storytelling, design thinking, strategic foresight, appreciative inquiry, behavioral economics. Starting to bring all those things together to say, how can we change the way that we design solutions to problems? So how can we change our approach to change? That’s really what I’ve been doing for the last 15 years. So really it’s led into this movement to go beyond just using stories as a way to influence people and as a framework for communication to using stories as a way to learn and solve problems and make change.
Douglas: That’s an amazing story in itself. I think maybe the one thing that blows my mind the most is the epiphany that reality TV is really the thing you can point to as the reason why the television documentary really took a dive. From my personal experience, I remember it but I can’t say that I pointed to that one cause, but it makes so much sense in retrospect.
Denise: Yeah, it was quite clear reality TV appealed to the demographic that the advertisers wanted whereas documentaries appealed to an older demographic. The younger demographic spends more money. Anybody who thinks that the networks care about content is fooling themselves. The networks are in the business to make money. So if they could produce reality TV cheaper and get the demographic that the advertisers wanted, then they were going to be all over that. So yeah, we really got kicked to the curb quite quickly.
Douglas: And it’s not surprising that you didn’t find much passion in the reality TV space because it’s really a void of many stories.
Denise: Well, yeah, I would argue that. I mean, I’ve got one of my best friends is an editor on Survivor and she’s the best storyteller I know. She is a master at taking all of the stuff that’s filmed in the course of an episode of Survivor, which doesn’t have a story to it, it’s just a whole bunch of stuff that happened. Her expertise is in taking all of that and finding a compelling story to tell. So I wouldn’t say that it doesn’t have a story but there’s no room for a writer-director, which is what I was in the classical sense in that genre.
Douglas: That is fascinating the point that the story’s almost fabricated from all these threads that were kind of collected versus documentary style’s more around like showcasing the story that’s kind of already there.
Denise: Yes. And in fact, it’s actually a great metaphor. The work that she’s doing on Survivor is actually a great metaphor for what our narrative intelligence does. So narrative intelligence is really our natural ability to learn and solve problems from stories. When you think about intelligence, emotional intelligence, or linguistic intelligence, intelligence is all about the ability to analyze patterns in a specific domain like math or language, or sports and learn and solve problems from those patterns.
And so when you think about the way that our brain works, we get bombarded with random bits of information all the time and what our brain does, what our narrative intelligence does is it organizes all those bits of information into the pattern of a story with a problem, a quest for answers and a solution. And then it packages that and that’s how we make sense of the world. Everything that happens to us, that’s actually how we make sense of it. And so as an editor on Survivor, she’s doing the same thing. She’s taking all these random bits of information and she’s organizing them into a story so we can make sense of what’s happening in that situation.
Douglas: It also reminds me, when you’re talking about these patterns that we’re basically identifying and applying these models of the world that we know about or that we’ve learned, it reminds me of our pre-show chat and how you were talking about how cultures contain stories and being a part of culture means that you kind of are part of these stories or you identify with these stories and they can influence the way you see the world. It seems fairly similar these kinds of cultural stories or these stories that are aligned with the cultures and these patterns and models that we pick up through disciplines as well.
Denise: Yeah, absolutely. I firmly believe that culture is essentially just a collection of stories that define how we think and how we behave. In a very simple organizational example, if you’re sitting in a meeting and somebody speaks up to question what their boss says and their boss tells them to shut up, that’s a story that everybody’s going to remember, everybody’s going to file away in their own story database and that story is going to define the way they behave and it’s going to influence whether or not they decide to speak up the next time in a meeting. And so you can come up with all the nice sayings that you want about how your organization works, but it’s the stories that we tell each other, it’s the stories that we see, it’s the stories that we experience that we actually internalize and remember and use to guide our decisions and our behaviors going forward.
Douglas: As you were saying that, something really just emerged for me. Then you reinforce it further with these words like internalized and remember, stories can be a memory device. People talk about like memory palace planting these things that we want to remember in these visual kinds of spaces in our mind. But also stories can be a way of remembering things, the way we tell a story and the way we repeat that story. I know my mom has these stories about me being a seven-year-old that she likes to tell over and over and over again and it’s a way of remembering. Those are the things that you don’t forget because you kind of internalize them and you tell them.
Denise: Yeah, absolutely. Again, my working hypothesis is that we keep absolutely everything we know about the world in packets of stories in our own personal story database. And so that’s how we remember everything. And so the implications of that are actually huge because that means that stories are actually the source of all of our knowledge, our creativity, and our innovation. And then the piece that goes along with that, what we’re seeing, the neuroscience of stories is coming a long way because we’re getting all these advances in medical imaging and that kind of thing. What we’re learning is that the more often you tell a story, whether you tell it aloud or you tell it to yourself, the more deeply sort of “wired” or rooted it gets. That’s one reason why it’s so hard to make change.
When somebody starts a change initiative, whether it’s within an organization or it’s personal, I’m going to run five miles every day, or it’s social, we’re going to get everybody to switch over to electric cars, typically what we do is we think that we’re starting with a blank slate. We just look ahead to the future and we say, “This is the story that I’m going to create. I’m going to be a runner. I’m going to be an electric car owner.” What we forget is that people are already telling themselves stories about that situation. We’re not starting with a blank slate. And those stories are typically very deeply ingrained. And so the only way that you are going to get them to change their behavior is to replace the story that they’re telling themselves with one that they like better, one that shows them the path to a better future.
This is why we’re failing to get people to take action on things like climate change because the stories that we’re telling are all stories of sacrifice and loss. They’re not better stories. They don’t offer us a better future. So we’re not going to give up our old stories about I like my car, I like my warm house, I like my 30-minute shower. We have to reframe the way we try to change the climate narrative. We have to figure out what people actually really want more of and then design the solutions. This is where it gets into change design, design the solutions that they actually really want and will adopt. They’re not going to do it just because it’s the right thing to do.
Douglas: It reminds me too of some research that I’ve seen around resistance to change and how it’s tied into identity. Identity is just stories that we’re telling ourselves about who we are and who we believe we will be in the future. And if this change is coming along that makes us think that we’re not going to be the same way or be that same person that we always knew to be or always wanted to be, that can be really hard for folks and if they’re not willing to change that story or see how it might unfold differently or if we don’t confront that, then it’s going to be really difficult to actually see the actual change through.
Denise: Yeah, absolutely. When you think about it, a lot of the work that I do is one-to-one coaching. So narrative coaching at an individual level for change makers and for leaders. That’s exactly it, who are you now and who’s the person that you want to be, and what’s the journey that you need to undergo to become that person, and identity is a really strong part of that. It’s really fascinating to me to see, once people start to step into a new identity, change happens really fast.
Quite often, we see this a lot in coaching, if somebody says, “I want to be the CEO, I want to be the CEO.” You say, “Okay, well, what’s stopping you from being the CEO right now?” And they list 10 things that they think are stopping them from being a CEO right now. In reality, those are just stories that they’re telling themselves. They could actually start to be a CEO of their own company right now. There’s very few actual, real barriers. The biggest barriers, as you say, are the way that they see themselves right now. They tell themselves they have to do all of these things before they can be somebody different when the fact is you can actually start to be somebody different right now.
Douglas: I love that. I think in one of our earlier chats, I wrote down this notion of be the person you want to be. And so reframing the story, you’re giving yourself permission to do it.
Denise: Absolutely. That’s a really nice way to put it. You give yourself permission to do it. And again, we don’t realize that the stories we tell ourselves are typically our biggest barriers. They’re the things that hold us back.
Douglas: I also remember you saying that in your one-to-one coaching that you craft a change story with them. It sounds like that’s what you were describing here with this kind of workaround what is it that they want to do and how they reshape that. So I guess I’m curious how that looks when someone’s crafting the story. What does that entail?
Denise: Yeah. A change story is really, it brings together several different forms of stories that people call different things. So it’s a leadership story, it’s a future story, it’s a pitch story, and it’s based on kind of everything I’ve learned over the last five to 10 years. What I’m realizing is we hear a lot about you need to tell your story, you need to tell your story. That work is often focused on telling the story of what you’ve done in the past. What we’re actually seeing is that people are more drawn to the story of where you’re going. If you want to lead change, you need to be able to tell people the story of where you’re leading them, why it matters and how it’s going to make their life better. And within that, you do need to absolutely include why you’re the right person to be able to do it, which includes some of what you’ve achieved in the past.
But people are less interested in what you’ve done in the past and more interested in where you’re going in the future. So what I ended up doing was looking at different story models and putting together my own story structure that I call this change story. And so it really, I think there’s eight steps to it. One of the things it does to it, it also tries to weave you through the emotional flow of the journey where you have highs and lows. So you start out with there’s a problem. You’re struggling, whatever it is that you’re struggling with, but things don’t have to be this way. And then it moves right into the vision. Just imagine how much better life could be instead of where you are with your struggling.
So what’s stopping you, and then you get into obstacles. You’re being held back by limiting stories that you’re telling yourself about what is and is impossible. And then that’s where you really come in with your solution, which in classical storytelling is the magic gift. So you have the power to change whatever it is that’s stopping you with this magic gift and be able to make your future reality. And then this is where more of the pitch piece comes in. You remind people that it can be scary to make change. Making change like this can be scary. How do you know you can do it?
And then you move into courage or strengths, which is, if it’s individual coaching, well, you’ve done it before and you look at examples of how you’ve done it before. Or if you’re trying to get somebody to follow you, well, the reason we know we can do it is because here’s all the things that I’ve done before as a leader. And then you wrap up with reminding them of the urgency, why they need to take action now, really how crappy their life is right now and how much better it could be if they would just make this one change. And then you end with a call to action.
I love it. It has some parallels to some of the stuff from Nancy Duarte around the way the world is and the way the world could be as far as really good framing for presentations, but it’s so much more personally actionable.
Denise: Yeah. It absolutely includes, Nancy Duarte came up with that framework by analyzing some of the most powerful speeches of our time like Martin Luther King. One of the speeches that I love is JFK talking about going to the moon. It’s an example that I use quite a lot when I’m trying to help people under the power of vision. In his speech, he rallies people by saying Russia’s kicking our butt and if we can be the first ones to the moon, I guarantee that we’re going to become the technological leaders of the world. And so he sets this great challenge, we’re going to win the race to the moon. He has no freaking idea how they’re going to win the race but he tells the story to inspire a nation to go out and do it.
He didn’t spend 10 years figuring out the solution to the problem and then come and tell the story. He started with the story of this is what we’re going to do and galvanized a nation to get there. That’s the power of bringing story right up to the beginning of your change design cycle. You don’t leave it until the end when you want to just communicate, you bring it right up to the front. And so the work that I’m doing now with organizational clients is we are using this change story framework to design the change initiative itself, to design the change strategy itself. And so what happens is once you finish your strategy, you’ve also got your story that’s ready to go to bring other people along with you.
Douglas: Well, that makes so much sense because it reminds me of how a lot of companies, they hear about OKRs and they think, “Oh, wow, that’s going to be a silver bullet for us. We’ll adopt OKRs and we’ll have a really straightforward strategy and it’ll be aligned and we’ll be so much more successful.” And as Christina Wodtke so eloquently points out, OKRs are a strategy deployment vehicle, they’re not a strategy definition vehicle. And so while the stories can be really powerful, if there is no vision, if there’s no dream to anchor it, then it’s not going to be nearly as galvanizing. So it makes sense that you would start there and bring your clients to a point where they have that focal point to rally everyone around.
Denise: Yeah. The most important piece of this is that you develop the change story with the people that you’re trying to get to change. I’m just going to come back to climate because that’s where I’m doing a lot of my work right now. The vision that we’ve been trying to sell is this vision of a green future where everybody’s driving electric cars. And again, that in itself is not compelling. And so what we did, I’m working with the municipality here in Canada right now, we actually went out and we did story research. So we collected stories from the people that we want to change to find out, what do they want more of in their life? What’s holding them back? What are they really struggling with? Then we use that to craft a vision that they really want that also gets us to zero emissions.
So the things that they’re struggling with like they want to… This is a suburban community, so they want to stop commuting. Nobody wants to spend four hours a day in their car. They want more time with their families. They want to save money. They want to be able to spend more time in nature. So how do we craft a climate solution that creates that vision for them, that makes that their reality, and also reduces their emissions? Now that’s something they’re going to get behind. They’re not going to support it because it reduces emissions, they’re going to support it because it gives them the life they want.
Douglas: That’s amazing. It shows that tie back to the design thinking or just the kind of understanding the problem that we’re solving before we even begin to think about the approach.
Denise: Yeah. I think this is where the storytelling community, professional storytelling community has really kind of done itself a disservice because over the last 20 years or probably longer, stories have been positioned as this magical tool to convince people, to influence people, to sell them on ideas. What that’s made people think about it, I can have a crappy idea but if I have a great story, people will buy it anyway. What I’m saying is, especially when we start to talk about social and environmental change, that’s not working. We have to stop trying to sell crappy ideas. This is where the design thinking piece comes back in. We actually have to use stories to design better solutions, and then you don’t need the really slick million-dollar story to sell it because it’s a good solution and it will sell itself.
Douglas: So how does strategic foresight come into the work you do? You mentioned that earlier. I’m a big fan and think it’s super cool and not enough people are doing it. I’m just kind of curious how it actually shows up in the work that you’re doing around maybe climate.
Denise: Yeah. It shows up. Well, again, if you look at this change story, it shows up in two spots there. It shows up in the vision piece. Well, it shows up in the problems too. The problem, the vision, and the solution. So looking at trends, what are the trends that we’re faced with? How can they inform the solution that we develop? How can they inform the vision of the future? And how can they help us better understand the problem that our audience is struggling with? Not a climate example but a healthcare example, I was working with an organization that served a large south Asian population and we were trying to look ahead to say how are we going to change our care model so that we can engage this population better because it was a really big gap between the needs of the population and the care that was being provided.
So I actually ran kind of a future workshop for them where I brought in all the trends that we were starting to look at and I created several scenarios for them about possible futures for this region of the province that I live in. So the solutions included things like what happens if there’s an earthquake? What happens if we have all autonomous vehicles because a big part of the population drive for a living? What happens if the way that we all live changes where we’re not living in multi-generational houses and things like that? It was fascinating for me to bring in everybody that included urban planners and to see the shock on their faces when they started to think about the fact that the future, even just a few years down the road, is going to be different than it is right now.
We were able to bring in those trends. I look a lot of the World Economic Forum. They have great data available on what’s going on in trends, but we have a really hard time envisioning the future. We typically think of the future as looking exactly like today. And so I find that strategic foresight, bringing in the trends, helping clients play around with those trends and connect them to what they’re seeing in their own lives is a really nice way to get them to start to break free of the past and the current situation that they’re in and really let loose to imagine a better future.
Douglas: Super cool. I’m curious to come back to the model here that you have, which is the Story Specs and the story being comprised of the problem, the quest, and the resolution. I’m curious when you are helping people craft stories about their future, how does resolution show up in a story about the future?
Denise: Yeah, that’s interesting. That Story Specs model is, it’s really a simplified version of the hero’s journey because I find the hero’s journey is just way too complex for anybody, including me, to work with. So it really boils down to, it’s really story kind of boiled down. Typically if you’re talking about a story in the past, when you start to try to capture or understand the story, you do it in a linear way. So you start with, what was the problem you were trying to solve? What were all the things that you tried to do to solve that problem, so what was your quest, and how did the story end? And typically stories really only end in one of three ways; you succeed, you fail or you die trying.
The difference though is when you’re starting to think about a future story, you actually start with the end and then reverse engineer from there. So it is a different approach from a design perspective in working with clients. And quite often, even though in design thinking you often start it with what’s the problem that we have to solve, I find more and more these days I’m actually starting with, well, what’s the vision? What’s happily ever after? Where do we want to actually end up, and then how do we reverse engineer from there?
Douglas: Interesting. And I’m curious, once you do that, do folks then take a more kind of explorative approach to thinking about how they decompose the pieces that get them on that journey?
Denise: Yeah. I don’t know if it’s a more explorative approach but I do find it frees them up. One of the truths of design thinking for me has always been problem definition is absolutely the hardest part. And by starting with the future, you’re kind of shifting the problem a little bit and moving it into the future. But once you get clear on what it is you really want, like you get really crystal clear, a vision of where you want to go, figuring out how to get there really isn’t that hard. Like that’s never been the thing that stopped us. Typically what stops us is that we’re trying to solve the wrong problem or we don’t really know what we’re trying to create, why it matters. And so that’s the bulk of the work that I end up doing is really trying to clarify those things. It’s that Einstein quote. What is it? If I had an hour to save the world, I’d spend the first 59 minutes trying to figure out what the problem is.
Douglas: Yeah. Figure out all the right questions to ask. It’s like so good. Yeah, I love that. I think you’re so right. The problem is often so misunderstood or people struggle how to articulate it. And so moving into that visionary piece, especially if it truly is visionary work, if we’re talking about like what’s the next feature or what’s the next market we’re going to go into, maybe an explorative approach where we research and learn and gather might make sense, but I love this backtracking. It’s similar to how you might just take a big project and decide, hey, what’s the deadline for these little pieces? Well, when does it all need to be done, and let’s work our way backwards. It’s like that backwards design piece.
Denise: Yeah, exactly. Some people call this backcasting, I just reverse engineering. It’s all kind of the same thing for me. But the other reason that I really love it is quite often, again, clients come in and they’ve got this laundry list of things that they have to achieve on their project. Most of the time, 80% of the stuff on their laundry list turns out to be irrelevant. If you start with what you really need to have by the end, it changes the way that you design your solution and a lot of the stuff that’s on that list can quite often fall off. The beauty of that is, it often frees up resources for you to do other things or invest more deeply in the most important areas.
Douglas: Another note that I wrote down was around because you mentioned the word engagement and I was thinking about connection and how stories create connection and alignment. The JFK story that you told is 100% around alignment and connection like people were focused and galvanized on this common mission. I think that’s super powerful when we think about change efforts inside organizations.
Denise: Absolutely. You need to have everybody moving in the same direction. There’s a great little anecdote that goes with JFK piece, which is apparently a few years later he was visiting one of the NASA facilities and stopped to talk to a janitor in the hallway and said, “Tell me what you do here.” The janitor looked at him and said, “Well, Mr. President, I’m helping to put the first man on the moon.” You don’t get better alignment than that.
And so, again, the reason I say you want to develop your strategy as a story is it also gives you space to help everybody who needs to be involved in your story figure out what character they are. What role do they have to play? Are they Frodo? Talking about Lord of the Rings, are they Frodo? Are they the hero? Are they Aragorn, a supporter? Are they Gandalf? Are they the wizard? What role do they have to play? People really need that clarity and that understanding and coming back to identity, that sense of belonging. I’m part of this group, I have a really important contribution to make. It’s crystal clear to me why I belong and why this organization needs me.
Douglas: It’s interesting, unrelated to what you were just telling me but it just jogged a memory of mine of a client that we were working with. Their story that they were telling themselves around this problem and around this project was so heavily laden with their internal jargon and their brand identity that they didn’t really understand the story, because this Brandy word, I’m trying to be vague here, but this Brandy word meant different things to different people, especially as they applied it to the context of this project. And so a lot of the work that we were doing was helping to unpack it and like, wait, hold on, let’s remove the metaphor and let’s remove the fancy marketing shin and just get down to some real words around what we’re talking about. I’m just wondering if that’s ever come up in your work with stories because it seems like the jargon was getting in the way of good storytelling.
Denise: Yeah. Details always get in the way. And so one of the first things that I do with clients is we build the bullet point story. So if the change story has eight steps to it, there’s like one bullet for each step and you can tell that story in one minute. You have to be able to do that first to get really clear on what matters. And again, that’s where a lot of the stuff that doesn’t matter falls off and frees you up. One of the biggest barriers to change is all the baggage that we bring into it. So if we can drop that baggage as we kind of cross the threshold into the new world and the new identity and the new situation that we want to go into, now we have resources, we have energy, we have mental space to really focus on where we want to go as opposed to where we’ve been and all this stuff that we think is important and really isn’t.
Douglas: That reminds me of a funny thing a mentor once told me. He said, “Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.” He wasn’t telling me to lie or fib or make stuff up, but I think that my tendency was just to lay the facts on them so much that like, or to be so specific about what it was. He was like, “Is that going to catch people’s emotions and minds and imagination?” Like, give them fuel to be excited about this thing.
Denise: Yeah. It’s interesting. So my research into engagements back in grad school revealed that actually, the biggest factor in getting and keeping people’s attention was creating like a gap or a challenge for them, basically inviting them into solving a problem, because we’re just wired for that. And so once you invite them to solve a problem, they’re going to stay engaged for as long as that problem remains unsolved. And then as soon as it’s solved, the engagement ends.
Douglas: Well, that reminds me of Cunningham’s law. Have you heard of this?
Douglas: How do you learn anything on the internet? You post the wrong answer because everyone wants to tell you you’re wrong. It’s also a great way to get children engaged. If you point at something that’s clearly not an elephant and you say that’s an elephant, then they want to tell you that’s not an elephant, you’re wrong.
Denise: Right. Yeah.
Douglas: I guess as we’re kind of nearing an end here, I wanted to just hear from you what your advice would be for someone who’s wanting to get their start. What’s a good first step to start working in this area of story design?
Denise: Yeah. I think the easiest thing actually is to go out and do some really small, really simple narrative analysis or story collecting and analysis just so you can start to get a sense of how powerful it is. And so you can pick a question or a problem that you’re dealing with and go out and even just talk to three or five people may be outside your regular circle and get them to tell you a story about it. So let’s say you’re trying to get people in your office to recycle more. So you go out and you talk to people outside your office and you ask them to tell you stories about recycling, like how did they get started recycling? What’s the best recycling experience that they’ve ever had? Where have they seen great recycling done?
When you collect stories like that, even just if you get three or four stories, your narrative intelligence is naturally going to start to analyze the patterns in those stories and look for themes and look for commonalities. That’s where you can start to get great ideas that fuel innovation. If you’d only ever do this within your circle, you’re not going to get fresh ideas that way. You’re just going back to culture. You’re just going to reinforce the stories that you’re already telling yourselves. So that’s one way to get started is just go out and collect stories about a specific thing that you’re trying to work on outside of your regular circle and kind of start to learn what other people have to say.
The other thing you can do is next time you’re planning something, whether it’s a strategy or a program or even just a meeting, try actually planning it as a story using that really basic structure of what’s the problem we’re trying to solve? What are two or three that we think we need to do to solve it? And what’s our vision of success, what would happily ever after look like? And then build on that and say, who are the characters that we need to do this with us? What roles would they have to play? What superpowers do we need them to bring in?
And then look at what are some of the potential obstacles? Who are the bad guys that we’re going to have to fight? What are some of the potential barriers that we’re going to have to come up against? I think you’ll find that it’s a great tool for alignment for whoever’s working on the thing that you’re planning. And it’s also going to be a great tool for helping you both be creative and then share your ideas with other people and get them engaged.
Douglas: Awesome. Sounds like great advice. Let’s kind of bring things to an end here. And as we do, I’d love to give you an opportunity to leave our listeners with a final thought and maybe share a little bit of information around how they can find your work and the book, et cetera.
Denise: Yeah. The final thought I think is to really start to think beyond just telling stories and really start to focus on identifying and listening to and analyzing and processing stories. And as you do that, every time you hear a story, try to figure out what the problem in that story is. What’s that person trying to do? What are they trying to achieve? What problem are they trying to solve? That’s really, it’s not just going to beef up your narrative intelligence, it’s also going to make you a much better critical thinker and designer because you’re going to develop your problem definition skills.
So I think looking beyond what the hype is telling us in terms of everybody should be a storyteller, because that just makes us a whole lot of talkers with nobody listening, and really spend some time focusing on developing your listening, your story, listening to your story analysis skills and see what you can learn from that. In terms of where to find me, you can find me across social media. You can find me on my website, which is denisewithers.com, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, kind of all over the place. Most active on LinkedIn I think. And I’ve also got a TED Talk that should be available as of March 2022.
Douglas: Awesome. And we’ll have links in the show notes so you can just click straight through. Definitely check this stuff out. It’s so good. Denise, it’s been such a pleasure chatting with you. Really, really great stuff.
Denise: Well, thanks so much. I love talking about this stuff. If anybody has any questions, I really encourage them to reach out. I’m always happy to hear what people are doing. It’s a great learning experience for me to see how people are using their narrative intelligence and their natural ability to learn and solve problems with stories.
Douglas: Awesome. Thanks again for joining the show.
Denise: Thank you. Have a great day.
Douglas: Thanks for joining me for another episode of Control the Room. Don’t forget to subscribe to receive updates when new episodes are released. And if you want more, head over to our blog where I post weekly articles and resources about working better together, voltagecontrol.com.