The participants in my webinar for the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) on July 2, 2019, ‘Delving into the Art of Storytelling in the Business Environment,’ asked a lot of important questions. I will answer many of them in this series of blog posts.
Question: How can you discern when a story may be too personal or possibly not appropriate for sharing in a business setting?
This has a lot to do with context – the culture of the company and country, the biases of the listeners, gender, race, timing, speaking skills. I had a senior executive in a global tech company ask to kick off the second day of training that I was leading with a story about her family. I was concerned because she was leading a team that was mostly male. She took the risk, telling a moving story about raising her three sons, one of whom was severely disabled, and then pivoting back to business. She used her story as a way to explain and deepen the strategy she had recently proposed. This strengthened her as a leader, at least among the people in the room. On the other hand, a colleague of mine works with top female executives in France, many of whom feel, no doubt with good reason, that even revealing if they are married or not will weaken them as leaders. Different culture, different context, different answer to the question.
Here is a formula that might be helpful, thanks to my cousin Aaron Link Raz: Whatever you reveal should be tied directly to your personal brand or to the business issue at hand. A colleague of mine was working with a CEO, a ‘no nonsense’ kind of guy who avoided both stories and vulnerability. He was trying to make major changes in his organization and it wasn’t going well. After building some trust one-on-one, my colleague got him to share a few personal stories, including the amazing fact that this leader hadn’t walked until he was a teenager due to a congenital disease. “My brothers and sisters made me walk. They told me I could do it, helped me build strength in my legs and even set a date for my first steps. It worked. Now I run every day to keep strong so I don’t disappoint my siblings.” When my colleague tied this story directly to the changes this CEO was asking his company to make, focusing on the strategy his siblings used, the leader agreed to tell the story. His history of avoiding personal stories and his matter-of-fact delivery, the personal context of the story, helped it ‘land’ with his audience.
Here are three insightful comments about Powerful Vulnerability from other participants:
- “Powerful Vulnerability sounds like transparency, a common buzzword, made personal.”
- “I’ve found that many inclusion and diversity leaders use powerful vulnerability plus personal stories to connect with people.”
- “I think we can show powerful vulnerability during a job interview when we describe a situation and how we overcame the issue…and hopefully the resolution speaks to the need of the company you’re interviewing with.”