Audience Business Storytelling

ATD Virtual Conference Story Q&A with Patti Sanchez and Nancy Duarte

Patti Sanchez
Patti Sanchez
ATD Virtual Conference
ATD Virtual Conference
Nancy Duarte
Nancy Duarte

During the 2020 Association for Talent Development (ATD) Virtual Conference, Patti Sanchez and Nancy Duarte gave a keynote titled, “Influence Through Story.” They spoke about the power of story and how you can use it to increase your influence and impact. You can read the blog post summary of the keynote here.

The chat room was so engaged during the virtual talk that we were unable to answer all of the questions we received live. So, Patti took the time to respond to the Q&A questions below.

Q: How do you navigate challenges when the dots don't connect and people misunderstand/misinterpret a story?

I always fall back on asking for feedback. What was your takeaway from that story? Where did I lose you? How could I have explained it better?

Patti Sanchez

Q: I love the concepts and believe in the power of stories. How does one get going with crafting their story?

Get a good journal and start writing :-). In our Resonate workshop participants get a story journal that takes them through the process of recalling their own personal stories—it’s a great resource.

Patti Sanchez

Q: Any tips for how to get analytical people to get better at telling a story with data, rather than just putting out data reports and letting people interpret for themselves?

This is what Nancy’s latest book DataStory is all about—I highly recommend it. There’s a section where she talks about the impact that storytelling can have on an analytical person’s career—moving from exploring data to explaining it will change how they are perceived in the org, from an individual contributor to a consultant/advisor.

Patti Sanchez

Q: We've been collecting nurses' experiences during the COVID crisis. What would you do with these stories?

Such important work, thank you! How you use them depends on what your goal is and who your audience is. Are you wanting to educate patients on how to keep themselves safe? Edit the stories to just those lessons and perhaps write them up as articles/blog posts. Or are you wanting to persuade government officials or hospital administrators to give nurses more resources and support to help them get through the crisis? Then focus on the experiences that illustrate how overwhelmed these nurses are and what problems/challenges they are encountering that need solving, perhaps in video form that lets you show the emotional toll the crisis is taking on them.

Patti Sanchez

Q: How would you adjust the language and approach used in your stories when writing versus when spoken?

In written form, your audience may be more willing to take time to read and absorb the story so you can include more details. But in verbal stories you need to tighten the content and choose just one key moment to emphasize and unpack with some choice details. It can help to start by writing the story out in long form first, say one or two pages long. Then cut it in half to create a half-page version and try telling that shorter version to a friend and notice their reaction (while timing yourself). For a spoken story, you ideally want to get your main points across in less than 5 minutes, so keep editing until you have a tight 2-3 minute version.

Patti Sanchez

Q: Do you have tips for using story to influence change when the change is more technical, rather than aspirational?

The same basic principles apply from the three-act structure. You can find good examples in our books Illuminate and DataStory.

Patti Sanchez

Q: When you don't have a lot of experience, where do you get stories from?

You can pull on stories about peers (others in a similar role or company type) that are trying to do the same thing, or from your audience (people who have the same roles or goals as the people you are trying to win over). You can also draw stories from history of previous times or situations that were similar and point out parallels to now.

Patti Sanchez

Q: Is there a recommended story length, or does it depend on problem, or objective?

Yes, it really does depend on the audience, setting and goal. If you’re using a story as a unit of information within a larger communication (like a presentation) then the story needs to be short enough to get the point across while still giving time to deliver the rest of your messages. A story in business communication is always a means to an end—the story should set up, pay off or reinforce something else you are trying to get across and should only be as long as it needs to be to accomplish that goal.

Patti Sanchez

Q: What value do you see in making your stories "relatable" to the frontline employees' real world?

Relatability is the same as relevance, and relevance is what makes a message or an idea penetrate an audience’s mind and heart. If you use stories to communicate how an idea will impact employees in their everyday work, it’ll increase the likelihood that they’ll see it as being useful and valuable to them. Abstract promises that don’t connect with their everyday experience aren’t likely to take hold or get their support.

Patti Sanchez

Q: Who do you get your story telling ability from?

My mom and dad 🙂 But seriously, I grew up around people who liked to tell stories so I was naturally attuned to it. But journalism school was a great training ground to learn how to ask questions that draw a person out and uncover nuggets to craft a narrative around. Narrative journalism is a great form to study.

Patti Sanchez

Q: When dealing with difficult or emotional topics, how do you tell stories that resonate with the learner, but that don't hit too close to home—or trigger traumatic events/responses?

This is so important. Because stories trigger emotions they need to be used carefully. You have to first create psychological safety in the space where stories will be told—take time to build relationships and trust—but also give participants an opt-out (either by not sharing a story or maybe even giving permission to leave the room before it starts). But before deciding to share stories in a training session, think about the people in the room and how they might receive the stories and what the purpose is of sharing them. Consider talking to a friendly advisor, ideally one who matches the profile of participants—and ask them how they would react to the kinds of stories that could be told. How does it make them feel? What would make them feel safer and more supported? The level of detail shared in a story can also be dialed back to avoid triggering words and images, focusing on the facts of the situation.

Patti Sanchez

Q: We've been trying to use story to move the organization from viewing learning and development as one-time learning events/classes to ongoing, user-driven, continuous learning. Results have been mixed so far. Any tips for using story to drive busy employees to carve out time for learning each week?

You probably need to be telling two kinds of stories to drive adoption—one is a strategic story about the purpose and value of this kind of training program (the why behind it) to win support at the top level, coupled with testimonials from learners themselves that say in their own words how this learning has changed them (case studies).

Patti Sanchez

Q: It seems like it isn't a good idea to talk a lot about yourself, but sometimes it hits home when you can say, I went through that, and now I am on the other side. So the question is, where is the happy medium?

It all comes back to the audience and what they want and need to hear and then let that dictate the type of story you share (or don’t). The point of telling a story about your personal experience isn’t to shine a light on you but to share a lesson that will be helpful to others. If you’re worried that the story appears self-centered, spend less time on the first act and more on the resolution and lesson in the end. And always emphasize the shared experience you and the audience both have that makes the story relevant to them. For example: I know some of you are going through X, I want to tell a quick story about when I grappled with that, too…so my point in telling you that story is this: I hope it helps you _______ .

Q: Do you have any tips on sharing a story whether it be in person or virtually in this new normal?

We all have stories about what this “new normal” feels like for us, how it’s different from the way we used to work, and what we’ve had to change about ourselves to adapt. Those are great stories to be using right now to open a dialogue in your team about how people are coping and what support they need to be successful. You could set aside some time in a team meeting to share those stories with a simple prompt—’what does a ‘typical day’ look like for you and how is that different from before? what’s one thing you hope we continue in this ‘new normal’? etc.

Patti Sanchez

Q: Do you ever make up or repackage your stories?

As a speaker and leader I do spend time thinking about my own stories, writing them down, and then packaging them up into slides (which is the medium I used most).

Patti Sanchez

Q: Are there stories you commonly use to teach the methods of storytelling? Or at least to teach the power of storytelling?

We often use stories from popular culture (movies, books) to help people understand the basic structure and elements of a story—if people are familiar with those stories it’ll help them ‘see’ the structure faster and get it. But when convincing people that story can be used to persuade and teach, we show examples of businesses and leaders that do it well. Our book Illuminate is filled with examples from companies like Apple, Starbucks, IBM, etc…companies that people may not think of as ‘storytellers’ but use story to get business results.

Patti Sanchez

Q: Can you give an example of where a company successfully has created a story to create a belonging for the employees?

Yes – Duarte! We created a symbol that represents the qualities of our employees (we lovingly call them “Duartians”) and tell the story of how that symbol came to be here: https://tinyurl.com/yb77wkqp

Patti Sanchez

Q: How do you make stories that are always remembered by the audience in the speed of information on social media?

Stories can be distilled into small chunks on social media so they’re more spreadable—use a series of tweets to unpack a story in the three-act structure, or record a short video telling the three-act version.

Patti Sanchez

Q: Have you had any struggles adapting storytelling to the recent transition to working in a virtual environment?

Telling a story virtually isn’t necessarily different than in-person, though the teller has to work harder to keep the audience engaged and perform to the camera. If the story is supported by visual aids like slides, then the slides need to be simpler and lighter on content because some audience members may be viewing virtually over a mobile device as small as a phone. Content should be shorter and more engaging overall to lure people away from their inboxes.

Patti Sanchez

Q: What is the best way to tell stories of abstract and dense concepts, like in finance and economics when it is about theory and not about people?

Nancy’s book DataStory provides structures for communicating information that’s more analytical and data-driven in nature. She also talks about how you can humanize the data by using anecdotes about the people in data. For instance, how does the economic theory or financial model affect businesses and their employees or nations and their citizens?

Q: Stories during training sessions are paramount. How do you get the audience to tell their stories to support what is being taught?

Build in self-reflection exercises during the training. Ask questions like, can you remember a time when you faced this situation before? How did you tackle it? Which of the principles you learned were useful (or would be useful) in that situation? Or after the training is over, survey learners to capture case studies of situations where they applied the learning, then share those stories during future training.

Patti Sanchez

Q: How can we measure if a story was conveyed in a way we intended? Are there any tips to prevent different interpretations?

Get audience feedback, and test your story ahead of time if you can. Try your story out on a friendly audience and ask them to tell you how they perceived it—what do you remember most from that story? How did it affect you? What was your takeaway from it? How would you change it?

Patti Sanchez

Q: How do we pivot to story format for learning when the culture is very set in certain formats?

Run a pilot to test one approach vs. the other. Then report out the results—which met the goal more effectively, the story-based one or not? My money is on the story method 🙂

Patti Sanchez

Q: Can you use other people's stories that touched you to drive a point and give that person credit for it or make it your own?

For sure. There are three perspectives stories can be told from—I (my personal stories), We (stories about a group I belong to), and They stories (stories about other people). You can use we or they stories to make a point (always attributing them). But you should still relate their experience to your own to explain why that story matters to you and how it connects to a larger theme/thread in your own work, and to your audience’s goals/needs. Let me tell you a story about…and I shared that with you because I have had similar experiences and I think you have, too…here’s the lesson I hope we all take away from that story…

Patti Sanchez

Q: How did each of you discover storytelling as an effective medium for organizational change?

When Nancy and I were writing Illuminate, we did about three years of research into movements of all kinds in business and society. We noticed they all followed a common pattern (the VentureScape) and that it mirrored the three-act structure of the story. Then I mapped it to ADKAR and realized it was the perfect overlay to a change program, providing the communication architecture needed to move people from one stage to the next.

Patti Sanchez

Q: We use a lot of scenarios in our training. Would you consider a scenario a story? What elements should we focus on to make a scenario tell a story?

If you’re talking about use cases or invented situations then yes I think of those as stories (albeit fictional usually). They should follow a three-act structure—there’s a hero of some kind who’s trying to do something but encounters challenges until something or someone steps in to help. If the scenario is just a setup for an exercise the group will solve then they’re essentially writing the third act of the story—how does it resolve and what is the takeaway/lesson from it?

Patti Sanchez

Q: Do case studies count as stories?

YES! They should be structured using the three-act format as well. Who was the customer? (hero) What were they trying to do? (challenge) What was the outcome? (transformation)

Patti Sanchez

Q: Do you ever tell stories where you don't know the ending yet ? When an organization or individualized is still in the messy Act II?

That’s where we all are right now in the story of our lives! We have to tell the story of where we’re heading and why it’s important, but whether we’ll arrive there is undetermined. In the messy middle where we’re struggling to pursue our vision we can also tell stories that help people find the motivation to keep slogging through. Often these are ‘they’ stories about others who traveled that path before so we can learn from them and hopefully resolve our journey successfully too.

Patti Sanchez

Q: Does including items in your office or space which become starting points for stories make it easier to tell the stories?

Such a great question! We usually surround ourselves with artifacts that have meaning to us, and they have meaning because they’re emblematic of an experience we had. So yes, these ‘symbols’ are a good way to recall stories of your own. The butterflies on my wall are a symbol of transformation, which is something I’m always striving for in my work and life, but more personally those butterflies remind me of my mom. She once bought a butterfly necklace to remind herself that she can transform just like the caterpillar does. So butterflies always trigger memories of and stories about my mom. What symbols are in your life, and how can they help you recall your own stories?

Q: What are your best practices for storytelling to a global audience?

Start by studying them and segmenting them to find the patterns in what matters to some groups vs. others and build out messages that you know each of those segments will need to hear. If you are addressing them all at once you’ll need to build in time to acknowledge what each group cares about (for instance sharing survey data that shows you know what topics matter most to each of them). Be careful not to use Americanisms or cultural references that won’t be familiar to everyone. But while there may be cultural differences (such as terminology that is foreign to them or stories that will be familiar) there will likely be some common themes that you can build the bulk of your content around that will serve them all. If you can’t find common themes then I’d question whether it makes sense to communicate to them as one large group and whether your stories should be segmented and delivered in a form and context that fits each audience better.

Patti Sanchez

Q: What if you work in an organization that doesn't value—or doesn't seem to value—vulnerability?

Employee feedback can help leaders see the need for it. Survey employees before and after a leader communicates and notice how the leader’s willingness to be vulnerable affects employee trust in that leader and confidence in the organization’s direction. One organization we work with has employees rate execs in every all-hands meeting and if their scores fall below a certain threshold it triggers a coaching program to work with those leaders on their communication. A CEO I helped with his all-hands talk got his highest scores ever after telling a story that admitted he made a mistake and took responsibility for it.

Patti Sanchez

Q: Do you have suggestions for how to approach storytelling to influence change when the transition we're walking folks through is more technical than aspirational? (new software combined with other new ways of working , etc.)

Yes! Our book Illuminate includes many case studies of change, including the transition that Apple made from its Macintosh OS9 operating system to OSX. Steve Jobs used story-based communication to influence application developers to adopt the new platform.

Patti Sanchez

Q: Does the hero always have to be likable to make an effective story?

The hero of a story usually has a flaw of some kind, and that flaw makes them more relatable to the audience—we want to root for them to succeed despite the flaw (because we hope that we can also succeed despite our own flaws). So you can think of it as ‘relatability’ instead of ‘likability’ if it helps.

Patti Sanchez

Q: What are your best practices for convincing non-believers that story matters and should be the standard way we communicate?

Talk about the ‘science of story‘ as we laid out in the beginning of our talk and share examples of leaders and/or organizations that have used story and the results they got. You can find some good examples in our books Resonate and Illuminate.

Patti Sanchez

Q: What are some common mistakes that people make in trying to craft their stories?

Yes, good question! The big fails are: too much detail, too long, too focused on them and not the audience.

Patti Sanchez

Q: When do stories get too long? How can we keep them concise and powerful?

The three-act structure helps with shaping a story into a compact format. Include enough information to answer the basic questions. Who is the story about? What were they trying to do? How did they overcome it? What changed in the end? Then, set up the lesson that is the point you are trying to get across.

Patti Sanchez

Q: I feel that I don't have my own story. In this case, where should I start?

Writing down your own stories is a great way to get started. In our Resonate workshop participants get a story journal that helps recall and structure their own personal stories. But you can also learn a lot by studying the stories other people tell—read biographies, watch documentaries and TED talks, read commencement speeches. Be a student of story and soak it up!

Patti Sanchez

Q: In a world where leaders focus on short-term goals and disruptions, how do we make the case of presenting to or engaging with leaders in the format of story, especially since stories in the Duarte form may take time and thought to deliver?

Do those leaders want their ideas to get adopted? Then they need stories to make those ideas more relatable, memorable and actionable. If you don’t have time to plan your communication (and the stories it includes) then do you have time to redo the launch after it initially fails because it didn’t get traction? It seems like there’s never time to get it right at first but there’s always time to do it over again when it fails 🙂

Patti Sanchez

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