Transformative storytelling from black communicators
By Hayley Hawthorne, Ph.D.
“Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created.” – Toni Morrison
In 1993, Toni Morrison, the first African American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, gave a speech in the Grand Hall of the Swedish Academy. In this magnificent speech, she powerfully painted the transformative power of story.
While some may think that storytelling is an art form best saved for the experts, the truth is that stories are far more common and easily accessible to everyday communicators. Consider how story might come into play in your day-to-day business interactions. Maybe you’re asked to share a little bit about yourself in an interview. Or you contribute to writing the “About Us” section of your company’s website. Or you use a powerful data story to persuade stakeholders to adopt a recommendation.
Ultimately, stories—the great human connector—are the best communication tool we have. Through stories we can better understand who we are and where we come from, our values and principles, and the journey of transformation.
In fact, stories have historically been used to communicate experiences, traditions, and more. In celebration of Black History Month, we’re taking a look at a few inspirational stories of transformation from Black communicators, which will hopefully inspire you to craft your own stories.
Origin Stories: Tyler Perry and the Quilt
Consider how we often ask people to share with us their personal origin stories. “So, tell me a little bit about yourself…” This is a common question because stories like these act as a window into the inner world of the person we are wanting to get to know.
Origin stories create and recreate our understanding of who we are by way of where we came from. Such stories, according to scholars, are a portal for sensemaking about one’s identity and can help to communicate and shape how we think and act in relationship to that identity.
During the 72nd Emmy Awards in 2020, Tyler Perry received the Governors Award, which recognized his contributions to television and humanitarian efforts. In his acceptance speech, he shared an origin story that both helped his audience better understand him and helped him better understand the world.
Perry began the story by saying that when he was nineteen, he received a handmade quilt from his grandmother. Initially Perry didn’t care for the quilt, or even respect it. In fact, he used it as a towel when his dog got wet and laid it down on the ground when he changed his car oil.
Then, some years later, Perry visited an antique shop and while he was browsing, he heard a story about a quilt on display in the store. A shopkeeper shared with him that this quilt was made up of patches from different parts of the life of an African American woman who was formerly enslaved. The patches included fabric from her wedding dress, and among others, the dress she was wearing when she found out she was free.
That story shifted Perry’s perspective. The quilt became a metaphor for identity and story—his, his grandmother’s, and ours. Perry said, “Whether we know it or not, we are all sewing our own quilts with our thoughts, our behaviors, our experiences, and our memories.”
“Thank you to all the people who are celebrating and know the value of every patch, and every story, and every color that makes up this quilt that is our business, this quilt that is our lives, this quilt that is America.”
He concluded with these remarks, “In my grandmother’s quilt there were no patches that represented Black people on television, but on my quilt her grandson is being celebrated by the television academy. I thank you for this. God bless you.”
Personal stories, like the one about the quilt, have the power to transform audiences by engaging and influencing them. But there are other uses for stories, including ones from leaders that move others forward.
Leadership Stories: Ursula Burns and Impatience
Stories, especially those from leaders, provide us with insight into the minds of people who are effectively time travelers. Leaders are able to see possibilities that many of us cannot yet envision, and like the ones who provide us with blueprints for change, the good leaders transport us to the future in our minds so we can see what they see and want to get there, too.
In October 2011, Ursula Burns, then Chairwoman and CEO of Xerox, spoke with the Economic Club of Washington, D.C. about Xerox, leadership, and transformation. In her speech, Burns shared stories to support her big idea, which was that “Leaders must be impatient.”
Before hearing her speech, one might initially have a negative connotation associated with the concept of impatience. However, Burns artfully used story to show the audience the personal and professional benefits of impatience. Burns proposed that leaders and organizations should be impatient in order “to move things faster than most people think that they can be moved, to take more of a risk than most people think is worthy.”
According to Burns, “every organization needs a galvanizing force, and getting people to be passionate about that is a big step in making organizations great.” Burns insisted that leaders who are impatient can be that force, and she shared stories to illustrate exactly what that looks like.
“Impatience comes from the fact that I have passion in my heart and belief in my soul that it can’t get worse than it is today, because if it does that means we’re not trying very hard. So, if I get a little bit more impatient, I think it’ll be good. And, I hope that you will forgive me with that impatience, but more importantly I hope that you’ll get impatient as well and start to join me.”
Her leadership is an example of how leaders use stories to move others forward. By sharing a principle that drives her—impatience—Burns demonstrates her values as a leader and how those values helped her achieve results, even in the face of resistance or complacency. What principles or values do you hold dear, and how can you use them to lead others to a better future?
Change Stories: Dr. Marian Croak and The Stockdale Paradox
Businesses are almost always going through changes and are in constant motion. Think: product development and innovation, adaptation to meet customer or employee needs, and steady business growth. According to research by KPMG, 96% of organizations are in some phase of transformation.
Stories can help accelerate change by persuading people to adopt a new idea and make it a reality. Stories that follow the Venture Scape™, provide blueprints that can bring about successful change in business. This is important since, according to McKinsey, most change initiatives fail to achieve their goals.
Successful business leaders understand how to use stories to influence change, including Dr. Marian Croak, Vice President of Engineering at Google. In 2017, Dr. Croak gave a keynote speech at the Women Techmakers Summit, in which she shared the story of how she thrived in STEM and always had a deep appreciation for helping people, problem solving, and fixing things. But she also shared lessons about product development, innovation, and the Stockdale Paradox.
The Stockdale Paradox is a change leadership concept made famous by Jim Collins in his book, Good to Great. Collins wrote that the process of change begins by acknowledging and accepting the facts of your situation. Yet, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
Dr. Croak shared her experience with the Stockdale Paradox when she began working on new technology in data services and networking, at a time when most were using traditional voice communication. “We picked up the phone and called each other, and, so, there was relatively little data traffic.” Her team had to convince senior executives to consider this new IP technology as a worthy alternative, which in her words was “a big, big bet” because it would require the company to reinvest billions of dollars into what we now know as the internet, at a time when it wasn’t viewed as viable yet.
Dr. Croak shared how she and her team had to hold two competing views at the same time. “The internet was going to win the day and it was the right thing to do to put all the investment there. But, at the same time it wasn’t ready, and it wasn’t really resilient, and it was going to crash, and we just could ruin the brand.”
Thankfully, by holding onto her vision for the potential of the internet, combined with hard work, her team was able to help bring an emerging technology to fruition. Her story provides an example of how leaders can use stories to illuminate the future, while being able to navigate the difficulties and obstacles of the current situation. Dr. Croak’s use of the Stockdale Paradox reinforces that while invention and innovation may be hard, they are not impossible when you harness storytelling to keep everyone’s eyes on the future as you put in the hard work to make those dreams come true.
These Black communicators show us how we can use stories as a vehicle for transformation. Stories communicate who we are, what’s important to us, and where we aim to go. When you tell stories like these, you can build emotional connections and help you, your teams, and your entire organization make things happen.
Whether you use a story to introduce yourself, to share information about your company, to explain the importance and benefits of a new product, to highlight obstacles to overcome, or to bring your vision to life and transform our world for the better, storytelling should be a skill in everyone’s toolbox. When you tell the stories that changed you, you will inspire others to see new possibilities and do new great things.
Illustrated by Alexis Macias
Hayley Hawthorne, Ph.D.