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The Proteus Leader Show #39: The Power of Storytelling

Erika is joined today by Kat Kopett, an expert in the timeless art of storytelling and applied improvisation. Kat's book, "Training to Imagine" is considered a key work in the field and she often partners with us at Proteus to develop our approach to facilitation excellence. Their valuable insights reveal why storytelling is such an important aspect of leadership and how you can become a more compelling storyteller.

00:00-01:00 - Introduction

01:02-04:45 - What Storytelling is An Important Aspect of Leadership & Human Connection

04:46-07:44 - Using Storytelling as a Business Tool AND Most Effectively

07:45-11:06 - How to be Good Storytellers

11:07 - Closing

Intro: 00:01 You're listening to the Proteus Leader Show with Erika Andersen, where you'll get practical tools and insights for leading, managing and staying ready for the future. Erika is the founding partner of Proteus, a firm that focuses uniquely on leader readiness. A nationally known executive coach and bestselling author, you may already know her as one of the most popular leadership bloggers on Ready for something you can use today? Here's Erika.

Erika: 00:31 Hello everyone and welcome back to the Proteus Leader Show. My guest today is Kat Koppett, who's the founder of Koppett & Company where she and her colleagues use the power of story and improv to build creative leaders. Her book, Training to Imagine is considered a key work in the field of applied improv. Kat also partners with us at Proteus, mainly on developing our approach to facilitation excellence. So welcome to the show, Kat.

Kat: 00:59 Thanks for having me. I'm so excited to be here.

Erika: 01:02 Yes, I'm really excited to have you, partly because I consider you an expert in the timeless art of storytelling. And I believe that your knowledge and insights about that will be really valuable for our listeners, especially those people who are new to the idea of storytelling as an important aspect of business and leadership. So, let's roll into this. So from your perspective as someone who has been focusing on the power of story for a long time, why is storytelling such an important aspect of leadership and just, you know, human connection?

Kat: 01:36 I think the first thing to understand when we start to talk about storytelling as a business tool is to define what we mean by storytelling. And we define it really broadly. We say story is meaning, and that when we talk about using story, what we're really talking about is harnessing the power of evocative narrative structure to focus our idea and get it across in a way that will be resonant for people and help encapsulate an idea in a meaningful way with a beginning, middle, and end that drives towards a moral, if you will.

Erika: 02:19 That's great. I've heard you say story is meaning lots of times and what you just said as a great explanation of that and, I love the way it resonants, you know. You and I have talked about this a lot, but everything you said resonates for me and I just think there's such a history of story in human beings. I mean, when you've said this too, one thing I will say is, you know, most human beings couldn't read until a couple of hundred years ago. So stories aren't the way that you say what's important and, and give meaning to it so that it's not just forgettable, right.

Kat: 03:00 I mean, you know, I steal the phrase story is meaning from the cognitive psychologist, Jerome Bruner and what he means when he says it is that we can't, we literally can't make meaning of the word world without creating a story in our brain. It is the way our brains make sense of the world. There's things happen, there's data coming at us all the time. And the way we make sense of the world is to create a story about it. So I see your face on the screen in front of me and your head goes up and down and I make up a story that you're understanding what I'm saying and that, uh, you're following along and I can spin out all sorts of other stories about you that you agree with me or that you think what I'm saying is a value to your listeners or whatever the story is. But those are stories.

Erika: 03:55 Yes. Yes.

Kat: 03:55 And what is useful to, you know, if I take it a couple of steps farther, what's useful to a leader or a communicator speaker in using story becomes to be clear about what is the story I want to be telling? What is the story that my listener is hearing? Are those two connected? Is it the right story for the moment? Are those stories aligned? Are they the stories that I want to be telling at the moment that's the most effective?

Erika: 04:29 And that's great. And as I'm listening to you I'm tracking along- are people hearing what I'm trying to communicate, are our stories aligned, and will the hearing of that story catalyze the kind of movement forward that I as the leader of the head of the business, want to make happen.

Kat: 04:46 Exactly right. And then the question becomes not am I using storytelling as a tool, but really am I, am I using story in the right most effective way? Because we're always telling stories. People are always hearing stories, they're always making up stories. But is this the right story for the right moment, for the right action? I want. That's great. So, so all powerful things have a dark side, you know, so, so what's the negative potential of this powerful thing called story run off the rails? You know? Well, I think there's sort of two, two paths we could take that question. One is using story effectively for evil. And that's called propaganda and it's dark and scary. So, so let's just leave that path at, you know, let's use this super power for good, not evil. Right? Right. And that's really up to whoever the storyteller is to decide that for themselves. Um, the other is using, you know, being a bad storyteller, whatever that means. And there are a couple of ways that that can go wrong. The first is what we were just talking about, not aligning the story that you're choosing to tell a with your intention. So just telling a story that doesn't match the moral of the story that you want to be telling, right? Or be aligned with the needs or goals of your audience. So I may have a beautiful story that's a great story, but doesn't really get to the point I'm trying to make in a given moment. And that even if it does, it doesn't connect. It doesn't resonate, doesn't provide meaning for those people who are listening. I have a great story about, um, the power of, um, sales, but I'm not talking to sales people. I'm talking to it people who are sitting alone in their cubicles and they're not selling anything right now or that, you know, whatever, that's not the activity they need to be engaging in right now.

Erika: That's great - matching the intention of what you're trying to accomplish with the needs of the audience. Yeah, that's great.

Kat: And then of course there are just technical things that can go wrong in your storytelling. So one of the very easy ones to talk about is you have too much or too little detail, for example.

Erika: Yeah. Yes. Well, let's, so that's a great segue into one of my third question is, which is how do we be good storytellers? I mean, I love, I always promise my listeners that we'll have some practical things that they can take away.

Kat: 07:44 So what are top of your mind for things that you would communicate to our listeners about how to be a good, compelling storyteller? How to use this powerful thing? Well, Yep. Um, so there's some core inherent things that we know, I think deep in our brains that make stories feel good. And the first is, especially if we're using them in this context as leaders, is to know what the moral of our story is. What is the point we're driving toward? And if we land that point and we have a, we're clear about what that is and we drive towards it, people will be very forgiving in terms of our story. So know what your point is. The second is once you know that have a story that actually proves that point. And another way to say that is start with the end in mind. So where do you want your character, your protagonist to be at the end of your story? If you have a story about, um, sales will save the world, then let's have a very successful story where people are happier because they bought something or sold something successfully. And then the third would be start your story. Then where the beginning is opposite to the end and there's a moment of transformation or insight. And if you do that very simple thing, you'll have a narrative arc where there's a change. And that's what makes us satisfying narrative arc.

Erika: 09:13 Just lovely. I mean, I know because I know you and I know how much, you know, I know there are a million other things that you can say, but how, what a wonderful first aid kit. I feel like you feel like crap. So know where you're going. Make sure that what you're saying is gonna get there and start in a place that can demonstrate different change to her to get to that point. Yeah, no, that's great. That's fantastic. All right. I don't usually do this, but I'm going to say this. If you had one more thing too. Well, so then, so that's the

Kat: 09:43 foundational layer. The next layer then is if you've got a narrative arc that will get you there. I'll give you two more quick things. So the next layer of narrative arc is to build sort of a beginning, middle, and end. It gives you there. We have a wonderful tool that you can, you can post on your website for your, uh, listeners or send them to us. It's called the story spine. It was created by Ken Adams and appropriated by Pixar, who was taught it by a number of improvisers. Now you can find it on a Pixars list of storytelling tools, which just can map for you sort of well-made story, beginning, middle and end. So you have your structure. And then the next thing is to say, if that's the advancing of the narrative beginning, middle and end of my story, then I have to decide where do I want to add detail or sort of extend my story and where do I want to advance it. And the places you want to add detail or color are the places that you either feel you want to invoke strong emotion, right? To draw your audience in or deepen explanation or understanding.

Erika: 11:00 Yeah. So where to go deep and where to go forward.

Kat: 11:03 Exactly right. And we call that coloring or advancing.

Erika: 11:06 Lovely. Okay. Oh my gosh. I feel like we can talk on and on, but I always promised that this will be short and sweet. So thank you so much cat. This is just, and listeners, if you're interested in finding out more about Kat and her work, you can just go to Koppett, And if you missed it, episode 28 of the Proteus Leader Show provides some additional insight about stories and their connection to values and culture. So that's on all the places where this shows up, stitcher and iTunes. So thank you once again for listening. And until next time, here's to creating the life you truly want.

Outro: 11:47 We hope you're feeling better equipped to create the career, the business and the life you want. For more insights and tools for leadership and management, join us Have an excellent day and thanks for listening.