Last week, we explored a framework for sharing personal stories with our business community that invited us to look at those stories through the lens of empathy and service. Instead of asking, “How do I know what personal stories to share or not to share with my community?” we asked, “What stories would be of most service to my community?” and “Am I sharing this for them or am I sharing this for me?”
As Part II, I’d like to give you three examples of what great personal storytelling in business can look like and how to strike that authentic-and-in-service balance.
Bernadette Jiwa, Storytelling Advisor and Author
In this first example, Bernadette Jiwa grounds a universal message in a simple personal story:
“When my sons were younger, they loved listening to the straight-talking comedian and radio presenter, Karl Pilkington. One of their favourite Pilkington quotes is: ‘You won’t get anything done by planning.’ They often quoted it to me during exam times when I made hints about the benefits of revision timetables.
I’m not sure if Pilkington ever explained what he meant when he said this, but there’s wisdom in his words. Plans are a necessary starting point for any project. But plans and projections alone won’t get us to where we want to go.
We learn what’s next by making a start, with a leap of faith—by taking that first step. We build on our experience, not our plans. We learn by doing.”
Bernadette shares details about her sons that draw us into the story and give us a glimpse into her life. We feel connected to them and the story in a way we wouldn’t if she just shared the Pilkington quote. But in ending with a universal message, we discover the story isn’t ultimately about her sons—it’s about us. That’s the “in service” piece (you’ll see she even switched from “me” to “we” in the second paragraph). I especially like this approach for blogs and social posts.
Adam Grant, Organizational Psychologist and Author
In this example, excerpted from Adam Grant’s latest book Think Again, he writes:
“Some years ago, a Wall Street firm brought me in to consult on a project to attract and retain junior analysts and associates. After two months of research I submitted a report with twenty-six data-driven recommendations. In the middle of my presentation to the leadership team, one of the members interrupted and asked, ‘Why don’t we just pay them more?’
I told him money alone probably wouldn’t make a difference….The executive pushed back, insisting that his company was different, so I rattled off some basic statistics from his own employees…. But the executive still refused to budge. Finally, I became so exasperated I did something out of character. I shot back, ‘I’ve never seen a group of smart people act so dumb.’
In the hierarchy of disagreement created by computer scientist Paul Graham, the highest form of argument is refuting the central point, and the lowest is name-calling. In a matter of seconds I’d devolved from logic bully to playground bully.
If I could do that session over, I’d start with common ground and fewer data points. Instead of attacking their beliefs with my research, I’d ask them what would open their minds to data.”
This is a great framework for telling a more personal story. Adam offers a personal account of hard-won learning (authenticity) and a clear and valuable takeaway for the reader (in-service). He doesn’t shy away from explaining how he was feeling moving through this experience, but he also doesn’t spend too much time there. Instead, he drives the story towards his ultimate learning, offering readers a powerful takeaway.
Kimberly McGlonn, PhD and English Teacher, Founder of Grant Blvd
Finally, here’s the founding story of Grant Blvd, as told by founder Kimberly McGlonn:
“The American criminal justice system currently holds nearly 2.3 million people in its claws. And it imprisons more people per capita than any other country in the entire world.
But beyond their criminal records, these people are mothers & fathers, daughters & sons, sisters & brothers, aunts & uncles, and friends. And I didn’t really think about what mass incarceration meant on a micro level until the fall of 2016…
My perspective changed on the very first day I volunteered at Books Through Bars, a non-profit in West Philly. That day I read through letters written by incarcerated people and one of these letters was written by Alicia, a female inmate who wanted a dictionary and books to help her learn how to write a novel to help her pass the time. That moment alone with her thoughts, with her journey, shook me. It was something about the first person of it all: the handwriting, the paper she’d once held, the simplicity of her request, that moved me. That single letter was confirmation: in addition to exposing my students to the injustices of mass incarceration in my classroom, I wanted to do even more to resist a system that has always been so unfair- I wanted to use my talents to give hope more directly.
As an English teacher, as a lover of books and of fashion, I wanted to find a way to bring the things that bring me most excitement, together. I felt completely compelled.
So I spent months asking and answering questions: how could I build a business that supported incarcerated people? And how could I do that in a way that also supported a conversation about needing to protect our planet?
Truth be told, this determination to do my part to solve complex social problems has always been a part of who I am.
All because of 2677 Grant Blvd.
That’s the block where I grew up in Milwaukee, in a house, that my parents bought together using the salary they earned working at the post office.
And when they weren’t at work, my parents were fighting for the things they believed in. My dad wanted to make sure that people living on the Northside had access to fresh food, and that was the mission of our family business, King Drive Deli. And my mom, she spent time on weekends going to Taycheedah, a women’s correctional institution, in order to counsel incarcerated women. As kids, my sisters and I, we knew these things.
I think most of us want to do our part to solve the things we see as serious social issues. For me, it’s become about bringing attention to the challenges of mass incarceration and the need for prison reform. For me, it’s about proposing a solution to addressing the larger global crisis that is the destruction of the environment.
And this is what Grant Blvd is all about.”
In this example, Kimberly starts with the more “global” picture—what’s happening in the American criminal justice system—and then shares why changing the system and protecting the planet are so personal to her. She tells the story authentically, and concisely while inviting us to participate alongside her.
While each story is different, what unites them is our ability to see ourselves in each of them. They’re both personal and universal. As we consider how to share personal stories with our own business communities, that’s the authentic-and-in-service balance we want to strike.
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