In 2017, I partnered with the Hollywood Homeless Youth Partnership on a project around Ethical Storytelling. This collaboration resulted in a white paper that examined the storytelling practices of organizations working specifically with young people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles. We decided to invite members of the nonprofit community in LA to a workshop based on the project.
We expected about 30 people to attend.
Over 100 showed up.
Clearly, we weren’t the only ones grappling with the question of how to effectively share stories in a way that not only met leadership and organizational objectives like fundraising, but also lifted up the voices of our story-carriers.
Over the past three years, the work around ethical storytelling has expanded through partnerships with EthicalStorytelling.com, Conveners.org, communications consultants around the world, and hundreds of participants at storytelling workshops throughout the United States.
You can listen to podcasts about ethical storytelling here. You can access resources shared in workshops here. A quick google search will reveal a growing number of articles and guides around ethical storytelling practices, particularly for social impact and nonprofit organizations.
Ethical storytelling has, in certain circles, become a ‘thing.’
My hope is to help broaden the context within which the conversation around ethical storytelling takes place: it's not just the 'right thing to do,' it's also essential to building a more just, equitable, and viable way of being within our communities.
Conventional organizational storytelling is rooted in extractive practices and, when we engage in old-school storytelling without awareness, we are complicit with virulent mindsets and ways of being responsible for the genocide of indigenous peoples, the subjugation of black and brown bodies for the economic gain of white bodied people, and climate collapse.
Ethical storytelling is a set of tools and practices that can help us divest from exploitative ways of being and relationships with the communities and people we purport to serve while fostering more equitable, inclusive, and human relationships.
Recently, I facilitated an online workshop for a remote team that often participates in and leads meetings via Zoom. Other members of the team are together in a conference room and they float over the conference table on a 60 inch flatscreen. It's weird. And it's the new normal.
The workshop was ostensibly about public speaking and facilitation skills. We ended up spending a fair bit of time on how to optimize ‘leadership presence’ when working over webcam. Since then, I’ve participated in a few webinars and have been floored by how awful many of us are at working with the vocabulary of camera presence.
In other words: being in a room with people is vastly different than relating over webcam. Body language works differently, facial expressions may be highlighted, etc. and so on.
Here are some things to keep in mind for your next webinar or zoom conference, particularly if you are the facilitator:
With the end of year fundraising rush just around the corner, chances are that, if you’re a 501(c)3 organization, you’re in the midst of feverishly drafting your year end appeal.
Generally I focus on the story and content for appeals, but the fact is that it doesn’t matter how great your story is if you don’t follow a few best practices when it comes to format, layout, and structure of your print appeal.
Here are a few that sometimes get missed (based purely on the letters I’ve been getting over the past week or so). This is far from comprehensive, so feel free to reach out with a few of your own:
Any time I lead an organizational or leadership storytelling workshop, I split folks into pairs and ask them to share a story with each other. Person ‘A’ goes first and Person ‘B’ is asked to simply listen without interjection. After the exercise, I ask everyone what they noticed about sharing and listening to the stories.
Based on what I’ve heard after facilitating this exercise hundreds of times, one of the most challenging parts is not telling the story, but listening without speaking. This makes a fair bit of sense: most of us have been culturally training to treat conversation like a tennis match. We listen primarily for an opening, a chance to return the volley, to share our own point of view.
What happens when we’re challenged to simply listen, to take in another person’s story without any agenda of our own other than being present?
Based on what I’ve heard and seen, what happens is empathy, compassion, and a bond that forms quickly and with unexpected depth.
According to Otto Scharmer, the author of Theory U, listening happens at four different levels:
Last month, I had another opportunity to join The Nomadic School of Wonder to visit the amazing herd of mustangs at Windhorse Relations in southern Utah. My first visit yielded some powerful lessons on leadership and being human. This time I figured I knew what to expect and would be able to relax instead of feverishly taking notes in an attempt to capture the fleeting wisdom of the horses and their human helpers, Marcia and Mary Lee.
I figured wrong.
At one point, someone (it wasn’t me!) left a gate open and the herd, 30 horses strong, decided to have an adventure. They galloped out of the compound leaving a trail of red dust in their wake.
We were concerned. So were a couple of the volunteers.
Marcia and Mary Lee weren’t. Leave the gate open, they said with wry smiles, they’ll come back.
Sure enough, within 20 minutes, the horses had tired of their adventure and, with the gentle urging of a few volunteers who waved their arms vigorously at the horses, decided to come back through the gate. They looked, to my human eyes, very proud of themselves.
The escapade had not come without a cost: Barrel, a beautiful chestnut horse, had caught himself on some barbed wire and managed to gallop through a few cholla. He had shallow scratches on his neck and dozens of cactus quills in his skin.
Several of the volunteers leapt into action, immediately going to help the horse.
Mary Lee’s voice cracked out: ‘Wait.’
*This article is an excerpt from the recently published book 'Story Maps: Wayfinding Tools for the Modern Seeker.' Enjoy!
I first came across the ‘iceberg’ as a metaphor during a session with my therapist over ten years ago. I had been grappling with the idea that the way I experienced myself was not at all how the world experienced me.
She nodded and drew a simple image on her pad:
Icebergs, she told me, are much larger than they appear. Only 10 to 20 percent of an iceberg is visible above the water. The rest lurks below, under the surface. The same is true of people. We only see what’s on the surface, people’s behavior and their actions in the world. There’s so much more beneath the surface, a whole world of emotions, thoughts, and feelings. What you’re describing, she told me, is a disconnect between the top and bottom of the iceberg.
The metaphor blew my mind and stuck with me.
A few months ago, I found myself meditating on the power of ritual and prayer. The iceberg came floating into my mind, but instead of focusing on the iceberg itself, my attention focused on the water around it. An expanded version of the metaphor emerged that resonated so strongly that I popped out of my meditation and scrawled it on a scrap of paper. Here’s what I drew:
Earlier today, I attended an awards ceremony for social impact entrepreneurs in Los Angeles. Every single speaker and awardee alluded to their purpose. A few even urged us to find our ‘why’ and share it with the world.
In my coaching and consulting work with nonprofits and change-makers, clients will often share that they need me to help them find a ‘why’ that will help people get what they do.
It’s proliferating all around me, this Cult of Why.
I don’t have epidemiological data to support this, but I’m guessing that this all started with Simon Sinek’s TED Talk called How Great Leaders Inspire Action.
In case you’re not familiar, the talk introduces a simple concept that Sinek calls the Golden Circle. It looks like this:
A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of traveling to Utah with The Nomadic School of Wonder to learn from a herd of wild horses. They live at Windhorse Relations, an organization dedicated to providing care and stewardship of the horses, learning from them, and giving others the chance to experience the power of connecting with the herd.
On the first morning of the experience, the organization’s founder, Mary Lee Brighton, strode into the center of a round pen with a jittery horse named First Star. Mary Lee held a frame drum encased in a deerskin pouch. As she entered the pen, First Star’s eyes widened and his nostrils dilated.
Mary Lee explained that horses are prey animals. Anything unfamiliar represents a potential threat. Since the drum case, with its dangling tassles and odd jangly sounds, was new to First Star, he was understandably anxious.
She moved around the pen and First Star did everything he could to put maximum distance between himself and the drum case.
Over the next hour, Mary Lee worked with First Star, helping him conquer his fear of the threatening drum. In the process, she offered a master class not just in working with horses, but also in leadership.
Here are five lessons gleaned from the heart of the horse:
I recently attended a meeting that went something like this:
Everyone came in, many of them rushing, a few looking at cell phones. They sat at the conference table, laptops popped open. The person who’d called the meeting looked around, said ‘I think we’re all here,’ immediately threw a spreadsheet up on the screen, and started going through a bunch of numbers.
The attendees (I was there as an observer) scrambled to keep up. . .then they started asking a ton of questions about the spreadsheet. They questioned assumptions, tried to solve for problems that hadn’t been directly mentioned, and asked for additional details. The meeting-caller became increasingly flustered as the gathering spiraled out of control.
After 45 minutes, time was up. Laptops collapsed and everyone left. No action items, no real resolution. I wasn’t even clear what the intention of the meeting had been.
It didn’t feel so great. The meeting-caller, who happened to be my client, looked at me: ‘Please tell me there’s a better way to do that.’
Master storyteller and teacher Doug Lipman breaks a storytelling performance into four sections:
When folks in business circles extol the virtues of ‘storytelling,’ they generally refer to the impact that a well-told story can have on an audience. The praise of story generally goes something like this:
‘Storytelling is the single best tool we have to transfer our ideas to another person. Stories inform, illuminate, and inspire.’ (Carmine Gallo on Inc.)
I certainly won’t argue with that because, frankly, it’s true. It also misses about 90 percent of the power storytelling has to connect, build community, and bring greater alignment to teams, companies, and families.
The key lies in distinguishing between ‘story’ as a product and ‘storytelling’ as a process.
Recently, I had the chance to take a class with the wonderful Doug Lipman. If you’ve ever searched for books about the art of performance storytelling, you’ve probably seen some of his work. He gets at the distinction through a simple metaphor:
Imagine a rubber duck race at a county fair. There are only three rules:
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.