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Kelly Swanson – Business Storytelling Speaker
In this episode of The Leadership Habit Podcast, Jenn DeWall interviews Kelly Swanson. Kelly is an award-winning storyteller, speaker, author, and comedian. Kelly’s wacky wit and powerful stories have charmed hearts and tickled funny bones for over 15 years. In addition to her role as a funny motivational speaker, Kelly teaches people how she does it by sharing what she has learned about connecting and engaging, to have more influence in business through the use of one tool, strategic storytelling. Sharing her own powerful journey through story and the formula she discovered, you come to that magical place where the art of story meets the business of persuasion.
Full Transcript Below:
Jenn DeWall: Hi everyone. It is Jenn DeWall. And today on The Leadership Habit Podcast I am talking to Kelly Swanson who is a motivational speaker, a comedian, and a storytelling expert. So she is a storyteller, which to some of you hearing this right now, you may be asking yourself what is the correlation between storytelling and leadership? But I can tell you that today Kelly is going to offer you some insights into why storytelling is an essential skill that you need to add to your leadership toolkit.
Welcome, Kelly! Thank you so much for coming in. You’re in all the way from North Carolina and we are so happy to have you here to interview for The Leadership Habit Podcast. Thanks for being here.
Kelly Swanson: Thank you for having me. And hello to everybody out there listening as we talk about my favorite subject. Yes, I am a motivational speaker and a comedian, which means I tell you that you can do anything and then I tell you I’m just kidding. But if I make you laugh, it’s by accident today because I really am here in the other capacity to talk about storytelling because as a motivational speaker and comedian, I have spent 20 years deliciously benefiting from the value and power of stories and how they can give you so much more impact and influence in your work. So thanks for having me. It’s my pleasure.
Jenn DeWall: I’m excited. I mean I know you’re going to make us laugh a lot today. I’m already going to laugh!
Kelly Swanson: Oh Great! Raise the Bar!
Jenn DeWall: So you know, to everyone out there that may not really understand what storytelling is, can you briefly just tell us what storytelling is and, and why that matters for leaders today? Why that is an essential skill.
Kelly Swanson: Sure, sure. Because I do hear that a lot. What? What does storytelling have to do with our group? This is weird. What are we going to do? And the first place I need to take you is to ask you in your job and in your work and whatever your industry, how important is it that you are able to influence other people? How important is it that you need to get people to do what you want them to do? Are you in a position where you want to influence people, get them on board, change their minds to get them rallied around a vision? Are you ever trying to persuade people in business?
Kelly Swanson: And of course the answer is yes. I mean, all of us in life are in the, I say work no matter what our industry, we’re all in the business of persuasion. Whether it’s to get somebody to embrace an idea or get somebody to hire us or promote us or just get our kid to clean up his room, that we’re all trying to influence. And that’s really where it starts, is from understanding that while in leadership, is that important?
Jenn DeWall: Yes, absolutely. We need to understand how to have that influence.
Kelly Swanson: Right! And have you ever had leaders that just told you what to do versus that inspired you to want to follow them and want to do it? I think there’s a difference, don’t you?
Jenn DeWall: Absolutely. I mean, especially when people tell you specifically what to do. I feel like it’s so tactical and approach that it’s hard to connect to, right? You’re just thinking about it as, okay, I have to do this right now and there’s not a big emotional connection for me. And it’s just, you don’t really feel excited to get up and take that action.
Kelly Swanson: And there’s actually a reason. Because of the data, the information telling people what to do on its own doesn’t have the ability to persuade people on an emotional level, which is really what we want as leaders. As leaders, most of us care about what will help hopefully care about what we’re doing and we care about our work and we care about the brand. We care about the vision, and we want those people to care about it too. And some of you listening are nodding going, I know exactly what you’re saying. We wish our people cared more. We wish they could see this from a bigger perspective than just their desk. We wish that they could see that this change is going to fit a bigger purpose. We wish they could see the people we serve. Do you get what I’m saying? So there’s this whole sense of, and I hear this over and over from business people, I care about this.
Kelly Swanson: How do I make them care? And data cannot make them care. This is what we need to do. Does it make somebody want to be invested in it? And that’s why I love what I’m talking about today because storytelling has the ability to get those people to care in the same way that you do as a leader.
Jenn DeWall: That’s powerful.
Storytelling to Improve Employee Engagement
Kelly Swanson: It is powerful. That’s about engaging your employees. I mean, have you heard there was the latest, I mean, everybody’s talking about employee retention and engagement and the latest Gallup poll I saw said that 76% of people are disengaged in their work and if this goes unchecked, it’s going to rise to 88%. Now imagine a world where 88% of the people have checked out. They just haven’t quit yet. I mean, we’ve met some of them in the places that we’ve gone into. We’ve seen them, right? That’s a big number. That’s a lot of people disengaged from their work and that’s our job as leaders is to get them engaged again.
Jenn DeWall: Right. And storytelling by nature is a technique to engage. We give that, we give, you can give meaning and you can give purpose and we all know that person that’s disengaged in the office because typically they are someone that it makes it more difficult to take action or they become that obstacle. Or maybe their attitude is not connected so they’re no longer really seeing the value in the mission. And so they’ll complain and criticize it and they become, what I would say is like that cancer in your organization, they can just completely disrupt and disintegrate your team.
Kelly Swanson: Yeah, and they can write a story. I always say if you as a leader are not writing the story, then they are.
Jenn DeWall: Oh my gosh, that is such a good way to think about it. Right? Like writing the story of this place is awful to work at. Can’t you see? Look at how I’m seeing this. This person was treated that way.
Kelly Swanson: Yeah, or writing a story about leadership. Oh, this is what they, it’s an us versus them. You get a lot of people in this us versus them mentality or not even having a story about your customers. They’re so disconnected from the people they serve that they’re not serving them in the best way because they no longer connect and engage with the meaning behind what they do. And that is exactly where storytelling comes in. And I’m so excited, Jenn, because for years I knew this just because I had learned it as a speaker and as a comedian and getting up on the stage, I just stumbled into this accidentally. I’ve always told stories. It’s been my gift since I was a child. I never really looked to see why it was working. But when you can get letters from people years later and they’re like, you changed my life. And, and I just saw the power these stories were having.
Kelly Swanson: So I began to look and go, well, what is that? Let’s kind of unpack. And now the science backs me up and there are, there are studies and I can’t go into all of them. I’ll just, you know, there are studies at Princeton, Harvard Psychology Review that, to sum it up, back up what I’m saying, that data information, doesn’t have the ability to move people to action. But stories do. Storytelling forces your listener’s brain to actively connect and find their own similar experience. A story gives, gives the work meaning to them. And I’m just touching on a couple of them. Don’t believe me. Go do the research because it now, like I said, backs me up. So it’s a very, very- one researcher said that storytelling gives us the ability to plant ideas into other people’s minds. I mean, that’s like crazy, crazy powerful. Use that power for good!
Storytelling is an Essential Tool for Leaders
Jenn DeWall: So think about that, how that persuasion could actually play out. But you know, it is, it’s, and I think storytelling as an essential skill for leaders today has really come about at the perfect time as people are really desiring to have a job with purpose. They want to have meaning in their work. And if they don’t have the meaning in their work, they’re more inclined to look for the place that can give them that. And so knowing that that can be a simple solution to aid in your own retention and engagement of your employees, just by packaging your message and what they do in a different way.
Kelly Swanson: And even to put a simpler term on it, it’s all about connection and engagement. It’s about connecting with people. That is one of the best skills I think we can have in many, many roles in our jobs. But especially as leaders, if you have the ability to connect on a personal level with the people you serve, then you will have a stronger, more unified team that wants to follow you. And is not just going through the motions and, and you’re right, people don’t leave jobs. They leave their bosses and they leave their coworkers. You know, many people leave because of the relationships that are in the office. So this helps with that as well.
Jenn DeWall: Right. And I guarantee a lot of our listeners are maybe even thinking of what that relationship is, what the story or the connection or lack thereof that they have with their organization or what their managers and maybe be thinking, Oh my gosh, I’m ready to leave. Or if you notice that person as a leader where you can see that they’re disengaged, they’re checked out, and I think this is especially true for those high performers if we stopped challenging them, can make us slow down, turn into that disengaged employee story is kind of that way to pull them back and reinvigorate them with the purpose of their work and your organization.
Kelly Swanson: And sometimes with leaders, it’s about sharing and being vulnerable and authentic and letting your employees or your team see a little bit of the personal side of you. I mean, I hear very different stories from people in terms of the leader who walks down the hall and doesn’t know anybody’s name and talks above everybody’s heads and who they feel no connection to, versus the leader who does know everybody’s names, who reveals things about his children or his pet. Connection is emotional.
And I always tell people that when we’re influencing, it’s like we’re selling something to somebody else. And, and that’s what persuasion is. And the, without getting too deep into sales, cause that’s not the topic. The Cardinal rule of sales is that people buy from people they like, right? So if we’re trying to be persuasive as leaders, what are we doing to make them like us? Now you’re now some of you are going, this is not about making everybody happy. But, but what are we doing to create a trust, human being to human being? And I think we’re in an age when people want that authenticity from their leaders and their politicians and you know, the people that they hold up in this world and story shows people who you are. Sharing a little piece of your story allows you to connect with your employees. And I would just encourage anybody listening to take that bold little step to become a little more human to the people you serve.
Jenn DeWall: And remembering that that vulnerability, it may seem like a huge step, right? Especially when we’re trained, I think to be a certain person when we walk through the doors of our workplace and then we can, you know, take off the mask when we leave and finally be our free selves. But really people are yearning for that connection. They want to understand you, they want to see you at a deeper level. And that doesn’t mean to tell them everything about your personal life, but it does mean to just say, Hey, you know, sometimes I’ve made mistakes or here is where I went wrong, or here’s what I love. We want to connect, right? We’re done with the fallacy of thinking that if you’re a leader, you’ve got it all figured out, we know that you’re perfect. That’s not true. And you have to share your vulnerability. So people understand that they can make mistakes, pick themselves up and become more resilient and better for it. We need that type of support. And also someone that’s going to give us the vision.
Sharing Your Vision Through Storytelling
Kelly Swanson: And those make better stories from leaders or you hit it right on the head, the stories where you failed, the stories that show you get what life is like from they sit. We don’t care about stories about everything this leader did right. And how great they are. No, we care about those, just like you said, I know what it’s like to be you. When I was first starting, you know those, the times you didn’t get it right or when you learned a lesson the hard way. And this is also another key word- I think- is trust. And salespeople buy from people they trust. So your team, your customer, your market. I mean they all need to trust you. This is a world of information overload and there’s just a lot of distrust in this world. And so as leaders, if you think about that, and I know this is kind of getting deep and I’ll just drop it and we’ll move on. But as a leader, we trust people. We don’t trust the job description. It’s a thing that happens personally between two people. Am I making sense? And that’s where stepping into your, your story, sharing your story and stepping into the story of the people of your team.
I meet people in business who have strategies for actually where they just, I know somebody in healthcare there. They lead volunteers. So they’re in leadership over all the volunteers. They have a mingle hour every week and they put clothes off everything on their calendar and they walk the halls and they go find the people on their team and they share their stories and ask about their stories. And the woman said, at first it felt really stupid. She said I felt like it was a colossal waste of time. And she said a year later, I cannot tell you the difference it has made in our organization. She goes, they come to my kids’ games. We know each other’s birthdays. Because she took the time every week for one hour to go out there and step into somebody’s story. And it wasn’t a while, I’m here, let’s look at your evaluation. You know, it wasn’t, there was no agenda except to do that. And she said it had a radical impact on the morale and how long people stayed. And these are volunteers who aren’t even being paid to be there.
Jenn DeWall: Wow. And that’s powerful, right? If, when we think about how short our life is, we want to make sure that we’re investing our time wisely. And I would argue that people want to connect. They want to understand who they’re sitting next to. They want to have great memories with their colleagues. They want to make work a great place, right? We have to earn a living. And so what can we do to create a place that we actually want to work and earn our living? And story will allow us to connect at a deeper level, which says that for the portion of our time that we have to spend working, we’re at least getting more of a value out of it than what we were before by instead of just doing tactical things and not connecting and just going in and then leaving. You know, we’re actually able to look at those hours and fill them with joy and happiness and connection and collaboration. All of those beautiful things that come along with it.
Storytelling to Connect with Your Team
Kelly Swanson: And there are some people listening now who were probably like, eh, we’re not all about kumbaya and making everybody happy, but I want to tell you that, and I firmly that Engagement is important and retention and keeping people there. But also if you start to embody those principles and you teach, you connect as a leader, it’s, you know, it’s from the top down and you teach your people to connect. Well, I’m going to tell you what, you better believe your people should connect with those customers that they’re serving, the people that are on the phone with the people who were coming in the door. It’s not, it doesn’t just stop at your team. Now teaching your team these same principles applies in creating customers that and turning them into fans. And you know, and everybody being the storyteller of the brand. So it’s not just internally, it’s something you also want to teach them to do. And reciprocate with the people who are actually that you serve.
Jenn DeWall: Well and one thing you touched on earlier too, with storytelling you want to weave that into everything. But storytelling really does help people see that big picture vision, which is can be a big challenge for leaders that are new to their roles. As really kind of making that transition from looking at that purely, I do X, Y and Z and checking things off a to-do list to say, okay, what are all of the things that need to happen? And you know, taking that view, to see the forest from the trees. Yes. And the story really helps people to be able to start to expand their view. Is that right?
Storytelling and Change Management
Kelly Swanson: True. And it also helps them embrace change. I hear a lot in every, every different industry I go to, they all think they have the toughest jobs ever, but they’re all dealing with change. That’s a common denominator. And trying to get people on board with, yes, one more change. You know, and it’s really tough and I always tell them it’s not change- and this isn’t my opinion, I read an article on this- it’s not change people are afraid of. It’s being prepared for it. And so that if you can give them a story of what their life is going to look like. You get to walk them through the change because story allows you to test drive them to test, drive your message. I had law enforcement people, for instance, saying that the police officers didn’t want to use the cameras and they were having a hard time and they kept saying, you need to use the cameras. You need to use the cameras. Here we go again. Just the data, wondering why they weren’t, you know, they were still fighting it until they started saying, let me tell you the story of what happens in this scenario if you had had a camera sitting in front of your, of your car and they, they would just tell them stories of this is what your life is going to look like with this new change. And then suddenly, boom, they’ve got buy-in because they were, they were, they were allowed to experience it.
That’s just one of the powerful things that the story does and I’ve seen it all the time is that, you know, I get in front of groups that asked me to come and motivate their staff and come in front of a group of strangers and come in and motivate them in 10 or 15 minutes. I have seen it’s only storytelling that can do that. I saw that at a hospital event where they had me come to speak for their employee appreciation and they were bringing all of them in and it was a big healthcare system and they were honoring the ones who’ve been there the longest and giving them, you know, certificates and claps and letting them stand up and say their name, and truth be told it was pretty boring. I mean, people were sleeping with their eyes open and waiting to, you know, half the spouses were mad. They had to put on the suit and you know, just the energy was low. And then the night was almost over and they called me up and he said, okay, we got a motivational speaker, which of course everybody just “loves”. Insert eye rolls here. But so they bring me up and I had 10-15 minutes and I’m like, okay, what do you do in 10 or 15 minutes, you know, to show these people. Cause that’s what it’s about. Don’t tell them how can I show them they appreciate it. And I told him, I told him a story, a true story. And you want to hear it? Are you sure? Okay. I’ll try not to. Okay. I’ll try not to drag it out too much.
The Power of Story – A Woman With a Mop
But anyway. It was I remember the story started when I was at another gig somewhere and I was, it was like zero o’clock. It’s early in the morning. It’s dark, I’m tired, I’m juggling my briefcase and my coffee and my cell phone and I’m tripping up through the parking lot. I’m there to give some kind of talk on, I don’t know, employee engagement or customer service. I don’t know. And as I get to the doorway on this ordinary morning I can hear singing and it was the wildest thing. It’s like it’s some woman was singing, it’s like some sweet morning when this day is over, I’ll fly away. Yeah. I mean, it was just coming out over the parking lot or loud staccato, just jubilant notes of a life well lived and the automatic glass doors opened up and Jenn, I could see this woman and she is standing there holding her mop as if I don’t know as if it were a beloved dance partner as if her faded cotton dress were made of the finest silk. And I sat in the corner of the lobby and I’m trying not to stare at this woman, but it was a blue, it didn’t matter because she was oblivious to everyone around her, like this was the most natural thing in the world for her to be dancing and singing and twirling her way across the marble floors of her hospital lobby.
While the beeps of the monitors and the dings of the elevators, they just sang to her in sweet harmony and suddenly I could just, I don’t know, smell the perfume of my changed perspective- as I watched this woman turn her job into an art. And she didn’t know that I was near her later that morning and in the restroom, I watched her stop what she was doing and she went over to a stranger and she like laid hands on them and prayed for their wounded child and she didn’t know that I saw her later help that old man wrap the shawl tighter around his wife’s shoulders and she didn’t know that I saw her give away her lunch. And I’m watching all throughout the day and those cold, unexpected antiseptic corners of that hospital. And right there I saw pain, find healing. I watched sorrow meet comfort, and well I saw hopelessness find hope all wrapped up in this faded contrast and comfortable shoes. Some sweet morning when this day is over I’ll fly away. She was still singing at the end of that day when she went to meet her bus at dusk. And I’m standing in front of that window, the big Bay glass window right upfront, watching her go, wondering if I would ever see her again and I haven’t, but I’ll never forget her. And I’m by this sign that they have in the lobby, slick floor to ceiling – no doubt created by a group of marketing intellectuals. And the sign says quite simply, Excellence Starts Here. And I smiled and I wondered if their CEO knew just how true that really was. Because see that day on an ordinary, unsuspecting day, a woman with a mop showed me what it looks like when people serve.
A woman who smelled of bleach and blessings showed me that happiness, peace, contentment, a love for what you do and why you do it isn’t something that’s handed down to you from the top or that you wait for somebody to bring you. It’s just a feeling you have. It’s the story you write in your head when you come to work. And she wasn’t singing because she had the best job in the place she was singing because that’s the story she wrote. And I believe if you write it enough, one day you’ll just wake up and it just is. But even more, that woman taught me that day, how every single one of us in our organization, no matter where we stand or where we sit, no matter whether we’re seeing one-on-one or on a telephone or hiding back in a cubicle, all of us has that powerful opportunity. That privilege. Sometimes I’ll even call it that divine appointment, to impact someone else’s life. Anybody who crosses your path. And that to me is amazing because she showed me how every single person, how we are all the storyteller of our brand because that woman with the mop, you- whatever your role is, might be the only one they see, the only one they talk to. And you see at the end of the day, we don’t do business with brands. We don’t do business with brick and mortar. We don’t do business with fancy signs and fancy taglines. And no matter how technologically advanced we get, or data-driven or whatever, we are still people doing business with people. We don’t do business with the system.
And that’s why it’s so important, the jobs that we do. And I saw all that one day from a woman with the mop. And the funny thing is she had no idea. But I think if a woman with a mop can sing like that, then so can we. And I said to the hospital, I said, so don’t think that the work you do went unnoticed. And at the end of it, a man came up to me and he’d been crying and he was an older gentleman and he said, I just want you to know that I’m the woman with the mop. And he said I’ve been in maintenance with this hospital for 30 years. And he said, and nobody has ever told me that they appreciate what I do until tonight. And while I loved having that moment, it’s also sad to me that me, the stranger, the hired motivational speaker to come in off the street, was able to do in 15 minutes what their leadership didn’t do in 30 years. And that is not Kelly being a good speaker. That’s the power of storytelling. And, and when we tell that story or a story like that, it has, I mean if I may just ask you now Jenn, to just comment and not say, Oh that was great, but really talk about- or to say how good I look cause they can’t see me. So you just have to trust that I look good. Talk about that story. Why do you think that had such an impact or what you liked about it?
Storytelling for Inspiration
Jenn DeWall: The first thing that I would share is that for those that are in the room, they can see that I’m tearing up hearing that story. Because, I- you see that there are so many people that aren’t seen that are all part of the equation that makes our world, makes our strategy, makes everything come to fruition that everyone matters. And I think also there’s that piece of hope that comes with it, that we can find that happiness within ourselves, that someone does not have to bring that to us. That no matter what obstacle we’re facing or what job we are in, we can find a way to make it beautiful, make it enjoyable, and connect with others.
Kelly Swanson: So you heard a story that wasn’t even about you, and you sat here and walked away and went, Oh wait, it inspires me to find hope in my own life and enjoy my job. Right? I mean that’s pretty powerful because I could tell you as your boss, I need you to have a better attitude and I’m not sure it would have the same effect. But that story, it just like it did with the maintenance man. That story wasn’t about him, but it was, he was standing in that story and his own at the same time. So what else did you notice about it, or any other comments about it that you would think of?
Jenn DeWall: I think it’s, the other piece about the story is that when we step out of our own point of view and we kind of just get out of our head, we can actually see a lot of things that are happening around us. I guess that’s the other piece. Because you were talking about how you noticed her, the woman with the mop doing a lot of different things that you may not have noticed on any other day or those things are happening all around us in the form of a really great colleague that is doing something so amazing just to help out someone else to make their day a little bit better. And so I think, you know, that made me just realize that there are so many opportunities to see things in a different way, but I have to open my eyes.
Kelly Swanson: And story allows me as a leader to paint the picture. It allows a nonthreatening way for me to illustrate what might be going on in our organization in a way that instead of pushing because you think you’re in trouble or I’m telling you to do one more thing, story has a pulling action and you are able to come to your own conclusion and, and make that leap to say, wait, I might be doing that here as well. I want to ask you another question. If you had just met me, sitting in that hospital after hearing that story, what would you think about me personally? Would you have any- now we’re not strangers, but pretend like we were, what kind of assessment? What would you think about me from that story?
Jenn DeWall: I think one of the first things that I would think about or think about you is that you’re relatable. I can see you as me and that we both are trying to do the best that we can and I think it just, it really, I can see part of myself in you It’s just easier to have a conversation with you.
Kelly Swanson: What about, what do you think I care about as a person? What do you think I value? Just based on that story,
Jenn DeWall: I think you really value people, and how they, who they are, their contribution, what they do, how they do it.
Kelly Swanson: The people are people and the point I’m trying to make is that when I tell a story, you come away with an idea about me from that story. Now, the funny thing is you have no idea if I really care about the little person or not.
Jenn DeWall: That’s true.
The Value of the Story is Transferred to the Teller
Kelly Swanson: It is true. That’s how powerful. But you think you do now because I told you that story. Why? And this is, I love this, the value of the story is transferred to the teller. So when we talked a minute ago about developing trust and likability and showing people who you are. I just showed you how through one simple story, I am able to show a room full of people who don’t even know me, who I am. And we have developed a trust and a relationship there that you would not get had I said, let me just tell you first you can trust me. I care about the little person. Do you see? It’s almost laughable. That’s how- it’s why I’ve been able as a motivational speaker to go into any kind of setting from the business to the prisons, to the churches and make a connection. And it’s never about the message that I want to give. It is always about can I find a way to tell a story that we both can relate to that brings us closer together as people. That shows them, I get life from where they sit and that somehow sells my truth by finding what they care about and relating it.
This is my story formula. When I talk about the triangle, every story is about three things. It is about me, the storyteller, the leader, whoever’s speaking, and it’s about you, the listener who’s ever buying this information, whoever I’m talking to, and then it’s about “it”. The message that I want to give that to me when I coach anybody in business with their stories and if there’s ever anything missing, it’s always in one of those areas. They’ll bring their five-minute story and I’ll say, Oh, it’s all about you. You don’t have anything about them. Or it’s all about them, it doesn’t have anything about you or it’s all information, it doesn’t have enough story to it. Does that make sense?
Jenn DeWall: Yeah. It’s really helping to understand that there is a strategic approach to how we can communicate to be more effective influencers. And to think that it’s, you know, I think naturally when we don’t necessarily have the experience in storytelling, it’s very easy to give commands. Saying, okay, you have to do this because of this, right? Or we’re really busy. So it’s very easy to just take a more tactical approach like do this now. This is what needs to be done. And it really is that all about us and we’re forgetting that point of connection with the person that we’re talking to and how if we really want to inspire the action, we have to connect to them and we have to make a connection between each other.
Kelly Swanson: And it sounds like a lot of work and a lot of people are like, oh, that sounds like a lot of work. I just want to go in there and have a meeting and tell people what to do. Well, then that’s fine. Tell them what to do. And you deal with the level of engagement you get. I’m just, you know, it doesn’t change the truth. This is what the tool is for, use it or not. It’s sitting here waiting for you. And the good thing is it’s, you don’t have to overthink it. The reason it may feel overwhelming, I would love to say to the people listening today to not get too deep in the weeds on it. That today, just understand the tool and its importance. To get used to thinking in every situation where you’re about to go influence somebody and you’re in a meeting or you’ve got a Facebook page or it’s marketing or it’s a demo or to sales call. Just start thinking, huh, I wonder if there’s a story I could use here? And even when you only have seven, 10 minutes in front of somebody, you can still throw in a quick little story. To some people, this is still a little bit overwhelming.
So, where I often make it a little more simple is by people say, I don’t even know where to begin. I don’t know where to go get my stories. And I’m like, well, it’s the story is a tool to do something, so it starts with thinking about who you’re trying to influence and what’s the message, the particular message you want to give them and story is just going to be an illustration of that as it applies to real life and that’s kind of where you start to look. Storytelling, the application, my curriculum for storytelling always stays the same. Where it changes drastically is in the application is how are you going to use it? Who are you talking to? How do we craft the story? That’s about you, it and them. In this particular scenario. One thing I do want to say is there are a lot of people around here are in business who think they’re telling stories and they’re not. A list of facts is not a story. I’ll get a business come up to me and say, help us tell our story. We were started in 1942 with a candle and a garage and Ed and Earl and I’m like, that’s great, but that technically that’s a list of facts. That’s not a story.
A story is about a person who it’s about an experience and somebody’s going through something and with, I won’t go too deep into the framework. I think it’s a lot to give them on this podcast, but it has a before and an after. It’s about an experience that somebody had. It’s a story that’s something somebody went through. I always say it’s a character with a conflict and a resolution and there’s more to it, but, but that, that’s where you have to start. And stories put a human face. I speak to a lot of IT groups and that’s been a challenge because taking storytelling to the world of it is, is a tough sell. But the way that it finally clicks for these groups is when I say you’re simply putting a human face on you, the leader in this case, for those listening today, on you. On whatever this is you’re trying to sell to the town council or whatever, and on the person that you’re talking to, this is all about making it personal. That’s what a story does. It makes it personal. Did that kind of explain it in a way that made sense?
Jenn DeWall: Absolutely. That it really is about that the human, the human understanding, talk human to human, not these are our statistics and this is what that is. And talking only about ourselves and why we think that’s important. I acknowledge that our audience wants to connect with you. It’s, you know, the other thing that I think is interesting that story does, I’ve often heard the statistic and I don’t know where it comes from, but that you have three seconds to captivate someone’s attention, right? Because we’re all so busy, we’ve got so much on our brains going on. We’re thinking about all of our different responsibilities or the stuff that we need to get done and so we need to be really strategic in how we actually use that time to communicate something. And you just kind of made me think of how storytelling really does allow you to captivate.
Storytelling as a Networking Tool
Kelly Swanson: It’s like networking a little bit too. And once you start working the muscle, it starts getting easier. But that happened to me on a plane yesterday. Or was it the day before? Whenever I’m on the plane all the time and I’m sitting beside a guy now, I’m not strategically trying to connect to him, trying to sell him anything. I’m just sitting on the plane beside him. But if I were, this would have been a great strategy. And we both got our cell phones open and I happened to look down at his cell phone and he had his son and his dog, I assume it’s his son, a child, and a dog on his cell phone. And on my cell phone, I had a child and a dog and I and I, I nudged him. We hadn’t taken off yet.
And I said, Hey, sorry to eavesdrop, but look how alike our cell phones are. And he went, Oh my gosh, what kind of dog is yours? I was like, Oh, German shepherd, he’s max. Let me show you his picture. And then he’s pulling up his picture and we are, you know, and we bonded instantly. That’s what it’s about. Finding common ground. Me and this guy beside me, we’ve, we might’ve had nothing in common. You know, it’s about searching for those things that even in a moment you can find. Now as leaders, many of us had the opportunity to earn people’s trust and you know, and whatnot. But for some of us, we don’t have a lot of time or we’re new and we’re trying to do it, you know when we’re new on the job. But it’s those little things stepping into someone’s story and finding things you have in common.
And even if you don’t have it in common, sometimes just finding out, I’ll tell people when they’re giving a presentation and they’re, they’re worried because they’re like, I don’t connect. I’m all data and information. I might just open it up and tell us something about yourself and we don’t care what it is. We don’t care about the good stuff. You know, talk about how you’re addicted to Big Bang Theory or you’re a little bit OCD and you arrange, you know, you like lining up your M&Ms by color, whatever it is. Once you and I would even do that in the audience and you see people relax and warm-up and I say, don’t y’all feel like you know him better. And they all nod, and I’m like, that’s what it’s about. Sometimes we overthink it.
Jenn DeWall: Yes, we complicate it. I mean I what came to my brain while you were just sharing that is almost that, that vision of childhood, how kids can very quickly find that sense of connection with each other. Like you like to play soccer. Me too. I also, you know, they pay attention, they’re observant and there’s not that judgment. There’s just that very quick assessment. I think the first piece with storytelling is that we can think it’s, oh my goodness, you have to draft this huge story that’s going to convey your message. But it also, it can be that where you can build a very captivating story, but you can also build a short story that builds that connection very quickly.
Storytelling is Not Just for Extroverts
Kelly Swanson: Understood. Yes. A lot of the people that when I’m working with them, they need a sexy story. They need an exciting story. It’s their brand story. We’re working to find the best thing. But for most people, I’ll say- they go, is this story good? Is this story good? I’m like, you’re asking the wrong question. It’s not about what’s the best story or which is the most exciting. It’s about what’s the right story that will illustrate the point you want to make to these people? You know, we’re not entertainers. Well, I mean we’re doing it to illustrate a point. So now in some cases we are crafting a story. The goal is higher. To get it on paper, to write it down. But you’re right in many cases is just, Hey, what’s your story? Where are you from? You know, it’s sharing that information and some of the people listening are probably thinking, well yeah, but you Kelly are probably an extrovert. And where we are introverts and it’s a lot harder for us.
So I do want to say that I am not an extrovert. I am actually an introvert. And for most of my life, if you looked at me, I would turn beet red. I was way more comfortable on a stage even than walking off and having to talk to people. And to this day, the idea of walking through a room full of people that I don’t know and stopping table to table and chatting with them absolutely makes me physically sick. I learned how to be more extroverted. So if I can do it, so can you. And you can just learn these little ways to just have the courage to come out of your shell a little bit. But don’t just say you can’t do it because you’re not an extrovert. I had to because of my job, I had to learn how to, how to do that and find those little areas forever. You know where you’re just, you’re, you’re asking people about their outfit or their shirt. Maybe they’ve got a sports thing on their shirt.
I remember I was, so I’m derailing, but this has been the last thing I said. But I remember one time that I had to go to- there were all the heads of all these big departments in a hospital and like head of cardiology and just all heads and stuff and their spouses and I was speaking the next day and they said, come to the party and just mingle, mingle and oh, it was so miserable. I stood, I spent the whole night in two places, one beside the waiter because I felt more comfortable talking to the staff and the second in the bathroom because I finally figured out that at some point everybody had to go to the bathroom and it was easier for me to make conversation. Now maybe a female that’ll work, maybe, you know, but it’s, so I get it. That is something that you have to think about and put into action. But when you see the benefits, when you see people get excited about your idea, when you see them sharing their own stories.
We did an exercise, I guess online with a bunch of leaders within an organization and they all worked in different states and countries. And I made them all just tell a little personal experience story about why their job matters to them. A little story about, about their brand, the company where they saw the company’s values in action. And then I had them tell another story about a customer, someone they, that they got to experience getting the benefit of what they do and they grumbled and they fought the process and then we all got online and shared them. Jenn, it was the most amazing -people were crying people like, I never knew that about you. I never knew you were a foster kid and I never knew that happened to you. And oh, and they were just sharing these heartfelt stories. They walked away just a much stronger team because of it. It was a beautiful thing to see.
Teambuilding Through Storytelling
Jenn DeWall: And I think that’s an important thing to share because, for those that may be thinking, this is a little bit too emotional, right? Emotions are what can help build that team. They can build that foundation of understanding. And so even taking that time to be a little bit more human to a little bit more real, can it create an expectation for people that it’s okay to talk about who we are, to talk about our struggles, talk about our successes, to share that with each other. And that when we do that we’re able to understand and see that their point of view in a different way so we can communicate in a more effective way.
So it’s essentially saying that if we take that time upfront to think about storytelling, to think about that connection piece, we are actually improving the relationships, we’re likely improving our ability to negotiate, we’re improving our ability to make decisions together. We’re improving our ability to create a strategy together because we’re understanding the different points of view. Right? And that’s one of the biggest challenges with decision-making is that when we have that big idea, it’s ours and we love it and we want it. And I know I fall victim to this all the time. You really want your idea to work. But what is really important to recognize is that there’s value in someone else’s piece of feedback. And the more that you understand that person, the more that you can actually take that feedback as something tangible and something that can actually help make something better. Instead of it being a piece of feedback that divides you.
Kelly Swanson: It’s so amazing, isn’t it? Beautifully said. And, and also it helps when we get really deep into this with story to step out of it for a moment, step out of business. Because we’re like, Oh my God, look what it can do in business. Now, step out of it. And for those of you listening, think about your culture. Think about your faith, think about your history, think about your life. And look how much throughout history stories have been used. They have been integral parts of our culture, our faith. People have been moved by stories. When I teach my son history, it’s not the facts on the page that get him really invested in it. It’s when we go to the battleground and he hears the stories of the people who were there. It’s almost like this tool has been around since the beginning of time. It’s power has already been made evident. I know that sounds weird, but sometimes when you step outside of it and look at how and all these, I mean the power of our words to get people rallied around a vision. I mean that at the end of the day is, is all most of us have. That’s all these politicians really, you know, have at the end of the day is what story are they going to tell?
Jenn DeWall: Right? And how can they connect to people and use that story to persuade an influence.
Kelly Swanson: Look on social media. What are we sharing the most? What’s going viral other than the hate stuff? It’s the, it’s the stories. It’s the stories. I mean the guy talking with this little, the little story of the guy talking with his toddler, having that whole conversation. I mean, the thing’s been shared a bazillion times you see, I mean that’s what we even share the most people love to. They just love the stories.
Jenn DeWall: They want to see themselves in there. And I think, you know, stories give hope. They give us a different point of view that they help us see the world in a different way that’s not unnecessarily so jaded as it can be. Sometimes when we only see that negative news or the bad things that are happening. Story is a way that we can actually find the beautiful things that are all around us.
Putting a Human Face on the Work You Do
Kelly Swanson: I was watching a group of scientists pitch their products internally in their company to get people, the business owners, and sellers to sell that product. And one by one they just came up and droned on with data and facts and information and people were falling asleep and nobody was paying attention. And then one guy gets up and he says, you know, I’m not going to talk about how we put this together. You know, he goes, I just want to talk about why it matters so much to me. And he just told a 5-10 minute story about why. He put a human face on the work that he does on himself, on the people, how they would be able to benefit from this product he created. And they talked about him for two days and for years, he’s the only one later that, that any of us can remember anything he said. Wow. And it’s all from the store. It’s all from the story.
Jenn DeWall: Well, Kelly, this has been an amazing interview and the one I want to ask a few more things, but one, I know that you talk about the leadership story, which is essentially I think from my understanding, it’s that story that we want to tell has a leader and I know that you have a story template to guide people on that. Can you tell us a little bit about why it’s important to have our own personal leadership story?
Kelly Swanson: I think a leadership story is the story that it’s your own vision and your own mission of who you want to be as a leader. The harder part is turning it, making it into story form instead of just a list of, I want to be a leader who I want to be a leader, who I want to be a leader who, but it’s almost the, it’s just like, I think every employee should have a story of how the work that they do matters to themselves, to the company and to the customers they serve. Does that make sense to you when I say that?
Okay, so the leader is no different. The leader has the, you know, it’s my own leader story of the work I do and why it matters to me personally, the company and to the people we serve. Now, where are you going to use it? Is it a one size fits all? Is it something you know that those are all different questions. It’s not as easy as you need to have this one story and every Monday you’re going to know. It’s just, even if it’s just something you have in your head, I think to your people. Let’s say you’re a new leader and you’re in front of an entire group of people you’ve never met before. I think you will be benefited by getting up and being able to, in the beginning say, let me just sort of tell you my story. I grew up on a small farm and my grandfather ,you know, or whatever, I remember my first job at, or I worked at this company from something that tells the story and this is what I believe, you know, of what you believe in, why it matters. Is that making sense?
Even if don’t know exactly where you would ever tell it. But, but I think sharing it with your people because now you’re not just a boss or a talking head and now even more importantly, you’re not the story they wrote for you. You know, it’s hard with, they wrote a story to now meet this person. Is that making sense? It’s kind of like with law enforcement, they always say it with their, we’re changing our story because sometimes a negative story gets written, right? And so how do we fix it? You go tell a positive one. You flood social media, which they’re doing with the police. I am the face. I am the, you know each story it puts, well now, now I can’t be mad at them all because look at that one. Dancing with the little kids on the street when he came back or look at that one who got pizzas for the ladies. Do you see what I’m saying? It it. I don’t know. I’ve talked myself into a wall. I’m not sure if I answered your question but, but I think we should have that.
I have a whole- I called it my mission, but who am I as a speaker and why is this work important to me. And who do I want to be? I guess I could make it more of a story. I do have a story because I talk about being the picked-on kid growing up- and how I’ve spent most of my life feeling invisible and thinking that that to be happy, you needed to blend in and that you should be seen and not heard, that your voice doesn’t matter. And now look at me, I’m in a place where I’m encouraging people to tell your story and share it with the world because I want to let you know your voice does matter and you aren’t invisible. We see you. So that would be a great example right there of just a simple, my own leadership story. Not that great, but you know you’re putting me on the spot.
Jenn DeWall: I mean that’s a powerful story though. How many of us have been told, whether it’s the expression children should be seen and not heard or just believing that our voices don’t matter. Storytelling gives us the opportunity to illustrate that our voices do have value. Our life experience has a value and we can use it to connect not only with our current team, but also in onboarding to set expectations with people so they can understand who you are and what you said- to really establish that trust.
Kelly Swanson: And the woman with the mop. One could say, if I wanted to, I could say that’s one of my leadership stories. You know? I could say that day, I watched that- I’m kind of making it up pretending like I work at the hospital- but that day I watched that woman and she showed me what is important and how I believe we all should act. Do you see what I’m saying? And you could say that’s the kind of leader I want to be. You know, you could, you could use these stories that you see around you as part of your own story. Again, it’s why you do the work that you do and why it matters to you personally. It’s putting a human face on who this leader is that’s in front of them.
Think About Your Leadership Story
Jenn DeWall: So as like a call to action. Kind of in closing to our listeners, think about your leadership story. Think about what you want people to know about you and how by being a little bit more vulnerable, you can create a deeper connection that can allow you to work together to achieve greater things.
Kelly Swanson: Sure. And I would also say think about specifically somebody you’re trying to influence. Is it a team? Think of a specific instance and think specifically of this, maybe, for example, you’ve got a team that’s low on morale and they don’t believe that their work really matters and you want them to know their work really does matter to the bigger picture. And so then and so that would be, think of the message you want to say. Think of who you’re trying to influence, what’s the message you want to give them? And then I would ask yourself, huh, is there a story that could illustrate this? Where have I seen this play out in life before? Where have I learned that? And then you could give up just like I did with a woman with a mop. We see it play out with her in the hospital lobby, but you could find some kind of example. So, it really is more a state of awareness of starting to look at all the places where you have touchpoints with the people that you serve and want to influence and, and how are you going to do that?
Jenn DeWall: That’s beautiful. I love that.
Kelly Swanson: Right? Yeah, it’s broad though. It’s hard to whittle it down to a strategy and it’s a tool that, I mean, it’s like a hammer, you know? So I say, what do I do with my hammer first? Well, I don’t know. Are you going to build a house? You know, do you need, I mean, what are you trying to do is where, where it starts next. I just don’t want people to forget about this tool. We have states now, in IT that are hiring Chief Storytelling officers. I mean, you’ve got companies who, their theme for the year is storytelling. It is a very popular word right now. So I think even if you take it back and go, you know what, we’re gonna go deeper into this and we’re going to discuss how we can be more strategic with our storytelling because this isn’t- okay go do this on Monday and you’re done. It’s too broad.
Jenn DeWall: This is something that’s woven into what you do.
Kelly Swanson: yes, yes.
What is Your Leadership Habit?
Jenn DeWall: And I know we are going to share with the listeners some ways that they can further connect with you, gain access to some of the materials that you have written that can help that become more compelling storytellers. So you know, make sure to everyone listening that you stay tuned to hear our directions because Kelly is going to share with you seven additional ways or tools that you can use to help you craft your story. Now galley, we like to close each of our podcasts with one question that we ask every individual that we, Oh I know. Brace yourself. Ready? What is your leadership habit for success?
Kelly Swanson: Well give me a minute because this is important. Well, I mean, I would have to say no, that’s unfair because storytelling has been my secret weapon from day one. I mean that is every door that is opened for me. Everywhere that I’ve gotten in life, every changed life, every opportunity big and small has been because I have put time and attention into the stories that I tell. I have to say it’s the, it’s the storytelling that has been my secret weapon. Sorry I didn’t have anything more exciting.
Jenn DeWall: That is exciting! I know you’re saying you’re like, Oh, I should probably say I run 5 miles every morning or something. Storytelling takes, it requires us to be intentional and to really think about the message that we want to have. The message that we want to send, and who we want to send it to. So it does require more upfront work. So it is a leadership habit.
Kelly Swanson: Oh, it totally is!
Jenn DeWall: But when we do that, you can find all of you, it seems like you’re writing consistent success stories everywhere you go, just by doing that upfront, work on having and paying attention to the story that you’re writing.
Kelly Swanson: It’s about influence. And people don’t buy information. They buy the story. The one who tells the best story wins. Not really, but some people say that in marketing and stuff, but it’s, it’s, it’s, I can’t express to you how important it is if you want to have an impact on people To not just rely on the facts. Facts don’t- facts tell, but stories sell.
Jenn DeWall: That’s a great closing point facts tell, but stories sell. So thank you so much for being here, Kelly. It was so great to interview you. And again, stay tuned. We’re going to give additional information on how you can access Kelly, how you can gain additional resources so you can become a great storyteller. Thank you so much, Kelly.
Kelly Swanson: Hey, thanks for having me and thanks to you all for listening. I appreciate it. Now, go tell your story.
Jenn DeWall: Thank you for joining us for today’s conversation with Kelly Swanson. If you’d like to learn more about Kelly, go to motivationalspeakerkellyswanson.com. You can download a copy of her book, The Story Formula, so you can go out and learn and understand how you can write impactful and influential stories. If you enjoyed our podcast, please share it with your friends and family and be sure to leave us a review on your favorite podcast streaming service. We hope to see you again next week as we discuss more “work fails” in our new minisode series!