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Story Telling & Transformation with Denise Withers

By July 7th, 2023No Comments33 min read
Home » Story Telling & Transformation with Denise Withers

With all the facts around us in this age of information, have you ever wondered why we’re still not any better at changing the world in terms of climate change, social equity, and the likes? Maybe facts are just not enough to nudge us to do the right thing. Maybe we need a different way to process this information. Denise Withers, award-winning storyteller, filmmaker, author, and leadership coach, believes in the power of storytelling to create transformation. She talks about how stories enable us to experience something new and bring together emotion and intellect so we can rationalize and understand it. Offering advice, Denise then shares some tips on how organizations can tell these stories—from focusing on purpose rather than a problem to strengthening your narrative intelligence. Join in on this episode to gain some more insights on how you can share a bigger message to all and spark change for good. 

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Story Telling & Transformation with Denise Withers

On the show, our guest is Denise WithersShe is an award-winning storyteller, filmmaker, author, and leadership coach who helps innovators change the world for goodDenise, welcome to the show. 

Thanks so much for having me. I’m excited for this conversation. 

I have been looking forward to this because in addition to that great list of all the things that you are and the work that you undertake. I’ve learned that knowing you is a bit of a special key with a lot of smart, interesting people. If I ask, “Do you know Denise Withers?” Everybody says, I do. You do?” Everyone wants to have a conversation about how great you are. 

I love that. That’s so kind. Thanks. 

As a connector in the world of communicators and great ideas in the social profit sector, it is a real treat to have you on. I want to start with a fairly simple question. We’re moving towards the end of this pandemic. A phrase that’s come up a lot of times and I know it’s one that you’ve embraced iBuild Back Better. A lot of your work has been in the environmental space. Ibuild back better the key for environmental science? Is it a bigger message for all of us in Canada and around the world? 

It’s definitely a much bigger message for the world and all of usI do everything through the lens of story. When we talk about what it means to Build Back Better, it’s asking ourselves the question, “What’s the future story that we want to bring to life?” I work a lot with change methodology called Appreciative Inquiry. The focus there is on, “What’s working well? What do we want more of?” There has been a lot of talks. There’s a lot of people who are continually saying, I can’t wait to get back to the way that things used to be. I can’t wait to get back to normal.” There’s talk about the new normal. 

This is a powerful time for us to be reflective and say, “What’s been working well about our livesWhat isn’t serving us anymoreWhat can we get rid of? What’s the new story that we want to bring to life?” Especially when you start to talk about the natural world, environmental space, anall of the crises that we’re facing, pandemic, biodiversity crisis, climate change crisis, social justice, racism, and gender inequality, all of those crises and challenges are all interconnected. 

There’s this new concept emerging, intersectionality and that everything is interconnected. A lot of the researchers are now pointing to the idea of focusing on, whether you want to call it rewilding, natural solutions, or investing in natural capital but really focusing on how do we revitalize the natural world that investing in nature is the best way to solve all of these problems? Personally, when I think Build Back Betterfor me it’s, “How do we start to find a way to live in better balance with each other on the planet? 

The reason people don't do things the right way or the way we want them to do it is simply because they don't know better. Click To Tweet

That’s a great message and something that I hope, as a society, we spend some significant time thinking about. I’m curious and I know you’ve probably answered this question dozens, if not hundreds of times. Denise, why don’t the facts work when we’re thinking about the list of crises that you named, environmentalclimate change, social equity, and racism? Why don’t the facts convince us? 

It’s the question I’ve spent my entire career trying to figure out. For the longest time, I subscribed to what we call the Empty Vessel Theory, which is the reason people don’t do things the right way or the way we want them to do it is simply because they don’t know betterWe educate and fill them with the right factsinformation, and data then they will do the right thing. Anybody who has worked in change knows that doesn’t work. It works on some people. It can help nudge us along the change spectrum, but it’s usually not enough to get us to change our behavior. 

If you’ve looked at Behavioral Economics and Nudge Theory, there’s some great research in there that talks about the way that we think and process information. Richard H. Thaler talks in one of his books about econs and humans. In my mind, the econs are the Vulcans if you think about Star Trek. They operate on pure logic. They always do the right thing based upon what the facts say. Most of us are humans. What we’re starting to find out through Neuroscience and Physiological Research is that our actual physical gut drives a lot of the decisions that we make. In fact, there isn’t conclusive evidence, but what a lot of people are starting to suspect is that we make decisions based on emotion and then we rationalize our decisions based on the facts and the data. 

Not to say that facts and data aren’t powerful and that we don’t need them, but alone, they’re not enough to move us. My personal lesson learned through doing all of this work is that people have to have experience in order to change. When you look at the neuroscience of story, again, what we’ve been able to see is that if I’m telling you a story, the same parts of your brain light up as are lit up in my brain. Your mirror neurons are causing you to feel the same emotions that I’m feeling as I relive that story. We’re doing that Vulcan mindmeld. We’re sharing an experience. By then, having those emotions enables you to start to see and feel things in a different way. One of the reasons that story is so powerful is it’s a perfectly safecheap, and fun way to let someone have an experience of something new so that they can start to think about, “Is this something that I want to adopt? 

This concept of using a story and then adding the facts either during or after to bring someone along both emotionally and intellectually is something that the social profit sector has been moving toward and trying to do better. One of the opportunities I see is that organizations do a better job of telling stories to purpose. Rather than, “Here’s a story that explains our mission,” to say, “Here’s why our mission is importantHere’s what the role of philanthropy is in our mission.” It’s taking not just storytelling but storytelling to purposeWhat’s the difference between an anecdote and a story? 

haven’t sat down and thought about those two. In my vernacular, I would say that they’re equivalent. A story describes the experience of someone as he or she solves a problem. Without a probleman opportunitysome kind of gap or dramatic tension, there isn’t a story. The reason that’s important is that’s what engages us. That’s where learning and change happenI see that happens in anecdotes as well. I equated the two as being similar. 

Coming to your question about purpose, there’s a couple of things in there for me. One is this idea of story versus narrative. A narrative in the way that I work is a collection of stories related to a specific theme, concept, or idea. You can think of narrative as an ongoing TV series and then the stories or the ongoing episodes that make up that TV series. When you start to think about, “How do you bring your purpose to life?” Your purpose is an ongoing thing. It’s not something that in six months time, you’re going to check it off and say, “Excellent. We achieved our purpose.” Your purpose links to the narrative of the work that you’re going to do. 

We make decisions based on emotion, and then we rationalize our decisions based on the facts and the data. Click To Tweet

What stood out for me over the years is how we can move stories upstream in that change design spectrum. Typically, people think of both stories as tactics. There’s something that we do after we‘ve figured out our purpose or after we’ve designed our strategy. We need to communicate it. We need to sell people on it. We better call the storytelling team in and get them to put together a story that we can get out there to influence people.” 

EventuallyI realized you can move upstream. You can start to use stories and combine them with design thinking as a way to design your strategy. There are a lot of benefits to doing that. You’ve got a strategy that‘s shaped as a story that’s going to guide your operations and actions. It also informs those stories you tell as a tactic. You can and you have to move upstream even further and use story to define and find your purpose. In fact, that’s been the biggest takeaway is that if you want to change anything in the world, you have to start with the story, not end with the story. 

That is not only great advice, but it makes so much sense. I’ve heard you talk before about the difference between explaining the problem, talking about your purpose, and using storytelling to focus on the purpose rather than the problem. 

If you think about it in terms of, “If we have a purpose.” If our purpose is food security for people in Southern Manitoba. In the pursuit of that purpose, you’re going to have to solve a number of problems and/or pursue a number of opportunities. Again, if you think about your pursuit of that purpose as your narrative, that TV series that’s going to run for years on CBC then every episode is going to be a little story about how you’re moving forward in your purpose. Does that make sense? 

Yes, absolutely. When I think of how stories are used in the social profit sector, I have struggled to explain why some stories work and some don’t. There is something more in that problem versus purpose space. Iour point of telling the story is to raise awareness about an issue, it seems to have little more effect than a list of facts. If you‘re having a conversation about the motivation for the mission, that’s where the emotions seem more engaged in organizations and more successful in telling those stories. In your work, how do you get organizations to focus on the purpose rather than the problem? 

For the longest time, because I did a lot of Science work early in my career, I struggled with bringing in the human element because I was fascinated by, “What is a GMO? What does it mean to live life in space?” I only told stories about facts and information. It wasn’t until I did a project with Roméo Dallaire about post-traumatic stress disorderwhat had happened during the Rwandan genocide, and how we could use that story to change policy within the Canadian Armed Forces. I started to appreciate the fact that stories have to be about people. There has to be a person at the center of the story that we can relate to and we care about. 

When you’re thinking about solving problems, every one of those problems or stories that we’re going to tell has to be about how you’re helping that person, who’s the center of the story, be the hero of his or her own story. One of the things that we see happen quite a lot in the social profit space is organizations positioning themselves as the hero. Aren’t we amazing because we made it possible for Jack to go to university?” It’s subtle difference and this is not easy stuff. It takes a while to experiment with the tone, the way the story plays out, and not appropriate Jack’s story of everything that he’s done to enable himself to go to school or whatever that story is about Jack. 

I struggled with this early in my career. I did a lot of work with First Nations, especially back when I lived in Ontario. One day, in the late ’90s, I had told myself I had to stop because I realized these were not my stories to tell. I shifted into a mentoring role where if indigenous filmmakers and storytellers wanted to come and work with me, I could help them learn how to direct a crew, how editing works, and things like that. I would be happy to do that, but I realized I can’t tell those stories for them. It is a tricky space to navigateIt’s getting clear on coming back to the purpose question, “What is your purpose?” Is your purpose to be a guide or to be a Yoda? Is your purpose to be more controlling, get people and fix people the way that you think they should be fixed? 

I think there is so much in what you said. It is hard for organizations to get out of their own way and not make themselves the hero of the story or the star of the movie. There are examples of organizations that do that well. What does it take within an organization to be able to make the individual, the beneficiary, the hero in the story versus positioning the organization as the hero? 

It’s been underlying all the work that I’ve been doing. It’s a coach approach. The basic premise behind coaching is that the coachee, the person you’re coaching, has everything that he or she needs to be able to succeed. Your job simply is to get out of their way, figure out what stories are holding them back, and what new better stories would enable them to move forward towards whatever it is that they want to achieve. If we want to be helpers, if we want to be in service, seeing ourselves as coaches rather than saviors or heroes is critical in terms of what our identity is and how we approach the work. 

That’s not a subtle difference, but it goes to both the purpose of the organization. It speaks a lot to the challenge of leadership to have the confidence to be able to be the coach rather than thstar player. 

It’s more than confidence. It’s to be able to put your ego aside and say, I cannot possibly know what is right for this other person. I can only know what’s right for me. I have to trust that other person 100% to be able to do what’s right for him or her. Maybe that person needs some help figuring that out or they need resources to get rid of some barriers that are in their way. It’s pretty hard to be your best if you’re hungry or you don’t have a roof over your head. Those are things that we can help with. Recognizing that everybody needs to be their hero is fundamental to this work. 

There are elements of Joseph Campbell in how you’re telling that story. I appreciate that very much. One of the questions that we often when we’re working with boards and either how they’re organizing themselves or how they’re doing the work or often there’s some underlying conflict either within the board or with management is, “Do you think the answer to the solution is in the room? Do we have the answer already within the group?” It used to be the first question I would ask and everyone would say, I don’t know, maybeprobably.” Every organization and every board member would say the same thing. We started asking it at the end after they’ve talked about what the issue is where they’ve told the story of what’s going on either in one-on-one or in small groups. 

When you ask that question at the end after people have talked through the issue, the answer to the questions, “Is the answer in this roomIs it around the board table?” out of 10, they say yesI’m convinced that the difference there is that they’ve had the chance to tell the story, say it out loud, and talk through the issues out loud before jumping to an answer. One of the things that’s interesting in some of the conversations I’ve heard on your show is helping people take the time to tell the story to explore the space before jumping to an answer. As a coach and when you’re working with your clients, how do you keep the pace of the conversation or work in such a way that people aren’t jumping to the answer, trying to get to the conclusion of the story? 

If you want to change anything in the world, you have to start with the story, not end with the story. Click To Tweet

People love to jump to solutions. I call them jumpers. I worked with a client who was a terrible jumper. It got to the point luckily, where I was able to tease him about it. What shifted for me and this is what I try to bring to my work is when I started working more and more with the concept of design thinking. I didn’t realize that I had been designing stories my entire life. The whole premise of design thinking is that you have to spend most of your time in problem definition and getting clear on what is the problem that we’re trying to solve here. Why are we doing this work? 

Typically, when I’m working with an organization or with leaders, what I’m able to do is start to unpack the stories that they’re telling themselves to get them to start to realize that we’re not clear on what the problem is. It is difficult to get people to hold space, especially when holding space is going to cost the organization money. That’s a tricky one. Some of the stories that you can tell are that there’s a lot of evidence in the software industry and this has been around for quite a long time. Investing money upfront in good design and good problem definition saves a lot of money down the road in terms of fixing bugs or solving the wrong problems. 

Sometimes I’ll use anecdotes or stories like that. I like to talk about the Phoenix pay system as an example of perhaps not investing enough time upfront and ending up having to spend a lot more time and money down the road to fix a problem. You can use stories to do that. It‘s about this notion that everything we do in terms of change design has to be focused on getting clear on, “What exactly are we trying to change here? Why does it matter? If we don’t have that why, if we don’t have that North Star and we’re not clear on what that is, we’re going to lose our way, momentum, and people following us. 

Iorganizations do the work, they can be effective at defining, “What is our North Star? What is our purpose as an organization?” Where they struggle is articulating, “What’s stopping us from getting there? What’s stopping us from even making progress towards the North Star or toward our purpose?” The number of times that we’ve been working with clients and said, “What’s the problem we’re trying to solve?” they don’t know or they’re not sure or it’s different if you go around the board table around the management table. Do you think there’s a role for storytelling and helping organizations to define the problems that they’re trying to solve or the problems they’re encountering? 

There absolutely is. This is where my work has come through. This is where coaching has had such a huge influence on me. It’s all about defining the stories that are holding us back. It is narrative change and narrative change happens. It’s the same process and you can work at three different levels. You can work at an individual level as a leader. You can work at a team or an organizational level. You can work at a social level. I had a conversation with Sean Gibbons on my show from The Communications Network. He gave me this great analogy. He describes the narrative as The Matrixif you’re familiar with the movie. The matrix is this web of narratives that are all around us. Our world is constructed entirely out of narratives that are woven together that define everything we thinksay, and do. These are our values and our behavior. 

Most of the time, we’re not even aware of what the narratives are that are controlling the decisions that we make. They are so deeply ingrained. When you want to figure out, “What’s in our way? What’s holding us back?” First of all, you have to uncover the narratives that are driving your beliefs and behavior. That’s not easy work to do but when you can start to get people to tap into what’s going on in their gut and the voices in their head when you ask them something, then they start to get much more aware of what stories are holding them back. Once you can identify the stories that are holding them back, the rest of the work is easypeasy but it’s about figuring out what is going on. 

I want to throw back a conversation you and I had that is a great example of this. We were talking about climate change. You were telling me that you were proud of the way your family was responding because you only had one car and you’d started riding your bike to work. The story you were telling yourself was, “I’m doing my job on climate change.” We could come in and say, Doug, what’s stopping you from doing more on climate changeWhat’s the story that you’re telling yourself about why you can’t get rid of that one car that you have?” I’m not pushing you to do that, but there’s a story that you tell yourself about why you need a car. Until we can get at those stories and then this is the coaching thing, “What’s not serving you? What can we let go of? What stories do you want to move forward with? What threshold do you need to cross to get and move into this new way of being,” then it’s going to be tough to make change. 

It's pretty hard to be your best if you're hungry or you don't have a roof over your head. Click To Tweet

In the organizational context, one of the questions that I ask quite often is“What does success look like? We do all of this work. We have this organization pushing towards a direction and service to a purpose and a mission. I found it remarkable the number of times CEOs, executive directors, and board members haven’t thought about that. What often comes when they step back from the matrixthat’s where the most powerful stories come from. If we’re able to do the work that we know we’re capable of or we imagine that we’re capable of, here’s the change for good we’ll see in the world. 

lot of your work, my work, and many others are helping organizations to keep that, “Here’s the positive change we can have in the world front and center to avoid some of the traps and barriers that get in the way of performance and effectiveness.” What advice do you give to leaders about what success looks like or that end goal in mind on any given Wednesday morning when there’s a budget meeting next week, the phone is ringing, and there are HR issues? How do we keep that North Star front and center? What’s the role of stories in doing that? 

There is a great struggle in terms of compelling visions and future stories. We’re not very good at that. We’re not very good about seeing into the future. We struggled to do that as a species. Maybe this is something I’m lucky to haveI’m always asking why we’re doing something. I’m a real critical thinker. When you’re going into your budget meeting and looking at, “We need to budget to renovate that boardroom or build a wing, or you don’t do whatever it is,” as soon as you ask the question why, that why should automatically link back to your North Star and purpose. You and I both see this in organizations all the time where they had purpose drift or mission drift and they’re trying to do too many things. They lose their wayfocus and alignment. Suddenlythey don’t know, “What quest are they on? What mission are they on? What are they trying to change? 

I’ll bring inot sci-fi but my next favorite story, which is Lord of the Rings. Good old Frodo, The Hobbit, he is only thinking about one damn thing in over eight hours of the movie. That is, “How does he destroy the Ring of Power?” That’s what keeps Frodo going. It’s what keeps him motivated. It’s what drives him. It’s reminding ourselves every day, “What is the vision that we have?” I want to come back to what you said, which is change for good. I don’t think a lot of organizations have that happily ever after in mind. I think they think they’re going to go forever. The power of intention pops up here. Is their intention to make change for good to make the change permanent? I don’t know. 

That strikes me as a tenet of humanity as well if we’re seeking to change something in the immediate time frame. To feed a family, house an individual, protect a senior, or whatever the mission of the social profit maybe is difficult. To move from helping this person in front of me or this group of people who need help now and directly connect that to, “What if there weren’t people like this to help because we’d solve the problem?” It gets very difficult to operate on both of those levelsbut the best organizations seem to, or the best leaders are able to talk about moving forward on both levels at the same time. 

That’s where we come back to this idea behind story and narrativeI like to think about story and narrative as this scalable model, almost like those matryoshka dolls, those Russian dolls that stack one inside another. They can expand and contract infinitely. If you talk about the narrative of poverty, you can unpack that into multiple other problems that need to be solved. There’s social profit for every single one of those. You can continue to unpack it and go down and down one more level. You can come up and up from poverty and work at higher and higher levels. Part of that is figuring out, “Where do you want to focus your energies?” This is one of the challenges in system changes. Often, we try to take on too big of a problem. We’re not able to niche down. We’re not able to focus down on a problem that is solvable. What’s a solvable problem that I can take on? When you’re thinking about your purpose, that is a challenge for all leaders. 

I like your concept of stackable stories that can expand or focus on as necessary. The challenge for organizations often is being able to connect the individual story of the person or the group of people, the beneficiaries of their work, to their mission. I’m curious why you think that is. What prevents us from being able to use those stackable stories in a seamless way? 

There are a few things. For lack of turning people off, a lot of it is fear and ego that we’re afraid of doing it wrong. We’re afraid that we’re not going to look like a brilliant storyteller unless I can hire an agency and produce something that’s incredibly beautiful and powerfulthen I don’t want to tell that story. It’s some fear in there. It’s a lack of knowledge about how to weave those stories into our everyday work and recognizing that we can tell those stories in a hallway. We can tell them in our meetings. We should be telling them to our boardsour partners, and stakeholders. These stories should be the fabric and foundation of our everyday communication, whether it’s digital, face-to-face, or over Zoom. 

For a lot of it, it’s a lack of practice and also a lack of awareness. I suspect that there are a lot of people in organizations who might help thousands of people every day, but they might only know 1 or 2 stories that their communications departments shared in some annual report about how their work is making a difference on those people’s lives on the front lines. How do we start to set up story sharing flow where it goes both ways and it becomes less of an us and them and more of a us story? The story where we’re all in this together, we’re all working towards the same common good, and we just have different roles to play? 

I want to ask you a tactical question. Many of the people reading this blog are leaders in social profit organizations thinking, “Yes, I want to overcome that fear. I want to use stories more effectively, more often in the hallway, in the boardroom, with donors, in service.” How do we start? 

You start by practicing. Storytelling for a lot of people can be very scaryIt’s like learning any new skill. You want to find a safe place to start where you can practice. You want to start with something you know. Maybe you don’t start at work. You practice with your family, telling stories about your last holiday. You start with some friends, talking about your hockey game, hiking trip, or card game. Storytelling is a muscle that you can strengthendevelop and get good atI talk a lot about this concept of what I call narrative intelligence. It’s similar to the idea of emotional intelligencenatural intelligence, or Math intelligence. 

Narrative intelligence is something that we all have. We are wired to make sense of the world and share information and experiences through the lens of stories. Like any of this other intelligence, some of us have more of it or have it differently than others do, but it’s a skill that everybody can learn, strengthen and practiceThe reason to strengthen your narrative intelligence is not just to be a better leader and a better storyteller. The key to telling great stories is you have to be able to figure out what problem the hero in the story is trying to solve because the whole story revolves around that problem. 

When you start to practice figuring out what problem the story is about, you start to become better at problem definition, which comes back into this change design piece right back to, “How do we figure out what problems we need to solve? How do we figure out what problems are standing in our way?” Narrative intelligence is the biggest untapped superpower for leaders in terms of figuring out what’s going onmaking sense of the world, and then how they can use stories to move their people forward. 

I love that concept of narrative intelligence. Does it expand to the narrative intelligence that we, as listeners or receivers, of these stories have? We’ve all seen leaders tell stories that we think or feel and in our hearts know are inauthentic or stories that are made to persuade in a transactional or a crass way. It’s very different than a good story welltold that is persuasive. Leaders who are wanting to make change and use stories to influence how their organization is performing, operating, working, and perceived, how do they balance that level of persuasiveness so that they remain authentic and it remains effective without coming across as transactional? 

It is difficult to get people to hold space, especially when holding space is going to cost the organization money. Click To Tweet

One of the keys to telling a great storhas to be relevant or meaningful to the person that you’re telling it to. The only way that I can tell you a relevant story is I have to know something about you. I have to know what you value. If I want to tell a story that’s going to resonate with you, it’s going to have to be about a shared value that we have because that’s the only way you’re going to care about what I’m talking about in the first place. Forget about all the other tactics. If the problem that I’m introducing to my story isn’t meaningful to you, you’re not going to want to hear my story anyway. 

The authentic piece comes from being real and human. That’s the only way that stories can build trust and relationships is I show you a part of me where I was having to solve a problem. I didn’t know something. I was imperfect. I had to seek help to solve a problem. When I open up like that, now I’m making myself vulnerable to you. I’m saying, I’m like you because I know you sometimes have problems and you sometimes need to seek help as well. We can bond and create trust over that shared experience of both of us are imperfect. 

I was having a conversation with a client. She was talking about the values of the organization. She was using integrity and authenticity. I always pushed back on both of those words, particularly in value statements because they’re table stakes. If you say, I act within, “If you need to,” “If we were to meet each other,” and you say, “Tell me about yourself, Doug,” you say, I’m a person of high integrity.” It would be quite reasonable for you to say, thinking in your mind, “Why does he feel the need to tell me that? Why are you saying that? I’m an accountant and I don’t steal from my clients.” “Why did you say that last part? 

Authenticity is coming into that range of, “Why are you using that word because it is so overused?” As listeners to stories and receivers of stories, humans have an incredible acuity for telling what is real and what is not. In the social profit sector, donors aren’t fools. They’re often much smarter than the organizations that are communicating to them and much more nuanced than organizations give them credit for. That’s a real opportunity for organizations to show that vulnerability in all of us. 

One of the things that go on in narrative intelligence and this is true for any kind of expertise. Expertise comes from pattern recognition. When you’re first learning to drive a car, you‘re nervous, and you have to think consciously about everything that you need to doYears later, you can drive across the country and not even remember the trip because you’ve mastered recognizing the patterns of traffic and the patterns of what you have to do when you’re driving the car. 

In narrative intelligencewe recognize patterns of communication and stories that come in. We have heard enough inauthentic stories and use the word shysters to be able to recognize that pattern at a deep, intuitive level and say, “That story is probably not trueThat guy is saying things that somebody else has said to me multiple times before. It turned out that person was not trustworthyI’m going to categorize that story and that person as not trustworthy. That’s the trace. I’m going to file that person in my bucket of shysters.” You need to think about, “What pattern do you want your stories to convey to your listeners? 

In the social profit sector, more than falling into the shyster trap, though some do or may, it goes back to our earlier conversation about making the organization the hero of the story. If you look at the annual report of a lot of organizations, particularly larger organizations, there is a problem. We did this and it worked. Aren’t we great?” It’s good that worked for the people in those stories, but they’re terrible stories because there is no problem being solved. It’s, “We encountered something. We fixed it.” It’s like a terrible magic trick. It’s not a very good story. How do you encourage leaders and organizations to dig deeper, share that vulnerability, make this dream authentic, and connect better with their audiences? 

Our world is constructed entirely out of narratives that are woven together that define everything our values and behavior. Click To Tweet

You hit the key of great storytelling. I didn’t mean to imply anybody is a shyster. I communicated an archetype there. The secret to great storytelling is the problem and describing how you overcame not just one problem, but every great story has multiple problems, obstacles, and barriers that have to be overcomeYou drive along the road and suddenly, there’s a hole in the road and there’s no bridge to the other side. There’s a gap there. The gap between encountering the problem and solving the problem is where engagement happens. This was what my grad research was all about is, “How does that engagement happen? What goes on in our head and our heart? 

When a hero or the person telling the story runs into a problem, the listener kicks into problemsolving mode and plays along with the hero as they’re solving that problem and thinks, I would have done this or he should do that. Why didn’t he do that?” As long as the problem remains unresolved, the engagement continues. As soon as the problem is resolved, the story and engagement are over. Great storytellers weave multiple problems throughout the story. They’re continually opening up new problem spaces. 

The issue with what happens in most organizational storytelling is exactly what you said. We’re afraid to be vulnerable and show that things didn’t go well. We don’t want to talk about how things didn’t work out the way we thought they were going to. We had to solve a problem and figure something out. Incidentally, we see this all the time when people are trying to get a new job. When they’re writing their resumes and going through their behavioral interviews, they’re terrified of talking about how things went wrong and how they were able to solve problems. What they don’t realize is iyou don’t show how you overcame unexpected obstacles, you never get to look like a hero or have people understand the true value that you bring because you never were able to show what you contributed to that situation. 

Should stop saying in interviews that my greatest weakness is that I work too hard? 


Denisewhat advice would you have for a leader who has realized that the story they’ve been telling their organization over the pandemic needs to change and they’re thinking, “How do I start? How do I make this change from the scarcity and the crisis response of the pandemic to build back better? 

The first thing is to start with story listening. Story analysis is the most powerful thing that we can do. It‘s going to be a backand-forth process to say, “Where do we want to take this organization? What does that future story look like?” Listening to your people to say, “What stories are standing in the way of us doing that? What are we afraid of? What are we uncertain about? What is making us step into that scarcity thinking?” I would encourage them to think about, “How do they use story as a design framework to co-design that vision of the future with their people?” 

If you tap into tools like strategic foresightscenario planning, and other story tools like that, you can create and test out different future stories about where you would want to go and what it would look like. You can prototype those ideas and see, “This works here, but this other thing doesn’t work over there. How would we change that story?” Story listening in terms of what’s working well, what do you want more of, and then starting to use story as a design tool to co-create that vision of the future is a great way to start. The very first thing would be for them to ask themselves, “As leaders, what stories are holding me back?” 

Denise, thank you so much for sharing this way of thinking, approach to leadership and approach to being human. We’ve learned a lot. I thank you very much. 

Thank you so much. I love listening to stories about the work that you’re doing. I’m so grateful for you and your clients doing everything that they can to make this a better world and help us build back better. 

Thanks a lot, Denise. 

Thank you. 

 Important links: 

  • Denise Withers 
  • Sean Gibbons  The Communications Network – Strategies to change narratives, for good episode on Foreward: How stories drive change podcast  

About Denise Withers

Denise helps leaders change our world, by changing our stories.

After spending 20 years making award-winning documentaries for Discovery Channel, she returned to grad school to study the role of narrative in change design. Her research findings inspired her to develop “Story Design”, a new approach to creating change that helps us identify stories that stand in our way, and replace them with better ones that show us how to move forward.

Since then, Denise has helped purpose-driven clients across sectors use Story Design to do things like protect ecosystems, advance clean energy, rethink business education reduce chronic disease and boost economic development. Her stories have been seen by millions around the world, on channels that include CBC, National Geographic, SSIR, the UN and Financial Post. In 2018, she helped two National Geographic photographers double the revenue, reach and impact of their ocean conservation non-profit in less than a year. Recently, she also published her first book and became a certified leadership coach. For fun, she hikes and paddles the wet coast with her dogs and starts campfires in the rain.