You teach “Storytelling for Business” and other courses. Give us a quick sketch on your background so people know who Cyndi is.
I’m from an artistic background. Most of the people on our staff came from either an artistic background or from a business background and then became artists. We’re all storytellers. If you look me up on YouTube, I do shows all over. I’m also an actress and I’ve done comedy, but once I found storytelling, everything else seemed to go onto the back burner, and this has been my major interest.
I started teaching almost 10 years ago as a way of giving back. I just sort of flowed right into that, and at this point in my career my entire living is made through storytelling. Every day I get to listen to amazing stories and help people be authentically themselves. It’s an amazing, amazing way to make a living.
Tell me about Story Studio.
The history of Story Studio is very much connected to the RISK! Podcast. Kevin Allison is the founder of both companies. It’s called RISK! because we want risky stories, things you never thought you’d share. It’s very popular, and a lot of corporate people were coming to Kevin saying, “I love what you’re doing. Can you do that in my business?” and it kind of dovetailed. He knew that teaching was something that should be happening, so he took what he’d learned himself as a storyteller, teaching others as he coaches them for the shows. We’ve been teaching corporate storytelling for about eight or nine years.
Why is storytelling important to business?
Stories are the glue that connects us. People see the world through narratives, so if you have information, especially technical information or information about an innovative product that’s not familiar to people, you can put the information into a narrative and explain how it affects human beings. If you want to connect with people, if you want to be remembered, tell a story that is going to make your audience remember you.
What would we experience if we went to one of your storytelling boot camps for business?
The first thing we do is ask why the participants are there and what they’re hoping to get. That informs not just the instructor, but also the other participants so that what we give is going to be tailored to their desires and their hopes. Then we share a story. I often share one of my favorites, about one of my first employers. I was 15 and I worked as a popcorn girl at a movie theater, and my employer was a real character. I would do anything this man asked me to do. I loved this job, but two years into it, I started thinking it was time to put childish things away, so I said goodbye to the movie theater and got a job at the biggest bookstore in Boston. I don’t think the general manager there even knew my name, and I used to get in trouble for talking to coworkers, or for reading — at a bookstore!
I started really hating this job, and visited the movie theater just because I loved the guy.
He said, “You get a discount at the bookstore! Buy me books.” And I looked through the books he asked for and they were all business books, which made no sense to me. He was manager of the year 10 years in a row. One of them was One Minute Manager, and I looked through it and thought, “This is exactly what he’s already doing. I work at a bookstore where they sell this, but nobody has read this book.” I asked for my old minimum wage job back, and while I stayed there, I looked at it differently. This wasn’t just a boss that I liked — this was a mentor and there was something to learn from him. I’m a leader now, and I try to do the same for the people who work with me. I learned that if you want people to care about the work they do, you really need to show them that you care about them.
That would be a good story to tell at a job interview. How do you use it in teaching?
We pull the story apart. The first question is, what is my message? It’s about value. If you want people to care about their work, you need to show them that you care about them. The most important thing to understand is that stories for business are always preaching. You have a point that you’re trying to make, or people will feel you’re wasting their time. It’s usually stories about pitching something, whether it’s internal or pitching as in sales.
There are two ways to find a story, and it’s usually the message first. Then you search your memory to see if there’s any time that this message played out in your life. The other way to do it is if you have a story that is really powerful, and then you have to figure out why it’s powerful. What’s its message? You want the story and you want the message. Once you have that, it’s about understanding how to frame things and how to make things come to life. Then we talk about how to give a story structure.
How do you teach story structure?
We work with a five-point narrative. It’s not the only way to tell a story, but it’s the most familiar. It’s used in every fairytale you’ve ever been told. Once upon a time is your setup. Then one day something happens, something challenges what normal is, and we’re suddenly off on some form of a journey. We want something, maybe we want a new job, or we want the problem to end. Whatever it is, it puts us into the journey, which is the rising action. Usually on the journey, some things happen that work and some things happen that don’t, but we don’t give up. We are trying to make this goal come true. The main event is where you get your goal or you don’t. And that’s the climax of your story. From there we come to the resolution: now that the story is over, I’ve thought about it, I’ve reflected on it, and this is the wisdom that I have gleaned. This brings you directly to your controlling idea, which is your message.
So, in my story, once upon a time I was the popcorn girl and I loved my job. They called me Movie Star. Then one day something happens. I start noticing I’m the only one of my friends working with high school kids, and because of that I needed to make a change. Now I’m on my journey. I want a grownup job for more money. I got the job that I thought I’d be happy with and I’m not happy. The climax of this story is that my dream changes. I want my old job back and I get the old job back. And I’ve reflected on it and that brings us to the controlling idea, which is if you want people to care about their work, you have to show them that you care about them.
What else do you teach in your workshop?
We do a lot of prompting on the messages that you need to share. We have a list of questions to help people get into the space of memory to see if they can think of a story that backs their messages up. The other way is to go into your history and start thinking about ideas, having them write out experiences and choosing the one that’s most useful. From there we start building their story. Everybody teams up in twos and we use their smart devices and have them give the roughest draft of their story, get to their message, and their partner gives them a little feedback. What worked, were you left with any questions? Then vice versa, the second person tells a story.
We have these recorded and we come back and start talking about structure. Then we talk about how to make stories come to life, how to paint pictures with your words so that when people hear the story it plays out like a movie in their head. You want to use sensory details: sight, sounds, smell and taste. These are the most primal of senses. It’s the feelings in your body: the hairs on the back of your neck or the pit in your stomach. Finally,
we have the thinking mind, the thoughts and arguments in your own head and the dialogue you have with others. Other people in your story won’t come to life unless you give us actual words that they say. Business stories need to be short, you don’t have a lot of time, so you just put in these little pieces of color. The goal is that people listening watch it play out in their imaginations.
Cyndi’s contact information: www.storystudio.org