Make everyday stories compelling

It was the first time I'd ever seen someone bring popcorn to a Zoom presentation. And I have to say, it was kind of brilliant!

Almost a dozen of us were gathered online for the penultimate class in the new grad course I designed and taught this summer on leading change in the context of climate change. Even though we'd been working through the course for 3 months, it was the first time we'd all been able to get together.

What drove busy climate professionals to stay up late, get up early and skip dinner across 5 time zones to sit at the computer for hours? Stories. They were going to present the plans they'd developed to lead real-world projects on climate action.

Sounds pretty ordinary, right? And on face value, it was. Everyone used slides of some sort. They didn't have fancy animations. Or frame their project as some epic Lord of the Rings quest. But every one of them told a compelling future story, about how a real problem was hurting people and their big ideas to fix it.

They talked about leadership models, organizational culture, governance, policy, values and ethics. They shared budgets, timelines and charts. Presented theories of change and logic models. And everyone in the audience was on the edge of their seat. When we took a break halfway through, I even went to make popcorn for myself.

What made these "everyday" stories so compelling? A few things.

  • They talked about common issues that hold us back from making change – cultural, social and systemic barriers that we all know about but few have the courage to name and challenge.
  • They focused on the real change issue we all face – people – not technology.
  • They didn't present the plans as final, locked. They invited the audience to join them on their journeys, to help them solve their problems.
  • And they gave us hope, that solutions are possible – if we're willing to let go of ideas, processes and mental models that no longer serve us.

After each slideshow, the presenting student facilitated a ten-minute discussion that could easily have run for an hour. Their peers were engaged, curious and full of powerful suggestions and links to resources that made each proposal infinitely better. Their stories turned what could have been a potentially tedious chore of sitting through 8 slide decks into a vibrant learning circle for everyone, including me.

As we wrapped the course up, I asked them each to blog about what they saw as the most valuable part of the experience. Across the board, they said that it was the presentations.

Having the opportunity to learn from and share ideas with their peers in other industries and sectors was priceless for them. It helped them see their own challenges in new ways, identify new opportunities they never would have discovered on their own, and build new alliances to support each other going forward.

The best leadership storytelling isn't flamboyant or epic. It's highly personal, open and inviting, grounded in human experiences that are relevant and shared across cultures. It takes us out of our own echo chambers, opening our minds and hearts to new possibilities, to celebrate the strength of diversity and power of connection.

Watching these students bring their visions for the future to life was a great reminder that stories are the most powerful tool we have to inspire change. The only way to ruin their impact is to not tell them at all.