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Storytelling Can Drive a Culture of Wellness

Shaping Culture and Mental Health in Your Organization

As a (self-proclaimed) story nerd and (verified) executive communications expert, I’ve studied narrative in almost every context imaginable. But when I heard Jen Porter, Principal and COO of Mind Share Partners, mention executive storytelling as a strategic tool for cultivating mental health in organizations, my mind was blown.

During her April 6 Culturati Summit talk, Leading With Mental Health: Strategies to Address the 2nd Pandemic at Work, Porter said that people are working, on average, two more hours a day, and facing more burnout, isolation, and stress than ever before. 

“One silver lining of the pandemic,” according to Porter, is “at least now we understand clearly that mental health impacts every team, every conference call, every meeting–whether we acknowledge it or now. It’s a diversity, equity and inclusion issue.”

What doesn’t work? A one-time webinar. What does work? Executive storytelling.

Personal Stories are Powerful

Stories are up to 22 times more memorable than facts, according to cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner. This is a heavily traded statistic in the business world, yet so many executives communicate with their people in jargon, acronyms, and data dumps instead of rich, meaningful stories. Why?

Telling personal stories in any situation requires being vulnerable. If you follow researcher Brené Brown, you’ve heard of leading with vulnerability. In her book Daring Greatly, Brown defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure,” essentially getting out of your comfort zone of control.

In terms of mental health and organizational culture, Porter and her colleagues have found that storytelling also reduces isolation, creates community, and reduces the stigma of mental health.

Storytelling and leading with vulnerability are key to addressing mental health challenges in the workplace. As a leader or manager, you want to help people understand that they aren't alone. - Jen Porter, COO of Mind Share Partners

Revealing details of your life and experiences can be uncomfortable. If you’re an executive, that means stepping out from behind a carefully crafted veneer of business-only and perfection-always. It’s hard. It’s profound.

Earlier in the conference day, Brad Lande-Shannon from Spring Health shared a story about his recent difficulties accessing his company’s employee assistance program. He was experiencing a lot of stress and needed mental health support, but what he got was a lot of transferred calls and unavailable practitioners. That was a lightbulb moment for him: if this is happening to me, the CMO of a healthcare company, what’s it like for everyone else?

Here we are, three weeks later, and I still remember that story.

Craft a Meaningful Story that Resonates With Your People

Keep it structured.

All good stories have a beginning, middle, and end. They have a conflict, i.e., something to be resolved. And they have a lesson, a morale. Pro tip: your audience’s attention is strongest in the beginning and end of your story, so start and end strong.

Keep it high-level.

Avoid sharing every last thing that happened in your experience. Ask yourself: how much do they need to know to get the point? In my experience, stories longer than two minutes tend to lose steam.

Keep it visual.

Try to paint a picture for your audience with descriptive details. Sprinkle in the colors, sights, sounds, and more from your experience. If your audience can picture it in their minds, they’ll remember it more.

Keep it authentic.

Your audience can sense when you’re putting on a face. To show true vulnerability, consider mentioning emotions like fear, loneliness, and uncertainty.

The keys are preparation and practice. I work with clients to create a personal “story bank” they can use in different situations like speaker panels, team meetings, and interviews.

To build your own story bank, brainstorm different lessons you want to teach and connect them with relatable experiences you’ve had. From there, practice telling the stories (out loud) until they flow naturally and conversationally. 

Becoming a better storyteller is a lifelong process. Start small and keep at it. Your people will thank you.

This guest post was written by Elizabeth Goins, Ph.D., Executive Communications Director at The Creative Executive.

Related:

Whole-Life Leadership for a New World: A New Leadership Mindset for Today and the Future

The Power of One Minute: How 60-Seconds Can Transform Your Work

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