Esther Choy on the Power of Storytelling: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities. Through the mastery of simple but potent techniques, clients become more engaging and persuasive. Their messages resonate. Success ensues.

Her own fascination with story began when she served as a designer and teacher of leadership programs and as a business school admissions officer. She came to profoundly appreciate the role story plays in professional achievement. Credentials are not enough to differentiate oneself in a competitive market. What tips the scales is often a compelling narrative that tells the deeper story behind one’s achievements.

Esther completed her Master’s degree in Higher Education from Texas A&M University. She served as an admissions officer for Chicago Booth School of Business, and taught leadership to Northwestern University undergraduate students. And she is an alumna of Northwester’s Kellogg School of Management’s full-time MBA program as well as a lecturer in its Executive Education Program.

Her book, Let the Story Do the Work: The Art of Storytelling for Business Success, was published by AMACOM (July 2017).

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Before discussing Let the Story Do the Work, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

The leaders of admissions at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business (now known as the Booth School of Business) had a profound influence on my personal growth and professional development—even though I did not guess that at the time. In 2005, they decided to offer feedback to the thousands of MBA applicants who had been denied admission. I was one of six admissions officers in their full-time MBA program, so that meant I had to make those calls and tell applicants why they had not made the cut.

Frankly, not one of the six of us admissions officers was excited to do this. Everybody just pinched their nose and did it, but it was actually the best professional development I have had.

It allowed me to look back and think about why the decision was made—especially because, when I looked at the applications, I realized I could have easily voted for many of these people to be admitted. Having to analyze why we were saying no—and to pass along that feedback—made me think deeply about why even the most qualified people do not always “make the cut.”

Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Thinking deeply about why highly qualified people were denied admission to Booth was a real turning point. Most of these qualified people thought reiterating their (very impressive) resumes would be enough. But when everyone was equally well qualified, it wasn’t. The facts were in their favor, but the facts weren’t sufficient. To make the facts stand out, and more importantly, to create a sense of fit for admissions officers to remember them, they needed stories.

A few years later, I went through the competitive admissions game myself, getting an MBA at another program across town from the University of Chicago. Suddenly, it clicked. I realized that the applicants who stand out from a sea of intelligent, accomplished professionals are the ones who tell compelling stories that connect their values, accomplishments and future plans with the institution’s values. The applicants who “win” the competitive admissions game reveal elements of their authentic selves in a meaningful way.

What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

I have learned that hard work does not necessarily equal good work. Like those who are applying to a competitive school, I often thought that it was all about the numbers, data, facts. If I just worked hard and got all A’s, I would succeed in life. But I now know that the business world is not like that. You have to work smart and work hard. You have to work well with people. And. You have to tell your stories to the right audience.

Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

This is such a powerful quote about what happens when we acknowledge others. When people feel listened to, they feel acknowledged. When they feel acknowledged, they are more inclined to open up, and listen to what you have to say.

From Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

Porter’s quote reminds me of another quote from one of my favorite story gurus, Robert McKee, whose line I paraphrase here: It’s more important to know what to exclude, not what to include. The wisdom here is to be extra-judicious about what is not important enough to be bothered with. Easier said than done. Still, we should all try, and keep trying.

From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”

I define leadership storytelling as the strategic sequencing of fact and emotion. For example, you should be giving your audience the sense of “hmm, this is odd… I want to know more,” instead of making them feel like they’ve already had their Eureka moment at the start of your presentation. Knowing where to place those “hmm, that’s odd” moments is an essential strategy for leadership storytelling.

Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance

Yes, the tyranny of custom is a huge factor. I love the way one of my clients, Glenn Hollister, overcame this resistance. He wanted to get his audience of airline sales executives to accept a big change, and he did so by describing a day in the life of an airline sales executive—minute by minute! This not only reassured them that Glenn understood their challenges, it also helped them to see that the status quo was not working well for them. It revealed the pain points and inefficiencies, so they were ready to accept Glenn’s solutions.

Recent research indicates that, on average, less than 30% of employees in a U.S. company are actively and productively engaged. The others are either passively engaged (“mailing it in”) or actively disengaged, undermining the success of their organization? How do you explain this situation? What’s the problem?

There are two problems.

The first has to do with what Simon Sinek says — that people don’t buy what you do but why you do it. Paychecks aside, every employee must also buy into the company’s reason for existing. Leaders have to bring their teams back to what really matters about the work they do.

The second has to do with how employees feel about their own contributions. Recently, I was reading a New York Times article about a group of “teacher influencers” — eachers who promote classroom technology. Start-ups and tech giants both crave these teachers’ attention because these teachers have a say in the tech tools that are used to teach kids. And they give these “teacher influencers” a lot of freebies. So I was thinking—whatever you may think and feel about the ethics and possible conflicts of interest, one thing is certain. Teachers feel under- or unappreciated, and they feel like their needs are not acknowledged. Every year, they could spend about $600 of their own money to buy classroom supplies. When tech companies come along and not only give them gifts but also ask for their input­, they are acknowledging the value that teachers bring. Acknowledging the value of every person in your organization is absolutely essential if employees are going to be engaged.

In your opinion, what specifically must be done immediately to increase the percentage of actively and productively engaged employees?

If you want your team to know why they are doing their work—why it matters—tell them a compelling story. It can be about why the company was founded and how its product has impacted one specific customer. Or it can be about a significant change, or a “monster” your company is trying to overcome (be it cancer, illiteracy, pollution, or any number of other monsters). If you want to make them feel acknowledged, start listening, and start communicating that you understand them and value them.

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Esther invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Leadership Story Lab link

Medium link

Twitter link

Facebook link

LinkedIn link

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