Esther Choy on the Power of Storytelling: Part 2 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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For those who have not as yet read the book, hopefully your responses to these questions will stimulate their interest and, better yet, encourage them to purchase a copy.

First, when and why did you decided to write Let the Story Do the Work?

I’ve always fancied myself as a writer since I was little. Unfortunately, I wasn’t dedicated enough to the craft to become any good at it. But the desire never left me. A year after I started Leadership Story Lab, my mentor and the acclaimed design critic, Don Norman, nudged me to write a book on storytelling. In the past, I didn’t know what to write and felt no sense of urgency to publish a book. All of a sudden, because I’m passionate about storytelling, I’ve found my motivation. Though the book wasn’t born over night, having a concrete goal gave me the necessary push to make it happen.

Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

There are many revelations and thank goodness none of them were head-snapping, or else, I would have a permanent migraine headache! One such revelation is the kind of writer I am. Though a true-blue introvert, I’d describe myself as a talker-writer. I need to talk through concepts and ideas first before I can write them down. So, an idea came to me. I started to record all my speaking engagements, workshops and trainings. Afterwards, I had the recordings professionally transcribed, and viola, instead of staring at blank pages, I’ve got my first drafts.

To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

I’m quite lucky to have found my publisher AMACOM Books and my wonderful editor Ellen Kadin. From the beginning, a personal and philosophical fit was important to Ellen and me. And because we have this fit, we always see issues eye-to-eye even if we had different ideas on how to execute on the vision of the book. So, to this extent, the end-state of the book in terms of its overall content is very similar to the beginning. The one major difference is in what sequence the chapters end up. I had one idea originally. My editor had another. Eventually, we worked out the current flow that makes the most sense – not to me – but to readers, which matters the most in book publishing.

For those who have not as yet read the book, what are the principal elements of storytelling?

They are: using a three-act formula, planting a hook, introducing a sense of challenge and change, and finding the WHY-axis.

Which of them seems to be the most difficult to master?

Finding the right hook is the most difficult, and the most essential. But the good news is that there are three types of hooks that grab your audience. First, you can introduce conflict. The best way to think about this is that conflict happens when you have two sets of needs going in opposite directions. Second, you can show contrast. Hook the audience by placing these opposite qualities side by side in the beginning of your story. Third, you can create a contradiction by going against your audience’s expectations—adding an element of surprise that makes them want to know what happens next.

What is needed to “bring a story to life”?

A story that grips the audience has to have enough of a sense of challenge, and you have to convey a sense of change—that things are different now, after these events took place. People are often scared to introduce challenges—fearing it will make them look weak—or they feel like their challenge has to be that they climbed Mount Kilimanjaro or ushered in world peace. But it doesn’t have to be a feat worthy of sainthood. Your audience merely needs to believe that it was challenging for you. And be sure to show how your strength of character helped you overcome the challenge.

As you convey the sense of challenge and change, the audience has to feel that the story is authentic and reveals a genuine part of the teller.

To what extent (if any) should an audience determine the structure and content of a story? Please explain.

It is all about the audience. This is especially important when it comes to presenting data. There’s a wide gap between what a fellow expert needs to know about your data and what the CEO of the company needs to know. The expert wants to know the nitty-gritty, while the CEO needs to know what action to take. The whole structure of the story will depend on what the audience needs.

I agree with you that everyone has a story to tell. Perhaps several. In your opinion, how best to determine what that story is?

Asking yourself questions (or getting someone else to ask you!) is a great way to mine stories. Reflect on questions such as “Why do I do what I do?” “How did people react to my idea [for a project, a career change, a startup, etc.] in the beginning?” or “What has surprised me about my career?” In chapter 7 of my book, I’ve outlined “Ten Crazy Good Questions” that will help you and others mine stories more effectively.

What is a “crazy good question” and when should it be asked?

Good questions coax stories out of people who did not think they had a story to tell. The right kinds of questions allow people to look at their experiences from a new angle and see what’s interesting about their own lives.

How best to combine the power of storytelling with simple visuals? Please explain.

It’s best to use visuals to illustrate parts of stories—especially parts that are complex or amorphous. In Let the Story Do the Work, I recommend six different types of “Story Pictures” that augment stories.

How best to tell stories with data?

Know the level of information your audience needs, and know exactly what you want them to remember. The story takes shape from there.

In Chapter 7, you explain how to collect stories from everywhere. Briefly, please explain how to do that.

Ask good questions and listen aggressively to the answers.

In your opinion, which of the material you provide in will be most valuable to those now preparing for a career as a schoolteacher or who have only recently embarked on one? Please explain.

We all remember those teachers who were able to talk about complex information in clear, vivid language. I would encourage would-be schoolteachers to check out the chapter “Making the Complex Clear” that has strategies for helping audiences understand and retain complex information.

To first-time supervisors? Please explain.

Check out the “Look Who’s Listening Chapter” so you can understand your team and communicate your vision in a way that will connect with them.

To C-level executives? Please explain.

It is essential for C-level executives to tell their own story and build alliances, so the chapter “Using Your Own Story” will be most helpful.

To the owner/CEOs of small-to-midsize companies? Please explain.

Being able to answer “what do you do?” in a compelling way that attracts interest in our companies is essential. Check out the chapter “Successful Networking Stars with a Good Story Hook.”

Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

You really covered a great deal. Thank you for being so thorough! One other question I like is this: How do you get started if you are hesitant to use stories or don’t consider yourself a creative type”?

And to that I would say, “Start by applying a three-act structure with a hook. See how this changes your interactions and benefits your communication.”

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Here is a direct link to Part 1.

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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