Evelyn Clark Q&A

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What a special treat to bring you a Q&A with Evelyn Clark, one of the first organizational story practitioners I became aware of when I first got into storytelling in 2004. Evelyn is truly one of the pioneers of the discipline.

Bio: Author of Around the Corporate Campfire: How Great Leaders Use Stories to Inspire Success, Evelyn Clark helps executives become better leaders by teaching them to leverage the power of storytelling in their organizations. Her engaging presentations feature real-world case studies, many from her book and her own experiences as a news writer, corporate consultant, and facilitator.

Her clients include global leaders such as Microsoft, Royal Dutch Shell, Bank of Austria/UniCredit Group, World Vision and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Evelyn introduced business storytelling in Singapore at the 2007 Singapore Storytelling Festival and led the master class at the 2007 European Storytelling Congress. She recently co-developed a workshop and related materials for the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, TN. Learn more at her Web site.


Q&A with Evelyn Clark, Question 1:

Q: You tell organizations on your Web site that they “must deliberately select the right stories for the audience and the occasion.” Without giving away all your secrets, can you talk a bit about the process of helping organizations identify the RIGHT stories?

A: What I mean by the word “deliberate” is that anytime a leader choose to tell a story in a corporate setting, there should be a clear purpose with a desired outcome. It’s important for the speaker to identify the “right” stories by asking questions such as these:

  • What is my key message?
  • Who is the audience for this story?
  • What is the audience’s primary interest and/or need at this time?
  • What value or lesson do I want people to learn from what I’m going to say?
  • Which story or stories can I tell that will make my core message crystal clear?

David Armstrong, CEO of Armstrong International and author of several books, including Managing by Storying Around, most often tells stories of “people caught doing things right.” His purpose is to give clear examples so that employees understand how he wants them to enact the company’s values.
And, of course, it’s important to:

  • Edit, edit, edit! Tell only as much of the story as you need to convey the message.
  • For a speech, practice, practice, practice! Use natural language and speak as you would to a group of good friends.

Q: How did you initially become involved with story/storytelling/narrative? What attracted you to this field? What do you love about it?

A: I’ve enjoyed writing stories most of my life, especially since my father read one of my 8th-grade class assignments and suggested that I consider a career as a news writer. I was immediately captivated by images of reporters racing from one event to another and dashing off front-page stories. I gladly followed a straight line from high-school newspaper editor to a communications degree and a stint as broadcast editor for the Associated Press. I later moved to the other side of the desk, pitching corporate stories to the media, preparing clients for interviews and earning accreditation as a public relations counselor. Over the years I loved it all — and then I “hit the wall.”

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I felt burned out and wasn’t sure what to do next. A top-flight business consultant friend offered to help me figure out how to reframe my work. After a series of conversations about my desire to help business people gain a deeper understanding of communication strategy, particularly as it related to marketing communications, my consultant friend suggested the title, “The Corporate Storyteller.” Just as my father’s suggestion had resonated immediately, this concept appealed to me instantly, and I developed a trademarked workshop entitled “Corporate Storytelling: Discovering Fire for the Second Time.”
The first session was presented in 1993, and I enjoy delivering it as much today as I did the first time. Each audience is different, the interaction is fun, and the participants always are excited about their discoveries. It’s very energizing and rewarding work when you see people light up and make significant breakthroughs.

Q: What’s your favorite story about a transformation that came about through a story or storytelling act?

A: There are so many, it’s difficult to choose. Here are two of my favorites, insights that executives shared with me:
In a management retreat for 200 top executives and managers of a medical center, the president came up to me at the first break and said, “I’ve already learned a valuable lesson: I can tell stories! It’s second nature for our CEO to use stories when he speaks — and he’s so good at it, I had decided to leave that to him. But I’ve realized, as you’ve said, that we all naturally use stories in our conversations, and I’m looking forward to learning more about how to do it deliberately when I deliver more formal presentations.”

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At the end of a two-day executive retreat that was part of an 18-month program to develop leadership skills, a highly-respected community leader said, “I wondered how we could possibly spend two days on storytelling, which seemed like a lightweight topic. But as we peeled back the layers over these past two days, I realized how profound the applied skill of storytelling is.”

Q: If you could share just 1 piece of advice or wisdom about story/storytelling/narrative with readers, what would it be?

A: Be honest be genuine, and be true to your core values. It’s ok to “spin” a story for greater effect by adding insignificant elements for color or exaggerating details, especially when you make it clear that you’re just having fun with the audience, but the lessons conveyed must always be grounded in the truth of who you are.

Q: How did you develop the idea of Storybooks for corporations? What inspired the idea?

A: The idea of Storybooks for corporations was generated by a client, Western Wireless (now part of Alltel). Although the company existed for only 11 years, it was a remarkable success story of becoming a top wireless provider in a chaotic and competitive environment. Before merging with Alltel, Western Wireless’ founders were brainstorming ideas for a meaningful parting gift to give each of their employees. The marketing director suggested that capturing the extraordinary experience through a collection of favorite stories would be a perfect tribute to the people who helped to create a unique culture and made it work. Collecting stories from board members, executives, and a widely representative sampling of employees was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. What an amazing group of brilliant, hard-working, and fun people! A talented graphic-design team created a beautiful book that included photos taken by employees over the years, complete with amusing captions that conveyed the work hard/play hard competitive spirit that drove the company.

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The book was a huge hit with employees. Not only were they overwhelmed by the thoughtfulness of a beautiful parting gift, but they were thrilled to have a permanent reminder of an experience that was truly a career highlight for everyone who contributed to the project.
In addition to being a wonderful commemoration of a company’s milestones, a Storybook is an engaging way to tell a corporate history and leave a lasting legacy from one generation of leaders to the next. Stories allow others to share the experiences and get to know the personalities of the people involved. Because stories convey core values and create lasting memorable, a book of collected stories are a natural way to impart the flavor of the culture.

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Kathy Hansen, PhD, is a leading proponent of deploying storytelling for career advancement. She is an author and instructor, in addition to being a career guru. More...

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