Thaler Pekar Q&A

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I’ve admired Thaler Pekar’s work for a while now, and I had the pleasure of meeting her — all too briefly — at the 2009 Golden Fleece Conference; I wish we had talked more. I sat next to her during one of the workshops and appreciated her critique of Gerry Lantz’s PowerPoint slides (she felt he shouldn’t use slides) and also heard hints of Thaler’s amazing story about Costa Rica — must ask her about that one. I also admire her personal style!

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Bio: Thaler Pekar is the founder and principal of Thaler Pekar & Partners, a consulting firm specializing in persuasive communications. She is an expert in message development and delivery, story elicitation and narrative analysis. As a sought-after strategist, coach and speaker, Thaler helps smart leaders and their organizations break through a crowded marketplace and achieve policy goals, raise funds, and engage audiences. She provides clients with practical techniques and proprietary tools for identifying, sharing, and sustaining the success stories and organizational narratives that articulate both vision and impact.

Thaler is a frequent guest lecturer at the Columbia University Graduate Program in Strategic Communications, and the Rutgers Center for Non Profit and Philanthropic Leadership. Her consulting work has taken her throughout the U.S., as well as to Malaysia, Japan, Ghana, Spain, Egypt, Senegal and Thailand. She is a member of the Society for the Advancement of Consulting, an Inaugural Member of the National Network of Consultants to Grantmakers, and a Founding Member of the American College of Women’s Health Physicians. She is a long-time resident of Hoboken, NJ, and is active locally as a founding board member of Mile Square Theatre and an advisory board member of the New Leaders Council.


Q&A with Thaler Pekar:

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

A: Story is an extremely effective tool for persuasive communication. For many years, I traveled around the world, teaching advocates about the importance of values-based communication as a tool for accomplishing social change. I would assist leaders in articulating the values that support their advocacy positions, and the importance of initiating conversation with those values. For example, I worked with public-health advocates across the globe on initiatives that would be “saving women’s lives,” and result in greater health, opportunity, and security. I trained hundreds of U.S.-based advocates, state legislators, and Congressional staff to reframe the discussion of low-wage work in America and focus on the necessity of building “an economy that works for all,” through the underlying values of responsibility, fairness, and dignity. And I assisted a national interfaith organization in connecting their work on religious liberties to their foundational belief in freedom.
As much as I believe that articulating one’s values and commencing conversation from a platform of shared values is vital to effective, persuasive conversation, it increasingly became clear to me that values are subjective. “Responsibility” can mean different things to different people. Heck, it can mean different things to the same person, given the context. And, in an increasingly ambiguous and challenging world, we often need to make choices about the hierarchy of our personal values.

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Story serves to unambiguously define the true meaning of those values. Annette Simmons has written extensively about the use of story to clearly define personal and organizational values, and I have had the tremendous pleasure and honor of studying with her.
At the same time I was learning about the importance of story as a tool for defining values, I was also learning about how the human brain takes in and processes new information. Neuroscience, brain imaging, and behavioral psychology, among other disciplines, have taught us that the brain can only connect information to what we already know. People remember new information more easily when it has some connection to what they already know and has personal, emotional resonance for them.

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Chip and Dan Heath, authors of Made to Stick, summarize this very well: “The most basic way to make people care is to form an association between something they don’t yet care about and something they do care about.”
Story supplies that bridge. Story is an extremely effective communications tool for establishing trust and emotional relevance with an audience. So, that’s how I got to story: as a way to articulate values and most effectively connect with listeners.
When my clients reflect on the values that drive their work, they surface the passion that propels their advocacy. I then work with them to elicit and develop the stories that articulate their passion and underlying values. In this way, values drive the emotional connection with their listener — and story cements that relationship and opens up tremendous possibilities for understanding and action.
My brother, Jim, serves on the faculty of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he manages the F. M. Kirby Research Center for Functional Brain Imaging at the Kennedy Krieger Institute. He is an advisor to my firm, and he and I have now taken our conversations about brain function and communication public, on our new blog.

Q: How important is it to you and your work to function within the framework of a particular definition of “story?” (i.e., What is a story?) What definition do you espouse?

A: I find the most useful framework for beginning story sharers is that a story has a beginning, middle, and end. I work with incredibly smart leaders who, when I initially met them, were often reluctant to share stories in professional settings. Precisely because they recognize the power of great storytelling, they were hesitant to share their stories — they didn’t think they possessed a perfectly polished, fleshed out, protagonist/compelling conflict/earth-shattering journey/surprising resolution tale to share.
The quest for the perfect can be the enemy of the good!
I energize leaders (and, in turn, their audiences), by helping them surface their passion and become the most authentic and persuasive speakers possible. Through several short exercises, I help these bright people see that they are telling stories all day long, and that they possess a lifetime of interesting anecdotes and a multitude of fascinating, powerful stories. To this end, the only story framework I encourage beginning story sharers to use is “beginning, middle, and end.”

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Then, details that reveal emotion, and trigger the senses, are added. And then conflict, resolution, and transformation.
I’ve always known that conflict is a critical element in story. But I recently had an epiphany about how even the slightest frame of conflict enables a fact to stick in a listener’s mind. At an event in the “Brainwave: It Could Change Your Mind” series at the Rubin Museum of Art, George Bonanno, Columbia University psychology professor and expert in emotion, stated the fact that birds share more computational language skills with humans than our closest primates.
This fact alone was new and interesting to me. But Bonanno added that former President George Bush, who was “unfriendly to science,” cut funding for a perhaps silly sounding, but quite scientifically important, study of Pigeon Language Cognition Skills.

Adding this point of conflict turned that fact into a story. Bonanno provided a great example of how to take a fact, add a conflict, and make the fact memorable.

Q: Are there any current uses of storytelling that repel you or that you feel are inappropriate?

A: Advocates must take care to share stories that further their true agenda; it’s too easy to share stories that result in quick fixes as opposed to systemic change and sustainable support. Stories that elicit a purely sympathetic response can ultimately distance people from deeper, societal problems.

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I want people to embrace my client’s solution because it is the right thing for them to do, because the solution my client is offering makes perfect sense given their value system. This will elicit a much more profound and lasting response than their doing something because they feel they have to. People don’t want to be told what to do; they want to discover it on their own.
I go into some depth about this in my article, “Framing for Advocacy Communications”, available on the Tools page of my web site.
Also, if non-profit organizations are going to share compelling stories and elicit emotional responses, I implore them to please remember to give the listener something to do!
Too often, audiences are engaged — and then dropped; the story sharer fails to invite the listener to be a part of the solution. I see this, especially, with visual storytelling: too many videos offering up compelling stories but failing to invite the viewer to participate in the solution.
This is the “hand” part of my practical Heart, Head & Handâ„¢ approach to persuasive communications: place something in the listener’s hand at the close of the communication. Invite them to be a part of your solution. For example, ask them to donate, purchase, volunteer, visit, call their Senator, or, simply, think about the issue.

Q: What future aspirations do you personally have for your own story work? What would you like to do in the story world that you haven’t yet done?

A: I am working on joint programs that encourage the elicitation, development, and sustained sharing of stories among charitable foundations and the recipients of their funding. When non-profit organizations discover how to find, refine, and share the stories about their success and impact, clients, donors, staff, and entire communities benefit. When philanthropists discover the same skill set, along with developing a solid story of their vision for a better future, they are able to more efficiently and effectively solicit and fund appropriate programs.

In the philanthropic world, I often hear from foundation program officers that they have trouble obtaining stories about the work of their grantees and the impact of their investments. Likewise, the grantees often say that funders seek only quantitative data, or, when they do come to them for stories about their work, the funders seek highly specific stories about impact (and most often under tight deadlines). In the quest to gather data in an increasingly competitive marketplace, the qualitative stories that enable understanding of, and engagement with, the data are often being quashed.
I also hear from many organizational leaders that they have stories — they can simply never access them when they need them. To that end, I am developing a set of best practices for banking and accessing stories, using existing technologies. This would enable organizations to add written, verbal, and recorded stories to a story bank. It will not be heavily dependent on the quality of the input information, but it will be accessible by subject, character, value, and potential application, among other things. I’ll be previewing this program for sustainable story sharing at Fundraising Day New York this June [2009].

Q: Your background includes research in cognitive linguistics, brain imaging, and persuasive communications. In your article, “Storytelling is Only Half the Story,” you note that many leaders seek communication techniques “to inspire an audience and move people to action.” How does storytelling fit into that objective?

A: I prefer story sharing, not storytelling. Leaders must share their stories so as to evoke stories in their listener’s minds and guide them toward personal understanding of the issue and need for action. It’s a two-way, 2.0, conversation.
Sharing a personal story helps establish trust with your listener, and evoking a story in your listener’s mind helps make your information personally relevant. These are the steps through which any persuasive communicator must move in order to entice their listener to take action.
By evoking a personal story, your listener is also able to recognize their part in the solution you are proposing. Once your listener is personally engaged, they are more likely to hear and process your message, and to take the action you wish them to take.
My easy-to-remember and even easier-to-apply approach to persuasive communications is called Heart, Head & Handâ„¢.
Heart, Head, & Hand can be used by leaders to establish trust with their audience. First, I recommend that speakers share a story that their listeners are likely to find emotionally relevant, often by sharing a personal anecdote. In this way, leaders connect with their listener’s heart.

Only then can reasons, data, and a rationale for the leader’s message be provided. Only after connecting with the listener’s heart should leaders seek to connect to the listener’s head. [Steven Denning has profound things to say about “Reinforcing with Reasons” in The Secret Language of Leadership.]
Then, true leaders give the audience something to do — they put something in their hand and invite them to be part of the solution.

Both “Storytelling is Only Half the Story,” and “Heart, Head & Hand: The Science of Communication” can be found on the Tools page of my web site.

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