Telling Your Story: Proof-of-Concept

Since retiring from full-time teaching, I have wanted to develop a seminar to help practitioners tell stories about their experiences in a convincing and compelling way. The seminar would build on the personal storytelling component of my courses on narrative and management and narrative and politics. Because I intended the seminar to be in-person rather than using Zoom, the pandemic has deterred me.

The Opportunity: IPAC’s New Professionals Conference

After waiting a year for in-person adult education to resume – and with no idea when it will – I overcame my reluctance and seized an opportunity to develop an online pilot. The Institute of Public Administration of Canada’s Toronto Regional Group organized an online conference for new professionals on “Building Skills for a Post-Pandemic World.” The conference was held last week, and it included sessions on the future of the post-pandemic workplace, advocacy, change management, and – my contribution – personal storytelling. My title: “Tell an Inspiring Story and Get the Job.” I appreciate the efforts of the organizers of the conference, themselves new professionals, who developed an exciting program and deliver it flawlessly online.

My presentation, like the others, was scheduled for 30 minutes, which I divided into three 10-minute segments.

Introducing Concepts

I began with some key concepts I use in understanding stories and storytelling. These include narrative transportation (the science of how stories impact emotions), my four-quadrant matrix of public sector fables, Erik Erikson’s eight-stage model of the human life cycle, and Don McAdams’s concept of life stories. My intent was to get participants thinking about telling stories that describe their experiences, explain their identity, and move their audience.

Telling their Stories

After the introduction, I gave an assignment to be answered then and there in Chat. “Tell the story of why you chose a career as a public servant. Can you make your story i) specific, ii) vivid, iii) inspiring to others?” I also told them that I would not consider “because they have a good pension plan” a good answer. At first, silence. Then the 50 people in the audience started writing, and the answers came quickly. Here are paraphrases of a few of them:

  • Because I came from a background where people suffer injustices and their voices are not heard
  • Because I wanted to give back for the support I received when I immigrated to Canada
  • Though I wanted a career in law, a professor convinced me that I could have a greater impact on society making public policy
  • Because my grandmother was a public servant and my role model in many other ways and I wanted to emulate her
  • When my youngest child began university, I used my experiences in the non-profit sector to launch a career in the public service
  • Because it was a stable career that allowed me to focus on my recovery from substance abuse
  • Because a job as a summer student got me interested in transportation policy

Though we could not see faces or hear words spoken, it was clear that people wrote with passion and from the heart. In person, we would have seen their body language, heard their voices, and and reflected on the images they evoked. This would have been more compelling, and our discussion of their stories would have led to a deeper sharing of experiences.

Takeaways and Suggestions for Reading and Watching

In the final ten minutes, I provided some takeaways about how to use the concepts that I had introduced, as well additional reading and watching. Additional readings included my paper, co-authored with Beth Herst, on the use of narrative in political campaigning, a chapter by McAdams on identity and life stories, and Everybody Rides the Carousel, an animated film that explains Erikson’s developmental model. And I referred to the recent life story videos that launched the political careers of M.J. Hegar and Amy McGrath, the subject of a forthcoming post.

The enthusiastic reception I received for this presentation, despite the challenges of doing it online, has provided proof-of-concept for my personal storytelling seminar. I now envisage a seminar that I would run for either half a day or an entire day. I would provide a deeper exploration of storytelling concepts and approaches than I did in 30 minutes. And participants would be given the opportunity to tell several different types of stories and share their experiences. I look forward to launching.

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