Sunday, June 17, 2012

My morning with Hillary and Madeleine

Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright kicked off the inaugural Women in Public Service Project Summer Institute  last week at our alma mater, Wellesley College, and I was there!

The theme of Day One was "The Importance of Storytelling." I was one of many speakers and trainers invited to join the WPSP for its two-week Institute. Its mission: to build a generation of empowered women leaders. When I was asked to come and help these emerging global leaders share their stories, I jumped at the chance! Even as cultural differences loom large, the truth is that every civilization around the globe, since time immemorial, has depended on its storytellers. Sometimes they are truth-tellers and witness-bearers (and there are quite a few of those at the Summer Institute). Sometimes they are the dreamers and visionaries.

But we all have stories that need to be told, truths or dreams that can only be shared through narrative structure that relies on a beginning, a middle, and an end. And we learn anything more easily when it is framed as a story, because our brains naturally accept such a structure. We stay "on track" with any speaker who can guide us down that path.

On Monday afternoon (after the festivities of the morning - see above) I was fortunate to be preceded by the incomparable Judge Nancy Gertner. She recounted a number of professional situations in her career as both attorney and judge when stories supported and proved her point.

I began my tutelage as the delegates engaged in role-playing, working in committees and giving formal policy presentations. My job was somewhat complicated by the fact that many of the global delegates were speaking in English, their second or third language. And some, knowing the importance of their subject matter, were reluctant to use stories to illustrate their points. They were not eager to add the  "distractions" of such narratives to their efficient, ordered analyses. I think they harbored a not-uncommon view that stories trivialize a presentation, undermining the speaker's authority.

But there were others who used stories extremely well. And they showed their sister delegates how to incorporate them to make a point: their eyes lit up, their bodies became energized when entering the "story" portion of the presentation. Such engagement showed clearly that this strategy makes presentations come alive. And makes the listeners care. And listeners act upon what they care about.

Story is a powerful tool!

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