Karen Eber: How Storytelling Can Shape School Culture

Karen Eber discusses the power of storytelling to influence school culture to reach your school community.

By SchoolCEO Last Updated: March 15, 2023


SchoolCEO and Karen Eber discuss the power of storytelling to influence school culture, increase your ability to win hearts and minds, and reach your school community.


Karen Eber is a global leadership consultant and keynote speaker. Her talk on TED.com: How your brain responds to stories – and why they’re crucial for leaders has 2 million views. As the CEO and Chief Storyteller of Eber Leadership Group, Karen helps companies build leaders, teams, and culture, one story at a time.

Karen works with Fortune 500 companies like General Electric, Facebook, Kraft Heinz, Kate Spade, and Microsoft. She guest lectures at universities including the London School of Business, MIT, and Stanford. She is a former Head of Culture, Chief Learning Officer and Head of Leadership Development at General Electric and Deloitte and is a frequent contributor to Fast Company.

Join a conversation about:

  • Using stories to turn No into Yes
  • The common mistakes of storytelling,
  • Better ways to get your community to really hear what you’re telling them,
  • Drawing out better everyday stories from teachers,
  • How you can approach storytelling to increase your influence and inspire your school community.


[Intro Music]

Karen Eber (Guest): You might have the story of who you are, and you might have the story of who you aspire to be or where you're going, or who your students and families aspire to be. Getting clear on that can be really helpful because in stories we connect with, groups that we want to be a part of or that we are a part of, that we feel that sense of belonging, but we also connect to that aspirational, this is who I want to be or who I want to become.

Schools have a wonderful opportunity, whether they're new or whether they've been around for some time, to share some of these examples of things in their history that embody who they are, the values that they uphold, what students can aspire to or experience. You can get to these stories that are gonna give illustrate moments of here's someone that upheld our values and what that looked like.

Here's where we're going. Look at the distance that we've traveled from when we started, or even from, I don't know, pick a moment in time, the pandemic to now. It all comes down to what it is you're ultimately trying to have the audience do, but you can absolutely connect them to it. The thing that is really powerful in storytelling is specificity.

So sometimes telling the smallest story you can and then zooming out is powerful.

Tyler Vawser (Host): Welcome to SchoolCEO Conversations podcast. The goal of the show is to level the playing field for superintendents and other school leaders. If you're someone that is responsible for leading and taking control of how your community thinks and feels about your schools and district, this is the show for you.

I'm your host, Tyler Vawser, and to that end, I sit down with leaders in education and authors and researchers in the private sector to discuss how to better market your schools. Based on SchoolCEO Magazine, this podcast is dedicated to the practice of school marketing.

Karen Eber is a corporate anthropologist and chief storyteller. Karen has been a head of culture and chief learning officer at General Electric and head of leadership development at Deloitte. She's developed 90,000 employees in 150 countries and is a four time American training and development winner. Her work helps organizations build leaders, teams and culture, one story at a time.

Later this year, Harper Collins is publishing her first book, The Perfect Story: How to Tell Stories That Inform, Influence, and Inspire. And in this conversation, together we discuss using stories to turn no into yes, common mistakes of storytelling, better ways to get your community to really hear what you're telling them, drawing out better everyday stories from teachers, and how you can approach storytelling to increase your influence and inspire your school community.

Let's join the conversation.

Karen, thank you so much for joining SchoolCEO Conversations, and I invited you to come on because you talk a lot about storytelling, but from a different kind of angle, and I think that has to do with culture, right? Employee culture and the stories that we're telling to our different audiences.

And for school leaders, so much of their work has to do with a number of different audiences. They have one organization, but there's a lot of complexity behind the different audiences they have. To start with, I'd love for you to share your background and a little bit more about how you got into this, and how you've become a chief storyteller, which I think is one of the best titles I've ever heard.

Karen Eber (Guest): My background isn't really that different than what people are experiencing in schools because I spent half the majority of my career working in Fortune 500 companies like Hewlett Packer, Deloitte, and General Electric, and I was in these roles where I was head of learning and development or chief learning officer, head of leadership development, chief culture officer, and you have these populations that are all over.

In General Electric, I had 90,000 employees in 150 countries that I was supposed to shape culture for. You're talking different geographies, different time zones, different professions, different interest career levels, and you still have to connect with them, and the only way you connect with people is when someone thinks about what something means for themselves individually and what they want to do about it.

Tthat's a big part of where my storytelling really accelerated. I'm combining both answers for you because they're all interwoven. I have been in these positions where you need to get a yes out of a group or an organization, and very few people, like maybe two or three, have the ability to say yes, but almost everyone has the ability to say no.

And I found that as I told stories in these roles, it slowed that no and it got some of those people who might say no on your side and they ended up help influencing the yes. I realized at a really early part in my career that stories are just this dynamic way to connect with people, to expand thinking and to introduce ideas and more importantly, to lower defensiveness because you can get empathy for a situation that you've never been in.

My love for storytelling started when I was really young. I would go to the library and check out as many books as I could, and then we'd check out even more on my mom's library card because I loved reading that much. Stories have always been something that I think about and have loved being a part of and enjoying.

I spent that part of my career in the Fortune 500 and decided to open my own company where I would be able to work with Fortune 500 companies and bring this expertise of how you're building leaders, teams, and culture, shaping them one story at a time.

Tyler Vawser (Host): Very cool. I want to dig into something you said earlier, which is when you're talking to an audience, only a few people can say yes, but almost everybody can say no.

Can you explain that a little bit more?

Karen Eber: Most of the positions I had were in the learning and development or leadership development or culture space, which in businesses, often falls in the HR function. If you are the person that is divvying up the money, the budget, that's often the place that gets shortchanged, right?

Because you're going to make sure you have funding for research, you've got funding for your products that you can market and sell, and the whole learning and development space is often shortchanged. Wrongly in my opinion, but it happens. That means that there aren't deep pools of funding and investment to bring new skills, new ideas, new development, or when you have an idea of how you can change the way that people are interacting and really developing throughout their career.

You need to get people on your side. All of the work I've done has been, not in the area of technical development, but in the areas of leadership and communication and trust and empathy. These aren't things that are an easy yes no. They're things that when you're trying to get a program or to change thinking or to just introduce a concept, there's not always this immediate yes.

The more you can connect with people and get some groundswell, it makes a difference. In those groups that didn't always have deep budgets, it was helpful to tell stories, to get more people who might try to stop what I'm trying to do and route funding in their direction.

The stories were the way to help kind of intercept that and get them to see what was possible and join my side.

Tyler Vawser: I'm curious if you can give an example of something where, or an audience where you were talking to them and you were talking at them, you weren't getting very many yeses, and you found a way to use a story to turn nos into yeses and get them on your side, or to get them to at least entertain the idea of how you were thinking about something.

Karen Eber: It was a leadership team, a C-suite team, that had been having lots of problems for a long time. In every meeting, every monthly meeting, the team would come together and they would do the same thing. They would start to review the revenue, the financials, the operations, and then they would look at this issue around quality that they had.

They were just continually hemorrhaging money around quality, and the thing about quality is it's often not design or fabrication or build, it is a lack of communication or a lack of trust, or not having the right channels in place so that people who know that there's a problem can feel comfortable escalating it.

I watch this team for a couple months, just keep doing the same thing and putting more operational decisions in place. Well, if we do this, that'll stop it. What most people do, right? If we control, then it's gonna be better. And what they needed to admit was this was a communication and trust issue.

And that it could be addressed, but they had to be open to that. That's a really, really hard thing for a leadership team to embrace because you feel like, well, if we admit that, then we kind of feel like we're failing as leaders. Like how did we let that happen? So it's a natural thing to be defensive about.

I joined them in their meeting and I started to talk about NASA and I described the unfortunate disasters they had with the Apollo, the Challenger and the Columbia missions, where unfortunately there are these tragic accidents where the astronauts died. What happened in each of these situations is they did these after action reviews, and it turned out each time, someone knew there was a problem and they didn't bring it forward because they thought they would be blamed or they thought someone more senior would address it or they thought that it just wouldn't be taken seriously or they did bring it forward and it was dismissed.

NASA had to really examine what they had created and why people felt like they couldn't say, no, we're not gonna launch. No, it's not safe. There's something that's not right here. They went through a lot of work to implement a safety culture. And so to this day, any employee at NASA can pull a launch, which is amazing because you now have SpaceX and you have Boeing, and you have all of these other companies that are launching at NASA, but they have implemented a safety culture where anyone can stop it.

I told this story and I made sure to connect to some of the same things that this group was facing. What happened is instead of them saying, no, no, no, this isn't our problem. We need more decision. We need more rules, we need more whatever, they recognized, oh, we're not the only one that struggles with this, and that doesn't mean we're failures.

There's maybe a different way we should be looking at this and there's something different we could consider. It allowed for them to start to dismantle this wall that this team had put up and have different conversations, and they came together and really worked through stuff to get to a different outcome.

The story allowed for them to be vulnerable, but allowed for them not to wallow in shame and failure, which can be just crippling for any team.

Tyler Vawser: I love that. What's the difference between an example and a story? Is there a difference?

Karen Eber: It's a good question because I use both. I think to me, whether it's an example or a story, what you want to strive for is how are you really engaging the listener's brain or the audience's brain.

If you give an example that is very generalized. An example I hate is the phrase culture eat strategy for breakfast. Like everyone says it, I don't even know what it means. When you hear it, because it's used so much, your brain just tunes out. Whether you are using an example or a story, you want the brain to pay attention, and so you want to put in specific details that people can connect to and that they can see. You want to engage senses.

It's great to use a really vivid example because that will immediately capture someone's attention and they're going to remember that. That's almost a mini story. It doesn't matter what you use, but you don't want to be general, you don't want to use the phrases that everyone else uses.

You want to be really specific and think about how can I be memorable here and get the person's brain out of lazy mode.

Tyler Vawser: Interesting. Yeah, I can see that. I think a lot of times, we give examples because they're quick and they're easy, but I think they're devoid of what you said, like more details or my perspective as the storyteller.

It's just the facts, right? Just the facts. I am curious, how do you take an example, like maybe there really is an example that could be more of a story, but how do I turn that into an effective story that gets my audience to understand how I'm thinking and is more memorable than just an example?

Karen Eber: Let's use an example that's not relevant for any of us. If you think about when physicians go on hospital rounds, they enter the room and they hear something like, patient is a 35 year old woman who has appendicitis, peritonitis, this is day whatever after surgery is, these labs were ordered on these meds, this is the course of treatment.

It's all very much a list of events in a way to inform and see if anything's needed, but also, in a way that the moment they leave the room, they don't remember it and hold onto it because they have to be able to move to the next thing and not be stuck.

That's not going to be memorable or helpful, right? It's very transactional. It's like when someone's reviewing a bunch of data, if you're really paying attention, it's great, but there's nothing to stick to it. But if they didn't list it that way, and instead of 35 year old woman that they describe as Jolene who is at her friend's bachelorette party when her appendix burst and was rushed to the hospital.

You could tell that in a more dynamic way and it would be more memorable. You would connect with it differently, which would be the version that Jolene would tell her friends. The biggest difference is a story isn't just listing events, it's how you are dynamically helping us feel like we're there seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, tasting, experiencing things.

I often will hear people say, oh, but we don't want to get emotional. We leave our emotions at the door and we don’t. We have bad days, we're tired, we're frustrated, we're depleted, we are overjoyed to situation, like all of these things are there and true. The more we work them in, the more the listener thinks like, yep, been there, I know what that is.

Tyler Vawser: Can you talk about the science of that? I was going to ask this later in the conversation, but you're starting to touch on it. So, why do stories work that way for humans? Why is that the thing that helps our memory so much more than a set of facts or just a list of details?

Karen Eber: A lot of people will say we're wired for stories. We are not wired for stories. We have a brain that stories travel down greatly, but there's plenty of stories that we hear that are terrible that we don't remember. The difference between a story and a great story is how it engages the brain a the reason that stories are so memorable is multi-layered.

One is that as I tell a story, you as the listener experiences the same neural activity that I do. I'm talking to you about walking through the snow and the snow is crunching under our feet as we take a step, and you breathe in, you can feel like the cold air traveling up your nostrils, and big wet flakes falling on your cheeks.

Your brain starts lighting up as though you were doing that. It's this term called neural coupling that a neuroscientist Yuri Hassan out of Princeton discovered when he put people in an MRI machine. One person was listening to a story and then would recount the story, and then a second person would come in and just listen to that recounted story.

AWhat they found is that the neural activity was the same in each of the three instances from the person listening to the story the first time, then recounting it, or the person listening to the other one, like same exact activity.

Tyler Vawser: Wow, that's incredible.

Karen Eber: So incredible. It's like this artificial reality. So this is why you if you saw the movie Top Grand Maverick that came out this summer, you're sitting calmly in your seat, but your heart starts racing as though you are in the F whatever, flying it, because your brain is having this artificial reality, you're having this experience. Part of that is that we have all these neurochemicals.

In the simplest term, we seek pleasure and we avoid pain. When we feel connection, when we get goosebumps, when we are having a bonding moment, there's often dopamine, oxytocin, or serotonin that's being released in our body and that's feel good. These are things that we want more of.

When you're listening to a story and you think, oh my gosh, I just got goosebumps, that's why. You are chemically altered just as when you're watching Maverick and your heart starts racing. Your body is dumping some cortisol and possibly adrenaline so that you can focus because those are meant to help you avoid pain and get out of danger.

A great story is not only going to make you have this artificial reality, but it's going to give you this cocktail of neurochemicals that impact your experience. We code experiences into our memories. We code emotions into our memories. As we take in things through our senses, they get stamped with emotion and stored, almost like if you take a photo on your phone and it gets stamped with the time and date and aperture and all of that.

Same thing happens in our bodies. These memories that are stamped with emotion are called upon when our body's making predictions, when our brain is making predictions for the next day or getting us out of situations. These things impact how we make decisions.

We'd love to think that we're these rational beings making decisions based on fact, but a variety of neuroscience research has showed that decision making is actually happening subconsciously based on our past experiences, based on these emotions that have been stamped in there. We are making decisions based on emotion.

When it comes to this level that we become conscious of it, we apply rationalization and that's why we think we're making these rational decisions, but if we did rational decisions, you would either be drinking coffee or not drinking coffee every other week based on whatever piece of research you come out. We make choices based on our emotions and stories connect you to all of that.

You're not just hearing a dynamic, interesting story, you're getting this neural activity in your head as though you are the main character in it. You get all these super cool neurochemicals that allow for you to avoid pleasure or to seek pleasure or avoid pain, and it impacts your decision making.

It touches on every essence of our being. As we experience senses, we store memory with them. This is why you're going to remember a story that is really dynamic and vivid.

Tyler Vawser: Why do we remember negative stories more than positive stories? Or at least that's my perception. And I think for me, maybe it's easier to tell a negative story than a positive one, right?

You go to a restaurant, you have a great experience, you might leave a review, but if you have a really bad experience, you're more likely to leave a review because it feels like a stronger emotion, what's happening there. To me, that's my perception. Is that accurate? And if so, why?

Karen Eber: Yeah, so first I want to offer the disclaimer, I'm not a neuroscientist, but my understanding of the neuroscience that I've read is that the stronger the emotion, the more intense the chemicals are and the more things we feel. So the stronger our emotions, the stronger the memory. There's a relationship there because that stamping is going to happen.

The more you are feeling something, the more neurochemicals you have, that stronger emotion is going to take place. Because what's really happening is these are neural pathways being formed in our brain. This is when you learn a new skill, those neurons travel down the neural pathway, the dendrites grow, and the more you do it, the thicker it gets, the stronger it gets. But also the really intense activity, the stronger it gets. This is why you have a traumatic event and you can snap back right to it when you get a trigger of emotion. It's because emotions make a really impactful experience for us and we associate it.

You have really positive ones too. Think about when you smell a fragrance and it reminds you of a loved one, right? That's a hopefully positive emotion associated with that. Just the stronger the emotion, the the stronger the feeling and easier to recall.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah. I'd love to talk a little bit more about some practical tips for storytelling.

What are some common mistakes that we all make when we're telling stories or when we're trying to reach an audience with the story? What do we get wrong in that process?

Karen Eber: The first one is probably that we tell the stories that we want to tell and not the stories that the audience or listener needs to hear.

We all have our favorite stories and things that we love to share, but just because it means something to you doesn't mean it will mean something to the audience without work. That relates to the second piece of advice, which is stories start with the audience and not with the idea because you really want to be thinking about who you're telling the story to and what you want them to take from it or do.

That means each time you tell a story, it might have a slightly different tweak to it. This is where when people are looking at their populations and they're so different, this is where they can make a story work in any situation.

So if you were going to take, let's stay with Maverick. If you were going take the plot of the movie Maverick and explain it to a seven year old, you would tell it so differently than if you were explaining it to me. With me, you might be able to lean into things that I would understand from having a little more life experience or things that you might guess about me, but for a child, you think you're going to have a basic idea of what they might be able to understand or what you want them to do with it, and you would change it.

Often the plot is the same, but how you connect it to the audience, how you help them relate to it, how you get them to the outcome that you want might vary. It's always really important to start with your audience and think about what do they need, not what is the story you want to tell.

Tyler Vawser: Interesting. We've had Jonah Berger on the podcast before and he kind of talks about the idea the information comes along for the ride and the story is the delivery of it. I'm not sure exactly how he puts it, but it's something like that. I'm curious because so often I think people have information that they want to share and people to remember and so they're trying to take some story and force the information into it as a delivery mechanism and it just seems inauthentic.

I think what Jonah Berger's getting at is a really great story works on its own, and the information has not been forced into it, but it's coming along for the ride, but it's not the focus. The focus is still the story. And to your point, it's the audience and what they need to take away.

Karen Eber: I think if you find that you are trying to really ram a story, it's not quite working, then it needs more work. I know I feel that there are times where I've got this idea in my head for the story and then I try to get it down and it's just not quite working and I have to walk away because I haven't figured out the right way to connect the audience to it.

I do agree with Jonah that a great story works on its own and you don't have to tell a story about the topic. This is something that when people are sharing data or when they're sharing information, they often think, what's the story I can tell in this? When I am working with Fortune 500 organizations that are looking at data, I often tell them stories that have absolutely nothing to do with the data because just for the same example as NASA and this group, there's less defensiveness I can connect to the idea of the story when I'm not.

Feeling a debate about the data or something about it that we have a lot of emotion about already, but if you give me a different context, but you relate the points better, it can often land stronger because I'm not defensive, there's not the same emotions around it and I'm open to it because it's different.

I encourage people don't always think, what is this story here? Telling what I call parallel story that you're then taking points and reinforcing can be just as powerful.

Tyler Vawser: Something that happened actually just today, I told the story that I've heard from someone else and told it to a group of new employees.

But normally I would say, I told the story for X, Y, and Z reasons, see the connection, but I didn't do that today. Instead I just told the story and kind of moved on. What I noticed it actually worked better, and I think it's a lot of what you just said, which is it put them in the right mindset.

Then as we continued the conversation, they were connecting the dots and I wasn't doing that for them. Does that make sense?

Karen Eber: It does, and there's a couple other things. One of the things that I talk about is there are these five factory settings of the brain and it looks at the neuroscience and it looks at how is our brain going to respond to information or a story, and how do you harness that in storytelling?

Based on what you said, it touches on a couple of them because one is this idea that our brain hates for things to be incomplete. It's always making assumptions, and part of that is to make predictions to keep our body alive, but part of that is the faster that it can make an assumption, the faster it can slide into lazy mode and save some calories.

When you tell your story, as you're telling it, everyone's brain is trying to guess ahead of what's coming next.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah. That's interesting. What other mistakes are people making when they try to tell stories?

Karen Eber: Two big ones that I see are that people don't leave themselves enough time. When you see someone that's a really great storyteller and you're like, oh, they're so good, they make it look so easy, I could never do that.

They make it look easy because they've worked at it. It's not that they pulled the story out and it was perfect the first time, it's that they have figured out how to tell a story or how to tell this story, and stories require work and rework and rework and rework.

If you, like many, leave yourself five minutes to tell a story, it might not land the way you want the first time. Experimenting and seeing what people respond to gives you the chance to tweak it. I would always say, give yourself time, give yourself space. Your brain needs to breathe, so where you can do a version and then step away, even if it's 20 minutes that you're stepping away, that space makes a difference because you come back, your brain's kind of working on it in the background because it hates for things to be incomplete.

But you have new perspective. The bigger the speech, the bigger the story, the more time you want to give yourself to be able to tinker with it as you want.

The second one is that people will not put structure on their story. I looks often like it was Tuesday and I went to go meet Mary before lunch and actually I think it was Wednesday because I was running late and I had on this yellow dress and no, no, no, no. It was Tuesday. It was Tuesday.

So as the listener, you've already checked out. Like, who cares? A lot of that isn't important to me as a listener because you haven't even started this story. It comes from a good place because we're trying to recount what happened. We want to do it in a factual way and we're trying to get the details right, but most of those details aren't even important to the story and there's no structure.

In the addition to giving, taking advantage of time, you want to map out a structure for your story because it not only helps you tell it, it makes it easier for the listener to follow. It's giving chunks of it that you know the major things that you want to touch on, and you're going to add things to it, but you need to have a basic structure to make it easy to tell, but also make it easy for the audience to experience.3

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that's really interesting. I see exactly what you're saying, but I also think at a higher level, we see organizations, in this case, schools, do something similar, which is they're trying to get all the details packed in and maybe it's not even in a story, it's just some kind of message, right?

They're not really thinking about how it's going to be received. They're just trying to make sure they've crossed their T's, they and they've dotted their I's. How do we get outside of just conveying information and more into the mind of our listeners?

Karen Eber: Well, the first is if you haven't left yourself enough time, everything is going to be important, it has to be shared, and you lose perspective. When you get the chance to step away and come back, you realize, no, what we really want them to take away are these three things, and those other things maybe aren't as important as we think.

I love this story, there was a movie Lala Land that Damien Chazelle, the director made, several years ago, was an Academy Award-winning film, and it was a musical set in Los Angeles and there were many song and dance numbers, including the opening one, which was on a freeway, very colorful dance number of people singing, dancing on cars, and at the very end you meet the leading characters.

When he got into the editing room, he just felt like the number didn't fit. He had this moment of, what? This doesn't make sense. He pulled every single musical number out of the movie, gone, and he decided everything had to earn its place in the movie.

If it didn't contribute to the plot, help us understand the characters, move things along in some way, it was cut. You have to do this same thing with your stories, which also have information in there. You have to have some space to do it. You want to come back and see has this really earned its place?

When I am working on stories, I prefer to write them first. It helps me get it down and think it through. Even if I'm gonna tell it live, I need that written version. I will do a draft and I'll be like, this is amazing. This is perfect, and then I'll put it away and I'll come back to it the next day and I'm like, what was I thinking?

Half of this can be cut, and then it becomes tighter and tighter and even better. You continue to evolve it and you see it different. Once you start trimming and seeing does this earn its place? if I took this out, what would happen? You start to realize the story, the story emerges, and so the criticality is the space to get perspective.

The closer to the deadline, you back yourself up. The harder it is to do that.

Tyler Vawser: Really interesting. I want to pivot towards organizational stories and what I mean by that is, the stories that a group of people, a school district, a business, an organization, is telling itself about who it is.

I know you've been ahead of culture, you've done a lot of leadership development and talent development, and so I'm curious if you can get us in the mindset of a leader that wants to make sure it's employees, it's staff members, everybody, is thinking about the same story about the organization, where it's been, who it is, and if it's not too much to tackle in one question, where it's going, right?

What are those stories we're telling each other within the same organization?

Karen Eber: First, there's probably not one story that does everything. That's one of the misnomers I think people think, especially when you're thinking about a school or a business, you think, oh, what is the perfect story?

Sometimes we hear things like, what's your origin story? I don't believe in those because they're very limiting and they're good for a context, but they might not be right for your context. What is right is the situation that you have. Recognize that you might have the story of who you are, and you might have the story of who you aspire to be or where you're going, or who your students and, and families aspire to be.

Getting clear on that can be really helpful because in stories we connect with groups that we want to be a part of or that we are a part of, that we feel that sense of belonging, but we also connect to that aspirational, this is who I want to be or who I want to become. Schools have a wonderful opportunity, whether they're new or whether they've been around for some time, to share some of these examples of things in their history that embody who they are, the values that they uphold, what students can aspire to or experience.

People love stories of greats. So what does a great school look like? What are these great moments that people can understand and connect with and say, I want that? You can get to these stories that are going to illustrate moments of, here's someone that upheld our values and what that looked like, here's where we're going, look at the distance that we've traveled from when we started, or even from, pick a moment in time, the pandemic to now.

It all comes down to what it is you're ultimately trying to have the audience do, but you can absolutely connect them to it. The thing that is really powerful in storytelling is specificity.

Sometimes telling the smallest story you can and then zooming out is powerful. Charities do this all the time. Think of the SPCA commercials where you see the puppy trembling in the cage or the cat trembling in the cage while Sarah McLaughlin sings over. You see a puppy or a cat or maybe two or three, and then they zoom out and they tell you the scale of this.

Or the Red Cross when there's a disaster. You hear the story of a family that lost their home and their belongings and they're trying to figure out, and then they zoom out and tell you the scale. If you start with the scale of things, it's sometimes too hard to connect to it, but when you tell the smallest stories you can, we connect to those moments and then we zoom out.

This is why influencers are so popular on social media, because it is one person telling the story of how they use this product or service or book. We see that and we see how they've done it and we think, oh, well that's what I want.

Tyler Vawser: Interesting. A lot of what I hear you saying is that we try to force too much onto a single story.

We're trying, like you started with, we're trying to get one perfect story that can accomplish everything to all people. We tell it and the work is done, and what you're saying is that probably does not exist. Even if it did, it would be difficult to have the time and the memory to kind of capture all of that.

Is that right?

Karen Eber: Yeah, and it's gonna evolve. Sometimes people will say, well, we want to tell our origin story. An example of that, say Amazon told their origin story. Kind of pointless now. They started as a book company many years ago, but they've evolved so far past that like, okay, that's interesting, but the stories they're telling now are very different about the way they're showing up in people's lives or what they're trying to do.

Holding up their origin story and and saying, here's our origin story doesn't mean anything. The same can be true in schools if there's a moment where that might be helpful, but things evolve and there are situations that you just want to be able to think about what is most meaningful today? What do people need to hear today? Look for those stories. We will connect to small stories, definitely. We connect to bigger stories, it's just harder to get one that can touch on everything and do what we want to do.

So I always tell people, you rarely have just one chance to tell a story. Storytelling permits more storytelling.

Tyler Vawser: How do leaders help their own people tell better stories? I'm thinking of a superintendent and a communications director who are listening to this and they think, wow, this is great.

We have the time and we know what we want to convey, but it's often the teachers and the staff members that, one, they're generating a lot of stories because they're in the action and there's many of them, whereas there's only one superintendent. How do they help their own people? To tell their stories better in a way that conveys the goals of a district, right?

If a district really wants to say, we care about student success, or we want this to be the best place for your students at this point in their journey into adulthood, how do we equip teachers and staff to do that more effectively?

Karen Eber: Think about when a kid comes home from school and you say, how was your day?

And they say, fine. And you're like every day, really? You can't give me anything more? You have to ask them different questions. Well, tell me what was the funniest thing you saw today? Who was kind to you today? What is one thing that your teacher did that surprised you? Different questions get different answers.

The greatest place to start in storytelling is to ask questions to identify these moments and you can take anyone and help them uncover a story with questions, because sometimes when you say, tell me a story, it feels way too broad, but you put constraints in by asking questions to specific moments that illustrate these things, and then the stories emerge.

Constraints are the place where stories live, not the bright, wide open canvas. The best way to get people to start telling stories and improve their stories is through questions because you get to that specificity, you get to these moments, and it's really powerful.

I will often do an example if I'm doing a keynote. I'll pick someone in the audience and I will bring 'em up and I will ask them to tell a story of a vacation. Actually, do you want to do this? Do you want to play along and do an example here? Sure. Let's do it. Okay, so think of a vacation that you're willing to share. We're going to do a couple rounds, but I'm going to role model how you can make a story more vivid and let me know when you have an example in mind that you're willing to share.

Tyler Vawser: Okay. I'm ready. Yeah.

Karen Eber: Okay. Go ahead and just take one minute and tell us about this vacation.

Tyler Vawser: The vacation I'm thinking of was around Christmas during our winter break. We went back to Colorado to visit family and we spent time with my parents, my grandfather, I've got four kids, so just lots of family time, it was really good.

I live in Arkansas. It's a long drive to Colorado and back, and the morning we were leaving we realized that I-70 was closed because of bad weather, so we actually had to go south and add an extra three hours on our journey. So we actually spent about 18 hours straight in the car.

Karen Eber: Perfect. Right. You're going on this vacation to see family. You've got this unexpected car ride in detour. I'm gonna have you in a moment tell the same story again, but this time I want you to focus on the colors that you saw.

Tyler Vawser: So, as we were driving back, especially the first couple of hours, just a lot of snow, right?

There was a car that had just gone off the road in front of us. The road was like ice packed. You could hear the crunch and if you had to make a turn, you could feel the car slip or slide behind you. But the good part was as soon as we came over, got past the north face of the mountain of this mountain pass and started on the south side, almost immediately, the, the roads were dry, right?

So like you start to feel the crunch of the rocks as you could drive, and suddenly, the white is off to the side and not right in front of you and you can see, I could see a little bit better as I drove.

Karen Eber: Amazing. What's happening for the listener right now is when you talk about you could feel the crunch under the tires, we can feel that, we can feel like, oh yeah, now we're, we're not slipping. We can make the turn it safely. You're getting these vivid pieces.

I'm gonna have you do the same thing again, but this time I want you to engage the senses even more. Like if we're there, what are we seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, smelling.

Tyler Vawser: It was very quiet in the car, right? I think even though it was three in the morning and my kids were sleepy, they could sense that it was a pretty tense moment, right? You're going up a mountain pass, cars are going off the road. There's not a snowplow. I remember white knuckling it, right?

I've got my hands on the steering wheel pretty tight. I grew up driving in the mountains, and I know how to drive in it, but it's been a while and so yeah, pretty quiet and that tension in the air that like, hope we get to the top of this thing because if we don't, we're going to be in a snowbank for the better part of a day.

Karen Eber: Amazing. So, where we started was you talking about this vacation to go reunite with family and take your four kids and see people and then this detour, but now we're in a completely different spot. We've uncovered details that are really vivid because oh my gosh, it's three in the morning and it's silent in the car.

We feel your anticipation of, is this, did we make a smart decision? Is this okay? And your knuckles are white? Now we've experienced a completely different story. First, thank you for humoring me. But that's a perfect example of, in about three minutes, we dug into your story and uncovered details and felt like we were right there in the passenger seat with you.

Like taking shallow breaths, like thinking it's gonna be okay, it's gonna be okay. We are not driving home this way. You know, all of those things. And that's the same thing that anybody can do. It's just asking some questions to get to and you know it when you hear it, to get to the meat of what is really interesting, cuz you know when you're listening, you're asking questions of like, oh, tell me more about that.

That's something that we want people to know more of and so it's no different than almost a coaching conversation where you're asking questions, you just. Peel back and start to uncover different things. But you can't ask the yes no. Like you do with kids coming home from school.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah. What I like about that is, and when I'm talking with communications directors, this often comes up like, how do I get more stories from my district right from around?

Like what do I do? And I think a lot of times the answer that, They're, they're, the solution that we're creating is just like, oh, like put a form on a website, ask people what's going on. But I, what I like about what you're saying is we have to be intensely curious. If we want people to tell stories that are impactful and meaningful, instead of saying, what is the story?

Say, tell me more about that. Or Tell me more about what it was like in that moment. What was, what day of the week was it? What was the temperature outside? Could you feel the tension? Right? Those types of questions, and I like that because one, it, it puts us. In control. If you're the communications director or the superintendent trying to get more information, it puts you in control while still honoring that person's experience by at like valuing their time and saying, I want to know more, but I don't think you've told me everything that you experienced, and I care enough to know about that.

Karen Eber: Yeah, well, if we took your example, there's probably 10 different stories in there. Stories about your family and the outdoors, and the last time you did drive in the snow like that, like they could all be sliced into pieces. But we don't know. We have stories. If I said to you, go to this website, fill out a form and tell me a story, you'd be like, um, I, I don't have any stories.

And you need someone to hold up a mirror and be like that. Tell me more about that. That is really interesting because just like you said, it says, I see you, this is really interesting. I wanna know more, and other people wanna know more. Unfortunately, our generalization is I don't, I don't have stories to tell.

And by the way, I'm a professional storyteller and I go through this when I need to tell. I'm writing a book. As I was writing the book, I had to come up with some different stories. I'm like, I don't know what stories I'm gonna tell. And then I work the process and you figure them out. But it's until you get the constraints and you keep digging, you figure that out.

When you don't have enough constraints, it just feels so wide open that your brain doesn't know which of these files to access to pull up a story.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that's fantastic. I think when it comes to internal communication and culture, what you were just saying is really important as well, which is sometimes we can see the story of someone else and what they did better than they can see it themselves.

And I think there's a real service and thoughtfulness to telling someone the story where they're the main character may not realize it. And even going back to what we were saying earlier, like if you have values or you have a certain culture and you're trying to emphasize that, finding the person or people that are demonstrating that, but that story may be something that you observed that they're not even aware of.

And I can think of many examples where we're talking about thoughtfulness or high performance, but we don't always give an example, but we don't always put a person behind that and put them in their shoes and in the setting the way that we just did with the trip story.

Karen Eber: So let me give you a different example because I told a story to open my TED Talk.

That was a story that I actually used when I was in the head of culture role because I was in a spot where I was trying to get leaders to recognize the power of empathic leadership and how when employees feel seen. And understood they perform better. There's a healthier, you know, there's more psychological safety, better environment.

So instead of saying, here are all the things we value and a great leader and what trust looks like and how you do these things, I told this story, which is not about me, it's about two situations I observed. This woman, Maria, was walking into the office one day at work getting in the elevator to head up to her floor, and she has arms full of bag and lunch and folders and phone and keys, and as she goes to push the button, the phone falls out of her hand, bounces on the floor, and just goes right down the elevator shaft.

You can imagine her heart sinking as it just gets out of her reach of her hands, and it hits the ground, two floors below in the elevator shaft. It's an Apple watch. She pings it on her Apple watch and sees it's amazingly still working. So she's standing in the door trying to figure out what to do with the door, closing in on her, and she realizes.

I'm going to go see Ray, the security guard, and as Ray sees her walking up, he is so happy to see her because most people walk in the building and they do like the polite nod and finger wave, but they don't talk to him except Maria does because she's one of these people that knows your birthday and where you took your last vacation and your favorite food and the last movie you saw.

And it's not that she's this uber nosy person, it's just that she really cares. And if she tells him what happens, that smile goes away. And he says, this is gonna be crazy expensive because I have to call in a service call. They've gotta shut down all the elevators and climb down into the shaft, like it's probably gonna be $500.

And she said, well just, just call and get a quote. If it's under two 50, do it. And if it's not, let me know. And I ironically am walking through the lobby at this moment. See Maria take her up to her office. She sits down and in her head she's like, Processing. It's not just a phone, it's the phone wallet.

Because Maria crossed over this age where she carries the phone wallet, that age threshold. So it's her driver's license, her badge, her car keys, like everything. So she can't go anywhere. But she also doesn't have the phone. Like does she pay this huge price or does she get this back? Ray calls her desk 10 minutes later and he says, I was looking at the certificate in the elevator and it's due for inspection next month.

I can call it in today and get your phone back free, no charge. Same day this happens. I'm reading this article in the New York Times about Walt Benninger, who's the CEO of Charles Schwab, and he's describing how he had perfect Straight As in college, headed to his last exam of his university career, in his business class, like already visioning, graduation, and his life passed.

It gets in the room and the professor says, turn over your paper, and when he does papers, blank. Both sides are blank and all the students are looking around the room trying to figure out what's going on. And he says, I have taught you everything there is to know, except this one thing. What is the name of the person that cleaned this room?

And he did not know. And he felt that embarrassment like washed over his face cuz you saw her, he'd even, you know, said hello to her. But he never met her and her name was Dottie and he vowed he was always gonna know the Dottie's in his life. Yeah. And so I told that story in [00:49:00] General Electric to help all of these people start to recognize what is it like when you feel seen, what is it like when you feel ignored?

And it took off because people connected with it in so many ways. So yes, you could list all of the behaviors, but you tell a story like that and immediately you're like, well, Would I have said a letter of rage each day? Would he have been willing to help me? Would I have known Dotty's name? Like you put yourself in that story without me even asking you to, and in your mind, you're like, you know, I probably should introduce myself to my post person.

Okay, I'm going to do that. So a story can connect the dots in so many ways. It doesn't have to be about you, but every story is personal because I tell that story through my perspective, through what I think the takeaway is, and it becomes very personal even though it's not about me.

Tyler Vawser: Those are two very powerful stories and it's really interesting how they're connected.

What do you call that when you have two stories that are related, but different because I think if you had just told me one half of that story, either side, it doesn't work. It would've been interesting. Right? I think you told it really well. But it's so like the goosebumps moment is how you see how they're connected, right?

What do you call that?

Karen Eber: Yeah, I love that. I call it a parallel story and it actually started as separate stories because Maria's event happened and I remember once we find out she's gonna get her phone and she's relieved and I'm happy for her, and I said, Maria, I'm gonna do something with this, but I don't know what, and then when I sat down to write it, it didn't work.

Like the events were there. It's compelling, but it didn't work. And it wasn't until I saw the New York Times article that I was like, it works. It works. Because alone, they're interesting together. It really hits you in the stomach of, oh yes, the power of making people feel seen. And one is a positive story and one is an uncomfortable story and neither is a hero actually.

They're both kind of uncomfortable, I guess. But that's not a hero. It's about, you know, these awkward moments and people respond to that.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah. Wow. What great stories. I love it. What else do you think we should know about storytelling that you haven't talked about?

Karen Eber: People are afraid to tell stories, thinking that they're not a good storyteller, and just start first.

You already are telling stories with your friends or family around the table, and you've done it for years. So there can be a vulnerability when you're doing it at school or in a setting that feels maybe a little more formal, but that connection is still the same. We are still. Human, you know, there's all of this conversation about ChatGPT right now, and is that gonna replace things?

It's great. It can give you really good ideas, but it's not replacing connection, which stories can do. And so what I would tell people is don't wait for the perfect story. Take your stories and play with them and make them perfect.

Tyler Vawser: Wonderful. Well, thank you so much Karen Eber for joining SchoolCEO Conversations.

Hopefully this gives a lot of stories for people to tell and I think helps us rediscover the stories that you're, like you're saying, that are happening every day, but helps us position them in a way that draws more out of our own experience and also helps others see that experience and brings them into it.

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SchoolCEO Conversations is produced by the SchoolCEO Magazine team and is powered by Apptegy. I'd love to get your advice to make sure this is the most actionable and insightful podcast you listen to. Email me at tyler@schoolceo.com with thoughts and advice. And can you do me a small favor? Go online and share this episode with one friend or a colleague that you think would enjoy it.

Thanks for joining the conversation and take care until the next one.

Follow Karen Eber on Twitter at @kareneber1 or visit her website: https://www.kareneber.com/

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