by Nathaniel Rose
This blog was created in collaboration with Darren McGregor, an Alberta Parks participant in the 2021 Leadership Development Program.
Nathaniel Rose is part of a team of CPCIL Research and Knowledge Gatherers producing content and compiling resources on themes such as inclusion, ecosocial justice, partnerships, conservation, organizational sustainability, climate change and biodiversity, connection to nature, conservation financing, and ecotourism, to support effective and equitable leadership and inclusion in parks and protected areas across Canada.
Storytelling is a skill that we all have. As human beings, story is the primary way we communicate meaning to each other. But some people seem to have a knack for storytelling, and others might shy away from presenting a story. As a theatre professional, I hope to share some ideas and skills needed to be able to bring a good story to life. With a bit of time and a few exercises, you can feel more confident telling your story to others in your organization too.
In addition, in my role as Knowledge Gatherer, I spoke with Darren McGregor, who works for Alberta Parks as Web and Creative Services Coordinator. Part of his job is connecting to different employees across his agency, and helping them tell their story. For example, he has helped Park Interpreters communicate the value of what they do to managers in park agencies. What he noticed is that the interpreters were really good at telling their story to the public and stakeholders — telling stories is parks is what they do — but when it came to telling their story internally to communicate the value of their programs to managers, they were more challenged.
I asked Darren what he thinks makes a good story within an organization, and this is what we came up with:
Part One: Creating A Story
An Arch – good stories have a strong arc. They begin, build up to a climax, and resolve at the end. In theatre, one of the main things we look at when preparing a dramatic scene is the arc: What conflict or tension/challenge is introduced at the beginning, how does the plot/tension build, and then how and when does it resolve? The same thing could go for telling your story within your park agency – how does your story draw people in? Is it with a strong build and a satisfying resolution or pay off? The pay off or resolution could be the main point you are making or the argument your story is trying to serve.
A beginning, middle, and end – To quote Aristotle, one of the first western scholars to write extensively on story:
“A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it. A middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows it. A well constructed plot, therefore, must neither begin nor end at haphazard, but conform to these principles.” (Aristotle, Part VII).
In addition to the arc, having a clear beginning, middle, and end is essential to creating clarity. This comes down to the way you structure your story – if you’re telling your story as an interpreter, for example, it could begin with what inspired you to become an interpreter, and end with where you are today or the opportunity you want to pitch. The middle would include all the juicy challenges and successes along the way.
Growing Awareness – As a theatre director, I am always asking the question “How would the audience react to this?”. This in itself, is an exercise of awareness. It requires the ability to picture yourself watching or listening to the story and trying to imagine how it would come across to someone observing.
However, this type of perspective also requires a level of emotional and personal awareness, and an awareness of how people think. The following are a couple of exercises that are designed to grow your self-awareness in thought and emotion. Personally, I like journalling:
Journaling – keep a journal of your thoughts and feelings after you tell a story. Ask the questions “What worked well?” “What challenges came up -were there moments I stumbled or felt apprehensive?”, “What flowed really well?”, and “What could be improved for next time?”.
Wait a few days, then come back to your journal and see what you wrote. Would you think differently now that some time has passed? What have you learned, and what can you bring with you – either to the next time you meet with the person who heard your story, or for the next time you tell a story.
This process of writing down your reflections helps grow an intellectual and emotional capacity to be aware of how you are doing, and how effective your storytelling is.
Darren notes that it is important to be aware of your body when you’re telling a story, even if you are in the office and not on a stage. While you think about the topic you want to tell about, us this exercise to increase your body awareness:
Body Awareness exercise: Taught by Laurel Paetz, Voice Teacher at the University of Toronto, 2012-2013
- starting at your feet place your hands on your body, palms down
- wake up your feet, your shins and calves,
- pat your body going all the way up to your neck and then arms
Storytelling in Your Organization
How did you feel after completing one of these exercises? Do you have any activities to help you become more aware or your audience or your body?
What stories or challenges do you have when it comes to storytelling in your agency or organization?
Part Two - Delivering Your Story
Relationship – Darren and I agree that as a storyteller one of the main things you need to look at is how your story is coming across. In order to have your story come across well, relationships need to be built so that your story is well received. Building relationships requires patience, communication, building trust and making that first connection. Darren notes, that many times, it is important to have an open avenue of communication between you and the person you want to tell your story to.
Darren notes that one way to build trust is by building reliability – by being responsible in your role and being accurate in the information you provide. That way people in your organization will see you as a reliable source of information.
Starting Relationships – beginning a relationship, can often be one of the most important tasks when you want to have your message received well. Darren notes that many times, that can begin with a simple “Hi” and a smile as you pass in the hall or on the way to the bathroom. Making a personal connection, outside of the work environment can be really important. For example, Darren once noticed that one of his executive directors rode a bike, and because he rides a bike too, he thought, that’s a great way to begin a conversation. To begin a relationship talking about things you have in common is a great way to start, before you then drop some elements about the value of parks or interpreters.
Darren, in fact, rides a bike 360 days a year, rain or snow, and he found that this made him stand out to his fellow colleagues. He discovered his year-round biking was often a conversation starter with people regardless of their position in the organization, who were curious about his frosty beard, staying warm or dry in the winter, and riding on ice. Sharing stories or experiences from commuting on his bike helped him connect with his colleagues through a shared experience or through inspiring his colleagues to try out winter biking. Darren says that everyone has a unique “thing” that can be a conversation starter.
He also noticed that when the executive directors and his office shared space, he would always pass them when going to the bathroom. This was another opportunity, where he could connect with decision makers, while passing by on the way to the bathroom. It gave him an opportunity to just say hi, and foster the beginnings of personal relationships.
Timing – Darren and I spoke about the idea that it is important to suss out the right timing of when to tell your story. For example, if you’re speaking to a manager, and they really don’t feel open to you because they are currently swamped with a busy schedule, it might not be the best time to try to get your ideas across. It may be an opportunity to understand their pressures and the challenges they are facing, and see if there is a way for you to help them. It also may be a good time to say “Hi” and tell them you’re interested in talking with them in the future. Talking to them doesn’t always have to be specific to your ultimate goals, you can get to know them better in the hopes of creating a better relationship for later. In order to suss out the right timing this requires awareness of yourself, your environment and the people you are speaking to.
Speaking your Manager’s or Director’s language – Darren has come across interpreters and other staff who had a hard time effectively conveying the value of their role within the park agency to decision makers (managers and directors). This was because they weren’t able to speak the language of the decision maker. In other words, they weren’t able to make them see, in their terms, why their program was effective. Their words didn’t resonate, and there was a loss of translation between the staff and the decision makers.
For example, Darren spoke about how he has a friend who is a water colour painter. Darren who is more of a science “data” guy speaks with his friend who has a more artistic background, and he found there was a loss of communication if they weren’t able to use common terms to help each other see where they were coming from. The same goes for interpreters talking with decision makers. The language interpreters use to speak with kids in their programming holds value, but they need to use different language and terms when they speak with decision makers or else their story won’t resonate.
One thing that could help you with this is understanding what position your manager or director has. If you understand what tasks and goals they have and what the expectations are of their supervisors, you may be able to help them meet their goals or even figure out a way to make them shine. In that way your story will be seen as positive to them, as you are helping them in the world they live in.
Growing Awareness – As I mentioned in the previous article, awareness is a key component to telling a story. Self awareness and awareness of other people can help you read when your story is coming across well to your audience. The following exercises can help with timing and relationship building skills (the Improv and questions game).
Improv skills: Believe it or not, sussing out timing and making connections to build relationships requires improvisational skills like you would see in unscripted theatre. An easy way to pick up some of these skills is by taking a theatre or comedic improvisation class to build skills of being “fast on your feet”, working through uncomfortable situations, and holding and gaining people’s attention. If this seems a little daunting to you, you can do individual improvisations exercises at home with a friend. Even starting by watching some YouTube videos can give you ideas to think and respond quickly.
Questions Only: One simple exercise is to have a conversation with someone by only asking questions. This causes you to adapt and find creative ways to respond to people. These skills are invaluable when you’re looking to tell a story and foster a relationship.
Vocal Exercises: A big part of telling a story is working with your own voice – both the physical voice you have and the voice behind what you want to get across, such as in the written word. The following is a vocal exercise I took in theatre school that helped me get in touch with my impulses and connect my inner emotional life, to my outward voice. I recommend lying down on a yoga or pilates mat, getting comfortable and doing the exercise where you won’t bother anyone by making noises with your voice.
Voice and Body Awareness Exercise: Taught by Laurel Paetz, Voice Teacher at the University of Toronto, 2012-2013
- Close your eyes, put a hand where you feel your breath going to
- Imagine a swamp in your belly (or area from bottom of pelvis to bottom of neck)
- Connect with impulses, thoughts, feelings coming out of the belly
- Connect with one at a time, one per breath
- Then start saying “ha” on each breath and each impulse/thought/feeling/image
- Talk about any discoveries/experiences after
- Lay on the ground on your back
- Imagine walking on a mountain path-to a lake – to swimming – to lying on your back on the shore-to getting into a hot pool of water – to putting your clothes back on-to walking back to your cabin where a friend of yours is
- With every breath connect to impulse/thought/emotion/image that you felt on the mountain voyage (and it comes from your belly swamp)
- With each breath let out a “Ha” then “Ha ha” then “Haaaaa” (long tone) then “Haaa” on different pitches going up and down then “Haaaa” sliding down your vocal pitch range
- Roll over to your side, feel where each breath is going to/coming in (ie belly, chest)
- Repeat “Ha”, “Ha ha” and “Haaa”
- Move into child’s pose (sitting on heels, head down, palms on ground)
- Repeat “Ha” “Haha” “Haaaa”
- Stand up slowly, walk around room
- Try not to put yourself back together-as this just puts your mind and body back into its old habits.
After speaking a second time, Darren I thought about what voices aren’t typically heard when you learn about storytelling, and we came up with a list of resources to point you in new directions.
1) An article by Leanne Simpson, Anishinaabe Storyteller, Artist and Scholar, where she speaks about storytelling in her culture:
2) An article from Columbia Climate School about the unique traits of Indigenous storytelling:
3) The CBC animated series “Molly of Denali” – an Indigenous show about Indigenous children from Alaska, focusing on them as they rediscover aspects of their cultural heritage. It is targeted towards children but I argue that it has wide appeal. Sometimes it features teachings from Molly’s Grandfather, and other important figures in the community. It is a great example of cultural resurgence -at one point Molly and her friends inspire her Grandfather to begin singing cultural songs again – an example of the younger generation inspiring the older generation to connect again with their traditions.
You can stream it online here: https://gem.cbc.ca/media/molly-of-denali/s01
4) A collection of free online voice exercises you can do at home: www.voiceguy.ca
1) Aristotle. “Poetics”. Trans. S. H. Butcher.The Internet Classics Archive, www.classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/poetics.1.1.html. Accessed 21 December 2021.
2) McGregor, Darren. Personal Interview. 7 December 2021.