Storytelling in Your Organization

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
The next time you are talking to someone think about what body language you are offering: Is your chest open or are your arms crossed? What are your hands doing? Is your posture up straight or are your shoulders rounded?  Your body can effect the feeling and energy of how you’re coming across, and it can be different depending on your culture or the cultural background of the people in your audience.

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.

 

Next Steps:

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:

https://faithandleadership.com/leanne-betasamosake-simpson-reimagining-the-rich-tradition-indigenous-storytelling

2)    An article from Columbia Climate School about the unique traits of Indigenous storytelling:

https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2021/09/02/narrating-landscapes-how-indigenous-storytelling-can-unlock-our-environments-past/

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

References

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.

The Future of the Campfire

by Nathaniel Rose

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.

 

“I went camping with my family when I was growing up. And I still love campfire marshmallows. For me, it’s very important. They have to be burnt. Like, I want the flaming ball that I get to blow out. And then I eat it. A lot of people like it just to be lightly toasted and brown on the outside. And soft. Nope, it’s got to be charred. And so that’s how I eat a marshmallow.”

  – Dani Money

 

If you have a conversation about campfires, roasting marshmallows is bound to come up. As was the case with Dani Money, the Planning Section Head at BC Parks, when I sat down with her to discuss the future of the campfire. I’m sure after that introduction, you’re dying to know how I, Nathaniel Rose, Knowledge Gatherer for Canadian Parks Collective for Innovation eat a marshmallow, but I’m not going to tell you.

Okay I will. I actually prefer to roast them slowly, down near the embers, so that they cook evenly through. So you can imagine my disappointment with Dani, when I heard she likes to burn hers to a crisp. Okay, kidding again. But I think this brings to light one of the beautiful things about a campfire – it allows for people to have experiences that they wouldn’t have anywhere else. And a lot of these experiences are social and provide a feeling of happiness or contentment.

That’s why the future of the campfire is such an important issue. So I was thrilled to get to talk about this Dani Money about it. After conducting some research, here’s a bit of what we came up with:

Fires have been used by the human population for millennia. Not only did the discovery of fire allow us to cook our food increasing brain function, but fires gave us a space to socialize and build community. When fires first became popular with our (human) species, they added four hours to our working day (1). Cooking and eating didn’t take up the whole extra four hours so it opened up a time slot that could only be used for conversation and storytelling (1). There wasn’t enough light to forage for food and make tools but there was enough light to interact socially (1). Having fires therefore was essential to community building.

Today, campfires are still prevalent, especially in the park setting. Campfires in parks have been used to keep warm, cook and socialize for generations. I bet a park leader today would not be able to argue with the fact that campfires are a key component of the camping experience.

However, as park leaders, we have a responsibility to ensure the health of visitors. Do the benefits of campfires outweigh the negative aspects? Let’s take a look:

 

Negative Impacts

Campfires have many health impacts and are also a cause of air pollution. According to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency in the United States), fine particles from woodsmoke can trigger asthma attacks, make asthma symptoms worse, make you more susceptible to lung infections including that from Co-vid 19, and trigger heart attacks, strokes, and irregular heart conditions, especially in those already prone to these conditions (6).

Campfires can also cause noise disturbances as people stay up late into the night socializing around the fire.

It is also possible that campfire wood that visitors bring in could hold invasive species within the wood. This could introduce the species into the park area, that could have a potentially damaging effect on the local tree population or ecosystem. One example of invasive species that was brought into parts of BC, and widespread in Eastern Canada is the Gypsy moth (3). This insect eats the leaves of trees to an alarming effect, making it hard for the trees to survive.

Female Gypsy Moth

Another invasive species that has been recently affecting large parts of Southern Ontario is the Emerald Ash Borer. It is a wood-boring beetle, that “bores” through Ash tree trunks, eating through and inhabiting the wood. It is native to China and the Russian Far East and arrived in Canada in the 1990s, most likely on wood packaging material (4). According to the Government of Canada, millions of trees have been killed due to this Beetle’s infestation. (4)

Author’s Note: 

“The Emerald Ash Borer affected the area around my cottage on Southern Georgian Bay. We had to take more than eleven ash trees down on my property as the insect had chewed its way through their trunks. You can actually see the little pathways in the wood where the Ash Borer drilled its way through, eating the wood. A good tip would be to check your firewood for signs of insect infestation before use”

After a quick summary of these negative impacts, one might want to go running as far away from a campfire as possible. But there are also many positive impacts to campfires.

 

Positive Uses

Campfires have many social and cultural uses that the average person may not have thought of. Shawn Davis, a professor at Slippery Rock University in Pennslvania notes that because campfires are built in a circular fashion, people face one another, which provides more opportunity for connection than say watching the television would, where people sit in a linear fashion (2). Jennifer Willford, associate professor of psychology notes that being around a fire creates “comfortable emotions” of happiness, tranquility, and connection. It can elicit positive emotions that allow us to be more open and also allow us to be more present without the daily distractions of cellphones (2). Campfires also have a therapeutic effect: the sound of fire crackling can have a calming affect on humans and act as a de-stressor (2), just as the trickling of water in streams or the sound of the breeze through leaves of a tree would do the same.

Campfires are also used in Indigenous communities for healing ceremonies and learning opportunities. The Anishnabeg, native to Turtle Island, concentrated around the Great Lakes, use fires for healing ceremonies and as a gathering place for workshops. Fires hold a space to meet as a community and learn traditional knowledge (5). For example, one workshop offered by Anishnabeg Outreach, a not-for-profit organization with locations in different parts of Ontario, is a “spirit building workshop” that focuses on creating resilience for you and your family as well as “growing the ability to deal with change, stresses and uncertainties in life” (5). The workshop begins with circle questions and is intended to “light the fire within you” (5). The traditional knowledge learned around the fire includes learning a “deep sense of self and belonging and ways to integrate Indigenous culture into your daily life” (5).

If one were to ban or take away campfire use, it could be a potential barrier to the Anishanabeg as they wouldn’t be able to have healing and spiritual experiences around the fire. Fires are also used as a gathering place for Anishnaabe families and a ban on fires would take that opportunity away.

 

Author’s Note: 

“One memory I have around the campfire, was from a Grade 9 trip to Camp Walden (a camp in Southern Ontario) that I took with my arts high school. While I was there, I connected with several dance majors, and I remember one night we sang songs by the fire. I remember it as such a beautiful experience of bonding, and I was friends with these people for the rest of my high school career. If it wasn’t for that campfire, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to sing with each other”

Solutions

Given that there are so many benefits to campfires maybe it is worthwhile to look at potential solutions to the negative impacts of fires. 

When I went camping as a child there were regulations in place to deal with campfire use in parks – regulating the time they could be used and placing a ban on campfires after a certain time at night. This dealt with noise pollution and air quality at night. These regulations still exist and offer a partial solution to visitor complaints.

In response to the invasive species problem, one solution could be to only allow firewood to be bought from the local area or park itself, while ensuring that the wood is sourced locally from healthy trees. However, this may create an economic barrier to some, who planned on taking wood from crown land, rather than purchasing it.

Park Operators can also offer an alternative to burning wood. Propane Rings available at a rental price from the park could be a viable alternative. They consist of a metal bowl, lava rocks, and a connection for a propane tank that acts as the fuel for the fire. They provide both a gathering place and a place to cook food. Group campfires could be an option if they are housed in a specific part of the park so that noise pollution and campfire smoke would be isolated to that area. This could help meet the needs of neighbours and campers that worry about noise and pollution. However, it would be important to take into account the level of comfort zone that certain people would have with sharing the fire and cooking with others.

Park Leaders could also provide education on campfires – looking at ensuring people are respectful to other campers, looking at the pros and cons of campfires and keeping them mindful of the air pollution caused by fires that can lead to climate and health impacts.

After a quick look, it looks like campfires have many positive impacts and uses, from building communities, providing a space for connection, de-stressing and relaxing, and providing a space for Indigenous workshops and healing ceremonies. Whether or not these benefits outweigh the negative impacts to human health and the environment seems more like something to be decided by each individual that visits an overnight camping site. Maybe, as park leaders, we can only try to mitigate the negative impacts by providing solutions that ensure that visitors can enjoy campfires in parks with a clearer conscience and a healthier body.

Call to Action

What do you think? Do the positive outcomes of campfires outweigh the negative outcomes? How have campfires been treated in your park? Do you have an experience with campfires in parks? Please leave a comment below.

Sources

1) Dunbar, Robin I. M. “How Conversations around Campfires Came to Be.” PNAS, National Academy of Sciences, 30 Sept. 2014, https://www.pnas.org/content/111/39/14013.full. Accessed 13 Dec. 2021

2) Zackal, Justin. “SRU Professors Spark Conversation about Campfire Day.” Slippery Rock University, Slippery Rock University, 2 Aug. 2019, http://www.sru.edu/news/080219b. Accessed 13 Dec. 2021

3) “Buy local, Burn Local: Play your Part.” Invasive Species Council of BC, Invasive Species Council of BC, https://bcinvasives.ca/play-your-part/buy-local-burn-local/#:~:text=Two%20examples%20of%20introduced%20insects,established%20and%20damage%20local%20trees Accessed 3 Feb. 2022

4) “Emerald Ash Borer.” Government of Canada, Natural Resources Canada, 13 July 2021, https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/our-natural-resources/forests/wildland-fires-insects-disturbances/top-forest-insects-and-diseases-canada/emerald-ash-borer/13377. Accessed 3 Feb. 2022

5) “Wellness and Healing.” Anishnabeg Outreach, 2021, https://aocan.org/wellness-and-healing/. Accessed 13 Dec. 2021

6) “Wood Smoke and Your Health.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency. https://www.epa.gov/burnwise/wood-smoke-and-your-health#health Accessed 2 Mar. 2022

Photos

Gypsy Moth Photo sourced from “Creative Commons

Peaks and Valleys: Nothing is More Natural than Grief

By Karly Upshall 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.

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