Episode 161: Cyndi Freeman helps others tell their stories
April 2, 2019
Our guest today is Cyndi Freeman, who has 20 years of experience as a storyteller and 8 years of experience as a storytelling instructor. At The Story Studio, she leads classes in storytelling for business, among other courses.
In this episode Cyndi shares some of her own stories and we discuss the key elements that every story ought to have.
You can learn more – and register for upcoming courses – at https://thestorystudio.org/corporate/
Will: Hello Cyndi, welcome on the show.
Cyndi: Thank you. Nice to be here.
Will: I’m psyched. So, Cyndi, you teach, among other courses, Storytelling for Business. And the courses are listed on the storystudio.org, these are in person classes.
Will: And I’ll say first, I have not been to one of these class yet, but I’ve been wanting to go for years and I keep trying to figure out one weekend I can go to it.
Cyndi: They’re super fun.
Will: I’m sure they are. And I’m psyched that you’re on the show today. I understand, so what I was hoping is we could kind of give the listeners a little flavor for one of the courses so people who it sounds awesome to would want to sign up and go do the full version.
Cyndi: Very cool.
Will: So you tell me what’s the best way give listeners the flavor.
Cyndi: To go about that?
Will: Yeah, to go about it.
Cyndi: Well, first of all, I just want to say that I’ve been listening to your podcast and I’ve found it not only really interesting, but I relate to it as somebody who is pretty much self employed and a independent consultant. You know, it’s really neat that you’ve created this fabulous community of people and I just want to say, wow, I was very impressed and I really enjoyed listening to the episodes that I did.
Will: That is very generous of you. So yeah, so I mean you’re an independent professional also. And just give us a quick sketch on your background so people know who Cyndi is.
Cyndi: So where I come from is that I am from an artistic background. In fact, actually most of the people on our stuff either came from an artistic background or came from the business background and then became artists. But we’re all storytellers and there’s a huge scene out there for storytelling. Many people know the RISK! podcast, which is actually affiliated to the Story Studio through our founder, Kevin Allison. But there’s also The Moth, which is a radio show and podcast and there are storytelling shows all over, not just the US, but all over the world.
And it’s people just telling a story from their lives. It’s true stories, it’s personal narrative, it’s saying, “Hey, I went through this, world, this is what I experienced and this is why it’s important to me.” And it’s a really, I think more than any art form I’ve ever been involved with, and I’m a performing artist, story telling is that one where it really encourages people to be authentic and just sort of like grab you where you are and who you are and just present it to the world. And it, “This is me. This is what I’ve experienced and this is my life.”
And I think right now if you look, you know, so much of the media comes at us with so much polish and so many things are slick and reality TV isn’t real. And Twitter is coming at us at these tiny little, you know, 140 character pieces. Storytelling gives us the sort of space to live and breathe and really listen to each other. And I think it’s become as popular as it has on an artistic level because people are hungry to hear from other people. Humans are social animals. We care about people more than we care about anything else. And we’re just so busy that storytelling is that neat way where we’ve found a space. No, just slow down and listen to each other.
Will: And where can people find your stories and hear you?
Cyndi: Oh gosh. If you look me up on YouTube, I do shows all over. I’ve certainly done RISK! So you can go to risk-show.com and look up Cyndi Freeman, Cyndi with a Y, and you can hear a couple of my stories on that show. But that’s my background. And I am an actress and I have done comedy. But once I found storytelling, everything else seemed to go onto the back burner, and this has been my major interest. And then I started teaching about almost 10 years ago as a way of giving back. I started as a volunteer. And I learned a big lesson about volunteering.
I did something because I loved it, just for the love of it. And I started working with The Moth. At the time they needed volunteers for their community program. When the community program grew they needed to actually hire people. And I was one of the first hires for that, which was fantastic, and everything I started learning from them, and I started getting a little paid work. And then the Story Studio reached out to people I knew saying, “Some of our instructors have moved, we need new instructors.” And mt colleagues who worked with me at The Moth said, “You gotta go with Cyndi.”
So that job opened up. And then there was a point where I realized, you know what, I love this so much. Maybe if I just reach out to people and say, “This is what I want to do for a living, I’m going to find a way to do that.” So I let everybody I know know that this is what I wanted to do. And lo and behold, over at Story Studio, they were looking for somebody to do coaching and to do admin and to a take over some of the corporate responsibilities.
And so I just sort of flowed right into that and at this point in my career, my entire living is made through storytelling. And so everyday I get to listen to amazing stories and help people be authentically themselves. And it’s an amazing, amazing way to make a living. And it all started with volunteering doing something that I loved. So that’s one of my big things when people say, “How do you do this?” I say, “Volunteer, just do it. And be good at it and opportunities will come to you.”
Will: That is awesome. So go and volunteer but volunteer for something that you would actually want to keep doing if they hired you.”
Will: So okay.
Cyndi: So yeah, that’s my history. The history of Story Studio is it’s very much connected to the RISK! podcast, which is, Kevin Allison is the founder of both companies. I believe he started the podcast first and it was doing great. It was, you know, live shows. It’s called RISK! because we want risky stories, you know, those things that maybe you don’t, you never thought you would share. And I would say in the end, the feeling from RISK! is resilience. It’s just these things that people go through and come out the other side perhaps a little bit better for it.
And it was very popular and very, you know, right as it was starting, a lot of corporate people were coming to Kevin through the internet saying, “Hey, I love what you’re doing. Can you do that in my business?” And he was, you know, it kind of dovetailed. He knew that teaching was something that should be happening and it was sort of like the interest came to him. And so he took what he has been learning himself as a storyteller, teaching others as he coaches them for the shows. And so we’ve been teaching corporate storytelling, I want to say for about eight or nine years. And really figuring out what it means and what it is.
And so when it comes to business storytelling or corporate storytelling, it’s about, you know, the stories are the things, it’s the glue that connect us. The people see the world through narratives, you know. We are always looking for these patterns of beginning, middle and end, or before and after. And so if you have information, especially technical information or information about a new product, especially if it’s a innovative product where it’s not familiar to people. If you can put the information into this, into a narrative, you’re doing half the work for the listener because we’re always looking for the narrative, what’s the story? So give it as the story. How do these things affect human beings?
Because people are the most important thing to people. And so it’s about taking information in business and really making sure you’re hitting that human point and you’re talking about human beings and you’re talking about a message that has affected human lives. And once you start doing that, the messages you have, like I have had people say to me, you know, “They forgot my name, but they remember my story.” Or reach out to me, you know, the girl who told us about UNICEF, you know. It’s like, “Because I’ve told a story, somebody remembers the story and they look for me.”
So it’s if you have a message and you want it to stick, tell it with a story. And if you want to connect with people, if you want to be remembered, can you tell a story that is going to make you memorable in the way that you want your audience to remember you. Are you meeting somebody and you want them to know you’re an innovator. Can you tell a small story? It could be as simple as something creative you did to celebrate a child’s birthday, but it shows how inventive you are. They’re going to remember like, “Oh yeah, that’s the one with that crazy birthday party story. They’re really creative.”
So it’s about finding these stories that sort of stick in people’s minds. And for business, it’s so much is done through story, whether it be most of our … Not most, but many of our clients are in sales. So it’s the stories that we tell to really connect and have people envision like, “This is who I am now and if I was to use your services, this is what my life could be.” And sometimes it’s just for building morale. I did a whole thing for people in customer service and I remember one beautiful story about, you know, “I’ve solved this problem for other people. I can solve it to you. You’re in good hands,” as a way to calm down a client that was upset.
So there’s so many uses for stories. And I feel I’m on a bit of a tangent, but-
Will: It’s cool. So walk us through sort of abbreviated version here in the show, a little bit of a masterclass of what we would experience if we went to one of your kind of weekend storytelling bootcamps for business.
Cyndi: Well first of all I think what we would do is be very clear the kind of storytelling we’re teaching, because storytelling is an umbrella. I know if you’ve ever like, what does story telling mean. It means so many different things, whether it be an elevator speech, whether it be the story of a brand. But for us we’re talking about the stories that you tell like old school, when you want to prove a point is interesting or true.
And probably the best way to do that is first thing we do is we as soon as we can share a story. So I’m going to share a story with you guys and it’s one of my favorite stories. It is a story of one of my first employers. And I got the job when I was 15. It was a movie theater. And I loved this job, I was a popcorn girl. And it was in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts General Cinemas, and my employer was [Mr. Stryer 00:11:20], Israel Stryer, and he was a character. He was tiny, had a comb over, a German accent and a speech impediment on top of that. And nothing stopped him.
And he liked nothing more than getting on the loudspeaker and just shouting out things, and I’m going to date myself here with like, “Raiders of the [inaudible 00:11:40] is sold out! I say again,” you know, and we’d have to translate for the confused people. And he would always leave the kids laughing, he was a little bit of a clown. But he used say things to me like, “Hey, hey, hey, Movie Star, come here. Come here, come here, come here. Yeah. Here’s five dollars. Get yourself a cup of poison and get one for me.”
And I would do anything this man asked me to do it because he called me movie star. And in fact he [inaudible 00:12:06] all of us with nicknames, nobody was ever called by their real name. It was always something you were good at or what you wanted to be when you grew up. I wanted to be an actress, I was Movie Star. But there was Baseball and there was President and there was Dcotor, and he didn’t work with your kids. He worked with the future movers and shakers of the world. I loved this job. I kept it for actually a total of four years. But two years into it, I was looking at my fellow friends. I was a sophomore in college, and my friends were not working with high school students.
My friends at college had what looked like adult jobs, and I started thinking it’s time to put childish things away. And so I said goodbye to the movie theater. And I asked a friend of mine to get me a job where they worked at the biggest bookstore in Boston, and I was now making five dollars an hour. It was a huge pay raise from minimum wage. I was so excited. But I soon discovered that it was different at the bookstore. Nobody called me Movie Star. In fact, I don’t think the general manager knew my name. And I started getting in trouble, which was something that was never an issue for me in the past. The big one was talking to my coworkers at the movie theater. We were encouraged to be friendly with each other. In fact, there were outings, there was a softball team. We were pals.
Here you needed to look busy, you didn’t need to talk to each other. And I used to get in trouble for reading at a bookstore. And I remember having to sit in a manager’s office. She had this big vinyl book and she reprimanded me on, you know, “This is the third time I’m writing you up for reading. It is not the third time I’ve seen you. One more time and you’re out!” And I had to sign my name on it. But shortly after I started really hating this job. I was there for, at this point, maybe three months. I’m visiting the movie theater just because I love the guy. I want to be around somebody who likes me, and he’s like, “You get a discount at the bookstore, you buy me books.” and I was like, “You got it.” Any favor for this man.
So I buy the books and I’m on the subway heading back to drop them off of him. And I’m looking through them. They’re all business books, which makes no sense to me. This gentleman, he was manager of the year, and no lie, 10 years in a row for the northeast of General Cinemas. His office was floor to ceiling certificates. I couldn’t figure out why he needs any kind of business books. But one of them was called One Minute Manager, which he might know about. But the thesis of it is it takes a minute. It takes a minute to reprimand someone. It takes a minute to compliment someone. It takes a minute to find out your employees’ hopes and dreams and maybe give them a little bit of support. And as I’m looking through this, I’m thinking, “Well, this is exactly what he’s already doing.” And I work at a bookstore where they sell this, but nobody has read this book.
And I get to the movie theater. I open the door, and it’s that waft of popcorn, which smells like absolute joy to me. And I find his office and I knock and I hear, “Movie Star. Oh, you would me a solid. Oh, what can I do in return? I know, movies for the rest of your life for free!” And I just looked at this man with his big blue shining eyes, and I just, before I even knew what I was saying, said, “I just want my old job back.” And he went, “Aww. Get the schedule. There’s always a place for you in the cinema,” you know. So I took the job, back to minimum wage, which was $3.65 and it felt great.
And you can only stay at a minimum wage job for so much time, but a year and a half that I stayed there further I looked at it differently. This wasn’t just a boss that I like, this was a mentor and there was something to learn from him. And I really watched how he understood the importance of people’s morale. And as I moved on, I have had, I actually have many dreams. About once a year I have a reoccurring dream that I walk into that office and I ask him for my job back. And I understand why. It was the feeling I had there, that I mattered, that I was important and that we were all had bright futures.
And when I’m a leader now, I try to do the same for the people who work with me. The thing I think I learned from him the most and the thing that I think is most important for anybody to do when they’re in a leadership position is to understand if you want people to care about the work they do, you really need to show them that you care about them.
Will: Wow. That would be a good story to tell like at a job interview.
Cyndi: Actually, yeah, it would.
Will: Especially if you’re applying to be like general manager of a cinema, but even other stuff that would be, you know, running a bookstore.
Cyndi: You know, there’s many places where that story is useful. I’ve found casual ways to bring it up in the workplace when I was working at a catty environment, to just say, “Well, I once had this wonderful job where all these nice things were said,” you know. And I remember a couple of times remembering, try saying something nice. So there was a coworker I once had who was going through a bitter divorce. She was just very snarky and one day I just walked by her and it was totally authentic, it was the way the light was hitting her, but I said, “You are just so beautiful.” And her morale changed whenever she saw me because she knew that I knew who she really was.
So there’s this thing that I learned from him that’s in that story that I try to use whenever I can.
Cyndi: But let’s pull that story apart a little bit because it’s very technical, the way that one is built. The first question I’ve got is, what is my message?
Will: I mean, it sounds to me it’s about importance of a manager, getting to know the people, and create a relationship with them, make them feel valued.
Cyndi: It’s about value. Yeah. And the messages is, I actually said it clearly at the end, whether people need to memorize that or not. If I had a PowerPoint, maybe I’d even put it up there, which is, if you want people to care about their work, you need to show them that you care about them, you know. And that’s the message that I’m hoping that people will leave with when they hear that. So for stories for business, the most important thing to understand is that stories for business are always preaching. Stories for art are about celebrating life. But stories for business, you have a point that you are trying to make. And if you don’t have a point that you’re trying to make, people will feel you’re wasting their time.
And it’s, time is money, you know, so if there’s a story that you’re always telling you should ask yourself, “What’s the point and can I say it in a sentence?” Because we all know those people who are going to interrupt us and be like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, get to the point.” Well, you should be able to say that point really clearly, you know.
Will: And sort of on that point, what are the types of people that come to the Storytelling for Business course? What typically are the … What are the types of maybe people that they are, like what are the types of stories that people are trying to refine. You know, is it, you said salespeople, is it trying to still tell the story of how they can help, or people trying to tell the origin story of their company to pitch investors. Or what kind of stories are you typically working on?
Cyndi: It’s usually stories about pitching something, whether it’s internal or pitching as in sales. For example, I have this woman come in and she was in the library sciences. So she was hired by a large insurance company, and her job there was to organize information. And she wanted to pitch to her supervising staff that they actually give her six months to do research to create a organizing platform. I know nothing about these things so I don’t even know the language that she was using. But she gave us a lot of technical terms of, you know, this is the kind of program, and this is the kind of research. And our class was looking at her and we were all just confused.
And she said, “Teah, I came here because I can’t explain it to anybody. So she feels like Cassandra. She has this message and nobody does her [inaudible 00:20:38]. Nobody else has a doctorate in library sciences. So we started asking her about why do you feel that this is needed? And she said, “Well, the information needs to be accessible.” So we started saying, “Well who, has this been a problem?” She’s like, “Yes, it’s been a problem for years now.” And then we were like, “Can you give us one specific example?”
And she ended up choosing one and the story she ended up with sounded like this: That one day, we’ll call him Jeff Smith walks into her office and says, “Hey, I’m about to do research on the southwest, car accidents, and I need all the research on the car accidents that have come in and didn’t, you know, filed and claims for the last five years.” And she said, I looked at him and I said, “Hey, you know, Lisa Jones just did that and put that all together about a month ago.” And he says, “What?” And she said, “Yeah, it was a very similar study,” you know, and he’s like, “Really?”
And she said, “Let’s call her. Maybe she’ll just share it with you.” And they get on the phone. She hands the phone to him. And Lisa’s like, “Sure, yeah, no, I just finished that up about a month ago. I’ll give you everything.” And she’s like, “Great. So you don’t even have to do the research. It’s already done.” and he looked at her and said, “Three weeks out of my life have been wasted. Three weeks!” And he said, “Thank you,” and he walked out. And she said, “I want to stop that.”
She said his first step hould have been to check to see, you know, in a data file has anybody done this research recently. And if not, even if somebody did it maybe five years ago, it would still give him a base point to work with. So she wants to create a system where once you have done any form of research, you then put it in with certain phrases so that the next person can come in and search for it before they do any work.
And she said, “This is one person, three weeks of wasted work.” She said, “This is an international company. Can you imagine the money we’re losing, the money that is wasted.” And that was her final story. And I was like, you know, suddenly we all understood exactly what she was talking about. Whether we know the technical specifications or not. We understand the frustration of Jeff. We understand why this is a problem. We understand what three weeks of missed work is. And so she’s taken something that was very technical and put it into human terms. So that’s one kind of story that we often get for business. And that’s again, in [inaudible 00:23:09] selling.
We also often have people that have startups and they’re going to go around and talk about their clothing line, or their cosmetic line, or one of them was candy. So we have people that are trying to find those stories that they use when they’re talking about their business. And then we have people who come to us because they are in the market for a new job and they’re looking for those stories that they can use in job interviews. And then again, it’s sales, it’s selling yourself.
Will: So walk us through kind of the major steps that someone would go through when they’re going through the storytelling workshop that you lead.
Cyndi: All right, so with the story that I gave you, if we’re going to use that as a model, you know, it’s you kind of start off with your message, you know, what is the message that you want to share? There really are two ways to find a story, and it’s usually the message first, and then find, just think in memory, you know, is there any time that this message played out in your life?
The other way to do it is if there’s a story that you know, wow, this is really powerful, then you have to farm it and figure out, well why is it powerful? What is the message? But you want the story and you want the message. And once you have that, it’s really about understanding how to frame things and how to make things come to life. So the first thing I’m going to talk about with you right now is structure. So story structure is, we work with a five point narrative, and it’s not the only way to tell a story, but it’s the most familiar way. It’s the most familiar pattern that we’re used to, because it’s every fairytale you’ve ever told. And I’ll give you-
Will: Once upon a time.
Cyndi: Right. I’ll give you the pattern and then I’ll show you how my story fit into it.
Cyndi: So once upon a time, and that’s your setup, and the movies they say, “In a world where …” And in the setup, you know, we give you normal, this was the deal. And then one day something happens, something challenges what normal is, and we’re suddenly off on some form of a journey. Because of this challenge things have changed and we usually want something. Maybe we want a new job, maybe we want the problem to end. Maybe we bought a new business. You know, whatever it is you are on your journey towards this goal. And this is the one day something happened is the inciting incident. It’s like lighting a match, and it puts us into the journey, which is the rising action.
Will: Okay. Hold on just a second. I want to make sure I got this straight. So five point narrative. I want to make sure I got the numbers here. So number one is the setup, that’s where you say, “Here’s the situation, everything is normal and humming along.” That’s number one. Setup. Number two is the inciting incident or the challenge, and then one day-
Will: Right. That’s number two. And then number three is the journey.
Cyndi: Is the journey itself. And that one tends to be the longest part of the story. This is where the stakes come in. You know, that we find out that this is important. Because usually on the journey, some things happen that work and some things happen that don’t, but we don’t give up. We are trying to make this goal come true. The main event is where you get your goal or you don’t. And that’s the climax of your story. There’s no judgment.
Will: Is that number four now?
Cyndi: That’s number four.
Will: Climax, [inaudible 00:26:30].
Cyndi: And so that’s the climax. And from there we come to the resolution, which is now that the story is over, I’ve thought about it, I have reflected on it and this is the wisdom that I have gleaned, which usually brings you directly to your controlling idea, which is your message.
Will: Okay, got it.
Cyndi: Yup. So in my story, once upon a time, I was at the very beginning. Who was I? Step number one. Can you answer that for me?
Will: Oh, once upon a time … Oh-
Cyndi: In my-
Will: In your story. So once upon a time, this is the setup, you had a job at the … You’re the popcorn girl.
Cyndi: Yup. Fabulous. And did I like my job?
Will: You loved it. It was great, you know, great colleagues. They called you Movie Star. Right.
Cyndi: And I also pointed out my boss, because he’s an important character in it, and I have this great boss. So that’s where I am, I have a great job, great boss, everything’s great. Then one day something happens.
Will: Then you went to college, you were grown up, and then you got the job at the bookstore.
Cyndi: Right. The actual thing that happens is I start noticing that I’m the only one of my friends working with high school kids.
Will: Oh right, that’s the start of noticing. And then one day I started noticing. Got it.
Cyndi: I started noticing. And so because of that I needed to make a change. What did I want?
Will: You wanted more money and you wanted a more kind of grownuppy kind of job.
Cyndi: Fabulous. So now I’m on my journey. I want a grownup job for more money. All right. Did I get it?
Will: Yeah. You got the job at the bookstore, right?
Cyndi: And was it good?
Will: They didn’t like you to read at the bookstore, which I mean, I can understand, right? It’s like they don’t want to eat at the supermarket if you’re a grocery employee.
Cyndi: Understood. But it was not going that well. It’s like I got the job that … I thought I’d be happy and I guess the goal is to have this job and be happy there and it’s I’m not happy. And I kind of point out the things that aren’t working. It’s, you know, I’m getting in trouble. Nobody’s really knowing my name. I’m not supposed to be friendly with everybody. And I even go back to visit my old boss just to be around someone who likes me. And then there’s the point where he asked me to get these books, and I have a little bit of an aha moment as I’m reading those books, which brings us to our main event. And what is the main event? What is the climax of this story?
Will: The climax would be when you ask for your old job back.
Cyndi: Exactly. So what ends up happening is my dream changes. So you know, what I wanted was a grownup job that I was happy at and what I decided was, you know what, no I don’t. So there’s a shift. But it’s over. The journey is over. I want my old job back. I’ve changed my dream. And I get the old job back. And then I’ve … You know, that was when I was 15. So … No, that was when I was 20. So that was years ago. And I’ve reflected on it. And what did I learn?
Will: Oh, you learned about the importance of relationships and of caring for your people and all that good stuff.
Cyndi: Right. And that brings us to the controlling idea, which is if you want people to care about their work, you got to show them you care about you. So that story was highly structured-
Will: Now, that’s, Cyndi, that story to me seems like a useful one if you were trying to make a point or convince a bunch of stakeholders about, you know, “And therefore we should have this new HR policy,” or “Therefore we all need to, you know, as managers sit down and do a performance dialogue with our people,” right? So making that kind of case. It doesn’t-
Cyndi: It could be a-
Will: It doesn’t immediately appeal to me how that structure would be a structure, for example, like more of a sale story, which I could imagine would be like: situation, like, “Hey, a lot of our clients are experiencing X-
Will: … but now in the new world that old solution is no longer useful and therefore we have a resolution of, we came up with this Z and Z does these wonderful things,” right. But-
Cyndi: I can-
Will: But why-
Cyndi: I can give you a more of a sales story that I use.
Will: Yeah, give me a sales structure, like or even like, maybe even first like a structure [inaudible 00:31:02]-
Cyndi: It’s gonna be interesting because it’s going to hit the same structures. We’re going to hit the same beats. It’s gonna be a different story and it’s a different message. Now, I sell storytelling classes, and if I’m about to teach something I want my people bought in that this skill that I’m about to teach you is an important skill. So the story I use for this, you know, my first question to myself when I built it was, “Has there ever been a point where telling a story changed my life?” And I thought about it and I was like, “Oh yes. In fact, very much so.”
And the story is this, that a number of years ago I had been doing a bit of teaching and I thought, “Every time I work with seniors, I believe that their stories are most important because it’s their legacy.” You know, when they’re gone, if they haven’t shared these stories, they’re gone with them. So I decided I wanted to start a small business and that would be a business which teaches storytelling to senior citizens and encourages them to share them mostly with friends and family.
Will: That’s awesome.
Cyndi: Yeah. So that was my dream. I started off by going to some of the nonprofit people I’ve worked with and saying, “I want to do this.” Everyone thought, “Oh, that’s great.” And I said, “So the next time you have a group of seniors and you need an instructor, I’m your girl.” So these are people who send me out all the time. And I’m sitting with one gentleman named Jeff on the train after an event, and he starts bragging to me about this wonderful group of seniors he’s working with, and I look at him and I say, “Jeff.” And he goes, “Oh right, you want to work with seniors.” I’m like, “Yeah!” And he’s like, “Next time.” And I’m like, “Can I volunteer?” And he’s like, “Sure, sure.” And I said, “It’s a great way for me to start networking with people that work with seniors and meet some seniors and start learning how to work with them.”
So I volunteer for this, it was a company I usually got paid for, and I’m volunteering for them. I’m having a great time. And there’s an intern who is there. She’s a young woman about 20, just a really sweet, sweet girl, long black hair and just really cute. And she’s like, “You’re so excited. Why are you so excited?” And I said, you know, again, “Stories are the legacy for seniors.” And she’s like, “Really? So what made you decide like, what drives you?” Which is a great question. And I said, “Honestly, it’s my family, my family does not share stories.” And she said, “Really?” And I said, “So I have photos on the walls at my mom’s house of these people I have no idea who they are.”
And I said, “I’ll tell you the one story I ever heard from my grandmother.” My grandmother said when she was a little girl, and this was turn of the century, like 1905. She lived in a brownstone in Boston on the first floor. And there was an Italian family on the third floor. And she said, “My mother and a Italian lady were but best friends, but they didn’t share a language in common.” The Italian lady would come tearing down those stairs screaming or crying in Italian, and my mother would hug her and comfort her in Yiddish, and vice versa. “Good news. My son graduated high school.” My mother would run up the stairs screaming in Yiddish, and the Italian woman would see that she was smiling, grab her hands and dance with her and give her a glass of coffee.
And she said, “They didn’t need a language in common. They were immigrant mothers in America. They understood each other. It was language of the heart.” It’s a gorgeous story. And the kid’s like, “Wow.” And I said, “Yeah,” and I said, “That is the only story she ever told me. She lived 96 years and I never heard another story.” I used to ask her, she said, “I don’t want to bore you.” She went, “Oh my God.” I said, “So we need to create a space where seniors understand they’re not boring. These stories are important. These stories are sacred. They need to be shared.”
And she went, “I got it.” So months later Jeff and I, we’re personal friends, we’re socializing, he sends me off to work with a group of high school students and he sends my friend off to work with the seniors and I’m like, “Jeff!” And he’s like, “Oh, I forgot again.” But then I get a Facebook message from the kid. This like 19, 20 year old kid. It says, “Took me a while to find you. I forgot your name, but I remembered your story. I’m working at a new organization and they have me doing grant research. I found a grant for you.”
And I pop it open. It is artist in residency, senior citizens in Brooklyn. It’s at senior senior centers. And I applied for that grant and I’ve gotten that grant four years in a row.
Cyndi: And now I have that business. And for six months out of the year I work with seniors. I help them build these stories. We have little performances and then I encourage them, please go home and tell those with your family. And the thing that … This was before I taught storytelling for business. So the thing that I came away with this was why was it that Jeff, my personal friend, kept forgetting, and this total stranger remembered and it was the story of my grandmother.
And I told her a story. With Jeff I gave him a request, in one ear, out the other. With her I tell her a story, she remembers it and six months later, she finds me out of the goodness of her heart, money to make my dreams come true. And so the point on that is storytelling is powerful, and if you want to be remembered, you need to tell your message for the story.
So that’s a fail story, because I’m trying to sell the idea that storytelling is powerful, which I authentically do believe. And it fits that same structure. So if you look at, you know, in the beginning I’m this person who teaches storytelling, I have a inkling I want to work with the elderly. And then one day I decide to do something about it. I start asking people and everyone says, “That’s a nice idea.” But then I’m beginning to notice nobody’s remembering.
And the main theme on this is influence. I don’t know how to influence people. So I’m trying to influence people. I’m volunteering, I’m doing all these things to try to influence people. And along the way, I meet this 19 year old who asked me a really wise question. The main event is on when I opened that Facebook message and I see that she’s got exactly what I need, that she’s remembered my story, and she has found a grant for me, which I get. And the resolution is, the fifth point is that the more I step away from it, that the key to the influence was not begging, was not volunteering, it was telling a story that would get into somebody’s mind and having them remember it.
Which brings me to my controlling idea and the message I want to share, is if you want a message to stick, tell it with a story.
Will: What a message. So that holds true for so many consulting projects. People are so rarely convinced by the data or the graph. It’s really about the story and helping people understand the recommendations, you know, and what’s the story behind it.
Cyndi: Well, especially with consulting, it’s this thing of, you know, this is where you’re at now. You have called me and because I’m an expert, this is what we’re going to … Here’s the basics of what we’re going to go through and this is what it’s gonna look like on the other side. And then the great stories is, let me tell you about a company similar to yours who is facing, let’s say the issue was communication. You know, they were having similar communication issues. We went through this workshop, we did this followup, and now you know, those problems are gone. And let me explain you the last thing the CEO [inaudible 00:38:11].
That’s how you would use this in sales. It’s sort of like, it’s bringing case studies to life. It’s always like how is this stuff affecting human beings?
Will: Yeah. So like what would the … And those were super powerful to illustrate the point. So like what is the agenda, if you will, or the process that you walk people through during one of these-
Cyndi: During the workshop? Well, so we still haven’t hit an important piece, so I’ve got that in the back of my head, which is how you make stories come to life. So basically when you take a workshop, you know, we come in, we give a sample story. Of course the first thing we do is, you know, the groups tend to be small if it’s the ones that you sign up for, as opposed to the ones where we send people, the instructors go all over the world. But if it’s something where you’re signing up for one of the local classes in New York, Minneapolis, or LA, you would, first question is why are you here?
You know, what is it that you were hoping to get? And that informs not just the instructor but the other participants when you give feedback, you know, if somebody is here because they want to work on job interview skills. Well, the feedback we’re going to give them is going to really be tailored to their desires and their hopes.
So we do that. We give a sample story. We do a whole bunch of prompting and the prompting is usually what are the messages that you need to share, and write some of those down. And then we have a whole list of expert questions to help people get into this space of memory. Because we have discovered a lot of people are not like me, surprisingly. I live, I’m an artist, I write, I live in memory. I love going over my life. It’s really fun for me. A lot of people like to focus on the future, or the here and now, and that going into memory is uncomfortable.
So we have just these questions that gently open that space, you know: think of a moment in your childhood that really informed who you are. Think of a mentor. Think of a time that you were part of a project that failed. Think of a time that you stood up for something and you’re really proud that you did. So it’s getting them into this memory space. And the point with story is you want, it’s about a 15, 20 minute process. But it’s we go through the messages and often it’s like, “All right, you got your messages, can you think of a story that backs those up?” And half of them will say yes. And the others will say no.
And then the other way is to go into your history and just start thinking about ideas. But since we’ve already put these messages in your subconscious, some of the things that pop are going to connect to the messages you’ve already written up. And if not, that’s okay too because you’ve written out some really wonderful experiences and so it’s like choose the one that’s most inspiring, or choose the one that’s going to be most useful to you. And then from there start building your story. And especially with business, we also say, “If you’re coming in with a goal in mind, send that to the instructor ahead of time.” So there might be a little bit of pre-coaching before you even come in.
But once we have a story and once we have s story and a message, everybody just teams up in two. We use your smart device. You just give the roughest draft of your story. Just rough. It can be, your first line can be, “This is going to be terrible.” Gut you need to start somewhere and we don’t want people overthinking it. So just tell that story, get to your message, and then the partner gives you a little bit of feedback. Nobody’s an expert yet. So it’s what worked for you, were you left with any questions?
And then vice versa, the second person tells a story. We have these recorded because it’s something used later in the workshop where you tell your story, get to your message. We come back and that’s when we start talking about structure. And we leave that to later because it’s something people often naturally do on their own. So we don’t want them overthinking it at the beginning. We kind of want to point it out at the end. And so, you know, this is the structure, you know, one, the setup, two, the inciting incident, three, the rising action, four, your main event, five, your resolution, which brings you to your controlling idea.
And then we talk about how we make stories come to life. And the two main points on storytelling, it’s the structure and the coming to life, and the coming to life part is this thing where you want to paint pictures with your words so that when people hear your story it plays out like a movie in their head, you know. So you want to use what we call sensory details. And that is sight, you know, the look in someone’s eyes, you know, the sparkling blue eyes of Mr. Stryer when I was sitting in his office. Sounds, you know, the timbre in someone’s voice, whether you give us their voice in dialogue, like, “This is not the first time that you got in trouble for this.”
Or if you want to say, “I could hear a pin drop,” or, “I could hear my own heart beating, you know, that’s how nervous I was.” And then there’s smell and taste, which are incredibly visceral. So whenever I get an opportunity to just drop a little piece of this, these are the most primal of senses. So it’s the smell of the popcorn or simply saying, you know, glass of coffee or cup of tea, you know, it puts a little taste in your mouth.
And then from there it’s the feelings in your body which is could be the hairs in the back of your neck, it could be the pit in your stomach, or it could be simply something you touch with your fingertips, you know, the smooth surface of the glass. And then we finally have the thinking mind, which is the thoughts in your head, the arguments in your own head, and the dialogue you have with others. Because other people in your story won’t come to life unless you give us actual words that they say.
So this is a lot. And think of it as a pallet, because in business stories tend to need to be short. So you don’t have a lot of time as if you have a solo show where you can really dig in and paint these vivid pictures. But it’s almost like with a little paintbrush, you want to just put these little pieces of color. And again, the goal is that the people listening watch it play out in their imaginations. And I think with my story, did you see some things?
Will: I certainly did. I saw popcorn. I saw you standing there behind the counter, probably trying to offer me the super special if you get the extra popcorn, two popcorns and the large coke and everything. So Cyndi, this was awesome. I want to thank you for being on the show. This was great. I am going to work on my five point narrative, and for listeners who are interested in learning more, it’s the storystudio.org, and where you can find out where to register and sign up with Cyndi. This was awesome Cyndi. Any parting thoughts?
Cyndi: I just, you know, wanted to end that with the classes, once you’ve gone through all that, we have you share your story at the end. And then, I don’t know, parting thoughts, tell stories, it’s fun.
Will: Tell stories, it’s fun.
Cyndi: Tell stories, it’s fun, yeah.
Will: Cyndi, thank you so much for joining.