Get people to tell their stories

At our OpenCircle Conference a few years ago, among our excellent speakers was Kevin Gaskell* who said something that stuck with me and has now become a frequently-used “tool in my toolbox”.

He said, “Find ways to get people to tell their stories”. His example was a storyboard on the most visible wall in the office of a start-up enterprise. He spoke about getting people to tell strategy and feedback discussions about the Post-its, doodles and comments on the storyboard. I particularly enjoyed the idea of getting the salesman to tell everyone how he made the sale. I have found it especially useful in one-on-one conversations with clients.

The idea made sense to me at many levels. In our South African context, there many who tell stories and are keen to tell their own story. We are more comfortable than most about openness. We do, however, tend to struggle with assimilating new concepts if they are delivered in a “teacher/tell” manner. Our memories of school classrooms are not always good ones.

Can we find another way to promote the learning process? We are also more inclined to trust someone who knows us. Will story-telling help us to know and be known? Much of what we need to understand, we actually already know. We also find it difficult to make ourselves accountable. If we hear our own words quoted back to us, does this change? Doing a better job of getting our client to tell us their story addresses all of these issues.

I have learned a few things about how to do this:
• Let others tell their story. No interruptions, just the occasional, “Really?” or “Why was that?”
• Learn how to listen. Put your hand up to your closed mouth and look at them whilst they are talking.
• Keep it personal. It’s best to encourage them to get to how they were feeling or what they were thinking at the time.
• Keep them in the first person. Cut them off before the story becomes about someone else.
• After a respectful 10 to 15 minutes, bring it to a close. Summarise what you have heard without any embellishment or commentary.
• Wrap it up by asking them to say what they learned about themselves, and the situation or circumstance they were telling you about.

There are some cynics among us who will liken this to an “ego-massage”. Others will be anxious about the client over-sharing and crossing boundaries. You may even be thinking that this is just manipulation and playing games. Any of these may be true, but how bad can it be for your client to actually get to do what they want?

• They get to be the centre of attention is something they wanted to do.
• They found a way to be comfortable in a situation where learning and critique were available.
• They almost certainly experienced a little less isolation and may have gained a little more confidence.

Kevin Gaskell’s prompt to me was to be prepared to discover insight and valuable direction from wherever it can be found. Make it possible and see what happens. Perhaps you would enjoy being encouraged to tell your own story? Just imagine!


Pip Masterson

*Kevin Gaskell. International Leadership Speaker, Private Equity Chairman, Entrepreneur, Adventurer

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