Storytelling Strategist Johel Brown-Grant with the U.S. State Department discusses organizational benefits of technical storytelling.
Storytelling is an effective tool for sharing experiences in the form of lessons learned or witness accounts of how something happened. Stories help people connect, understand and remember. In the first of a two-part series, Brown-Grant talks about the art and science of storytelling and shares tips for telling technical stories.
In this episode of Small Steps, Giant Leaps, you’ll learn about:
- Organizational benefits of technical storytelling
- The most important component of storytelling
- Why storytelling helps people connect
Johel Brown-Grant is a frequent speaker and workshop facilitator on the power of storytelling to teach, engage, empower, motivate and connect learners, leaders, groups and professional communities across diverse industries and professions. Brown-Grant has led important knowledge management and storytelling projects in government, and corporate and academic settings. In his current role at the U.S. State Department he coordinates enterprise learning efforts across multiple departments. A former Fulbright scholar, Brown-Grant holds master’s degrees in sociolinguistics, literature, and information and knowledge strategy from Universidad de Costa Rica, University of Pittsburgh and Columbia University in the City of New York, respectively, and a doctorate in communication and rhetoric from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Johel Brown-Grant: Storytelling is great because it allows us to think about what is relevant to our lives now, what we need to know.
People sometimes think that the most important thing about storytelling is the story. And the story is important, of course, but the most important thing about storytelling is actually the audience.
When the audience gets the story, the story is theirs. They make the story their own because they take that story and they apply it to their experience. They connect to that story and they see in that story things that are relevant to them.
Deana Nunley (Host): Welcome to Small Steps, Giant Leaps – a NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast featuring interviews and stories that tap into project experiences to share best practices, lessons learned and novel ideas.
I’m Deana Nunley.
We’re kicking off a two-part series on storytelling – with an emphasis on the art and science of telling technical stories that can help organizations capture and share knowledge.
Our guest today is Knowledge Management and Storytelling Strategist Johel Brown-Grant with the U.S. State Department. He’s the author of an upcoming book, Knowledge Management and the Practice of Storytelling: The Skills and Competencies Needed for a Successful Implementation, to be published in 2021 by Emerald Publishing.
Johel, thank you for joining us on the podcast.
Brown-Grant: Thank you for having me.
Host: What is story telling? What does it mean to tell a story?
Brown-Grant: Storytelling is at its heart about telling stories, about creating a narrative, about something that happened and the journey towards the solution or about making conditions better after a crisis. Storytelling is about creating narratives that allow people to connect with each other. When we tell stories, audiences can see themselves in the stories, can connect their experience to the experience being portrayed in the stories. So storytelling is about creating shared meaning between audiences, between people, between the person that tells a story and the person that hears the story. At its heart, storytelling is about a way of thinking, a way of seeing the world, a way of seeing the world in terms of narratives. So, it’s a beautiful thing. And I’m happy and I’m glad to talk about it today.
Host: We’re happy that you’re with us because we’re really eager to hear more about storytelling. What’s the most important component of storytelling?
Brown-Grant: I love that question because when I do my workshops on storytelling, people sometimes think that the most important thing about storytelling is the story. And the story is important, of course, but the most important thing about storytelling is actually the audience, because without the audience, we don’t have a story. So when we think of storytelling, we have to think about the audience because the audience is the one that takes the story and makes something out of the story. The audience uses that story to connect it to their experience, to portray in the story their aspiration, their wants, their needs, how they see themselves in the world. So, the most important thing for a storyteller is to understand and think about their audience, because that is the important part. That is what takes the story and makes it into something that is truly meaningful, something that allows that connection, that human connection.
Host: Why is storytelling important?
Brown-Grant: So, storytelling is important because of its universality. Cultures throughout the world have had storytelling as part of the fabric of their existence. Storytelling has been a part of the existence of humanity. And storytelling is also important because it affects our emotions, our memories, the way we retain information, the way we make sense of the world. From a cognitive point of view, our neurons mirror the neurons of the person telling the story whereby we can then transport ourselves and react to the story in the way that the storyteller is telling the story. It allows us to make a connection where we respond in kind to what is being told in this story.
Host: And then does that help us to remember what we’ve just heard?
Brown-Grant: Of course. That’s one of the beauties of storytelling, that when we hear a story, it allows us to remember because we connect with a story on an emotional level. And when we connect with a story on an emotional level, that has a greater imprint on our memories. So we remember stories because we remember the emotions that the stories trigger in us when we hear them.
Host: Let’s talk more about the benefits of storytelling. Could you share what some additional benefits are of storytelling?
Brown-Grant: Storytelling is beneficial because for one thing, it allows us to share knowledge. It’s easier to make a connection with other people when we listen to stories. When we hear stories and stories are about a particular experience that we have gone through, then it’s easier for us to relate to the content in that story because it mirrors our experience. Also, when we listen to stories, we’re more likely to integrate concepts and ideas that we hear from the stories because the stories are presented to us in a narrative that allows us to, as I said before, connect with each other. The other thing about storytelling is that we, as I mentioned before, the benefit of storytelling is that it triggers memory. It allows us to remember concepts more easily because we imagine a story, for example, if we think about data and numbers and we can relate more to the information if we see the information presented in that data as a narrative, because then we can construct a story about the numbers and about the data.
Host: What are the organizational benefits of storytelling?
Brown-Grant: Well, from an organizational perspective, storytelling is important because it allows multiple voices to be heard. When we have storytelling in organizations, we can get multiple perspectives. We can talk about multiple opportunities to learn. And also when we have storytelling in an organization, one thing that’s important is that it allows us to get to that tacit knowledge, that hidden knowledge that people carry in their heads. So, for example, if we think about storytelling in an organization, the benefit is that we can use storytelling to get access to the experience that members of that organization bring to us in the form of lessons learned, or in the form of sort of witness accounts of how things happened while members of an organization were performing a task. So that’s one of the beauties of storytelling is that it allows us to gain access to that shared experience that we have in our organizations.
Host: Johel, what makes a good story?
Brown-Grant: At its heart, what makes a good story is first, the story has to be about something. There has to be a stage that introduces a problem that gets solved, and of course there has to be a logical conclusion. But a good story is also a story that allows the audience to, let me put it this way. When a storyteller tells a story, it’s like a contract, the storyteller brings the story to the audience and the audience lends its ear, its attention to the story. But the audience is expecting to find something in the story, to get something, whether it is entertainment, an opportunity to learn. So a good story is one that allows the audience to come away with something, something that will benefit them, that will help them find new insights about who they are.
About, like I said before, about their aspirations, about their desires. So, in summary, a good story is one that not only has a plot, something happened and something gets resolved. But it’s one that allows the audience to say, well, in this contract where you tell me a story and I give you my attention, I come away with something, which the Greeks called catharsis, where I could say, “Okay, yes, I now, I understand something about the world. I have a new insight.” That’s a good story when it allows the audience to say, OK, this was good for me, for whatever reason, like I said entertainment, learning, remembering something. In general, that’s what I would say makes a story a good story.
Host: And how do you connect with the audience?
Brown-Grant: So, as a storyteller, to connect with the audience, you have to present a story that is relevant, that is relevant to the lives of the audience. The connection comes in the moment when the audience says, “OK, this I understand. This is part of my existence. I can make a connection with this.” To bring the audience into the story, the story has to be believable. And it’s believable because it portrays something that the audience is going through, has gone through, or will go through. So the relevance of the story to the lives of the audience, that’s the main point of connection. Of course, you have other points in terms of connecting to a story.
You can talk about the delivery making the story using tools and mechanisms, for example, your voice and your inflection. Those are other ways to connect with the story, but the fundamental is the relevance, is to say that the story resonates with the audience. That’s the first point of connection. Once you get that relevance, then you can move on to using other tools to strengthen that connection with the audience.
Host: Is that one of the more challenging parts of being a good storyteller?
Brown-Grant: Yes, it is one of the more challenging parts because when you tell a story, if the story is not relevant to the audience, you will lose the audience. And like I said before, the most important part of storytelling is the audience. So the angst of the storyteller is to make sure that his or her story is one that the audience will listen to. If we go back to the idea of the contract, if I am telling you a story, and I want you to lend me your attention, I want to make sure that it’s something that you will want to listen to. And when I do workshops on storytelling, one of the things that we talk about is finding the right story. In some of my workshops, we spend time just thinking, “What is the right story for my audience? And where do I find that story?” That’s one of the important challenges in terms of telling the story. There are many, many, many stories, but what is the right one? That’s the important thing.
Host: How can we use storytelling to capture and share knowledge?
Brown-Grant: To capture and share knowledge, storytelling is an awesome vehicle because the first thing that we can think of when we talk about how storytelling can help us share knowledge and capture knowledge, let’s think about it in this context. When we have lessons learned, when we talk about lessons learned, we can see that storytelling can help us understand how people approached a particular issue and what came out of that. The beauty of lessons learned is that they portray experience. They allow the person that is talking about the lessons learned to be a witness to an audience about how things happened to them. And then those lessons are actually sources of knowledge that people can then carry to their own experience.
Another thing about how we can use storytelling to capture knowledge is that we can talk about, for example, having conversations, interviews, where we ask people to tell us their experience, to tell us the story of their experience, their work. And then the other thing that I wanted to emphasize about storytelling and capturing and sharing knowledge. Another way that we can use storytelling to capture knowledge is by thinking about who tells the story. It’s very important when we think about storytelling and about capturing stories. It’s not only finding the right story, but also finding the right person to tell the story. Sometimes we are the ones telling the story, and sometimes other people are telling the story. So finding the right voice to tell the story and also finding a story that will create that connection with the audience is very important.
And then, finally, how do we use stories to capture knowledge? Stories allow us to get access to tacit knowledge. When people talk about their stories or about their experience, they give us an insight into tacit knowledge, that hidden knowledge that is so important when we want to learn more about processes, understand and then engage with other people. When we learn about other people’s experiences, it’s easier for us to engage with each other. So, storytelling, in terms of sharing knowledge, can allow us to not only engage with others through lessons learned but also it allows us to gain trust, develop trust with other people, because we can understand their experiences. And it also can be empowering because when you tell a story, it’s easier to talk about your experience. So it empowers the person telling the story to share knowledge that could be critical for an organization, that could be important for an organization.
Host: And within NASA, much of that knowledge is highly technical. So it becomes very important for people to be able to do a good job with their storytelling. Do you have any tips or any advice for storytelling within a technical arena?
Brown-Grant: Yes. A couple of things I would bring to mind. If you are going to do storytelling in a technical arena, one of them would be to think about first of all selecting a story that encompasses that a wide audience can access. Also, it may not be a story that is for a wide audience, but it could be a story for a specific audience. The advantage of having a story that is accessible to a wider audience is that multiple audiences can gain different levels of insights into a story. So that’s why I always recommend if it’s about a particular experience try to make this story accessible to other people. The other thing that is important for technical audiences is to think about presenting a story, delivering the story in multiple formats.
Some audiences may respond to texts. Some audiences may respond to video or audio. And one thing that I suggest to technical audiences as well is to look at the story. Sometimes some stories are better portrayed in video or better portrayed in audio. The more elements that come into a story that allow the audiences to make that mental model connection with the story, the better. If a story can appeal to all the senses — visual, auditory — that allows us to have other parts of our brain fire up when we’re listening to the story. Another thing that I would suggest when they’re telling a story to technical audiences is to root the stories, not only in terms of the experience, but also try to create stories that can allow the audiences to see themselves in the experience.
If there are stories where audiences can model themselves in the experience, where they can see themselves as part of that experience, that is very important. Especially if these technical stories are allowing people to learn something, then we want to make sure that the stories are set in such a way where an audience member could say, “I could see myself doing that,” or “I could see that if I had that problem, this is how I would solve it.” So, we want to make sure that even though these stories may have expert language or technical language, that the stories are still a narrative about something that happened and a level of resolution that was able to be attained.
And then one more thing I would add, Deana, to recommendation to a technical audience is that when we’re putting together a story, we want to make sure that we have our story heard by different audiences before we communicate it to a wide audience to make sure that the story is reflecting the experiences and reflecting the interests of the audience that listens to that story.
Host: Anything else you’d want to share with us about how we can connect effectively with our audiences?
Brown-Grant: So, to connect with the audiences, especially in the case of NASA in an audience that is highly technical, and I’ve said this also to folks that I work with in storytelling workshops, is that you want to make sure as a storyteller or a person trying to capture stories to share with others, that you have a thorough understanding of the audience. In some of my workshops on storytelling, I have folks go through, we use something you call an empathy map. And an empathy map allows you to sort of in a table or a circle, you list qualities of the audience. What are their aspirations? What do they think? What are the things that motivate them? What are the things that get them going? So when you have an empathy map and you look through all the different characteristics of that audience that you want, that gives you a greater understanding.
When I’ve done workshops and storytelling, and we’ve done empathy maps, people have said to me, “I never thought about my audience in these terms,” or “I never thought about these things that they want to do.” So, this is very, very helpful, especially for technical audiences. So, you may think, well the audience that I am presenting this content to, they have the technical know-how so they will be able to understand the technical jargon that I’m using, but beyond that, how does this story fit within their worldview? How does this story fit within their previous experience?
When we listen to stories, we bring to the stories, our experiences. So is we’re a technical audience, for example, at NASA all the missions that we’ve been through before, for example, thinking of an audience, when we come to the story, you’re telling us, we’re bringing all of that knowledge. So, me as the storyteller, I have to figure a way to make sure that that content resonates with that experience with those histories, because those connections between my past experience and what I’m hearing in this story is what will make this story important to me. So, I would say things like an empathy map, an audience analysis, thinking of who the audience is, asking people, talking to people about that audience, even interviewing members of that audience, talking to people about how they see the world, because all of these things have an impact on the story.
And the final thing I want to say about storytelling is that when you tell a story as a storyteller, and this is very relevant in the technical arena. When you tell a story, the audience receives the story. Remember we said that storytelling — the story is not a story unless there is an audience. When the audience gets the story, the story is theirs. They make the story their own because they take that story and they apply it to their experience. They connect to that story and they see in that story things that are relevant to them. So when we think of technical audiences, just as regular audiences, when those technical audiences get that story, it might be about a specific issue, a specific problem that they’re looking at, but that audience will also take that story and connect it to other things like I said before — things related to their past experiences or things that they’re looking forward to.
Storytelling is great because it allows us to think about what is relevant to our lives now, what we need to know. And it’s also about the future, about where we might want to go or where we are going. So that’s why it’s important to think about having an understanding of the audience, understanding who they are, because once they get the story, the story becomes their own and our job as storytellers will be completed by giving them a story that they can then incorporate as part of their lives.
I always say to people, and this is my final thought, is that when audiences come to listen to a story, they become a part of that. There are some theories of narratives that say that when the audience has listened to a story, they get into the world of the story and they believe everything that is in that world. And then when the story is over, that world becomes a part of their own. In other words, the story that you tell becomes a part of the string of stories that the audience carries with them. So if we are going to make a story or present a story, we want to make sure that that story stays with the audience and that they can incorporate it as part of their memory, as part of their experience, as part of their understanding of the world. As part of their worldview.
Host: This has been really interesting. Thank you so much, Johel.
Brown-Grant: Thank you, Deana. I appreciate the opportunity.
Host: You’ll find links to topics discussed during our conversation along with Johel’s bio and a show transcript on our website at APPEL.NASA.gov/podcast.
The next episode in this two-part series – Episode 41 –will feature NASA storytellers. They’ll tell us a couple of technical stories and then chat with Johel about storytelling technique and tap into his expertise. That episode is set for release August 5th, and we hope you’ll join us then.
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As always, thanks for listening to Small Steps, Giant Leaps.