Early this year, I had the opportunity to meet Jay Golden and learn about the power of “retellable” stories. Jay is an author, keynote speaker, and storytelling coach, who helps leaders shape and share their stories in transformative ways. His work was so fascinating that I asked him to coach me through the exploration of my own stories and experiences to uncover what he calls our own “purpose” through discussion of journey. It truly changed how I see my stories, and how I view my career. I am eager for you to get to know more about Jay through this interview. I agree with him that the power of story helps us navigate in this unpredictable and chaotic business world.
Sherry Benjamins: How did you begin this work on coaching leaders on storytelling?
Jay Golden: I began working in all types of communication in the 1990s that focused on education, production, strategy, and video. By 2009 as a new dad, I took a break and looked around. I saw how many new forms of media were emerging every day, and instead of being at the edge, I wanted to be at the center. I knew that the center of all communication was story. And that it begins with personal stories. Audiences are open to hearing about what they truly care about on a personal level. However, we often bury that or shift in a different direction because of necessity – lack of time, impersonal media, and the perception that people don’t want to hear stories. But how do we truly connect? After all the 1000’s of bits and bytes of information we absorb in a day, what do our audiences remember? And on a personal level, where do we keep and share our key life lessons and insights that guide our careers and organizations? I found that helping leaders, especially founders, identify their stories and use them as a guide towards the future they sought often resulted in a life change. Whether you are speaking to thousands of people or one on one across the table, practicing the art of sharing stories brings people together. It reinforces why our work matters.
SB: What holds people back from telling their story?
JG: Today, with such an emphasis on rapid-fire communication and data delivery in the work world, we often miss the opportunity to reveal a greater journey, and illuminate lasting change for our audiences. Both the individual and company stories matter. They are equally important to ensuring lasting change. Stories that can be retold have personal power and impact. Today, we are faced with such rapid, distributed information that is devoid of some of the most precious human elements that inform our organizations. However, because so many of us are being asked to deliver on change in a rapidly changing world, we get to share our stories to support that process in highly effective and personal ways.
SB: Do you see confidence building as an outcome of your work with leaders?
JG: Confidence builds as you explore the collection of stories that you hold, and the lessons you’ve learned along the way. These stories are alive - they live inside you. Once you tell them, they can inspire others to see a new way. And while many leaders can feel very separate from their teams, stories humanize them. That process builds personal confidence and organizational resilience.
SB: What have you learned from your clients?
JG: Everyone is different. It’s fascinating to take people back to a story that they’ve experienced and see if they can re-tell it. It does take space and a commitment to engage in this process, but I find that they absolutely can transform their leadership by gathering their stories and retelling them in a focused and fun way. Heart-centered leaders adopt this practice quickly. They are not driven immediately to ROI on this process, because they see how it can transform communication and engagement in an authentic way. These leaders have an openness and willingness to change and set up the change which will most certainly impact the bottom line.
SB: In our talk, you mentioned that a key part of change is in how you “set it up.” Tell me more about what “setting up the change” means?
JG: There is a deep dark place where we may not be conscious of our own story. Joseph Campbell says, “the hero is the one who comes to know.” He refers to the belly of the whale, the innermost cave where the mystery lives. Think about Star Wars, when Luke, Leia, and Han Solo are in the great garbage compactor. The serpent almost takes them down – if there’s a serpent there’s often an innermost cave! This is the dark place of not knowing, and often we work very hard to avoid these difficult places in our stories, afraid we might get stuck there. But with some attention and practice, this becomes critical to your stories, and critical to the change you’re delivering. You may not think about it this way, but before social media, there was story-telling. Retellable stories were delivered to others across the world, to take them through a deep journey so the participants could gain the lesson without having taken the journey. This had far-reaching impact. There would be a mystery revealed, a journey explored and in the final moments, something became very clear and transforming.
SB: How is this like culture work?
JG: Companies are interested in how stories drive culture. And often this work is about finding those key stories that are hidden. They may be hidden behind the over-simplicity of testimonials, behind values that are stated on the wall but not understood on a visceral level, or hidden behind the focus on gathering ‘likes’ and not insights. Providing the right incentives to your audiences, either internal or external, can provide a treasure trove of data on what true changes you’re delivering on, and give real life to your values. It begins with a commitment to finding your stories. About 60% of my work is with the individual leader who is looking to clarify direction or engage and inspire others which supports empowerment or a culture shift. I’m interested in the stories that workers share and how that translates to their environment, trust and relationships.
SB: How do you see communication changing today in corporations?
Even with the acceleration of messaging, there is a recognition that we should return to mechanisms that offer personal relevance. Everything is going to the cloud, yet human relevance is even more important than ever – that which is shared live, in conference halls, at lunch meetings, and in interviews. The cloud doesn’t help as much there. Deep, authentic connections become even more precious. I lived through the boom and bust of San Francisco, while so much was changing. What stayed constant was this: what makes us individually alive and what we hold dear will remain. Our precious memories, our insights, and our lessons, well delivered, will hold our attention, and the attention of our audiences, even in difficult times.
There are so many changes coming at us from all perspectives that have social, political, technological, and economic impact. I believe that the leader who has resilience and can adapt to and navigate these changes, while retaining the core of “what they are here to do” will thrive. Stories will be essential for them to inspire and take us into the future.
Check out Jay’s book, Retellable: How Your Essential Stories Unlock Power and Purpose.
Have you ever worked for a leader who shares a story and it sounds like, “it’s always been that way here” or “this is just how things get done.” It leaves you with a sense of resignation without much inspiration to change. For good or bad, our stories offer a vision of how things are in our mind and we use them to interpret forward thinking actions. Imagine if we could review our stories so that we can acknowledge our strengths and inspire others to challenge them themselves through the gift of personal story.
As you start to scan your own stories, think about what you learned and how it shapes who you are today. That is a great first step. Enjoy the journey.