Monday, September 3, 2012

A Story-Based Growth Strategy

"While economic growth is vitally important it is critical to deliver this in a way that does not elevate pure profit above societal or environmental value."

A story approach supports values-driven marketing – that is, it comes from your most deeply held values and goes to those same values in your audience. To be sure, it narrows the playing field. But it also attracts people, companies, and organizations with whom you can do your best work, who will derive the most value and benefit from it, and who will be your best word-of-mouth sales agents.

Story-making happens not through analyzing metrics or following one-size-fits-all guidelines. It happens through asking qualitative questions about your specific offering that trigger sensory and emotional responses. This emotional engagement is what gives story its unique power to access deeper information, connect you to your generative qualities of passion and imagination, and activate these same qualities in your audience. A good story well told ignites new possibilities in everyone.

Here's a list of questions that will guide you to a values-driven strategy for growing your business. If you take the time to write out this exercise, you will train your brain to recognize the pieces of your vision when they show up, so that you can pull them together into a concrete reality.

In this approach, we start with the happy ending and work backwards.

  1. What’s your vision of your fully thriving business and yourself as fully realized in it? Take the time to write down not just a list of quantitative facts and figures, but a qualitatively based scenario complete with the elements of setting and atmosphere. For instance, what’s the dominant personality trait or emotional tone you want your clients or customers to associate with your business? Where do you do it?
  2. What does your ideal client look, feel, and sound like? What do they do when they're not at work? What is their most pressing need? What are they thinking about constantly, but not necessarily talking about?
  3.  What would a client or customer's perfect experience of your service look, feel, and sound like? Write it down!
  4. What about your business gives you the greatest pleasure? See yourself in that situation. What feeds your passion? In what kind of setting or environment do you best conduct your business? How do you feel at the end of a successful session or transaction? Get it on paper.
  5. How will your potential client or customer become aware of your business? What are the places -- both in cyberspace and in real life -- that you can not just meet but engage meaningfully with them? What do these places look and sound like? What's their emotional tone? Imagine a conversation with a like-minded person who needs what you have to offer?
  6. How will potential clients come to trust you as someone who has the answers they are looking for? What do you have to give them -- from your experience, your learning, and your network? What do they want to hear from you?
  7. What are the obstacles -- the lack of resources, knowledge, attitudinal or other gaps -- that you need to overcome to grow your business? Get as clear a picture of these gaps as possible. Write!
  8. What partnerships, mentors, and support groups do you need to create for yourself? Again, get a clear picture and be as concrete as possible. Who has helped you in the past? How? What was the context? What did you do as a result? What was the outcome?
  9. And finally we arrive at the beginning: your core values -- the ones that give shape to your character and your life. The ones that you can compromise a little on, but not completely, without selling yourself out and never fulfilling your deeper purpose for being here in the first place. Robin Fisher Roffer, marketing expert and author of The Fearless Fish out of Water: How to Succeed When You're the Only One Like You, lists her three core values as love, safety, and living with integrity. A creative arts therapist names hers as unconditional love, authenticity, creative self-expression, and healing service. What are your core values?
  10. Link whatever arises from these questions to your present needs. What does a strategy based on your answers look like? Start taking action, easiest first, one step at a time, until you're back to the first step -- the fully realized vision of your business.

"The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." -- Lao Tzu

This list is inspired by John Jantsch of Duct Tape Marketing. I highly recommend his newsletter as a source of new ideas and inspiration.

To read about one business woman who found an inspired business vision in her back story, take a look at my June blog: "Back to the Future: How to Find a New Vision in Your Back Story."

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Back to the Future: How to Find a New Vision in Your Back Story

Lots of people are looking for jobs or want to change careers these days, but don't know how to go about it.

Among 70 people who showed up recently at a “Story for Job Seekers" workshop at the NY Public Library for Science, Industry, and Business, a number were confused about how to describe their experience when looking for work in several areas; or how to "change the story" when seeking to change careers.

In this constantly shifting marketplace, there’s no longer a strong segmentation between job seekers, consultants, and solopreneurs. Self-employed people are supplementing their business cash flow with part-time work; job seekers are working as freelancers until they land a full-time position. The question for many is how to create their unique niche in the ever more packed and competitive work place.

Are you feeling lost and unsure where to go and what to do next? Elizabeth Perea’s story may hold inspiration and guidance for you.

Perea is founder and president of NYC Real Estate Advisors, an innovative consulting and training firm for real estate professionals.The company offers a range of services from marketing trainings to investor bus tours in the New York and Philadelphia metro areas. What's really interesting about this company is how it evolved from a journey through other fields, through trial and error, enthusiasm and disappointment, piece by piece -- as Perea learned what she liked and was best at. Her story illustrates how taking a good hard look at your back story can lead to an inspired vision for your future. 

In 1998, Perea entered graduate school with the idea of becoming a university professor. “I absolutely love teaching,” she writes in her About Me story. “I love it when I’m speaking with someone and I see that light of understanding shine in their eyes or when they have that 'ah ha' moment and then stop to write something down and I know that 'something'“ is going to be an action step that can change their life.”

However, though teaching was a passion, academia wasn’t.

Perea's other passion was business. By that time, she had already had a successful marketing communications career. So in 2006, she launched a marketing communications company. As that firm grew, she came to realize that what she really loved more than anything was real estate, specifically New York City real estate.

Out of those passions, she envisioned a company that would help NYC real estate professionals brand and market themselves and successfully own their own business. That's how the "Open for Business" sign went up on NYC Real Estate Advisors.

I always listen for subtext -- that is, the deeper story beneath the one I'm being told -- the one that connects at a visceral level where decisions are really made. What Perea's deep story told me was that this was a woman of passion, creativity, courage, competence, and self-confidence who has been able to integrate what she loves with making money. If she could do that for herself, says her story, she can do that for me. I want to work with her. 

What's your back story?

Take a look at your back story to get clear about who you really are and what you’ve accomplished. You may get a clearer picture of where you’re headed.

1. What have you done that’s meaningful in your work history? What have you enjoyed most? Least?

2. In what kinds of environments, with what kinds of bosses, co-workers, employees, customers, do you do your best work? Where and whom do you hope never to run into again?

3. What challenges have you met along the way? How did you deal with these obstacles?

4. Of what are you proudest? When have you been a hero to yourself or others?

5. What areas of weakness in yourself have you had to address? What mistakes did you make? (Did you know that people more easily trust someone when they’re honest about mistakes or failures? One of the hardest lessons to learn in our culture is that “vulnerability is strength.”

6. What have you learned from your journey?

7. What do you now bring to the market place that will benefit others?

Write the answers and share them with others who support you. Ask yourself what stands out in your experience? What do you want to carry forward? What do you want to leave behind?

You're now ready to create your vision story. And by create, I mean write. In her best-selling book Write It down, Make It Happen: Knowing What Your Want -- and Getting It!, Henriette Anne Klauser puts it this way: "Putting a goal in writing sends a signal to the brain to wake up and pay attention. Don't miss this detail! Once you write down a goal, your brain will be working overtime to see you get it, and will alert you to signs and signals that were there all along."

You can think of visioning in two ways: First, it’s your vision of your business fully realized and prosperous in the world. In this vision form, you take what you’ve gleaned from your back story and create a vision for the business, job, or position you want. Second, it's the vision you paint for your customer that leads them imaginatively through the use of your product, service, or the benefits of supporting your cause -- actually "rehearsing" the process in their mind.

What’s your business vision story?


Articulating your fully realized vision as a story and then imaginatively working backward through your process of getting there can serve as a platform for strategizing and a springboard for measuring your company's performance. 


1. What does your fully operational business, practice, job look, feel, sound like? Write out the vision of your ideal working environment and offering.

2. Whom do you serve? Who are your ideal customers, clients, or employer? What is it that they want most from you? What are their pressing needs? Write down how you address those needs.

3.  How does your offering make life better for those who purchase it?

4. How much will you make? Write it down. How does that feel?

5. What do you need to turn your idea into a business? A mentor? Business plan? Capital? Write down the vision of having everything you need. Capture the feeling!



And now, what's your customer vision story? 


This story is based on the needs of your audience. It can be a good story to use to close a deal, end a presentation, or to serve as a way of advocating for a policy or practice.


1. Walk your customer through the use of your service or product so they can rehearse it in their minds or sell it to their higher-ups.


2. What are the concrete benefits of using your product or service, or donating to your cause. How will your target market feel? Authenticity is all: If you have an inner conviction about what you offer, they will believe you.


3. What are the obstacles you and they need to overcome to do this successfully?


4. Do you have supporting data, research, or quotes to support your claims?


5. What's your call to action or main point you want them to remember about your offering? Ultimately, what's the emotional quality or personality of your brand?

Write, write, write. And see what happens...

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Deepen the Connection through Archetypes

Once upon a forgotten time, a parched wanderer followed the song of birds to water.

This is what birds have done since the beginning of time: call to their fellows across miles and even generations to guide them to water and the trees surrounding it, where they can build their nests and perpetuate their species.

Over eons, humans learned to follow these sky melodies to fertile ground, where we established villages and began to build civilizations. Eventually, we learned to imitate birdsong by carving flutes from the femur bones of dead animals. And then we found our voice in words. This long evolutionary process formed the beginning of the experience we call a story.

A Story is Always a Call
We tell stories with an intention -- conscious or not. We tell to move our listener from one emotional state to another. We call each other to awakening, awareness, knowledge, and action. At its best, our story is a call to peace, faith, healing, and love. At its worst, to fear, hatred, and war.

Ancient tellers understood that archetypal settings, characters, conflicts, plots and language in stories activated similar energies in the minds, bodies, and spirits of their listeners. Creation stories were told to give courage to women in labor; destroyer stories turned ordinary men into killers on their way to war.

This same primal relationship between story and listener operates today and we can learn how to use it to benefit ourselves, families, businesses, and world.

The psychologist Carl Jung believed that universal mythic characters exist within all people across all times and places. These characters are metaphors for fundamental human needs, emotions, values, psychological characteristics, patterns of behavior, and capabilities Jung called these mythic characters archetypes. We call them heroes, warriors, jesters, and others. They populate not only our novels and films; they exist with each of our inner lives and are activated by the stories we absorb and make our own. In their best form, heroes inspire us to go beyond our limits; caregivers show us models for altruism; magicians show us how to change our lives by changing our consciousness; outlaws innovate and occupy.

How Archetypes Function in Marketing Communications
For over a decade, sophisticated marketers have looked to archetypes to understand better the values, meanings, and underlying cultures that differentiated their brands and connected with their target customers.

Archetypal marketing, as described in Margaret Mark’s and Carol S. Pearson’s book, The Hero and the Outlaw (2001), assumes that deep, unfulfilled needs lead people to respond to what’s missing in their lives or what supports positive, healthy change. People who resonate with a certain kind of archetypal energy are apt to feel comfortable, affirmed, or supported by a product or service that is represented by words, images, and atmospheres evoking that archetype. The brand becomes the externalized fulfillment of that inner need.

According to Mark and Pearson, developing a simplistic, segmented marketing message that ignores this deeper level may be the primary reason marketers have trouble getting the attention of consumers who are facing challenges that require them to be complex and real. A knowledge and use of archetypes in branding could provide the missing link between customer motivation and product sales.

The Personality You Want Associated with Your Brand Depends on Whom You Want to Call In

An overview from Joanna Pena Bickley' 2009 blog may give you some insight and inspiration for your own brand story. I’ve distilled it here, and I recommend you take a look at her full analysis of the archetypes. For an in-depth discussion of each archetype and how it can apply to your brand, I recommend The Hero and the Outlaw, available from Amazon on this page.

Acts courageously in a way that has a beneficial impact on the welfare of others. Good for brands that encourage you to be all that you can be, serve a higher mission, solve a major problem, or that have a clear opponent. Hero brands range from Nike to sports, to the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, political candidates, and presidents.


Affirms that you’re okay just as you are. Good for brands that give people a sense of belonging, are down-to-earth, practical, and make the tasks of daily living more enjoyable. Target is a perfect Everyman/woman brand, as are most beers and casual clothing. Taylor Swift casts herself as the Ordinary Girl, with "diary entries" and her mother's recipes on her web site, and her songs billed as "anthems" of puberty.

Crafts something new. Good for brands that encourage self-expression or do-it-yourself. Ikea positions itself as a creator with its home assembly furniture.

Takes care of vulnerable others. Good for any healthcare, educational, children, charity, or nonprofit concerned with the welfare of others. Cancer Centers of America is running a series of effective ads featuring interviews with patients who have benefitted from its compassionate and effective care.

Finds and gives love. Good for brands that encourage sensuality, enjoyment of life, and beauty, but also relate to families, friends, and the love of nature. Facebook's vision is that of a lover, but its practices are that of a despotic ruler. When a company's culture and practices conflict with its stated values, inevitably decline sets in. It will be interesting to watch what happens with this company, as with the internet as a whole, as these two prevailing archetypes come into greater conflict.

Has a good time and teaches how to laugh at self. Good for new, smaller brands that want to differentiate themselves from self-important, well-established brands. Bickley points to 7-Up and Fanta. Google presents its workplace environment as fun-loving and relaxed.

Exerts control. Good for high-status brands that cast themselves a market leader, enhance a sense of power, establish security and stability. The Ruler, like all the archetypes, has a light or "good" side and a dark, shadow side -- with the potential for both benevolence and bullying. Microsoft exemplifies both aspects of the Ruler. Politicians, insurance companies, wealth management firms, high-end clothing and accessories are ruler brands.

Believes rules are made to be broken. These are the brands that call us to a radical freedom, paving the way for innovation, new ideas, and products. They are also brands formed to redress wrongs, change laws and practices, and seek justice. Examples include Apple, Occupy Wall Street, and the designer Alexander McQueen -- the charisma of the Outlaw is the magnetic attraction that creates cults. (More to come in a later post on the fascinating complexities of this archetype.)

Uses the imagination to affect transformation. These brands are catalysts, visionary, consciousness-raising, spiritual, and serve the needs of those who consider themselves cultural creatives. Coaches, therapists, new age gurus, and holistic practitioners often use magician language and make magician promises. So do lots of cosmetics, fragrances, and beauty products. Think Olay anti-wrinkle cream, Jenny Craig, and Living Color. OmHarmonics is an online publishing company that's promoting digital audios to make the ages-old, lifelong path of meditation fast and easy for entrepreneurs. In this addictive, externalized culture, we practically beg to be seduced. Magicians are also shapeshifters and tricksters. Healthy skepticism is advised with "vanishing creams," "miraculous" weight loss, and "law of attraction" gurus. Same goes for you if you have a magician business. Be careful of promising a result that doesn't have client stories to back it up.

Retains or renews faith. Good for brands that appeal to morality, innate goodness, the "good old days," or are associated with children or animals. Sesame Street powerfully appeals to the child in all of us and isn't it interesting how often Miss Piggy, Kermit, Oscar, and Elmo appear in adult commercials. Mark and Pearson have an interesting theory that conservatives are really innocents in looking back to beginnings as the way things ought to be, while progressives look forward to a "more perfect" state. Mark and Pearson see the Innocent even (or more accurately, especially) in the moral righteousness of radical religious and political groups.

Maintains independence to seek new paths. Good for brands that appeal to individualists and adventurers. Bickley cites Jeep and Virgin Airlines. But also for educational institutions, research and development brands, and seekers of truth.

Strives to understand and explain existence, expands knowledge, teaches, encourages intelligent discussion based on science, humanities. Good for high-level, impartial news media, think tanks, and academic institutions. PBS News Hour, Bill Moyers, Charlie Rose -- sage brands.

If you're looking for a fresh perspective on your communications, look for a way to amplify it with archetypal imagery or "plots." Realistically, you probably resonate with several archetypes and have a number of story lines through which to frame your message. Try out a couple. Paraphrasing Jung, it's all the same material; choosing your plot is a matter of how you choose to look at it and what you choose to emphasize.

What brands stand out strongly for you? Can you identify what it is that either attracts you strongly or turns you off? Are there consistent archetypal patterns in your own purchasing decisions?

What's your Archetype?

1. Which archetypes match your business’s offering, values, and culture?

2. What language, images, emotional atmosphere express your resonant archetypes?

3. Are you reaching customers who are looking for these qualities? Which archetypes most fit your target market customer?

4. How can you express your archetype in your print, web, video, and spoken communications, your company style, and your relationships with your customers?

Monday, February 13, 2012

"About Us": How to Make Your Story Part of Your Offering

An inspiring lesson from the Blue Crab Bay Company.

That summer morning in 1988, as I was driving along the lanky stretch of the Bay Bridge from Washington, DC to Onancock, VA, a small fishing village on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, I knew only that I was heading toward a good story. Stories traveled by word of mouth back then. As a Washington-based journalist, I had heard a story about a scrappy little woman-owned business that had overcome huge adversity to begin fulfilling its dream of marketing the food, crafts, and culture of the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay. It was my kind of story!

Writing for foreign audiences, I also sensed a uniquely American story, representing the imagination, optimism, and resilience that is the best of a free enterprise tradition.

The story turned out to be better than I, or anyone, could have imagined. Twenty-four years later, the Blue Crab Bay Company is an established, internationally-known company, and having weathered the recent recession, now employs 20 people, publishes a newsletter, sends out a seasonal recipe-laden calendar with every purchase, and runs special deals for regular customers.

The "About Us" story of this company played a substantial role, especially in the beginning, in magnetizing capital, media attention, and customer loyalty.


Click on "Our Story" on their home page, and this is part of what you’ll read:

“In 1984, a young woman named Pamela Barefoot had a dream — to move to Virginia’s isolated Eastern Shore and survive with her creativity. The rural coastal peninsula, bounded by the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, offered a blank canvas for entrepreneurial opportunity, inspiring Pam to start her own business. Driving around the back roads in 1985, she envisioned items such as spice blends for clam and crab, two seafood species prevalent in the Chesapeake.

Setting up shop on the table in her farmhouse kitchen, she mixed seasonings and dreamed of other specialties that would embrace the flavors of the region. The “blank canvas” began filling in with all sorts of possibilities and new dreams, including the creation of local jobs, raising awareness of the region’s natural resources, and getting her new homeland on the map. Not long after she began, she rented space above a waterfront restaurant and immediately experienced a devastating fire. She moved her fledgling business back home. Then Hurricane Gloria hit, causing significant damage.

Undaunted by the setbacks, Pam, with her usual dogged determination, became more intent on realizing her vision. In 1986, she entered a contest in a national women’s magazine and wrote: “I envision someday having a multi-faceted operation … including mail order, wholesale regional foods, corporate gifts and a retail shop.” Her entry netted an award of $ 7,500 and major national publicity.

Business steadily increased, and like the Blue Crab of its logo, the company experienced several moltings. Pam’s hard work paid off: In 1999, she was named Virginia’s Small Business Person of the Year, and in 2003 the U.S. Small Business Administration tapped her as one of the nation’s Outstanding Women Entrepreneurs...."

The article goes on to describe the wide array of products -- Eastern Shore specialty foods, gift packs, stoneware, seaweed soaps, and even imported Thai crabmeat -- that sprung from the first catalog of spices and dip mixes.

The back story has grown into an evolving story: Last year, the Blue Crab Bay Company received the prestigious Chairman’s Award at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business Tayloe Murphy Resilience Awards. "The dream that started on a back road has become a reality — jobs have been created, products are shipped internationally, and the Eastern Shore is finally on the map.”



Are you not inspired to place an order right now? Don't you want to breathe in that fresh bay air and brave spirit? The Blue Crab story shows how an authentic back story becomes part of a product.

Notice there’s no selling here, no big promises, no spin. Only an authentic, colorful, human, and compelling story that has every element of a good story: a dream, adversity, triumph, and most of all, a heroine we can root for.

We were humans before we became consumers. We're hard-wired to engage in a story that uplifts and guides us in our own struggles. Whether the story is about sustainability, buying local or being an underdog, we want to feel there’s a person behind the company, and that there’s a sense of purpose to which we can relate and that we want to experience for ourselves.

Lesson 1: Your back story creates credibility and connection.
There was a time when a company’s “About Us” page didn’t matter. No longer, according to a January 10, 2012 article by Jennifer Wang in Entrepreneur Magazine ( “These days, corporate-weary consumers care more and more about buying locally, supporting independent businesses, and owning products that are made sustainably and responsibility. They want to know the story of what they’re buying, who is selling it, and causes it may support. In a business landscape where success hinges on establishing a personal connection with customers and inventors, the About Us page has become prime real estate.”

Lesson 2: Celebrate your smallness and leverage the adversity you've faced.
When David the humble shepherd boy stood before Goliath, he saw what none of the generals did: that the giant was looking up and out, expecting a army in chariots to meet him on the field of battle. He never thought to look right under his feet. And so David took aim with his trusty sling shot and zapped the giant in the blind spot between his eyes. As a small business trying to compete with giants, one of your most powerful "weapons" is your story.

The underdog story is fundamental in all storytelling traditions -- ancient and modern. The person who overcomes all odds, those who take big falls and stage miraculous comebacks, give us hope; they trigger the sleeping champion in us all; and they inspire trust in someone who has lived this story.

List the things your small business provides that a larger company in your market cannot, including quick response and personalized customer service. Include a couple to remind potential customers of the special benefits they receive in using your service or buying your product.

Lesson 3: Communicate the core values of your business through your past and present actions..
Stories don't push influence on us; they engage and inspire us. If you look closely at the Blue Crab "About Us" story, you'll find no brags, no boasts, just a clearly stated mission, and how it has ultimately become realized. Like any good story, it tells who the principal is and what this company stands for without getting in its own way.

Lesson 4: Back up the promise of your story.
Take a look again at Blue Crab Bay Company’s web site. The overall warmth, the display of sophisticated regional foods and gift packages, recipes, photographs, and people, all tell the same story. It will come as no surprise that their products are outstanding!

Story is not just a verbal narrative of past events; it's everything about your company -- the images, look, and atmosphere you create through your web site and promotional materials; the way you and your employees interact with your customers; the design of your product and packaging. It must be aligned.


What Does Your "About Us" Page Say about You?
You may not have such a dramatic story or work in such an evocative location, but you have a story. The key to finding it is asking story (i.e., qualitative rather than quantitative) questions.


What do you do or make and how does it benefit others?

Who is your ideal customer?

What elements of your offering have the most meaning for them?

Now, tell your story to this customer:

1. What propels you and your business? What passion, interest, gift, need? How does your offering reflect your values? What do you absolutely love about your product, service?

2. What are the environments, locations, people, features of your offering? Colors, environments, atmosphere, style? Think as a filmmaker (and you may well use this story for a video at some point!)

3. What obstacles have you met along the way? What personal weaknesses did you have to overcome in building your business?

4. How have you dealt with setbacks? What have you learned that is meaningful about your offering to your target market? If you gave your story a title, what would it be?

5. What are you proud of about your business? What do you do to build on these things?

6. Is your story congruent? How do you back up your story in terms of web site, blog, newsletter, quality of service, customer service? Keep in mind that a story is the whole package and it's always unfolding.

7. Now that you've got your back story, what's your future story? What does your business, fully realized in all its potential, look, sound, and feel like? And imagining yourself in that story looking back to where you may be now, what did you do to get here?


SPECIAL OFFER: Blue Crab Bay Company did not know I was writing this article until I showed it to them for updates. As a result, they are making a special offer to my readers. Use Code 12SB10 at checkout if you use this link to place an order, and you’ll receive a courtesy 10% discount! Plus a free copy of the book, My Bird, Bud—The Corporate Cockatiel for orders of $25 or more, and Saltwater Cowboys, a $24.95 photo documentary book about Chincoteague Island and the Pony Penning for orders of $100 or more.

Have a question? Want help in finding your business story? I'm offering a "new project" promotion for private story coaching sessions. Write Juliet at

By Juliet Bruce. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

How to Use Story to Link Minds and Produce New Solutions

The brain bonding reflected by the matching lit-up neural areas shown in the above graphic is exactly what emotional connection looks like on an MRI, according to the magazine Science, in its article "Mind Meld Enables Good Conversation," July 26, 2010.

Brains synchronize. This is due, say researchers, to "mirror neurons" in the brain that cause partners in satisfying conversation to begin imitating and even anticipating each other's grammatical structures, flow of speech, and even bodily postures. Unconsciously, they've found common ground. In essence, two separate brains form a larger one.

You may be familiar with the term "Mastermind" if you've read Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich. The power of Mastermind groups has been experienced and documented for decades. The result: larger and more effective ideas, insights, and solutions. The emergence of a new way that no one has thought of before.

It's no accident that the trials on which the Science magazine findings are based involved telling stories. Human beings are hard-wired to receive stories at the core level. As cultural historian Daniel Pink wrote in his book A Whole New Mind: "The sorts of abilities that now matter most are fundamentally human attributes. After all, back on the savannah, our caveperson ancestors weren't plugging numbers into spreadsheets or debugging code. They were telling stories, demonstrating empathy, and designing innovations."

Stories bypass the judgmental, intellectualizing prefrontal lobes of the brain, the source of our conscious decision-making, and tap directly into the older and more primitive limbic areas of the brain, where unconscious visceral choice and attachment originate.

In psychology and music, this coupling is called resonance. As a story unfolds, the listener identifies with the protagonist and vicariously experiences through their imagination the emotional states aroused by the situations, choices, and actions of the characters. They internalize the unspoken message of the story, and make decisions from this unconscious place that can override every other practical consideration.


In my 18 years of facilitating story workshops among every possible population, including groups that were in extreme conflict, I've seen the transformational results that happen when two or more minds are in sync. And I have come to be able to identify the exact moment when it happens: there's a palpable shift and softening in energy, a deepening quiet, a profound stillness. As an example, in the turbulent weeks before the 2004 presidential election, I facilitated a workshop at a conference for trauma therapists who had come to Washington, DC from all over the country. They were ordinary people who reflected the cultures, biases, and experience of their regions.

I could feel the tension as one by one the nine participants introduced themselves, and the distaste as faith-based counselor from the southwest met gay psychotherapist from New York. The young New Yorker had come early to sit quietly by the sunny window and gaze at the Washington Monument across the street. He told me he was overwhelmed with the two traumas affecting his clients: AIDS and 9/11. There were others, but these two defined for me the challenge I faced in facilitating a story experience that would demonstrate to these clinicians the healing power of my non-clinical story approach.

I began with an overview of archetypal stories -- the kinds of stories we call fairy tale and myth -- which have a common structure of crisis, struggle, and transformation, and are thus very effective in supporting recovery from traumatic events. The lack of engagement on my listeners' parts was obvious in their glances at their watches and rifling through the handout.

I began, "Once upon a time..." and launched into a brief version of the end of the Odyssey. This is the turning point, when Odysseus finally opens the way home to Ithaca through telling the stories of his long wanderings after the Trojan War. This myth is powerful not only for soldiers returning from war but for anyone trying to "come home" after tragedy. People began to listen.

(I start my workshops with an old story for two reasons: 1) to take people out of their problematic reality where it's easy to discount or judge someone else's story; and 2) to tap into right brain consciousness, which is the gateway to deeper regions of the mind.)

At the end, I asked my usual question: "What stands out most for you about this story?" There were a few minutes of awkward "brain-storming" -- mostly questions about how this related to helping kids who had been sexually abused, and how to separate one trauma from another in a person's life. The elephant in this room was the toxic distrust that permeated everything in Washington in those days.

Until a woman said that what resonated most for her was Odysseus' 10 years adrift at sea. She had lost her own daughter to leukemia nine years before, and although she was a woman of faith who had gone to many grief workshops and healing retreats, and even though she helped many others deal with their sorrows, she herself was frozen in the "day after."

A shift happened: the group became very quiet and attentive. In the stillness, the man from New York said, "I know exactly what you mean." He described the devastation that surrounded his life as a therapist, gay man, and New Yorker dealing with the double traumas of HIV/AIDS and 9/11. Others chimed in, sharing their own feelings of exhaustion from caregivers' occupational hazard: vicarious trauma.

I invited them to write for 10 minutes whatever came up, without censoring or judging it. And then, if they cared to, to read what they had written to the group.

The woman read about the moment of her daughter's death. As she did so, she raised her eyebrows when she read: "A peace came over Lila's face, and I knew at that moment she was gone, and that she was in the arms of a love greater than even I her mother could give her."

She wept. "I forgot that moment," she said. "I think I can move forward now." Turning to the young man, she said, "Thank you," and asked if she could give him a hug.

As I began to bring the group out of this deep place to a less vulnerable state, we each shared -- myself included -- how much more relaxed we were, less stressed, and feeling that we had truly connected with other people at a level we rarely got to experience, even in our families. Something had happened. Except for the very beginning of the group, we had never discussed the techniques of trauma story; we had experienced all of it in a healing moment. The woman continued to work with me for several years after that.

This is an extreme example, but I hope it shows you how story reaches beneath the thinking, judging mind to the feeling one, from one inner life to another inner life, where we are all human beings together standing on the common ground called life.

Why can't we establish story sanctuaries like this everywhere, where people of all classes and persuasions can leave their ordinary identities, opinions, and lives for a moment and just share their stories? What new solutions might emerge for our disconnected nation and world?

How to Develop a Connector Story

1. Decide what kind of story you want to tell. Ask yourself, what is your audience's most immediate need? What do they want to hear from you? A motivational story, a how-to, a team-builder, or one that ignites creativity. Know what you bring to this encounter.

2. Tell a story that has the elements of archetypal story: crisis, struggle, and transformation.
This is the story that all cultures across all times and places tell: A problem or darkness takes hold, someone goes in search of knowledge or an object that can restore light. After an arduous quest, they find it, bring it home to their people. Life flows again.

3. Start with a problem, need, or crisis. Story always begins with crisis and is about how it was either successfully resolved or how it spiraled into tragedy. What was the setting and situation, who were the characters involved, what were the conflicts? What did you want to make happen and what were the obstacles?

4. Describe the struggle. Here's where you can give a bit of history to orient your audience to the difficulty. This can be a back story -- that is, go back before the beginning to describe a long unsuccessful struggle to change or fix the problem. In archetypal stories, heroes generally fail three or more times, learning something new with each defeat. On the fourth try, they succeed. Message: Endure and persist, hold the vision, learn always. What was your struggle? What enabled you to persist? What did you learn?

5. Tell of the climactic moment when you "got it," when all the pieces fell into place, when you knew the right thing to do, and did it.

6. Bring your audience home with the results and the message or "lesson" of your story.

7. Give them the final word.
Ask what stands out for them. Let the conversation unfold as it needs to; don't push an agenda; be open to whatever idea, insight, or personal sharing arises. This is the "melding" -- when one story catalyzes others, that then catalyze something new that no one thought of before.

(c) 2012 by Juliet Bruce. All rights reserved.