Campfire Storytelling – interview with Evelyn Clark (25 May 2007)

Introduction

Sometime last month I received an email from Regina Kuan of the National Book Development Council of Singapore. Regina wanted to know if I’d be willing to interview some of the people scheduled to participate in the upcoming Singapore Storytelling Festival. I agreed and she put me in touch with Evelyn Clark. Without further ado, I have great pleasure in introducing to you Evelyn Clark …


Aneeta: Evelyn, thank you for agreeing to this interview.

Evelyn: It’s my pleasure, Aneeta. Storytelling is my favorite subject!

Aneeta: Let’s start with a little information about you. Please share with us some stories of your life, thus far. For instance, where did you grow up, what jobs have you undertaken, where do you live and so on?

Evelyn: I was born and raised in the U.S. Midwest—in Springfield, Illinois, the state capital and home of Abraham Lincoln. My adopted home is the milder climate of the beautiful Pacific Northwest—the Seattle area, specifically—where I’ve lived for 40 years. I love outdoor activities, so to me this area, which is surrounded by mountains and water, is paradise! My favorite outdoor pastimes are hiking, boating, water and snow skiing, and traveling. Other interests include attending concerts and theatrical shows, getting involved in church activities, and entertaining friends.

I started my career as a news reporter. Since my early school years I’ve loved to write, and my first job was as a broadcast editor for the Associated Press. I loved it! It was a demanding job—and also a lot of fun.

Aneeta: What made you become interested in storytelling?

Evelyn: After my stint in news writing and editing, I transitioned into corporate public relations and began working “the other side of the desk,” helping organizations tell their stories more effectively. Then I launched my own consulting practice.

Eventually I realized that many leaders had lost touch with their own core values and weren’t communicating with their own employees. As a result, employees weren’t clear on the organization’s mission and how they could help achieve their goals. I got into this work to help companies be more efficient. This is about empowering leaders to reach for something more profound, more defined—and more measurable.

So in the early 1990s I developed the Corporate Storytelling® system and became a workshop and retreat facilitator and a keynote speaker. I work with executives and teams in the corporate world as well as the nonprofit and government arenas. I’m especially looking forward to participating in the Singapore Storytelling Festival and the Asian Storytelling Congress.

Aneeta: Please, what is the difference between corporate storytelling and normal storytelling?

Evelyn: The Corporate Storytelling system helps organizations clarify their values, identify their core stories, and fire up their brands. The result is that all the stakeholders—employees, customers, partners, stock owners, peers, and neighbors—understand the company’s mission better and, in turn, help propel it to greater success.

But in fact, we all can use the same approach in our personal lives as well; it happens all the time. My colleagues in organizational storytelling and I are actually developing a new paradigm for how people work and live in the 21st Century—and of course, it’s based on a practice that’s as old as the human race. Social scientists say that human beings are “hard wired” for storytelling.

Stories help us make sense of the world. Our brains readily accept the information in the stories we hear, and then organize various bits of that information in ways that help us access those bits when needed.

Aneeta: From your website, http://www.corpstory.com, I see that you have an impressive list of clients. Would you care to share some experiences you’ve had with some of these clients?

Evelyn: I’ve had so many rewarding experiences, it’s difficult to choose. Here are two of numerous “favorites”.

Story #1:

For me one of the greatest joys in leading workshops occurs when someone with a great deal of business experience and/or communication expertise has a major “a-ha!”. That’s exactly what happened in the very first Corporate Storytelling workshop. The session was for members of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, so many of the participants were business owners. In one segment, I asked each person to create a piece of “art” that represented his/her business at various points in time. Then each one shared the art and explained its meaning.

One woman included a picture of a dinosaur. She explained that her business had become a monster; it was running her instead of the other way around. That “a-ha” led to a valuable insight: she needed more help. She hired a new assistant, which enabled her to regain control of her business—and it’s been running much more smoothly since.

Story #2:

A well-known industry pioneer in U.S. wireless communications followed several earlier successes by joining with two partners to found Western Wireless, a company that specialized in mobile phone service to rural markets. Eleven years later, having established a dominant position in the western U.S., they began looking for a merger partner in the eastern part of the country. It was the only option for staying competitive and continuing to grow, but the executives realized that a merger would fundamentally change the company and its culture.

So, after reaching a preliminary merger agreement with Alltel, Western Wireless executives thought long and hard about how they could appropriately thank their employees for helping them to create not just one, but two, successful wireless companies. (The other was a spin-off that had become T-Mobile.) The answer: a book of stories, told through the voices of employees.

Privileged to be the storyteller for the project, I was brought in by the Seattle office of Fitch, a worldwide design consultancy owned by WWP in the UK. I interviewed a carefully selected, representative group of people that included board members, the first people hired (some of whom had since left Western Wireless), the executive team, and a number of employees, some who had been on board for several years and some only a few months. Their stories of memorable experiences and legendary characters painted a vivid picture of what it had been like to be part of a dynamic, hard working, “wild west” company that overcame nearly impossible challenges and had great fun in the process.

We compiled the stories into a series of vignettes with catchy titles, accompanied by photos that employees had taken over the years. We developed fun (and sometimes nonsensical) captions, and Fitch produced a beautifully-designed book that was distributed at a special commemorative event for employees. The gift book was an instant hit, generating a new round of storytelling. Lined pages in the back of the book provided space for people to write parting comments to one another, ensuring that the books will become treasured possessions as the years go by. After all, how many people have the opportunity to work with a pioneer who works hard, plays hard, and encourages employees to follow suit?

Aneeta: Please describe the three resources you have available for storytellers.

Evelyn: I’d be delighted to, Aneeta. Thank you for asking!


Around the Corporate Campfire: How Great Leaders Use Stories to Inspire Successis a paperback book that contains a collection of corporate stories about well-known U.S.-based companies. In the main part of the book, each chapter tells how a company, such as FedEx, Costco Wholesale, and Medtronic, uses stories deliberately as a leadership tool. For example, at FedEx, the stories often celebrate extraordinary efforts by the delivery truck drivers; they are the heart and soul of the company because they’re the ones who literally deliver on the company’s promise to get every package to its destination on time. The book also includes reports on studies showing that the majority of workplace learning takes place informally (through storytelling among co-workers); templates for developing corporate stories and evaluating how effectively they’re being told; and a recommended reading list.

Ritual Mesais a recording of Native American flute music, which I sometimes use in my workshops because my corporate identity, or logo, is a Native figure known as Kokopelli. According to the myth of Kokopelli, he was a rainmaker, a fertility symbol, a flute player, a traveling entertainer and, of course, a storyteller! The interesting aspect of his own story is that he represents a specific tribe, the Pueblo Hopi people, so he is a fitting symbol for my work, The core of my work is to help leaders discover their organization’s unique qualities and values, which are the foundation of any lasting brand.

Corporate Storytelling: Capturing the Core Messageis a white paper that introduces the power of organizational storytelling for those who are new to the concept. The paper briefly traces the importance of storytelling in cultures from the earliest days of human history to the contemporary use of stories as a management tool.

Aneeta: I see that you run workshops and so on. Would you care to share some of the most important lessons people will learn should they attend your workshop?

Evelyn: In the full-day (or longer) workshop, we cover topics such as:

  • Examining where the organization (and/or each individual’s work team) has been, where it currently is, and where it needs/wants to go.
  • Recognizing the underlying values that comprise the corporate culture and their ramifications on the organization’s direction.
  • Identifying each participant’s role in accomplishing the corporate mission.
  • Identifying the audiences that the organization/person needs to motivate.
  • Developing experiential stories that convey core values that will captivate and motivate the key audiences to support the organization’s vision.

At the end of the workshop, participants should know how to::

  • Recognize the influences of their organization’s history on the current corporate culture and identify the values that drive the corporate mission.
  • Articulate the characteristics that truly set the organization apart from the rest of the organization and/or its chief competition.
  • Develop a plan for reigniting the spark that will transform the corporate and departmental/work team vision into action.
  • Learn how to tell the corporate story effectively to reach each of the key audiences and produce the desired results.
  • Work together better, support one another better, and serve the customer more effectively.

Aneeta: You are scheduled to speak at the upcoming Singapore International Story Telling Festival on 24th of August – 9 the September 2007. What are your intended contributions to this Festival?

Evelyn: I will be leading three one-day workshops, a keynote speech, and a short presentation as part of the storyteller showcases. The schedule details may be adjusted slightly as the dates draw near, so it may be helpful to check the program listings online. The entire schedule is posted at http://www.bookcouncil.sg/sisf/index3.htm

My programs are set for the following dates:

One-Day Workshops (9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.)

Tuesday, August 28—Developing Marketing and Brand Messages through Stories

Wednesday, August 29—Story Power for Teams

Tuesday, September 4—The Power of Storytelling for Leaders

Keynote (9:00 – 9:45 a.m.)

Thursday, September 6—Power of Storytelling for Leaders

International Storytellers Showcases (various times August 30 – September 1)

The schedule for the showcases includes both daytime and evening presentations for families and for adults. The performances are posted at http://www.bookcouncil.sg/sisf/showcase.htm

Aneeta: As you may know, my website caters to storytellers. Do you have any advice for my readers?

Evelyn: My best advice is to get involved in storyteller communities! It’s been exciting for me to meet other practitioners of corporate and organizational storytelling through involvement in organizations such as the National Storytelling Network and the International Storytelling Center. Through the Network I’ve learned how others are applying the power of storytelling in their own companies and their client organizations; by participating in the annual conferences, I’ve had opportunities to work with several of my colleagues from across the country, and the invitation to appear in Singapore is the result of a recommendation from one of my colleagues. The world truly is becoming smaller and you never know where these collaborations may lead!

Aneeta: Evelyn, this is all I have to ask you. Is there anything you’d like to add?

Evelyn: You’ve been very thorough in your questions, Aneeta. You’ve asked about various areas of the general practice of storytelling as well as my own work, and I appreciate your inviting me to be part of your interview series.

My parting thought is this: Although my book is entitled, Around the Corporate Campfire, my hope is to empower not just those who are corporate decision-makers, but everyone who makes decisions. That includes everyone! I hope to empower people by helping them understand that there is a better, more efficient way to be happy and healthy in their personal lives as well as profitable in their business endeavors.

The corporate campfire could just as easily be the family campfire or the relationship campfire; storytelling applies to all our personal relationships—marriage communications, relationships with friends, children, etc.

People trust good storytellers. When someone tells a good, relevant story, every listener feels a personal connection to that person and wants to be part of what he/she is doing and wants to support it. The applications are virtually limitless. Everyone can bring home lessons from the workplace and vice versa. That’s what brings a deep richness to life—seeing and learning from all the interconnections in our communities, locally and globally.

Aneeta: Thank you, Evelyn.

Evelyn: Thank you, Aneeta. It’s been a pleasure to have this opportunity to talk about the subject that fires me up and makes my work a joy!


This piece may NOT be freely reprinted. Please contact editor @ howtotellagreatstory.com for reprint rights.

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