Gabrielle Dolan and the Power of Business Storytelling

Gabrielle is an expert in business storytelling and launched her own practice in 2013. Over the last decade, she has worked with thousands of leaders around Australia and internationally helping them achieve outstanding business results with storytelling. She is a highly sought after mentor and keynote speaker on storytelling and leadership.


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Alzay : Well hello everyone. It's Alzay Calhoun with Coveted Consultant and today I'm here with Gabrielle Dolan. Gabrielle is an expert in business storytelling and she has plenty of expertise working with executive teams. Whether that's external communication deal with sales, new clients, trying to close big deals or internal communication working with individual teams inside and kind of getting the leadership message together inside a company, she's got expertise on both sides so we're going to see how much of that we can get through here in our conversation today.

But first, let me just welcome Gabrielle, so Gabrielle, how are you today?

Gabrielle : I'm good Alzay. Thank you for the introduction.

Alzay : Let's start at the beginning. For those people who may have heard your name but they don't know where they may have heard your name from, where might have they heard about you?

Gabrielle : They might have heard it, I've authored two books that have been published around globally so the first was Hooked, which I co-authored and Hooked was how leaders connect, engage, and inspire with storytelling so that was published in 2013. My most recent Ignite, Real Leadership, Real Talk, Real Results, that was published in August last year and it actually reached number five on Australia's best selling books. Probably didn't reach number five in America's best selling books but that's okay. We might get there eventually.

Alzay : Well for those who, well just help us understand the difference between those two books, the basic difference between those two books.

Gabrielle : Yeah absolutely. So Hooked the first one is purely around storytelling. It's pretty much a how to, how to why you need storytelling in business and how to develop stories. The second book Ignite is around authentic leadership almost so the real leadership, real talk tagline is very much about if you've got a position as a leader in a company, how you can bring your whole self to your leadership and how you can talk in a way that is real so moving away from the common language of business, which is corporate jargon into a language that is more effective and really put in personal storytelling so how you can use stories to be more real in the way you communicate.

Alzay : When I was doing some research about you, I heard you say something that I thought was pretty smart. You said storytelling is not self-indulged. It's actually quite disciplined and I think for the business leaders who are listening to this, they appreciate that disciplined part of it because they know they have to do certain things. What do you mean by disciplined?

Gabrielle : What do I mean disciplined in that sense is when we share stories in business, the reality is we share stories, it's the way we communicate. We share stories but when we share stories in business, it's different from when you're sharing stories with your friends over dinner or you know over a drink, where if you're sharing stories outside of work, your stories can go on for five, ten minutes you know twenty minutes and we can exaggerate and we can go off on tangents and that's all good because it's a social setting, it's the way we talk.

But when we're sharing stories in business, the concept of discipline is you need to keep your stories real short and sharp so my rule of thumb is one to two minutes in business. Because it's only one to two minutes, it means you have to have prepared your story, practiced it, know exactly what you're saying and being really disciplined in what detail you put in and what detail you leave out and this is constantly going back to what's the purpose of your story. If the information is relevant to your purpose, leave it in but if it's not take it out and that's where the discipline because as a story teller, it might not be relevant to my purpose but it's really funny or I really like it and I want to put it in. In business you can't afford to that because like you said, what I said it's if you do that it's becoming self-indulgent. If you're sharing stories for the hell of it because you like them then it's all of the sudden it's all about you and not about the people you're trying to communicate to.

Alzay : If I like that and I appreciate that and I'm ready to kind of think about my own one to two minute stories, help me understand some applications. Where might I use these stories? Do they start my team meetings? Do I use them in networking? How do I apply these stories?

Gabrielle : Well yeah them and more. The most easiest way to start in your journey in storytelling is if you're sort of a little bit reluctant to go, I'm not sure how personal stories can work in a business setting. The safest way to start is perhaps in one on one conversations so it could be one on one with your team. It could be in a networking situation or in a team meeting so you might have a small team so it's working in team meetings. Business storytelling is very much a day to day leadership skill and a communication skill so a lot of people think it's mainly just for presentations and yes, absolutely use them in presentations. When I mentor senior execs and CEO's one of the things I talk about is if you're going up and presenting, actually start with a personal story that you know captures people straight away and it's about the topic you're talking about, which is important.

Team meetings, presentations, sales, it's really critical in sales situations because they build connection and rapport really quickly. Job interviews, I'm actually my next book coming up which is sort of at the editors at the moment, it's a shorter book but it's how you can use stories in job interviews. Really in any situation where you are trying to get your message across in a way that is really understood and in a situation where you're trying to influence people, a story can work there.

Alzay : Can you give us a sample structure of a story or perhaps two or three things that all stories need to have for those folks who might need some help in the way?

Gabrielle : Yes I think for a story to be a story, there's three things you need to have in your story. One is you need to have a sequence and structure. That may sound really simple. The sequence is beginning, middle and end and Aristotle, two and a half thousand years ago gave us that structure so it has stood the test of time but you'd be amazed at how many people don't actually have an end to their story or a beginning. You need to have a beginning, middle and end. One of the most natural ways to start your story is with time and place. So for example, when I was a kid, I grew up on a farm or this morning at gym or three years ago I went on a holiday and they become, they're quite conversational so you need structure, a beginning, middle and end.

You also need to have a specific event. A lot of times in business when we share stories or we think we're sharing stories, we keep it at a really high level where there's just a lot of information and dotter and nothing really specific happens and because without going specific, you can't bring any emotion and sensory information in and that's the third thing. A story has to have emotion in it and it has to have sensory information in it so I have to feel something and I have to visualize something. If I don't feel something or visualize something I can't almost guarantee you that it's not a story.

Those three things are critical for a story to be a story. A beginning, middle and end, so a sequence. A specific event and emotion and sensory data and then when you bring that into business, I sort of overlay it if you want me to go on with another three tips. I overlay it for business is one it has to be purposeful. There's got to be a reason you're sharing it, to get a message across. It has to be congruent with your actions so it's got to be, people will remember your story so if you're sharing a story about an importance of work life balance for example, you have to actually live and breathe that value. Then the final thing and probably the most important has to be authentic. It has to be true. It's just not worth the backlash on your credibility to make up or to manufacture stories. They've got to be true in business.

Alzay : I saw that point early too, the importance of congruency and authenticity when you tell stories. That's one of those things that's kind of like an obvious moment, like duh, no kidding, you wouldn't want to lie when you tell stories but we do. We embellish.

Gabrielle : Yeah.

Alzay : Help us understand, what would make us want to embellish a story? In a business setting, you're telling a story and you begin to embellish and before you know it you've gone beyond appropriate bounds. Why do we do that?

Gabrielle : Yeah. I think there's a couple of things. I don't think there's a lot of people that do that but there's certainly enough to do it to warrant a conversation around it. I think people don't understand when, this is when I see people do it. They don't understand the power of stories, they don't realize that people will remember that story and they will create an emotional connection to it and then if they find out it's not true or if it's been embellished so much that it's not true, that is worse than a lie, it's a betrayal because all of the sudden I feel like you've tried to manipulate me by lying. Sometimes the embellishment goes on because just of the lack of discipline that we talked about and people get on a roll, especially with humor, they get on a roll and the story teller might even thing, know that they're joking and surely everyone else knows that their joking and then they share the story and then people come afterwards and say something. They go oh my God, no that was obviously a joke wasn't it and sometimes it's not obvious.

Alzay : Let's talk about the other side of that coin. What's the power in telling an authentic story? So when you stay true to the story that you mean to tell what happens in that situation?

Gabrielle : Yeah look the real power telling an authentic story that happened to you is that when you tell it and it doesn't matter how many times you have to share it, that you re-live the emotion. If you're sharing a story about when you were a kid, you will re-live that emotion every time and when I'm talking about emotion I'm not talking about emotional data, these aren't your most deepest and darkest intimate secrets you want to share, it's the day to day stories that are the most powerful but even the day to day ones, you will re-live emotion. I see leaders just sharing quite simple stories about their children for example but you can see the pride in them. You share stories about when you're a kid and you can just, you see emotion because the story teller is feeling it.

Alzay : I've experienced that more than once. I've experience in my own personal life, you're watching someone present and it looks as static and as boring as everything else. At some point they get to a story and their physical appearance changes.

Gabrielle : Yeah.

Alzay : Their face changes, their body shape changes because they're re-living the emotion.

Gabrielle : Yeah.

Alzay : At that point they get immediately more interesting. You know so ...

Gabrielle : You're so right Alzay. You see that all the time. People up there doing their power point presentation and almost reading from the script and going through the things and they'll get into the personal story and it is like a different person.

Alzay : Right.

Gabrielle : It's not as if they're doing, it's just their voice changes and you can feel it, you're right and as soon as that happens, it's the most engaging thing and one of the things I talk about when people present is make sure that you're team message, if you could only get people to understand or remember one thing, use a personal story attached to that because I can almost guarantee you it's the only thing they will remember.

Alzay : For those, for your clients as you're trying to work with clients, clients have objections, frictions to these ideas. What are some of those things that client say that reject, of putting storytelling as a practice in their organization?

Gabrielle : One of the things and it's probably not even a rejection, it's just a lack of knowledge, a lot of people, leaders I work with, the first realization is I never, ever even thought you could use a personal story in a business sense. They just never even thought of them. The second thing once they've realized they then go well I don't have any interesting stories because I'm just normal. You know I'm just normal. Nothing really bad happened to me or nothing and getting them over the realization that those normal stories are the most powerful. You know the stories of climbing Mount Everest are great I mean you know good on you but you don't have to do that. It's the little day to day stories. It's the struggles with your kids, it's the struggles with your partner, it's you know trying to lose weight, all those normal stories.

The other really, the biggest obstacle I face with leaders is that when they're not prepared to show any amount of vulnerability. So to be a really good story teller, to step into storytelling and share personal stories, you have to show a certain level of vulnerability. To show that you're human and there is still a lot of leaders that believe that because I'm in a position of leadership, I need to be bullet proof and I need to have all the answers and there's still a lot of leaders that see vulnerability as a weakness. If anyone knows the word from Brenae Brown and agrees with it, we would know that showing vulnerability is our greatest strength and it's a greater sign of courage. When leaders understand that they are more readily stepping into the power that storytelling can give them.

Alzay : For those who are looking to implement, you already offered some crucial story elements. Are there any tools that you suggest? Are there any perhaps one page templates? Are there any software tools? Are there any examples they should look to or that you encourage your clients to look as they implement?


Gabrielle : Yeah look I so normally when I work with my clients, I take them through you know a half day or a full day workshop and provide example after example after example of people who have shared stories. These I mean and there's lots of resources on my website obviously. I just find the more examples you can share of people actually using stories, they understand it, leaders start to understand it so there's obviously Hooked in my book, my two books have lots of it but you know on the website there's a couple of how to. There's one PDF I have on my website of how to implement storytelling into your organization and sort of the common mistakes that people make. It's hearing those examples that really help people understand how they can apply them.

Alzay : So what haven't I asked? We've set a good foundation here.

Gabrielle : Yeah.

Alzay : What else needs to be included right now for someone who wants to take the next step?

Gabrielle : Okay. I think probably so give us an example. Let me share an example with you of how a business woman leader shared a story. Rosemarie was the head of risk for a company I was working with and she had the same issue all the time. She said every time I'm talking about risk with the teams I support, they look at me and go well you're the risk manager that's your problem so you look after risk. She said that it doesn't matter what I say, I just cannot get the message through to them.

This is a story Rosemarie started to share with the business unit she supported. She said when I was a kid, I grew up on a farm and growing up on a farm there was all these dangers we needed to be aware of but mum told us what to do so we knew what to do when we came across spiders in the heat. We knew about all the potential traps in the dam after heavy rain and we knew what to do if we came across a snake in summer. I remember this stinking hot day and mum was yelling at me to get my bike from the front gate so I ran down the path and then I just froze because in front of my bike was this massive copperhead snake but I remembered everything mum had told us to do so I played statues and I slowly walked backwards until there was enough space between me and the snake and then ran back to the house to tell mum. I'm sharing this with you because it reminds me of the role we play in risk. All I can do is give you the skills, knowledge and advice so when you come across your own copperhead snake, regardless of what that looks like, you will know what to do.

That's an example of a story and I actually really love that example because it shows that it is the day to day stories that can be the most powerful and it also shows brilliantly how a personal story can be linked to such a critical business message of risk management.

Alzay : If I can I like that story too and if I can add a quick thought, it's we don't, if you are a daily practitioner in a business, risk is not what you're thinking about everyday so you need a reason to be connected to the risk conversation.

Gabrielle : Yeah.

Alzay : Because why would you know, so yeah that story made it relevant to me as someone who does what I do and I don't care about risk.

Gabrielle : Yeah.

Alzay : You know that's not my everyday concern.

Gabrielle : No. What the story did for Rosemarie, is like you know meetings with her team that would be talking around a project that we're going to do or something that we're going to implement and there would be instead of saying well what's the risk, she would go well lets identify any potential copperhead snakes.

Alzay : Absolutely.

Gabrielle : It pins back to the story and you know if you think about the tips I gave on storytelling about specific event, that story highlights the specific event of the copperhead snake and the emotion and sensory I'm sure when your listeners hear this, they will visualize. You'll be able to visualize it and feel something. It absolutely is authentic so could you imagine if you heard that story and you said Rosemarie afterwards, oh I grew up on a farm too. Where did you grow up and she said I didn't grow up on a farm, I just made that up. Can you understand how you would broke it? I now feel like you just manipulated me.

Alzay : Right right right. You forever changed that relationship now.

Gabrielle : Yeah. Her credibility does not recover from that so that's again why the importance of being authentic.

Alzay : Wonderful, thank you for the example. That's a very good one. What so in your business, as you're going forward and you're growing this year, what big projects do you have working on that we should know about?

Gabrielle : Well probably the one you should know about you might find the most value is one of the big projects I worked on because I've worked in this business for over ten years and I just run face to face workshops so I'm based in Melbourne, Australia so I you know I do a lot of Australia, New Zealand and Asia and I've been over to London but I have a lot of inquiries globally around my services. The thing I'm really excited about is I've developed an online program. It's really practical. It takes, it's specifically for people in business so leaders, sales people, trainers, anyone in business that needs to communicate and influence people. It's a combination of a whole lot of really short sharp videos, me talking, lots of examples of what we've talked about and taking if people do the program taking them through the process of why they need stories, why they need them now, where to find them, how to construct them and looking at all the various applications of where you can sue them.

I'm pretty excited about that and that should be coming out hopefully late February, early March.

Alzay : Very good. Very, very good. Someone wants to reach out to you and connect with you, how should they do that?

Gabrielle : The best way is through the websites or LinkedIn so will you have those details on the link?

Connect with Gabrielle Dolan via her website
Connect with Gabrielle Doan via LinkedIn

Alzay : Sure. I'll make sure we have those linked so someone will be following up with you. Well, Gabrielle, we've done a good job today. Thank you so much for your time and for the structure of today's conversation.

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