Vol. 43, No. 5

What’s your story? Speakers at 2019 BLI, NABE Midyear help with personal connection

by Marilyn Cavicchia

Tim Eigo, editor of Arizona Attorney Magazine at the State Bar of Arizona, contributed to this article.

These days, with so many people seeking personal connection and resisting obvious sales pitches, storytelling has come to the forefront as an important tool—including for bar organizations and their leaders.

At the 2019 ABA Bar Leadership Institute this past March, attendees were broken out according to bar size (small, medium, large) and type (state or local, and voluntary or mandatory) in order to learn storytelling techniques and practice them with each other—so they could then go home and make a persuasive non-sales pitch for bar membership and participation.

Below are some observations from two of the presenters. Elizabeth Derrico, principal at Elizabeth Derrico & Associates, led the session for metro bar associations with 2,000 or more members, and Karen Girolami Callam, writer/consultant at KGC Consulting, led the one for bars with fewer than 2,000 members. Also included are highlights from a storytelling plenary program at the 2019 Midyear Meeting of the National Association of Bar Executives, in January.

It’s a story, not a laundry list

In follow-up conversation with Bar Leader, both Derrico (herself a longtime bar staff member) and Callam (relatively new to the bar world) pointed out that bar leaders are often more comfortable giving a “laundry list” of membership benefits, or, as Callam said, “telling other people’s stories” than they are with helping people connect with the leader’s own personal stories.

In fact, Callam said, one challenge she faced with her audience was “lack of belief that their own personal story matters.”

To move beyond the laundry list, Derrico encouraged attendees to focus on creating a leadership story—whether in a president’s page or a speaking engagement—that makes a human connection with the audience and that answers the question, “What’s different because you are connected to our association?”

In early rounds of the storytelling practice that occurred during the session, Derrico recalled, “participants tended to bury the lede”—a journalism term for the most important part of a story, which should be at the beginning. Instead of starting with a lot of narrative set-up, essentially telling people they were about to hear a story, Derrico encouraged participants to start with a declarative sentence or a question, such as these examples from the session:

“Where would you turn if your wallet was inaccessible, all of your suits smelled of smoke—and you had a court hearing in two hours?” This story was about how the bar association helped a member whose apartment caught fire and who needed a suit to wear to court, and assistance in finding a temporary place to live.

“My client won a declaratory judgment because of a CLE.” The BLI attendee had picked up a critical piece of information during that CLE.

“I am an outsider who became president of the association.” When this bar leader first joined the bar, he felt out of place because of his practice area and the size of his firm. By joining a particular section, he found a community within the bar, and, he said, the fact that he was now president-elect meant “There is a place for everyone.”

Creating a home for humans

In her session, Callam found that some of the most powerful stories had specific sensory details that prompted a laugh or a nod of recognition, such as “We went out to eat hamburgers” or “I had a newborn at home and was exhausted.” With those vivid details in place, she said, it was then easier to connect with the most important part of the story: “why and how that bar experience made a difference for that lawyer.”

Callam cited a quote she especially likes on the subject of storytelling, from a book called The Story Factor: Inspiration, Influence, and Persuasion through the Art of Storytelling. “People do not want information,” wrote Annette Simmons. “They’re up to their eyeballs in information. They want faith—in you, your goals, your success in the story you tell.”

For bar association storytellers, Callam phrased it this way: “You’re creating a home for humans. Don’t lose them at the door—invite them in. And invite them in with your own authentic story, which makes you real and makes your organization real.”

Resources for further learning

To help the budding bar association storytellers further develop their skills, Derrico recommended the following resources:

Callam didn’t direct her attendees to any particular resources but did ask them to pay attention to stories on NPR and the lead-in to articles in the media they take in, and to see how often a personal story is used to entice the audience.

“The focus [of her session] was really going internal to your lived experience,” she said, “and figuring out how to extract that in a way that you can share it authentically with people.”

Highlights from NABE Midyear storytelling plenary

Much of the world does not communicate in PowerPoints and data charts, said plenary speaker Steve Hughes, in his session closing the 2019 NABE Midyear Meeting in Las Vegas. Instead, said Hughes, who is a St. Louis-based speaker, writer, and consultant, the tool that engages and persuades is a far older one: the story.

In his session titled “Tell Me More: Using Stories to Persuade and Inspire Action,” Hughes explored how we all can humanize our organizations’ facts and invite people to experience what makes us unique. In a fast-paced world filled with clutter, Hughes said, stories have the power to cut through the noise and can lead stakeholders to sit up and take notice.

The successful association finds ways to tell its story, Hughes said. And with multiple stories at the association’s disposal, smart leaders match up the story that’s needed at the moment with the message they’re seeking to communicate—which is always related to your underlying mission.

“Stories are whole-brained,” Hughes reminded listeners. They operate on a different level from the data you’re used to doling out. Stories fill in the gaps, the blanks that your customers have. They fill deficits you may even be unaware of, but that can be an obstacle to adoption of your mission by others.

For this process to work for your association, Hughes said, remember that stories:

  • are better than facts alone;
  • build relationships;
  • allow your audience to share your point of view;
  • have a high re-tell value; and
  • awaken the wisdom in the room.

The last item may be a surprise, but Hughes said that your stories have evocative power. As your listeners hear your story, they may discover the wisdom within themselves—and share it. The lessons they have heard from you—like the ones they may share—will be a truth they hold onto forever.

Hughes then engaged the audience in developing their own story. He advocated use of the SOAR (situation, obstacle, answer, results) answer model to examine an issue you face and to devise a narrative that addresses it.

As organization leaders face challenges, Hughes said, they should explore how a compelling and coherent story could help—no matter what your association type. For example, if your association has been around a long time, how can you make the user experience useful and friendly? Perhaps, he mused, you can do something special when someone does their 100th hour of CLE with you.

Wondering where to find stories? They’re everywhere, Hughes said. They may come from your life experience, from reading you’ve done (and you should do a lot of that), from history, movies, pop culture, news, or even mythology. Whatever the source, your story’s creation must come from your association’s DNA and be constructed with the ultimate audience in mind.