Justina Chen: The Heart of Storytelling

This is one of the longest blog postings I’ve done on a single presentation. I believe that there was sufficient content in Justina Chen’s keynote to justify the cost of attending the entire 2012 Ragan Speechwriters Conference.

Justina ChenIn a spectacular closing keynote at the 2012 Ragan Speechwriters Conference, Justina Chen celebrated The Heart of Storytelling. A former speechwriter for the head of the Entertainment division at Microsoft, Chen is now an award-winning author of young adult fiction books such as North of Beautiful which has been praised for “lively, artful prose.”

Her command of language and the stage was on display throughout the hour-long talk that celebrated the many ways to effectively bring the essence and power of the story into the corporation – to empower the spokespeople of the organization with the ability to change hearts and minds through storytelling.

She quoted with relish Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes who notes in Women Who Run With The Wolves that stoytellers are:

“… direct descendants of an immense and ancient community of holy people, troubadours, bards, griots, cantadoras, cantors, traveling poets, bums, hags, and crazy people.”

Chen noted that something about stories lift our spirit. This is something all children are in tune with. The question is, how to convince hard-bitten executives and harassed middle-managers that their speech should be built around stories when all they want is the facts and nothing but?

Brain Rules

To convince executives who don’t want to use stories, Chen finds it useful to quote the neuroscience research outlined in Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School by John Medina which proves:

  1. People remember stories
  2. Audiences need to re-engage every ten minutes via a story
  3. We learn through metaphor which are deep and rich with meaning

Medina writes:

As you no doubt have noticed if you’ve ever sat through a typical PowerPoint presentation, people don’t pay attention to boring things (Brain Rule #4). You’ve got seconds to grab someone’s attention, and only 10 minutes to keep it. At 9 minutes and 59 seconds, something must be done quickly—something emotional and relevant. Also, the brain needs a break. That’s why I use stories in this book to make many of my points.

Here’s a useful illustration of Medina’s 12 Brain Rules.

Given this evidence, Chen proves to her clients that corporate stories matter. The right story told in right way can inspire change people’s minds and hearts.

A Story is not a Vignette

A story is not a vignette. A vignette is defined as a short descriptive literary sketch or a brief incident or scene. A story, on the other hand, involves conflict and transformation, a call to adventure, crossing a threshold, succeeding in tests, surviving a crisis and reaping a reward.

The core of Chen’s presentation detailed three types of stories she has used in her speechwriting. There are stories of corporate mythology, of personal narrative, and product stories. These three powerful templates will connect with the audience.

(I would add that writers can explore a wider variety of stories by reading The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker. This tome outlines multiple frameworks for stories embedded in an audience’s unconscious, using archetypes such as Rags to Riches, Rebirth, Overcoming the Monster, the Voyage and Return and so on.)

Stories of Corporate Mythology

Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth talks about the eternal truth of myth. One that is celebrated in Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and other classic stories where good overcomes evil.

As in Middle Earth … so in middle management.

The corporate world needs to recognize the importance of mythology. To figure out:

  • What is our corporate mythology?
  • What are the stories that encapsulate our organization truth, our values, our DNA?
  • Who are we?
  • What do we stand for?
  • If the company were a hero, what has been its quest?
  • Where have we failed?
  • What have we learned?
  • How have we overcome?
  • What our strengths?
  • What are our weaknesses?
  • Why is it important for us to be here right now?

Don’t be afraid of discussing failures, the crucible moments in the company history is where we see character emerge. Speechwriters can research the times the company has failed and show the lessons, the backbone, and the spine of the organization:

Only then do triumphs feel well earned, only then does success become so much more meaningful, only then so our hero’s, our leaders, our companies, become that much more beloved.

Chen quoted Leonard Cohen from Anthem

There’s a crack in everything / That’s how the light comes in.

(She omitted the preceding line which speechwriters on a tight deadline might pin above their desks:

Forget your perfect offering.)

Personal Stories

Today’s leaders must understand the power of telling their own story. It’s important that a leader be a good storyteller, but equally important that the leader embody that story.

Harvard’s Dr Howard Garnder writes in Leading Minds: An Anatomy Of Leadership that “the artful creation and articulation of stories constitutes a fundamental part of the leader’s vocation”, and these well-crafted stories constitute “the single most powerful weapon in the leader’s literary arsenal.” Whether consciously or unconsciously, inspirational leaders always fashion and tell stories of identity. Gardner goes on to state that a political leader, when dealing with a diverse group, must tell stories that are sufficiently elemental to be understood by the “unschooled” mind.

(More on this topic can be found in Professor John Sadowsky’s blog:

Leaders actively craft and tell authentic personal stories of identity that bring their values to life. And, they use their stories to teach their followers, their teams, and their organizations. It is through their personal stories that leaders reveal who they are, and it is by revealing their true nature that they inspire others to action.)

Leaders need to develop a communications platform that explains

  • What makes them the right leader for this time in the corporations history?
  • What are the three major elements of their leadership that will bring them to success?
  • What are the stories they can tell, strategically deployed at the right time, to demonstrate that they are the right leaders?

Creating Executive Platforms for Effective Storytelling

Here’s where Chen delivered the goods, big time.

She spoke of her personal experience, at Microsoft, researching story content and weaving it into presentations. Her tips are a recipe for success for any speechwriter in a corporate environment who wants to put storytelling into practice.

Her tips include:

  • Work with your HR counterpoint. Ask for their assessment of the executives’ strengths and weaknesses. How do people perceive that leader? What would HR want that leader to change to make them more effective?
  • Contact a PR agency or your internal PR team and get their assessment of everyone in industry at the same level as your leader. How are they perceived? What are they good at and what are their weaknesses and how does my leader stack up? What kind of messaging are they using?
  • Then ask for at least 90 minutes with leader. Meet offsite over lunch where they are relaxed. Dig into their personal narrative. Ask: Who are you? Why are you at this company? What have been some of your successes and, more importantly, what have been some of your most devastating failures? How did you overcome challenges in both your personal life, then in business? What do you wish you’d known as you started out your career? Where do you want to go?

With this background you can build a foundation of trusted communication with your leader. Establish an agreement that every week you can email three questions, one of which will be personal. Ask: Who have you met this week? What’s your favorite book? What kind of music do you like to listen to? What do you like to eat?

All of this detail infuses speeches. If you learn they are reading about Harry Truman, include a quote from Harry Truman in a speech.

The biggest compliment you’ll get from a speaker is for them to look at the speech and say “This sounds like me, this feels like me.”

And when they can own the content they can own the stage.

Product Stories

Marketing and PR can give you background that allows you to tell the story in manner of a “Director’s Cut” version of how a product was made. Tell the story of the individuals.

(I totally agree. I’m a big fan of NPR Planet Money and the way they use stories to explain some of the most complex and abstract financial concepts. Host Chana Joffe-Walt has described in detail the ways they take dry content and make it come alive with magic of stories:

When I am beginning to research an Idea Story I try to lay out the mechanics in my mind. “OK so we buy Chinese stuff. Dollars go from here to China. Then they pile up there in the banks. Then they get used to buy US treasury bonds.” At some point early on I always ask who is the guy who does that? Someone has to put that money into the Chinese bank, someone at the bank manages it and sees it piling up, someone sits at a computer and buys US treasury bonds … who is that guy?)

Weaving the Story Together

Weave story content together so the speech is as rich, as interesting and as evocative as possible.

As well as telling stories in an individual speech you can weave stories into longer events. Volunteer to be the storyteller for your next big company meeting. Figure out the emotional arc of the day. Play with the full eight hours and see where individual speakers fit. What do you want audience to feel? When do you want them to feel inspired, refreshed, challenged? The three types of stories listed can come alive over the whole day.

The Creative Process

Whether writing a book or a speech, Chan employs the same step-by-step creative process.

  1. Determining the intention
  2. Researching the data
  3. Collecting the information
  4. Collaborating with other creative’s on slides and videos
  5. Creating the content
  6. Rehearsing the speaker
  7. Delivering on the podium
  8. Repurposing and sharing with others in organization
  9. Improving for future use

While this process seems very logical, it is actually a deliciously messy affair. She urged us to lean into the process and enjoy the anti-corporate nature of discovery that is involved. Read books and magazines. Find ideas to incorporate into your speeches. Get out into world and play. Keep your creative energy fresh.

The Search for the Story

Your search for a story involves meeting the right people. Ask executives for time to “conduct an interview” and they’ll clear a busy calendar. Just “asking for a meeting” won’t have same effect.

It’s essential to have executive air cover since you need free range in your organization to go up, down and across. Your single purpose is to find the story.

Talk to the company super-stars, those who are making things happen. Your list of interview candidates should include the person who embodies the soul of the company. Talk to the IP Lawyers – they know everything that is going on. HR is a treasure trove of information and know who are the up and comers.

Use the first twenty minutes of your interview for personal chit-chat about their lives. This is where you’ll get the color. Look around their office for items to talk about. Have an eye for the visual. Always ask “who else should I talk to?” Then meet with these new people and expand your story sources. As your reputation as the corporate story-teller expands, people will call you.

Reward your sources by ghosting a nice email from your executive to everyone you contact who helps with a keynote or project and cc: their managers. Also, share presentation tips with people from your list of sources that will help them when they present.

Story Sourcing

The narrative tools of speechwriting include not only the basic story, but company history, product demos, industry white papers, and customer testimonials. Think of creative ways to highlight and profile a wide range of material to showcase the fruits of your research in creative ways.

Each speech should have tweet-worthy sound bites. Better than saying “We have researchers in our company” say “We sent the Neil Armstong’s of our company ten years out into the future to explore new horizons.”

Know your audience and look into social media tools like blogs and tweets for source material. Paraphrase comments from social media – especially anything you find from members of the audience – and feed these back in the speech. This pays homage to people in the audience.

Use lyrical tools. Writers need to play with supple language. Rather than telling an internal audience “We want to be seen as a creative company” say “We need to evolve from being credible to being creative. We need to go from being believable to being beloved. We need to more than trusted, we need to be treasured.”

In Conclusion

Speeches are not merely to inform, but to captivate an audience for as long as you have their attention.

No passion in the speechwriter, no passion in the speech giver. Find the soul of your organization. Put heart into your words and share those stories with the world. The world, more than ever, needs heartwarming, soul sustaining stories, needs your stories.


A Ragan Review on Justina’s presentation 7 ways to become a masterful storyteller from Ragan’s Role of Communications in Creating Best Places to Work Conference held at the SAS headquarters. The seven topics covered:

  1. Build Myths
  2. Consider your intentions
  3. Find the superstars
  4. Find the soul keeper of your company
  5. Be a magpie
  6. Be fearless
  7. Embrace chaos

Justina interviewed at a past Ragan Conference:

6 Comments so far
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Thank you for an excellent summation. I was fortunate to be able to attend this presentation and found her to be an inspirational and motivating speaker with a great message.

Expanding on Justina’s suggestion that we look at ways of weaving a story throughout a full day event, Kare Anderson discusses opportunities to engineer the sensory experience throughout an entire conference:

Think of the meeting planner as a director, and the meeting is her movie. For the three most critical parts—the opening scene, the emotional climax, and the closing scene—it behooves the planner to think through the sensory experience.

The opening scene—when the attendee first arrives at the conference—usually involves walking through a lobby, waiting in line, and registering. It’s boring. What if something fun is happening while people are waiting, or greeters are there to introduce attendees to each other? There’s also something called “the rule of three”: If you evoke three emotions closely together, there’s a multiplier effect. So if attendees walk from a hard floor onto an island of soft carpeting, with natural light or full-spectrum lights that make everyone look better, and then they are warmly welcomed and perhaps given some small, easy-to-hold object, the emotions will be that much more powerful than any one of these experiences on its own.

The closing of the conference is equally important. For example, one conference I was involved with provided big bowls near the exit doors full of quotes from the conference written on beautiful paper. This small memento made a big difference. We measured a 15 percent better perception of the conference from those who got those messages on the way out the door than those who left through a door that didn’t have a bowl with the messages to take away.

As for the climax in the middle, remember that it may not be the session you’d expect. Explore what those moments are for your attendees, then design ways to enhance the sensory aspects of those experiences.

Thanks for bringing this to those of us who didn’t get a chance to hear her. What great ideas and fodder for speeches! I am particularly drawn to the fact that she encourages people to explore the personal story as an important part of a speech, and that the questions she asks in gathering stories are captivating questions. Again, however, I don’t see any mention of the importance of delivery in storytelling. It seems like a huge oversight to me. One of the primary reasons that stories are effective is that they engage the teller as well as the listener, and that is reflected in the delivery…an automatic vocal variety stimulator for the speaker. And as you said, re-engaging the audience is really important, every 10 minutes!

Here’s a great example of the value of corporate storytelling in terms of Case Studies:

The standard case study is a fact sheet in long form. It gives you nothing to identify with, no sense of shared pain or feeling
of urgency.

The story-based case study draws in the reader with shared pain and the adventure of solving difficult problems.

Some essential storytelling basics from the team at Pixar.

I’m a big fan of the NPR Planet Money podcasts. Here’s a guide to how to take their approach to podcasting and storytelling.

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