August 5th, 2019
EPISODE 3: Put Storytelling to Work with Soledad O’Brien and Dr. David Rock
For thousands of years, humans have used storytelling to share their truths and connect with others. And yet, as so many of today’s organizations continue to diversify, leaders still struggle to include a range of perspectives, even for critical decisions. Journalist and Executive Producer Soledad O’Brien believes organizations can do better, starting with the basic acknowledgement that everyone has an important story to tell, so long as leaders are willing to listen.
Our host Chris Weller is joined by Soledad O’Brien (Starfish Media) and David Rock (Neuroleadership Institute).
Chris Weller: What’s the power of a story? Not “once upon a time” stories, or “it was a dark and stormy night” stories, our stories, the story of our families, our childhoods, our lives.
Chris Weller: It’s a question Soledad O’Brien has been exploring for more than two decades traveling the world as a documentary filmmaker and journalist. She’s reported on racial inequality, politics, poverty, women’s rights, and more. Today she channels those efforts mainly through her production company, Starfish Media Group. But there’s also an arena Soledad spends a lot of time thinking about where stories are strangely absent, organizations.
Chris Weller: I’m Chris Weller and this is the Your Brain At Work Podcast from the Neuro Leadership Institute. In today’s episode, I’m joined by Soledad O’Brien, journalist, executive producer, and co-founder of Starfish Media Group, and Dr. David Rock, co-founder and CEO of the Neuro Leadership Institute. We discuss what makes stories come alive, why all leaders should think of themselves as storytellers, and the kind of magic that happens when people feel like their story is being heard.
Chris Weller: David and Soledad, thanks for being here.
Soledad O’Brien: You Bet.
David Rock: Great to be here. Thanks Chris.
Chris Weller: Soledad, you’ve spent most of your career, many years, telling stories all over the world to people all over the world. Just to kind of kick us off, I’m curious to hear how you became so interested in storytelling as an art form or a medium for expression and communicating ideas. When did that all start?
Soledad O’Brien: I think when I started really working in documentaries in news, because you realize pretty quickly you can’t just lecture people with data points, it’s not particularly sticky, that in fact the most moving documentaries followed a person. If you were just going to spew numbers of people, which you can do in a minute piece and the good looking graphic, but it won’t stick.
Soledad O’Brien: And I think that’s when I began to really think about, “Well, what’s the best way to tell this story? And how do you best leverage the data and and book the right person to tell that story through?”
Chris Weller: That’s super interesting. I mean, there’s a lot to unpack there in terms of the stickiness quality. What do you mean when you say “sticky”?
Soledad O’Brien: So for me, stickiness is just what you remember, what resonates, what … People used to describe it for me, which I always thought was very helpful when I started to learn how to do live shots, someone would say, “It’s when you pick up the phone to say to your mom, ‘Oh my God, mom, the craziest thing just happened,'” right? That’s what a story should be.
Soledad O’Brien: Why do numbers not work, David? How come if I just spewed off a number of numbers, even if they were dramatic numbers, it just somehow doesn’t seem to have that same resonance. Why not?
David Rock: What happens is you’ve got an image in your head that you want to get across, and so literally, like when someone’s says, “Oh, I see what you say,” they’re being quite literal. They can see it.
Chris Weller: You see that come up a lot in nonprofits and charities, that the way to get people to feel something is not to show them a statistic, but it’s to show them one child’s face or one animal’s face. And I think it kind of hits that same thing. You have this one … this image becomes this point of entry into this much larger thing that, if you were to start at the macro, would lose actually some of its intimacy, which it sounds like the brain actually cares a great deal about.
David Rock: I mean, another thing to say there is we do know what makes up for sticky memories. We developed a framework for that some years back. It’s attention, generation, emotion, spacing. Emotion is the hard one in many ways. You can get people’s attention, you could kind of get them to make connections, you can space things out. But how do you get people to really feel?
David Rock: And I think that’s a key piece that Soledad’s work has really focused on is how do you create those very emotional moments? And you have to have really high emotions for the brain to care about something enough to burn a memory. And certainly, how easily you recall something has a huge, huge role in how impactful that idea is in your whole world. So I think there’s a role for stories in the emotions. Yeah.
Soledad O’Brien: Yeah. That’s where I think there’s a real need for a word that I hate, which is authenticity, because … I don’t know why I hate it so much, but I really hate it, I think it’s really overused. But the more that you can get to that authentic place, that’s when those stories really start resonating, right? There’s something that connects true honesty. Again, it doesn’t have to be, when we think emotional, sometimes I think people think emotions running high, and sometimes very quiet emotion or just devastation, which often on television doesn’t read like a loud emotion, but for me, it’s always been, how do you connect that to the real actual moment where you feel like, “Yes, I got something there, a real thing from that person”?
Chris Weller: I’d love to hear how we can take all of this richness about storytelling and the impact we can leave to the organizational context. What is it that leaders can be doing to leverage the power of storytelling to help people maybe see a new way of thinking or a new way of behaving, and have that feel like it’s meaningful and, as you said, Soledad, authentic?
Soledad O’Brien: David’s been really great about bringing me into a lot of the work that he does for a very tiny little sliver of it. But I like talking to leaders because I think one of the biggest things that I see from my vantage point is that they just don’t really get access to all the stories. And so, I constantly start for people, this idea of like, “Your story has value. It might not be the main narrative, but you have an opportunity and probably even a responsibility to share that story,” because I do think leaders often are surprised, especially when it comes to diversity and inclusion, I think sometimes people who don’t come from a certain experience are just very surprised.
Soledad O’Brien: My own husband, for example, when we were doing projects around our scholars, I remember his investment bank had hosted a luncheon for the 20 some odd young women of color to come in for the afternoon. And it was a couple of years ago, a couple of summers ago when there had been a number of high profile police shootings actually. And I remember my husband saying something like, “Well, we’re going to make sure that we don’t discuss this. We wouldn’t want anybody to be unhappy and uncomfortable.” I was like, “Oh my gosh, all these 20-year-old girls are going to want to talk about is this.” Literally, they would have felt that it was a failure. And of course they’re 20-year-old women, so they took over the luncheon and that’s what they discussed. But this idea where he was trying to create something that was comfortable, and for them, a sense of comfort was to have a conversation about the elephant in the room.
Soledad O’Brien: That was a really good lesson for me in really making sure, as a leader, that you’re hearing from people around you about kind of what they need, and not assuming. He couldn’t believe it. He’s like, “Oh my gosh, I just … never would occur to me that an investment bank would be having conversations about people’s personal feelings.” But things have changed.
Chris Weller: Yeah. And there’s a lot to to impact there when it comes to the biases that we carry. And since we’re the main character in our own stories, we kind of just assume oftentimes with an experience bias that the way we see things is the way they are. And so, why seek out these other stories when we kind of have all the information at our disposal already?
Soledad O’Brien: Yes. I think that’s exactly right. I tell a story when I’m giving speeches sometimes, like commencement addresses, and I tell a story about, my family in the 60s, we moved into Long Island, which was a very non-diverse community where we moved on the North Shore. We were the only black family in our little community. And my mom, who spoke Spanish fluently, decided that we would just kind of sneak in. We just wouldn’t speak Spanish. And then I talk about what we’re wearing and how we’re leaned against our VW business, and my dad is white and bald and my mom was black with this Angela Davis afro, and six brown kids all with the afros.
Soledad O’Brien: The joke though is that all of us have had that experience in some capacity. They’re saying, “Oh my God, we have had same photo, except my mom is wearing this. And my dad is doing this. And we’re leaned against this car.” And so, it’s that shared sense of humanity and experiences, but from a different point of view that I often think really resonates with people, and why, again, I think leaders need to encourage people to share their stories, because all of a sudden you realize, “Oh my gosh, you have the exact same challenges that I have, obviously different, historically different, but clearly we’re not so un-alike.”
Chris Weller: Yeah. And it’s like you were saying earlier, stories have this power when you’re trying to connect on a personal level because, ostensibly, in a big organization where there’s hundreds of thousands of people, it is very easy for leaders to become anonymous and just become their titles and their names. And stories I think end up serving as the kind of point of entry into learning about their humanity and the challenges they face. So there’s this nice bridging that goes on between people, especially in large organizations.
Soledad O’Brien: Oh, 100%. And it’s why in journalism and in storytelling, I used to always and still do always tell my staff, “God is in the detail. It’s not enough to say, ‘Hey, my parents moved into a really non-diverse community in the North Shore of Long Island,’ it’s the details, ‘Here’s what we were wearing. Here’s how my mom’s hair was.'”
Chris Weller: What is it about storytelling that builds inclusion among people? Why do people feel included when we’re relating stories back and forth?
Soledad O’Brien: Oh, gosh. I mean, I think it’s literally just your story is included in the narrative. For me, a lot of these meetings where there’s not inclusion or just someone’s point of view has not even been considered … Many years ago, 2006 midterms, I was driving up the West Side Highway, I was working at CNN at the time. And I remember seeing an advertising billboard on the side of the highway, West Side Highway, massive, and it was advertising CNN’s election team in 2006, which would have been Lou Dobbs, Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper, and, oh yes, a fourth person, I can’t remember who it was, but that’s it.
Soledad O’Brien: And I remember thinking, “God, I’m so embarrassed to work there. In 2006, how is there not a picture of a woman? Forget a woman of color. How is it possible that we are advertising four white dudes on this billboard?” And also, who was in the room when this billboard was printing? Who approved it? Who said, “Oh my God, this should be the face of CNN’s election coverage,” when you know you’re talking about a very diverse electorate, right? So it was actually relevant.
Soledad O’Brien: It’s things like that where you’re kind of like, inclusion is about someone saying, “Hey, your point of view at least is being considered and at least ha a bit of a platform,” in my perspective.
David Rock: Yeah, I mean the research on this is really interesting. It’s true that when you have lots of diverse perspectives in a team, that the intelligence of that team is literally higher. There’s a team intelligence just like an individual intelligence that is quite stable over time across tasks, and the intelligence of a team correlates to, in some part, to how diverse the team members are. But I will just say only if those team members actually feel like they could speak up, and they have protocols for how to include people and how to make sure voices are actually heard.
Chris Weller: We’re going to take a quick break, but when we come back, we’ll have more with Soledad and David on what leaders can do to tell better stories.
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Chris Weller: Soledad, I’d be interested to hear, where do you think the best storytelling is going on?Where is your head at in that kind of [crosstalk 00:12:22]?
Soledad O’Brien: Oh my gosh, you know who I think is doing a great job? I would highlight P&G as a really good example, right? Or the Gillette ad, which I think, there was a fair amount of drama around it, but if you actually got off of Twitter and looked at the actual impact of that ad, I think it did very well for them.
Soledad O’Brien: The Gillette ad really looked at, what does it mean to be a man today? And it was even a nod to Gillette at the beginning, right, where they’re like, “We were part of this. Our ads for razors had women running their hands up and down a man’s face.” And they were sort of like, “We actually think that the story of what a man is could be a little bit different than how it’s been posed.” And I think that ad has done very well for them, because I think people get it. I think they really understand that. And of course it’s a beautiful ad too.
Soledad O’Brien: Or Tide is another [inaudible] tied to this ad around the Olympics, which was just mom’s investment in Olympic athletes, which of course, because it’s Tide, some of it involved doing laundry. It was amazing. I mean, that ad will make you cry, it’ll make you bawl, because they connected to an issue around a data point, right? We know that moms invest in Olympic athletes and love them, and loving them means cleaning up after them, feeding them, hauling them everywhere, driving them, and doing their laundry. And it was just genius.
Chris Weller: And it’s so interesting you bring that up because you do kind of see brands taking on this more engaged role in the public conversation. It’s not just, “Oh, here’s some detergent you can buy,” it’s, “Here’s some detergent, and here’s our point of view on this big inclusivity topic.” And it kind of makes people question, like, “Oh, maybe I do have some loyalty to certain ones because they have a perspective on things and they tell a different story.”
Chris Weller: Are there other brands that you felt have fallen short?
Soledad O’Brien: I would say I think Pepsi, which is a brand that I like a lot for their past work, and historically, Pepsi has a really interesting history, but of course their Kendall Jenner ad was just a disaster. And I’m certainly not the only person pointing that out, right? Because it missed on every mark. It absolutely wasn’t authentic.
Soledad O’Brien: To me, it was just an ad where you wanted to say, “Wow, I wish someone had been in the room to say, ‘Guys, I realize we have spent a ton of money on this, but this is making me uncomfortable. What are we trying to say here? What are we saying?'” And there was clearly nobody in … I think what was most devastating about that ad, right? There’s just clearly nobody in the room saying, “Yeah, I don’t think this is the message we’re trying to set,” which always is surprising of course when you’re talking about a big company that spends a jillion dollars on ads.
Chris Weller: Right, they’re getting their story out, and in a way that they feel is clear enough, like you said.
Chris Weller: David, what’s the lesson here? What do we take from things like Pepsi? And what can we learn from Gillette or maybe Nike, which has gained a lot of popularity for its ads? What’s the corporate lesson for leaders?
David Rock: [inaudible] we have an emotional response to every product, we have one of two responses. It’s not binary, it’s a continuum, but it’s definitely in one of these two directions. It’s either a toward response or an away response. And the toward response is anything from sort of mild curiosity, to interest, to desire, to being a passionate super fan, along that continuum. And the away response is anything from being slightly uncertain, to being annoyed, to really hating the company.
David Rock: And obviously companies want folks on the super fan side of this. We think of organizations often as we think of people, you know, do we trust them? What’s their character? What matters to them? And I think it’s a challenging area.
Chris Weller: It’s funny because you can kind of pull back from a huge brand campaign to just a relational one-to-one between people within the company, and who’s in the room, who’s getting invited to meetings, to prevent these things of like, how do they … Did no one catch this? Things like that. It just comes down to who’s in the room and who feels like they belong in the room, I guess more importantly.
Soledad O’Brien: Which is so interesting, right? Because who’s in the room is not a small thing. Who’s in the room is the literal expression of an organization’s values, which comes back to DNI. I mean, it’s not just like, “Oh my God, there was a mistake because I didn’t have so-and-so in the room.” But actually, who’s in the room is never accidental. Who’s in the room is never a second or third thought, or just something that gets cobbled together at the last minute. Who is in the room explains the hierarchy in an organization. It explains the flow chart. It explains who has the power. It literally is a statement of your company’s values when it comes to diversity and inclusion.
Soledad O’Brien: And so, yeah, the who-is-in-the-room thing is a very simplified way of saying, “Here’s what these people really, really think.”
Chris Weller: So I was hoping that, Soledad, we could end on a story from you perhaps that might illuminate how storytelling has led to behavior change.
Soledad O’Brien: I’ll tell you, when we started doing our stories around Black in America, I was not allowed to mention white supremacy, because everyone thought, “Ugh, it’s such an icky word, and what does it really mean? And people won’t really understand it.” You fast forward 10 years or so, and people now use that conversation all the time to talk about the framing of a series of ways people think about people, that are institutionalized, aren’t just individual, right? It’s not, “This person did this to me.” It’s much more like, “The system is behaving a certain way.”
Soledad O’Brien: I’m amazed, and I do think a lot of it is around the data and the coverage of issues. Looking at something like redlining, I mean, the number of documentaries we done over those 10 years that look at situations in black America that explain to people … I can’t tell you the number of people who say, “Well, black people don’t own things.” You’re like, “Well, let’s talk about redlining, which is something historically you clearly don’t know about.” And they’d be surprised because they just didn’t know that they had this sense.
Soledad O’Brien: So I’m not sure that I’ve seen a dramatic behavior shift, but I know the conversation certainly has changed, even among journalists. I mean, literally, they were editing out the words “white supremacy.” And I didn’t disagree, because I was like, “I don’t think anybody’s going to understand what this even means. I don’t even think we should mention this, because I don’t think anyone is going to get it.” That’s changed dramatically among journalists, and even among I think people who are reading what people are reporting. So I think that’s a behavior change for sure.
Chris Weller: Yeah. And ideally, those new conversations can spark actual change further down the line. Now we’re thinking in different terms, and suddenly our whole perspective’s changed. And maybe we’re kind of living in a different place than we were before we were having those conversations.
Soledad O’Brien: Exactly.
Chris Weller: Yeah. Well, David and Soledad, I’ve so enjoyed talking with you both. Thank you so much for appearing on the podcast.
Soledad O’Brien: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
David Rock: Thanks, Chris. It’s great to be here.
Chris Weller: Your Brain At Work is produced by the Neuro Leadership Institute. You can help us in making organizations more human by rating, reviewing, and subscribing wherever you get your podcasts.
Chris Weller: Our executive producer for Your Brain At Work is Noah Gelb. Danielle Kirshenblad is our editor. Gabriel Berezin, our associate producer, and Brian Crummins, our sound mixer. Original music is by Grant Zubritsky, and logo design is by Ketch Wehr.
Chris Weller: A special thanks to Soledad O’Brien and David Rock, and to you for listening. We’ll see you next time.