Habits Alive! Bringing Storytelling to Life

As someone who started my professional career as an actuary, who uses mathematics and data to measure and manage risks, I had to learn the power of storytelling through experience. Over the years, I’ve come to understand that while facts and figures might be compelling (especially when they agree with your existing views), they don’t easily change minds. But stories do! 

This realization that stories have the power to change minds wasn’t like switching on a lightbulb. Rather, I’ve spent the last decade learning what makes a good storyteller, broadening my base of storytelling skills by exploring performance arts and leading by example, using storytelling in my role as co-founder and CEO of Habits at Work. 

It took a lot of practice and learning through failure to shift my mindset from relying on facts and figures to believing in the power of stories to change minds. I have countless stories where I’ve been challenged during a sale by a CFO about ROI or by a CEO about the need to move quickly. When I’ve responded to these challenges by leading with data, the comfort-zone of an actuary, and most salespeople, I’ve almost never gotten the result I was looking for. In fact, I’ve often experienced how a “data war” can unfold in these conversations, causing both sides to become more entrenched and less open-minded.  

When I remember to respond to what may seem like a request for facts or stats with a story instead, I’m amazed by the results. Each time I tell a story in response to a challenge, problem, or question that arises in a conversation, I get to experience the power of a story again and again. 

Stories have the power to move people, connecting with them on a deeper emotional and human level, and, when told to the right person at the right time, stories can change minds and achieve my desired outcome. 

The first step I took to bring storytelling into my work was learning how to be a good storyteller. I’ve attended classes that range from the practical to the ridiculous; classes that focus on story construction and classes that helped me to “free my natural voice”. My biggest takeaway from the classes I’ve taken is that storytelling is an innate human craft that we can all do “pretty well”. But like any craft, the difference between “pretty good” and extraordinary is huge, and that gap is only closed by spending time practicing with feedback from a coach that knows what excellence looks like.  

As I started to see the power of story and the impact of storytelling on my work, I realized that the way to refine this habit was not inside the world of business education or coaching. Rather, it was by seeking out new skills from parts of our world that are built on storytelling. This has been an exploration and a journey into the performance arts like improv, acting, public speaking and even singing that I had not anticipated in my early career, and I’ve loved every minute of it! [Well, that’s not entirely true. There have been plenty of cringeworthy moments too.]

 I’m especially excited when I learn something in an improv class that directly translates to the work we’re doing at Habits at Work. For example, there’s an improv exercise called “Mirror” that I like to use when I’m facilitating a workshop or Masterclass on the Habit Listen Empathically because it really helps the actors or participants to pay attention with their whole body to the other person. And that’s an essential part of Empathic Listening.

My exploration into the performing arts has expanded my role at Habits at Work to include being our lead facilitator, a role that very much requires storytelling skills. As our lead facilitator, I act as a “scout” for new content, ideas, exercises, or insights from the performing arts that my team and I can integrate into our work on the high-impact habits of conversation mastery. 

To be clear, I’m an absolute amateur in the performing arts, and I’m not sure what I do can even be described as “performing”, much less “art”. However, I’ve held onto a beginner’s mindset by being open to the new learning and to the discomfort of growth, which often comes with an intense feeling of embarrassment.  

I’m having a lot of fun growing my storytelling skills “on stage”! I’m not holding my breath until I’m discovered for my acting talent, because I’m pretty sure you have to have some talent for that to happen! Instead, I am breathing my way through all the new experiences and loving the opportunity to connect the worlds of business and performing arts.  

Another world my career has given me the opportunity to work in and grow in is the world of education. The second part of my work to cultivate the habit of storytelling is teaching. I teach students as part of the work I do for the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and I lead virtual Masterclasses for my company Habits at Work. I’ve come to see that teaching is a lot like selling: both are the art of changing someone’s mind and, therefore, rely heavily on storytelling. 

Stories have the power to bring work to life through entertaining anecdotes and the power to inspire others to take new actions based on the insights embedded in the story. As a professor, I’ve used the awesome power of stories to move students into action, guiding them as they emerge and take their first steps into new or evolved careers and lives beyond business school. As a leader and facilitator for Habits at Work, I’ve used stories to shift mindsets, unearth old narratives, and open new pathways for customers to take action. And the key to all this has been telling stories!   

I see the final activation of the habit of storytelling in my role as co-founder of Habits at Work. My role as co-founder is to be the carrier of stories for and about our business; to not only record the history of our team but also to collect, catalog, and share stories with our team to guide our work and our future. I gather, shape, and tell stories that bring to life what Habits at Work does, how we do it, what makes us different and our vision for the impact we’re aiming to have on the world. 

Although our focus is helping revenue-responsible teams become masters of conversations and the high-impact habits that support those conversations, we believe that these habits also make you a better human being in your life and for those you love. 

Our stories and our skills at storytelling are so important because they’re the fuel for inspiring change in the lives of the people we touch.  

The ability to touch people through storytelling inspires me to engage in this habit every day by finding, practicing, and polishing new stories. So, when the situation calls for leadership, direction, or inspiration, I can offer the gift of a story to bring our customers and our team together in the service of a common cause. 

Andrew Sykes

Chief Executive Officer,

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