‘I didn’t think I had anything interesting to say’.
The setting was the Women and Leadership Australia Symposium in Perth. In a day full of inspiring stories from wonderful leaders such as Linda Wayman, Avril Fahey and Jessica Smith, the spotlight turned from the stage, to the women in attendance, as they were invited to tell their own story.
Rather than standing on the podium in front of an audience of 80, these women were seated at their tables of 8, invited to tell 90 second stories about themselves as leaders.
The initial surprise and questioning on hearing the story-telling invitation, were quickly replaced by a buzz of activity; the noise level in the room rose and fell, as nervousness diminished, stories were found and confidence grew. The room was punctuated by raucous laughter from time to time. At other times, a hush fell and women leaned towards each other as confidences were shared, connections were found, and raw emotions were evoked.
There was a commonality in the women’s reflection on their experience of telling their own stories. Their initial reaction to being asked to tell these stories was that they didn’t have anything interesting to say and why would anyone listen to them? Then as one woman put it
‘I had to rethink that. I heard seven other women at my table tell their stories, and they were ALL interesting to me. Why shouldn’t my story be interesting to them? My story CAN be interesting.’
We’ve come such a long way from our traditions as story tellers. Modern life has diminished the need? opportunity? inclination? to tell stories. We have so many other devices we can use, electronic and otherwise, that mean we share different kinds of information in different ways, and story telling is neglected. Texting has shifted communication patterns, as has the dot point.
Coupled with that, and one of the topics for the day’s discussion, was the idea that women can feel like frauds or imposters when they put themselves forward. As one of the speakers, an exceptionally accomplished leader, said
‘I had 9.5/10 of the qualities they were looking for, and I still didn’t put my name forward.’
And so we don’t want to put ourselves forward into the spotlight to tell our stories, we don’t think we’re interesting enough, we feel that we’ll be ‘found out’ as being less skilled, less capable than others think we are, that we are not truly worthy of leadership roles, or even attention.
However, what the women found was that in 90 seconds there is ample time for a leader to capture the attention, the heart and the minds of an audience.
In 90 seconds, women found that they could give up their ‘lack of confidence’, jump in and tell a story without feeling too much pressure to craft something brilliant and wonderful. Even in just 90 seconds, seemingly simple stories proved to be surprisingly brilliant and wonderful.
Some women didn’t feel the confidence in themselves or trust in others to tell very personal stories. One woman asked whether the stories should be personal. What else could they be? And Professor Colleen Hayward had very much led the way with her story. For her, extending trust was critical for building relationships, and she modelled this beautifully by trusting us with her personal story. Her message was ‘trust first and you will build trust’. And so stories are always in some way personal, and as a leader, you can lead through personal stories and inspire greater trust.
Ronnie Kahn, who ended the day of story telling, evoked strong emotions as she told her story of the creation of OzHarvest. She started by explaining that the organization was borne from her dissatisfaction with what she was doing with her life, and she related to us her search to find her true purpose.
Hers was an inspiring and emotive story that ended with the news that OzHarvest has recently served its 50 millionth meal and established itself in South Africa and London. Ronnie’s searching and questioning of her purpose had created a remarkable organization serving an important social purpose. As Ronnie finished, “I have found what I was meant to do”, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.