Given your life experience of moving from Banking to Storytelling, how could other leaders like you discover the power of storytelling?
We do it by giving ourselves permission to open up and share. I find that in the corporate world, we are much more guarded in what we reveal. I noticed when I was working in Singapore, that this was much more pronounced versus when I was working in the Philippines, where we chit chat more. In Singapore, it was much more formal. We would talk about work, people at work or the school we went to, which is basically what you would find in your CV. We don’t realise the value of sharing something that is beyond the CV. We do not have to share private information but sharing something that is slightly personal forms connections. For example, what is the story behind your name? This is personal but it is not something that you put in your CV. Everybody has a story behind their name, and it is a great ice breaker in professional settings. It is also a great way to remember people’s names.
Tell us about the transition where you decided to become a nomad.
Professionally, I had decided that I was done with banking, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do next. I decided to take the time to explore and meet people with different experiences. When I was working, I could travel but it was limited to 3 weeks. I love travelling and I wanted to see if I could travel for an extended period of time with no plan or schedule. To experience living out of a suitcase and moving from place to place. It was a personal challenge to go someplace where I did not know anybody. If I’m always around people I know, I would not get to know myself. Being a nomad allowed me to spend more time with myself.
Where did storytelling begin?
It started with trying out comedy. When I finished travelling in South America, I went to USA, and I was exploring career options in San Francisco. I went to see a comedy show and I was not impressed with the comedian. I was getting more laughs from the audience than the comedian and I thought, ‘Why not try comedy?’. I had time and there was nothing stopping me from learning comedy. So, I moved to New York city to learn improv and through improv, I discovered the world of storytelling. I did an improv show where we started the show by telling a personal narrative and it was instant love. I felt I was destined for it. I had never done it before, and I felt immense joy, like the sky had opened up and the angels were singing. It was a certainty that I had never experienced before, and I knew this was what I wanted to do. It was the kind of certainty that made me stop exploring my other options and pursue this one head on.
What is happening with you right now as a storyteller?
When I was in Singapore, I was telling my friends about what I was doing in America. One of my friends asked me why I was helping start up founders in the US become better story tellers, when I can make a bigger impact in Asia? I could build confidence levels in Asians or help them become better communicators through storytelling. But when I came back to Singapore, nobody knew what I was trying to do. People associate stories with fairy tales and mythology. I was looking for a scene or place to tell my stories and I realised there was no scene. A friend suggested that I start my own show and that is how ‘What’s your story slam’ started. I decided to borrow from some of the best shows I had seen in the US and make my own blend for the show. When I did my first show, I asked my friends to share their stories and I coached all of them. It was a big risk for me as people from my personal and professional life came to watch the show. I was a banker with no experience in this field and it was scary. If I failed, everybody would know. I was not afraid to fail though, I was afraid to succeed. Because if you succeed a few times and then fail, it is a lot harder.
There is so much power in stories. What prevents people from telling more stories?
There are two factors here. The first is not knowing where to find stories, but the second and bigger reason is the fear of being judged. You are afraid that you will be judged, not by strangers, but by the people you know. Personal stories don’t just involve you; they involve your friends and your family as well. You are talking about something that is meaningful to you and you are showing your softer side. It makes you feel vulnerable and that’s why people do not want to share. The pandemic has made us more guarded and afraid to connect. People are generally more comfortable and open to sharing with strangers than with people they know.
There are many hidden introverts in organisations. How do you get them to bring their stories out?
I usually choose themes when I work with companies. When I first started working with corporates, they wanted career stories, so it gives everybody a common purpose. But some clients came to see my show and saw how open and vulnerable the storytellers were and they wanted to do something similar. So, we came up with other themes. One of the themes that we chose was on lessons. Everybody has learnt lessons throughout their lives. Some people find it easier to share stories from their childhood because it was a long time ago and they have finished learning the lesson. But when I do one to one sessions with them, I realise that they have many more powerful stories underneath. But they are still afraid to share them. They do not want people to see that prior to being successful, they were weak. I always tell them that because they are not sharing their stories, there might be a young person out there who is too afraid to try, because they have not heard the story. I’ve realised though that you cannot force people to share their stories. They have to take the first step themselves.
In a world where everybody is talking and nobody is listening, how do we make our story stand out so people will listen?
There will always be stories and people whose message will resonate, and we need to create a platform for them to share. I know there is a lot of noise out there and that is why I created this show and this platform. I filter through people’s stories, and I pick out the gems. Sometimes, the story behind the story that people share is the real story. I help them dig it out. Even through the noise, there will be some people who will gravitate towards your message. This is why I continue to do what I am doing. If I stop sharing this space, then there is no space for people to share their voices. I have a group of people who tell me that as long as I keep producing, they will keep telling stories. When it comes to narratives, creating psychological safety is very important so people can open up.
Sales professionals talk about their numbers and also have to build their customer relationships to meet those numbers. How should they blend both?
They have to figure out their case study. When you are selling something, the client also wants the narrative. Depending on what you are selling, they need to be able to picture it and envision it. If you are selling a house, and it is an old house, you can talk about the history of the house. If it is a brand-new development, then you can talk about the future they would have with their family. So, the story should make them want to buy the property. Another example is lipsticks. Makeup companies sell you the promise of beauty. They sell a story of how if you wear the lipstick, you will light up the room, or will be noticed.
What are the types of stories that creates the maximum impact for building deeper relationships?
The stories that have a humanising element to it are the ones you want to tell. When we watch cartoons, the story might be about a car, but when the car has human emotions, we relate to them. The stories that eventually connect with our audience are the ones that they can identify with. When you are in sales, you need to know the persona you are selling to. Who are they? What do they care about? What will make them connect with you? Those are the stories that you tell.
What’s the story that has created the maximum impact for you?
I think my career story draws a lot of people. Ten years ago, I had the life that defined what success should look like. I went to the right school and had a great international job. But then I realised that I was not really living. I tell people that my values changed once I quit banking and I now measure success differently. It is not about how much money I have, but the relationships with my friends and my parents. My parents are proud of me not because of the success from my job but because of my happiness. They reassure me that sometimes my business might be tough, but I’m doing what I love. I meet a lot of people who are unhappy and disengaged from their work. But they are so afraid to leave because it is the devil they know. With the pandemic now, there is so much unknown as well. As an entrepreneur, I feel I was able to mitigate my risks better because I know I can count on myself.
You’ve had the courage to bring out your story. How should people who are shy or are introverts start storytelling?
You can tell a story to yourself or ask yourself some questions and answer those. One of the questions that I was asked was ‘If you knew you were going to die a year from now, would you change anything in the way you are living right now?’. I was in banking at that time, and I realised that if I had only one year, then this is not what I want to be doing. This was when I decided to start living like a nomad. I told myself to live life like it was my last.
How should we think about this shift earlier before adversity strikes?
There are people who are more inclined to explore themselves and there are others who don’t want to. Even I did not like the self-analysis and self-reflection and I did not do that for many years. In my first year as a nomad, I did not want to do introspection or understand myself because it is tough. But after one year of travelling, I still did not know what to do and I was feeling a little lost. So, I forced myself to think about what I wanted to do. You have to start doing this yourself and not everybody wants to do that.
How can people use storytelling to discover their larger purpose?
When we tell stories on the fly, we do not have time to reflect. But when we practice stories for the stage, we have to go back to that time and dig through our memory bank and from there many other stories emerge. My students tell me that when they were working on a story, several other memories started to come out and they were able to connect with themselves. This happens only when you intentionally work on a story. You then have to take time to reflect when the memories come out, otherwise they stay buried.
The stories that have a humanising element to it are the ones you want to tell. When we watch cartoons, the story might be about a car, but when the car has human emotions, we relate to them.
There are studies that show that our memory retention for facts is under 30%, but when data is wrapped in a story in a logical structure then memory retention is about 70%. There is a psychological study where students were shown a video on why they should donate to a particular cause. A coin collection box was left outside for them to drop their donations. One set of students saw a video filled with data and percentages and the second set of students saw a story of a girl who suffered from the disease and how she was one of many who suffer from it. The second group donated more, and this is because we are more inclined to remember a story.
When we get numbers and figures, we do not connect with it. It is just a statistic. In the pandemic, we see a lot of statistics but when somebody we know contracts Covid, it becomes more personal, and we care and connect more with it. So, between a statistic that says 70% have contracted Covid, and one known person getting Covid, we realise that that one person makes a bigger impact because we know their story.
Founder – Wysh – What’s Your Story (huh?)
ANNA ONG is a storyteller, coach and entrepreneur. After spending 15 years working in the financial services sector, Anna felt her passion lies elsewhere and decided to move to Buenos Aires and then to New York to do Improv. She finally discovered that storytelling was her passion and decided to build a business around it. Through Wysh, Anna coaches teams and individuals to identify their stories and narratives using various frameworks. She consults with companies, helps develop and maintain their story banks and creates a culture of storytelling. She also uses theatre techniques and improv games to coach individuals/teams on how to deliver their stories/presentations with confidence, agility and style.