Share This Post:

Tell Your Story for Impact

By CASE District I

Michelle Davis

By Michelle Davis

“My 15-year old self was a snarky city kid who thought she knew everything. I walked to school every day in Boston’s freezing weather in a threadbare dungaree jacket, fueled by Mountain Dew, Doritos and cigarettes. That year I volunteered for an alternative semester – this was the 70s after all – because I didn’t have to actually go to classes for that semester. The educational experiment started with a winter Outward Bound survival course in Greenville, Maine. Long story short, I survived a harrowing 28-degree below zero night on my own by building a snow coffin and eating a stick of butter.

 It wasn’t until I started my job as chief marketing officer at Olin College of Engineering that I began to understand why Outward Bound was the most transformative moment of my entire education. It forced me to develop mastery over the elements through hands-on learning and work in teams, and it gave me complete autonomy for my actions. The stakes were high – survival. At Olin College of Engineering, we know these conditions lead to the highest form of motivation – intrinsic motivation or the internal drive to learn and grow. This type of motivation pushes us through hard problems, fuels continual learning and brings meaning to our education and life. That’s what makes Olin so unique among colleges: Faculty design learning experiences with students to achieve the highest level of motivation.”

A year ago, I never would have started my story about Olin with a story about me. In fact, I would have been mortified to do so. It seemed too self-serving. But this summer, a group of 10 employees at Olin decided to run a peer-led Storytelling Boot Camp. We met weekly, read books (Long Story Short), and chapters (from The Generosity Network and Lead With A Story). We also had guest speakers, including a Moth Story grand slam winner, a psychologist with an expertise in personal narrative, and an English professor with an interest in narrative theory. We took risks and told our personal stories to the group, reflected on those stories and their delivery, rewrote and retold them again, bonded as a team, and supported each other in our personal and professional goals. My goal was to tell my story in front of an audience at a STEMConnector conference as a hook into Olin’s story. I did and was surprised to see how much more alert the audience was when I started with my personal story.

Here are the five important things I learned from our Storytelling Boot Camp:

  • If you want to woo students, parents, faculty, staff, donors to your school, start with your personal story about why you are at the school. You are more likely to deeply touch their emotions, which in turn is more likely to lead to connection, engagement and action.
  • If you don’t have a story about why you are where you are, now is your chance to bring more meaning to your life. At the Storytelling Boot Camp we each brainstormed about things in our childhood that were significant to us (good and bad), and then in another column what impressed us about Olin. We then looked for bridges between the two. It wasn’t hard to find those connections. One person was sent away from home to boarding schools and Olin fulfilled her need to be in a small and caring community.
  • When you tell a personal story, make it about you and not about someone else you know. Everyone in the group started with a story about someone else in their lives. They felt too vulnerable to start with themselves, but when they did the stories were so much more powerful. If you can see the story in your head and feel it in your stomach when you tell it, others can too.
  • People want to like you. Start your story with something that makes you human. Show humility and vulnerability. No one wants to hear about how you perfectly aced your SATs. They may want to hear about how you failed at your first try because you froze up and then bit your nails to the cuticles passing the next one.
  • Invite others to tell their stories to you. Ask basic questions. What was the most significant moment in your education? What do you care most about? What intrigues you about (name of school)? You will find yourself connecting on a deeper and more personal level with that person.

At the end of the Boot Camp, we set related personal and professional goals. Many of us are incorporating stories into our discussions, remarks and writing. Olin hosted a storytelling website and live session to celebrate our 20th anniversary. But these feel like superficial benefits compared to the connections we’ve made to each other, and the deeper understanding we’ve all developed about our own identity at Olin.

Michelle Davis and Lauren Taaffe are leading a session at the 2018 CASE District 1 Conference called Learning the Art of Storytelling on Friday, March 16, from 10:30 to 11:30 am. They hope to hear more about your story at the session.

Share This Post: