Learning from My Mistakes in Webinar-Based Storytelling

shutterstock_314766809In my first professional job, I was charged with building a nutrition capability for an adult fitness/cardiac rehabilitation program. Passionate and naively optimistic, I would develop 1-page proposals for new offerings. I was particularly excited about a proposal for a new weight management course, but when the executive director, Phil, red-lined my proposal, I was devastated. Choking back tears, I shared my disappointment with Linda, a seasoned colleague and program leader. She read my proposal along with Phil’s feedback and said, “Jean don’t expect immediate perfection. And don’t be disappointed with the feedback – it will strengthen your proposal.” She helped me realize that in taking the time to provide detailed and critical feedback, Phil was showing his support of my idea and helping me sell it into the organization. My idea eventually became a reality, and the program achieved impressive business results and health outcomes.

I was reminded of this story last week as I debriefed with Lianne Picot about our first online story-coaching clinic for the Story Powered Institute, a new story community she is creating. I was focused on a few mistakes I’d made, while Lianne was energized about the learning. She pointed out that we had taken on many firsts: collaborating on a new training platform, managing the back-of-the-house part of webinar technology, and figuring out how to engage an audience through an online medium.

This was my first time telling stories in a webinar environment, and I quickly found that it’s very different than storytelling with a live audience – almost as different as writing versus speaking. When I share stories with live audiences, my stories take shape through the non-verbal conversation I have with the listeners. My movements, gestures, and expressions help to bring my stories to life. The audience’s nods, chuckles, and postures give me valuable feedback that shapes the telling of a story. Missing the non-verbal exchange, I felt handicapped … disconnected from my audience … sort of stranded and alone. I panicked and fell into a bad habit of babbling too long and got lost in my story. I was aware of it at the time, but it became really evident when I listened to the session recording: my stories fell flat. They did not help me connect with my audience or create intrigue about the content. And I hadn’t role modeled what I was teaching.

In the same way that Linda helped me many years ago, Lianne focused on the positives about what went well. She framed the challenge I experienced in a larger context and helped us to explore the question: how to best facilitate a webinar-based story conversation? We generated a range of ideas that we will try in future story clinics:

  • Warm-Up With a Conversation – A webinar is more like a radio show than a presentation from the podium. So rather than introducing the presenter and passing the podium to him or her, we think that the warm-up should be a shared conversation between the host and the presenter. Banter and dialogue around an opening story sets an interactive tone.
  • Start with a Safe Story – Not only was my telling of the story too long, it was also not the right story. I shared a raw and emotional tale about how I was teased as a kid for being a klutz and that eventually led to my career in nutrition and exercise. This story has been very effective when I speak in health settings, but this audience was different and the story didn’t fit the topic. More importantly, in an online environment, it takes a longer time to create a trusting and safe place for participants to share. A less personal story with greater relevance to the topic and audience might have worked better.
  • Get the Audience Engaged Early and Often – Despite the clunky beginning, something magical happened in the story coaching clinic: when we got into the skill building exercise, “Mining Your Life for Stories,” participants began to share their story ideas through the chat box. Lianne and I conversed about their written commentary. One participant volunteered to let us use her story to illustrate the process. She raised her “virtual hand” in the control panel, so we could unmute her line and bring her into the dialogue. Momentum, learning and engagement built. In the next iteration of the online clinic, we will do more of this … and sooner.

Have you had any experience with online story coaching? Was my fumbled first attempt relatable? In way ways have you learned to overcome the physical separation of the storyteller and the story listener?

Success comes from an iterative process of trial and error, then stepping back and evaluating what worked well and what can be improved. Self-reflection, along with feedback from others, helps us gain specific, concrete input to polish new products and programs. As I learned so many years ago and remembered this week, expecting immediate perfection squelches innovation.


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