The Power of Storytelling

Hello, Alex here! I’m commandeering the blog this month to speak directly to our readers about a topic that is very close to my heart and a tool that is absolutely crucial to any leader: the act of storytelling.

For those of us who are politically engaged, these are head-spinning times. We’re having public discussions about power and equality, and making space for voices that were once silent or ignored. 

For every event, there are dozens of very different, often incompatible, interpretations and hot takes. Different factions are fighting to “control the narrative” and sway public opinion to their side.

As a result, I’ve been thinking a lot about the way stories are told and what powerful tools they can be – for better or for worse.

The media we choose to consume influences which of these narratives we hear, see, read and believe.  Social media compounds the problem. Apps like Facebook and Twitter are designed to show us more of what we like and less of what we don’t, so people miss out on different perspectives. 

It makes me think of Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie’s powerful talk, “The Danger of a Single Story”, in which she warns about the pitfalls of relying on limited perspectives.

As a child growing up in Nova Scotia, my personal and moral development was shaped by books like Anne of Green Gables and fairy tales like Beauty and the Beast.  I learned about my province’s Indigenous heritage through tales of the Mi’kmaq’s Creator figure, Glooscap. And my cultural identity was cemented by songs like Stan Rogers’ Bluenose

As I got older I learned new stories, including the stories of people whose lives were very different from my own. I began to see the biases hidden in many of the stories I had grown to believe. 

It was shocking to realize how we swim in a sea of stories from the moment we’re born. Some of them are so pervasive that we don’t even recognize them as stories – we call them “facts”.

These stories can be used to manipulate us, or they can help make us better people. As leaders and change makers, we have the power to use storytelling as a force for good.

Stories make a difference through a process called Narrative Transportation. This is when a story takes you out of the present moment and immerses you in the world that the storyteller is creating. You let your guard down and accept the story’s reality - whether that means fairy godmothers, friendly ghosts, or schools of witchcraft and wizardry. 

Although narrative transportation is temporary - it ends when the story does - it has a longer-term impact on our brains. It makes us more likely to adopt attitudes that are consistent with the story, and less likely to think of counter-arguments than if someone simply stated their opinion.

So how do you achieve this magical effect? To begin with, in order to transport an audience you need to know a few things about them. Here are three things I try to consider when creating a story for a specific audience:

1) How do the listeners see themselves?

An audience becomes more invested in a story when they identify with a character. 

The popular British sci-fi series Doctor Who has used the principle of audience identification for more than 50 years. “The Doctor” is a very old, super-intelligent, time-travelling alien - a character than can be a bit…well…alienating for earthling viewers. But the Doctor always has a human companion who provides a familiar perspective and allows the average westerner to see herself as part of the story. By sharing the goals and viewpoints of a character, the audience builds an emotional connection with the story and becomes more invested in its outcome.

Whether you’re telling the story of your life, your business or your world-changing initiative, ask yourself how that story relates to the audience. What do they want to accomplish, what is standing in their way, and how can they be part of this big adventure? Tap into those feelings and desires, and you’ll be well on your way to transporting your listeners.

2) How could this story be interpreted differently?

 If there’s anything we’ve learned from watching the news lately, it’s that two people can look at the same facts and walk away with very different interpretations. That’s why a storyteller needs to be sensitive to the audience’s existing beliefs, values and points of reference.

In my 2nd-year anthropology class we read Shakespeare in the Bush, about a researcher who told the story of Hamlet to a group of Tiv Elders in West Africa. The Tiv culture did not share the British concepts of ghosts, madness and betrayal, so the Elders reached a very different interpretation of the classic story.

There’s an important lesson here for storytellers, who use carefully-chosen details to evoke certain feelings and ideas. For example, the presence of a ghost tells a Canadian audience that this is a scary story and is probably about something bad that happened in the past. On the other hand, in a culture without a concept of “ghost” an apparition might have a very different meaning – or it might just confuse the audience and prevent narrative transportation.

You don’t have to travel halfway across the world, or even halfway down your block, to find someone who interprets life differently than you do. I’m reminded of this every time I watch the news with my father. Our very different political views often lead us to very different takes on a single story.

How can you make sure that you story is hitting the right notes with your audience? First, listen to them. If you can, explore the media that they prefer to consume. Get to know how they see the world, and use that as your starting point. 

3) Understand the science of storytelling

Our brains create emotions through hormones like dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins. Different storytelling techniques activate these hormones and take the audience on an emotional journey. A good storyteller uses suspense, vulnerability, humour and other techniques to transport the audience and get them emotionally invested in the storyteller’s point of view.

This TEDx talk by David JP Phillips is a great introduction to the science of storytelling and how to use those juicy brain chemicals to make your audience feel the way you want to make them feel: focussed, motivated, generous, trusting, empathetic, creative, relaxed.

If you want to be a better storyteller, experiment with these techniques. Try to give your audience the empowered, positive feelings that will help them change their lives and the world.

At Spice! Leadership, we believe that the world needs more people telling better stories. We need stories that reflect diverse experiences and that make our communities healthier and more inclusive. Go tell those stories.

Have a story that’s begging to be shared? We want to hear from you. Want to dig deeper into the world of storytelling? Check out our Tell Your Story workshop, premiering on October 18, 2018.



You Are Awesome. Yes, You.

There's something so energizing about the first few days of September. Even after we leave school behind, this time of year still feels like a new beginning - an opportunity to learn new things, make new friends, and re-invent ourselves.

The week after about day is like the first week of a new year, but better: it's a symbolic fresh start, a chance to change our habits and start a new routine. All without the misery of January weather.

Spice! Leadership HQ has definitely gotten into the September spirit. After a thrilling first year, our team is hunkering down to plan how we can have an even bigger impact in 2018-2019. We're also practicing what we preach and applying a growth mindset to our own lives - fitness, finances, friendships and more.

If you've decided to make some magic of your own this fall, here are our top 3 tips for success:

1. Set SMART goals

SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound. In this instance, "specific" means that your goal should be clear enough that it helps you focus your efforts. "Measurable means that you have an objective way to know when you've achieved it. "Achievable" means that the goal is ambitious but achievable. It helps to think about what is within your control and what isn't. A "relevant" goal is one that matters most to you and will push you towards the life that you want for yourself (not the one that other people want for you, or the one that you feel like you should want). Finally, "Time-bound" means that you have a clear deadline. That creates a sense of urgency that will help keep you on track.

This technique is incredibly effective because it forces you to think about *why* the goal is important and how you're going to achieve it. You define what you want to accomplish, and you can see yourself making progress towards it. And if you miss your deadline, it's usually easy to assess where you went wrong and what you need to change next time you try it.

2. Make habit into a force for good

Most of our habits come with triggers that prompt us to do those things. For example, finishing dinner is a trigger for eating dessert, and getting ready for bed is a trigger for brushing your teeth. 

When you're trying to get rid of a habit, the key is o disrupt your usual triggers. For example, if your goal is to stop social media from sapping your productivity, a browser extension like Leechblock, WasteNoTime or StayFocusd will interrupt your mindless browsing and remind you to get back to the important stuff. On the other hand, you can use your existing habits to trigger new, positive habits. Your morning commute could be a great time to listen to educational podcasts. Or, convince your friends to sign up for a fun dance class in place of your weekly happy hour. It's as easy as adding a new, positive behaviour on top of something you already do.

3. Use the buddy system

Misery loves company - er, what we mean is, life is more fun with a friend. Most of us are better at reaching our goals if we have to answer to somebody else for our success or failure. So find a (reliable) friend who has a similar goal, and promise that you'll hold them accountable if they'll do the same for you. Let them support, encourage and inspire you. Like pumpkin and spice, you're better together!

This isn't the only way that you can use peer pressure to your advantage. Research shows us that the people around us have a huge impact on our habits, so surround yourself with people who already do what you're trying to do. 

Do you have any other tips to share? Let us know in the comments what you're up to this fall, and how you're doing to achieve it!

Oh, and one more thing: if you want to use the buddy system to improve your public speaking game, bring a friend to our September public speaking workshop (and save some $$$ in the process)!

How to Fail Better

Spice! Leadership was born out of failure.

It came out of Alex’s 5-year stint as a lawyer, a career that clashed with her personality and left her feeling burned-out and unsure of herself.

It came out of Amanda’s constant struggle to inspire her students - especially the girls - to raise their voices and live up to their full potential.

It came out of a post-election concession speech that encouraged little girls to “never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams.”

It came from a professor who forgot his manners and mocked a student during her first big presentation – showing her that she could bounce back from this and from so many other things.

Spice! Leadership doesn’t exist despite these failures. It exists because of them. That’s why we build failure into every Spice! program. Learning how to fail the right way - with curiosity, optimism and creativity – is how we change our lives. It’s how we change the world.

Embracing failure is part of having a growth mindset. If you fail, it’s because you’re trying something new or challenging (or both). The more you challenge yourself, the more you’re going to fail and the more you're going to succeed. 

The experience of failure can make teens less anxious and more resilient, give them better coping skills and help them do better in school. Why not practice failing when the stakes are low, so that we already have those strengths and skills when it really counts?

In his book Failed It! (which is on our must-read list), Erik Kessels describes failures as “early brushes with success”. We agree. If you keep your eyes and your mind open, screw-ups can lead to unexpected breakthroughs.

Here’s how to turn failure into a superpower:

1) Fail early, fail often, fail on purpose.

When you’re trying something new and a little scary, ask yourself: what’s the worst thing that could happen? Then make that thing happen (within reason)!

Whether it’s trying a new skill, speaking in front of a crowd or starting a new project, getting the worst out of the way makes everything else less scary. You learn that failure isn’t the end of the world. Then you can stop worrying about it and focus on learning. And you’ve already learned what not to do!

Each time you fall down, practice picking yourself up and moving on.

2) Turn every failure into a lesson. 

Once you’ve picked yourself up and brushed yourself off, don’t make the same mistake again. Look around, see what tripped you, and avoid it next time. 

Multi-billionnaire Richard Branson is a prime example of this. He’s run so many failed businesses that it’s hard to keep track of them all.  The secret to his success? He makes a point of learning from every misfire and turning his losses into ever-greater wins

So when something doesn’t work, ask yourself why - and look for what you can do differently next time.

3) Look for opportunities in your failures.

Here’s where the real magic happens (but the analogy gets a little weaker).

When you fall, don’t just get up right away. Instead, take a look around and see what the view is like from there. You might see something you didn’t notice before. 

Case in point: bubble wrap was first designed in the 1950s to be used as wallpaper. Not surprisingly, it was a flop - but when the inventors realized that their product could be used as a packing material, business really took off. 

Let go of your expectations. If something doesn’t work the way you’ve intended, what other use could you make of it? Kids love the Brainstorming Game - thinking up wild and wonderful uses for common household objects. Maybe we could all benefit from building that mental muscle.

How to talk to your kids about fake news

How to talk to your kids about fake news

We have a world of information at our fingertips. Anyone with an internet connection can be a reporter and can influence millions of people they'll never meet. It can be huge a challenge to figure out what’s true, what’s false, and what it all means.

In Spice! Leadership summer camps and the Facts & Feelings workshop for youth, kids develop their media literacy - their ability to assess whether things they see and read are trustworthy. 

We find these critical-thinking techniques are valuable for adults, too, and we like to come back to them when we’re deciding whether to believe something we see or read. We’ve seen smart, well-meaning people spread bad (even harmful) information, and we admit that we’ve probably been guilty of it ourselves.

Keep moving, keep growing

Keep moving, keep growing

You get one life, one road to walk down. Will you choose the more comfortable path, the tried-and-true? Or will you seek out challenge and adventure? Will you risk some bumps and bruises in order to try new things and reach new heights?

Your answer probably depends on something that psychologist call “mindset” - your habitual way of thinking about your own abilities. 

The smooth road is popular among people with a “fixed” mindset, who believe that their abilities and intelligence remain stable over time - either they’re smart or they’re not; they’re athletic or they’re not; they’re creative or they’re not. “I have good walking skills,” they’re likely to think, “but I’m not cut out for hiking and climbing.”

On the other hand, a person with a “growth” mindset believes that they can improve through continuous effort. They look at the rocky path and think, “that looks tricky, but I can learn how to cross it.”

Exercise Your Leader Muscles

Exercise Your Leader Muscles

magine that you have a goal to achieve with your team. You have to expect the unexpected, and make decisions from moment to moment. You have endless options but no clear rules about which ones are the best.

It’s funny how much leadership and improvisational comedy (improv) have in common.

When we hear the world "improv" we think of Saturday Night Live sketches and Wayne Brady’s hilarious songs on Whose Line is it Anyway? It's all about spontaneity, play, and embracing the unexpected. That’s why it’s so entertaining.

But actually doing improv? If you're like most people, you're probably thinking, “I’m not that funny” or “I hate public speaking” or “I’m too shy” or “I’m not that quick on my feet.” 

To which we reply: those are all great reasons to do improv!