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Episode 013

Episode 13: Can you tell a great story?

by Gillian Fox

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So can tell you tell a great story? Can you engage and persuade at work?  

Or do you think GREAT storytelling is solely for the gifted… well if you do, you’re going to be challenged today.

Today’s podcast features storytelling expert, TEDx speaker and performance coach, Zara Love, and she is going to show you that story telling is available to all of us and guess what? …It can be fun.

You are listening to Your Brilliant Career. I’m your host, Gillian Fox executive coach, women’s career expert, and entrepreneur. The podcast that teaches you how to get the most out of your career.  

We talk tactics, tools, and stories that all help incredible women like you achieve the success you deserve. If you want to learn more about how to create the brilliant career you’ve always wanted, I encourage you to check out the RISE Program.  

It’s my four-month career development program. Through a combination of individual executive coaching sessions and group workshops, you’ll discover how to overcome obstacles, create opportunities and reach new heights in your career.

Hi everyone and welcome to another episode of Your Brilliant Career. It’s fantastic to be with here you today and we are talking storytelling. Now we hear a lot about storytelling, but how do you feel about it? How do you rate yourself as a storyteller? Can you tell a great story?

For many years, I thought GREAT storytelling should be left to the professionals, the extraverts, the big personalities, the gifted ones that could carry it off… and it’s not that I didn’t admire them, because I did. I just didn’t think it was for me.

Then I met Zara Love – our guest today, and many things changed for me. She showed me that storytelling COULD be part of my business repertoire and style – AND I could do without turning into someone I didn’t like! How good is that?

Zara took me on an extraordinary journey, and she is going to do the same for you today. She taught me the power of storytelling.  How humour adds a much-needed dose of humanity, and it helps us build trust and connection at work.

My initial challenge was that I didn’t think I had it in me. To make people laugh, really laugh and to move them… and I questioned if I even had stories of my own to share.

But let me tell you…  I have stories… and so do you. Thanks to Zara, I share wonderful stories about the women I meet, my amazing mum, my past… nothing is off limits… and it’s a joy and it has made me a better presenter and businessperson. And it can do the same for you too!

Because of Zara’s impact on me, I’m so excited to have her on the show today and to introduce her to you. She is a performance coach, keynote speaker, ex-radio celebrity, Director of a company called GreatTalk and she is also the author of a very cool book called What is a Nuff? She refers to it as a children’s book for adults… and it’s a fun, inspirational book jam-packed with positive psychology… There’s a lot to say about Zara but I’m going let her fill you in on the rest.

Gillian Fox:  Zara, hello and thank you so much for joining us today.

Zara Love: My absolute pleasure. Any time with you, gorgeous lady is time well spent.

Gillian Fox: Well, I know we’re going to have a lot of fun today. I always feel so energised and happy after spending time with you. I’m sure a lot of people say that.

Zara Love: I love that. We do often hear people say, I wish I could just pop a micro version of you in my back pocket, so when I have to go and present or perform, I’ve just got a little micro coach there.

Gillian Fox: Well, I wish you could come with me too, but I would love to kick off today talking about something that you’re very passionate about and that you are very good at, and that is storytelling and that capacity to engage, Zara. So, when I think of the beautiful women that join us on our programs, I often sense that there’s a bit of reluctance to do the whole storytelling thing. So, there’s more of a default to wanting to cut to the chase, deliver the results, just put the facts on the line, but maybe explain to us why storytelling is actually so important and what makes a ripper of a story? What makes a story super?

Zara Love: Yeah, sure. So I think people avoid it because it reveals our vulnerabilities and they’re the things that really, we try and zip up in life and keep to ourself because we perceive them as weaknesses. But in fact, it’s those weaknesses, it’s those vulnerabilities as we all know, that allow us to relate to each other and allow us to connect to another human being and if somebody doesn’t care about you and your story, they’re not going to do anything different in their lives. They’re not going to take the action that you want them to take. They’re not going to be inspired to do something new. They need to have an emotional connection to you. So storytelling is something that really, has to create a bridge, a link between you and the person that you are sharing the story with.

And the reason that we do it in a corporate setting, particularly we coach professional speakers, the reason that we do it is that we want the audience to be able to put themselves in the shoes of the speaker and follow the story and feel like they’re inside the story because we get very judgey.

Now, the reason that we don’t encourage people to just come out with the facts and figures is because audiences are very quick thinking and our time is short and often, we have embraced what you are there to share with us in the first few seconds. And we’re judging you. Do I like you? Do I not like you? Do I agree with you? Do I not agree with you? Is this going to be boring? Do I already have this information? Should I just jump on my Facebook page and do whatever I need to do? We get really, really judgey, in the first few seconds in fact, when anyone is in front of us or on stage.

A story however, it helps to bypass that critical security system that’s in all of our brains that’s looking out for us. Is this going to be useful to me? Is this going to be engaging? Should I be doing something else? A story, if it’s well told, it allows us to bypass those criticisms, those judgements because we have to listen and see where the story is going. Now, if the storyteller is then interesting and tells the story in an engaging way, chances are, a little bit like reading a good book, we get to the end of the page and we go, oh, what happened next?

Now we’re engaging inside the story. So we’re out of our own minds and our own judgements. And we are following you. If that story then reveals your message, a point that you really want the audience to understand, they’re going to remember it better because it’s been cased in a wonderful story that they’ve been able to follow. And if it reveals a little bit about you, the speaker, then we are going to like you more as well, and we are more willing to listen to your facts and your figures and your militant messaging. But if you start there, we’re going to judge you and tune out.

Gillian Fox: I think that’s so true because I’d even know from delivering in workshops and things, no one actually remembers the facts, but they remember the story that then takes them back to the facts. And I’ve always found it just fascinating because I go, oh, remember that story?

Zara Love: Because we connect with the storyteller. We spent a long time in breakfast radio and our whole job there was to create TSL, time spent listening. So the longer that we could get people to listen, obviously the more air time the sales team could sell because people were engaged with the show. Now, how did we get them to listen longer? We were very mindful about the stories that we told and in particular, the hooks that we made to keep people in those stories and to want to listen after the break and onto the next break. So we were always thinking about what are stories that are relatable for people? And on that particular show, it was a really brave show that we did, and we talked about everything. So we talked about sexual experiences, we talked about life changing experiences, we talked about near death experiences, politics, everything was allowed on that show.

And I discovered that the more personal I got, the more I was brave enough to reveal my flaws, my foibles, my mistakes, and I have made thousands of them. The more people seem to like me, and the more people wanted to tune in and hear more of those stories. And actually, I shared on that show, we had a segment called Zara’s diary and I wrote that diary every day. It was written as a comedic piece, but it was all true from my life, right back to being conceived by my parents. So I kind of wrote it from, the embryo’s perspective, originally. I made that story go for six weeks on air and people stayed with us all the way through. They would tune in at 10 past seven because they had to get their fix of what happens next. And then the ratings went up, people loved the show, and it was because we have to be brave enough to share more of who we are. What hurts us? What helps us? What lifts us up? And it’s only that emotional connection that will drive some kind of reaction or response in your audience.

Gillian Fox: I love that you’ve just mentioned the radio because I knew you for months and months before you shared that whole background of your radio, and it all made so much sense to me why this beautiful voice was talking to me all the time and the storytelling and just that capacity to really understand what you need to think about to engage an audience. So, tell maybe a little bit about your career background, cause it’s a phenomenal story, Zara.

Zara Love: Well thank you. And hopefully there’s still some more to go, so.

Zara Love: Let’s hope that our best work is ahead of us. I started as an actor, as a performer, as a singer. So I went to what Queensland liked to describe as the Queensland version of NIDA and studied voice and training and performance, and worked with the state theatre companies in Queensland and Perth and travelled with the Lyric Opera of Queensland, which was wonderful also. So did a lot of plays, thought that was going to be my career, started doing some stand-up comedy. My family had a comedy club that I was in the show of. It’s where I met my beautiful partner, Troy boy. The story goes, we met, we got together the first night and we actually moved in together that first night.

Gillian Fox: Wow.

Zara Love: Yep. Some girls play hard to get, I play hard to get rid of. It’s the only joke I’ll share. I promise.

Gillian Fox: But successful, obviously.

Zara Love: Well, we just knew, straight away. And so I did a lot of stand-up and then I got asked to present at a radio event and they asked me to come in as the comedian and create a debate on why radio rocks, basically. And I spent a lot of work on that debate, and I was working with other comedians on the other side who did less work, I think, than I did. And the radio bosses came to me and said, Hey, would you like to have your own show? And I said, great, can I bring my husband? They said, do we have to pay him? I said, probably not. So they said, sure. We got a job on the Sunshine Coast, originally and we did seven months there won a couple of big radio awards, which was kind of amazing. Again, because we were comedians, we knew how to write, we knew how to produce, and we knew how to work really hard.

After seven months in, we won two awards and then got poached by Austereo to go and work in Perth. And the idea was that we’d spend a year in Perth and then go onto the Sydney spot, which didn’t eventuate, and we ended up four years in Perth before we resigned, but it was a beautiful experience to be able to engage with the community. And I really saw radio and story as this beacon of light that was able to open people up in a new kind of way, a way that says I’m struggling behind closed doors with whatever I’m dealing with, and I need to feel like I’m part of a community. And I think the more that we were honest with people and real with people and the more we let real people onto the show, the more obsessed people got with it as well.

And it was just a beautiful experience. And really they hated us when we arrived because we came over from over east, which is how they refer to it in WA, over east. And we were brand spanking new so the people that we replaced had been on air for 26 years and had gone to the opposition radio station. We had come in; they saw it as who are these people coming in and taking over our airways? So the first year, we were last place and in radio, you fight for every point so I took that very personally and worked way too hard, way too hard for those four years. But we went from last place to first place, and it was just a remarkable ride that I’m very grateful for. And we met some amazing celebrities.

We met everybody. Got to talk to everybody. So it was pretty remarkable from, Destiny’s Child to Chris Rock to Jennifer Garner, Heath Ledger, I had one of the most amazing conversations with Heath. Yeah. It was just a beautiful experience, but we’d gone from running clubs so, going to bed at 3:00 AM to being on radio, so getting up at 3:30 AM, which is why I now look like I’m a hundred.

Gillian Fox: Far, far, far from the truth. I can assure. When I think about, and it’s an incredible experience and it obviously makes you so good at what you do today, but this thing around humour and vulnerability, do you need more of that in the business world, Zara?

Zara Love: Hundred percent, a hundred percent. Good humour, good life. Yeah. That’s something that I live by. In fact, it was in our wedding vows. That, good humour is something that is really important in our relationship. It’s important in every relationship. The first TEDx talk I did was The Epidemic of Over-Seriousness in the world, because at the time, we were taking a lot of things too seriously right now we’ve got a very serious world and serious issues to deal with, but that’s more the reason for us to find ways to connect more profoundly and humour just lets the valve off a little bit. It kind of says, when we are laughing together, we’re in agreement. Yeah. For one little split second of time, if I’m laughing at something you say, I’m basically saying, I get you. Yes, you’re right.

It’s agreement. It means for a moment, we’re all looking in the same direction at exactly the same time. So we’re all on the same side. Yeah and it’s a relief. We truly believe if you can joke, you can cope. It’s something that lightens you up, keeps the perspective in life, because it’s only when we lose perspective, right? That things get, we get the blinkers on, and we can’t see our options. We lose our peripheral options. So humour kind of keeps us light and it’s something that doesn’t come easily. It’s something you got to work on. If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. And I think the trajectory of a human being means that we get… There’s a gravitational pull, kind of drags us down. There’s a sagginess to life on the other side, that kind of, it can pull you under, you can see all of the pains. I mean, at the moment with the news, it so difficult, isn’t it? I can feel it in every bone in my body.

Gillian Fox: When you’re working with corporates, what do you observe? For people to become more engaging, what do they generally need to do more of, less or differently, Zara?

Zara Love: Well, I think you started with it. You said that people just want to kind of get to the facts, the data, the details. They just want to get to the guts of it fast. Come on. Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am. When we were in corporate arenas a lot, we sat in a lot of beautiful boardrooms, and it was amazing the amount of people that would just want to jump straight into business. Okay? Our meeting is set at 12:15, we’ve got exactly 45 minutes, we start now, here’s the agenda. And we would always, our team would do everything we could to be subversive and kind of shake people up at the beginning of meetings, just so we’d get a bit personal.

Zara Love: Connect with people on a personal level and with the presentation, story every time. Story, story, story, story, story, story, story. So if you come in with facts and figures, I’m going to judge you. I’m either going to agree or not agree. I’m going to tune in, I’m going to tune out. If you put a slide up there with numbers and figures and information, I’m going to read it way faster than you are going to take me through it. So your stories are the only thing that are going to engage me and pull me into your world. And we need all kinds of stories. Stories of challenge, stories of triumph, stories of loss, stories of connection. So stories don’t do one thing. And in fact, we love drama more than anything else.

We need humour, but we love drama. And it’s drama, we don’t like things going wrong in life, but in fact, that’s where we are revealed and we find out how strong we are, and it’s the same in stories. Often a great story is one where there’s increasing complexity or there’s huge obstacles to be overcome or we didn’t think that we’d even be able to take the next step, but then we found it in us to be able to move on. So, we like a bit of drama and we need that in our stories as well.

Gillian Fox: Is the formula then, tell the story then go into the facts? Is that a communication… Or it doesn’t matter?

Zara Love: I don’t think it matters. I think the rule is there’s no rules. You can make the point that you want to make and then tell a story or you can tell a story and then make the point. Or you can tell a story that has multiple points of inspiration all the way through it, which is the way that we coach. If somebody’s going to stand on stage, any stage, whether it’s around five people or 50,000, and we’ve coached people with both, we want to make sure that they are valuing everyone’s time. 45 minutes to give to anyone right now is a lot of time.

So don’t just get up there and share one insight with me. Although, having said that, we really do only take in one message per 45-minute keynote. There’s only one thing that we can store in our brain and that is the core message. But we want to hear that in multiple ways and we want to hear your opinion in a way that it’s going to inspire us and we like to sprinkle that all the way through. So, for that 45 minutes, I feel like whoa, I’ve just walked away with so much insight, so much value. I feel like it was the best place I could have been.

Gillian Fox: So tell us about heart, smart and fart. Probably the only time in the podcast I get to say fart, and if we had more male listeners, they’d probably be giggling because I’ve got a 19 year old and a 50 something at home and they still laugh at fart jokes.

Zara Love: Farts are funny. Farts are funny. Depends on who’s doing them, of course. And always funnier if you’re the one in charge of that. And I always say, farts are a normal part of life. If we don’t do them, we’ll just get bigger and eventually float away. So you need to let it out, let it out, regular people. Heart, fart and smart came from an animation competition that we entered many, many years ago now and it was a big animation house. He said, we’re looking for a new show, a new idea, and it needs to have heart smart and fart. And we just really loved that phrase and I’d never heard it again. I’ve gone back to them, and it doesn’t exist anywhere within the organisation. And we use it as a framework to ensure that every story and every keynote, which is a combination of stories, has the right balance of heart, smart and fart.

So heart is the vulnerabilities. It’s what we’ve talked about already. It’s the stuff that we love, we hate, we’re scared of, we lost, we challenged ourselves with, we were challenged by, it’s all the stuff that allows us to like another human being because they’re like us. Yeah? It’s the vulnerability. The smart is the edification that you know what you’re talking about. It’s the proof, it’s the statistics, it’s the background. It’s the research. And the fart is the funny, the good humour, it’s being good company with an audience. Now, you don’t have to follow that particular order, heart-smart-fart. You can kind of start the smart, move to the heart, top it with the fart, go back to the smart, but it needs to be in equal measures, which is why when we’re working with people, we do like to, as part of that process, particularly with their first package, work on the page with a script as well, because you can see, oh, it’s too heavy with smart.

There’s too many facts and figures and details here and it’s too explanatory. We need it to be more exploratory, and we need a bit more fun and humour here. So you can kind of see where something is needed. And it might just be, we haven’t actually engaged the audience enough at this point of the story. We haven’t dragged them into the story and made them think for themselves. So that’s the other thing, all stories are about you or your content or your message, but really, they have to be about the audience and how they can step into that story as well and relate to it.

Gillian Fox: What about fear? Because when anyone talks about presenting, the first thing that comes up is the nerve factor. Yeah. So, what do you say to people… They must, when they join your courses, I’m sure there’s some terrified participants about to launch into that experience. How do you help them change that mindset and be their best?

Zara Love: Well, I am one of the most fearful people on the planet. I am riddled with fears. I’m riddled with anxieties I’ve lived my entire life with them. I was bulimic when I was younger for a very long period of time. So very sick from sort of 14, 15. Really well into my thirties, I was still working with it, trying to overcome it. I didn’t realise at the time it was anxiety. It’s only reflection looking back, that was kind how I dealt with it. It ended up with me having a cardiac arrest and dying for a minute, which is a fairly life changing experience. But I realised that fear is always going to be part of me. I thought I could one day wake up and it wouldn’t be there, but it’s always there. It just doesn’t stop me from doing anything. And I think if you can use the fear, know that it’s going to be there and really excitement and fear.

It’s just, they’re the same manifestation, but with a different framing, right? We still get sweaty palms and our hearts race when we’re fearful, same when we’re excited, so how do we reframe it in our minds to set our intention so it’s something that we can enjoy as a process rather than just say, I just want to get through this without dying? And we ran a program, we run a program called Stand Up For Yourself, where we teach executives and leaders how to overcome their fear of public speaking by learning the art of stand-up comedy. And it’s kind of remarkable. You deliver it over six months. On the first day, they think they’re just there for a communication program. You’re going to teach us to tell a few stories, but we reveal on that first session, that in a few short months, they will be performing their first ever stand-up comedy routine about their own lives in front of a live audience of 200 people.

Gillian Fox: Wow.

Zara Love: Now 100% of the participants on that day, believe it’s not possible. They believe it can’t be done. They don’t have it in them to be funny. They could never stand on stage in front of that many people and talk about themselves and be funny. But in the programs that we’ve run, we’ve only lost one person, they didn’t die. One person on the day went, oh, I can’t get there, I’m having difficulties, which was pure fear. And actually, that’s the hardest part of the program is keeping everybody moving forward. Because at different times, someone will go, oh, I think I’ve got a paralysed arm, I don’t think I can make it to rehearsals. We go, ah, you’ll be fine, just show up. And somehow the paralysed arm goes away and they do the work, but I’ve got to say, one of the proudest moments was the first time we ran that program and I sat at the back of the room and I watched these people who believed they could never do this, stand on stage, step into their power, throw off years of debilitating fears.

And not only do well but love the experience and then come off stage going, oh my God, I want to go again, like a rollercoaster. I was sobbing at the back of the room the first time we ran the program and the second, for a couple of reasons, one, I didn’t think that they’d do as well. I had to prepare them for failure. Fear’s a big part of that and I had to prepare them. This might not go right, and that’s going to be part of this experience.

But everyone excels. Everyone’s able to step up to the plate because they’ve gone through the process, they know their material, we’ve rehearsed them well, but to see people shine in that environment is kind of extraordinary and even the audience, the hairs on the back of your neck and your arms are all prickly because you’re like, I’m seeing something amazing. I’m seeing something kind of remarkable. I don’t know quite what I’m watching, but I know I’m seeing transformation.

Gillian Fox: And that must transform their whole attitude to what’s possible for them, for future presentations and the way they present themselves in business. So quite a profound experience for the individual, I’m sure.

Zara Love: Completely transformational. In fact, the first time we ran it, we had to ease it off after that, because almost everyone decided they wanted to leave the organisation and do something new.

Gillian Fox: A keynote speaker.

Zara Love: That’s right. So, I mean, from yoga studios to all kinds of things, but it was, we were working with Optus the first time we ran it and it was kind of incredible because people started to wake up and say, I want to either get a promotion here, or what am I doing? I need to be doing something really meaningful to me. And every person that went through that first program is still connected. And that was, I think the first time we ran it was more than 10 years ago. They’re still connected as a community, even though they’re in a hundred different places.

Gillian Fox: So who do you admire? Who do you think is super engaging and why? Is there a celebrity or someone in the business world, or even in your personal life, who do you think is really engaging as a communicator and what makes them that way?

Zara Love: I love, do you know Marianne Williamson?

Gillian Fox: Yes.

Zara Love: Yes. So she speaks on a course in miracles. I think she was actually running for politics at one point recently. But she is a beautiful speaker, probably the world of, Brene Brown, that kind of meaningful speaker that is very transformational. And I just adore her. I could listen to her all day, any day because I learn something every single time. She’s very earnest, very real, very driven, very serious. I wouldn’t say that humour is a big part of her arsenal, not from what I’ve heard anyway. It may very well be the way that she operates, but I always learn something and I learn it in a succinct way. In fact, one of her quotes, I just adore. And it’s, a miracle is a shift in perception.

Gillian Fox: Wow. Just looking at it with a fresh set of eyes.

Zara Love: That’s all it is. We are surrounded by miracles everywhere we look, in our houses, outside, in our universe, we are surrounded by so much beauty, majesty, and miracles. But we step on it, we don’t consider it, we kind of ignore it, we abandon it, we frame it as unimportant, and it becomes unimportant. When we hold something up and we kind of see the beauty in it and share that beauty with somebody else, then that becomes something that is truly beautiful.

Gillian Fox: Yeah. That is beautiful. And she is incredible. She’s quite poetic. I always think she’s quite poetic in the way she articulates things.

Zara Love: Is she ever? In fact, on that point, Troy, my beautiful partner is just putting in my message because he’s listening to all of this. Another quote from her and it’s one that often gets attributed to Nelson Mandela, but he was actually quoting her. And it’s the phrase that says our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate, our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not in some of us, it’s in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Gillian Fox: So beautiful isn’t it? It’s such a powerful message for all of us, isn’t it?

Zara Love: So strong, right? It’s within us. And I think speakers have to remember that. Many people go, oh, I just hope I don’t mess it up or I hope that they don’t hate me or I don’t humiliate myself. Well, guess what? It’s not about you. You’re sharing your story, sure. But you’re doing it for them, for the greater good. So that lifts the pressure off you so that you can be really mindful about the people that you are there to help and serve.

Gillian Fox: Zara, I have loved talking to you today. It has inspired me to try some different things as well. And I know the women listening will have learned so much as well. So, thank you so much.

Zara Love: It’s absolute pleasure, Gillian and congratulation on this podcast because it is helping all of us to gain wisdom and insights and you’re making the effort to do it, that’s kind of remarkable. So thank you for talking to me.

There we go. I hope you feel inspired to practice your storytelling. Perhaps when you have something you need to present or get across the line at work – think about how you could integrate a story so you are more engaging in that moment. Have fun. And I will be back in a few weeks. Cheers.

Thanks so much for listening to today’s podcast. If you’re enjoying what you’re learning on the podcast, sign up for our free guide on HOW TO MAKE YOUR VALUE MORE VISIBLE AT WORK. I share three strategies that will help you amplify your accomplishments and boost self-confidence at work. I think you’ll love it.

Head over to yourbrilliantcareer.com.au/free-guide. If you want some inspiration and tips during the week, join us on Instagram, Gillian Fox Group. I look forward to seeing you there.

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