The powerful connection between storytelling and innovation, and its potential for businesses, is already being tapped into by companies such as Microsoft, 3M, Kimberly-Clark and Procter & Gamble, who consider storytelling in a business setting to be an essential skill in their executive communication toolkits.
At Mayo Clinic’s Transform2014 conference, we got to hear firsthand the storytelling potential present in every person. The Radio Diaries Founder and Executive Producer Joe Richman shared the personal recordings and behind-the-scenes stories of three young people, full of life even as they combat serious illnesses and disorders. Their stories are part of The Radio Diaries collection of first-person audio recordings of people from all areas of life, broadcast on NPR’s All Things Considered, This American Life, BBC, and on The Radio Diaries Podcast.
In the hushed stillness, the audience detached from the rush of their lives and lost themselves in the voices of the young people below. “We hear things we don’t hear in other mediums. Radio is an incredible bullshit detector,” Richman commented.
We heard the words of sixteen-year-old Josh from Manhattan, navigating an adolescence complicated with Tourette Syndrome, as he shares the list of kissing instructions made for him by Nicole—“She made that list for me because I made out with her and she said I was doing it wrong. So I guess that’s the main thing I learned this summer.”
Laura Rothenberg, diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at three days old, chronicled her life in her “My So-Called Lungs” diary. “When I was 12 and 13, I met a lot of kids in the hospital with CF. There was sort of like a whole gang—you know, they were all the CF kids. And we’d just play cards and talk dirt about the nurses and watch TV shows at night, ride down the hall on IV poles,” then lists all of her hospital CF buddies who died. We heard Laura’s surprise “lung retirement party” that her friends threw for her before she underwent surgery to replace both her lungs.
The radio diary of Thembi Ngubane, a young South African woman battling AIDS, starts with her “HIV prayer”— “Hello, HIV—you trespasser. You are in my body; you have to obey the rules…You mind your business, and I’ll mind mine. And I’ll give you a ticket when your time comes.” In her too-short life, Thembi became a powerful voice for action, addressing the South African parliament and the U.S. House of Representatives, meeting Bill Clinton, Richard Gere and then-Senator Barack Obama as she raised awareness of AIDS.
John Hockenberry, a three-time Peabody Award winner, four-time Emmy winner, and “Dateline NBC” correspondent moderated the Transform2014 conference. When he asked Richman how he gets such great stories, how he gets people to talk, Richman replied, “You ask. The stories are there. They’re just waiting to be requested.” Then he added that, in our busy world, “You need time to have these conversations, time to finish your sentences.”
While wellness and healthcare was the focus of Transform2014, (as well as this session with Richman,) The Radio Diaries encompass the full spectrum of human experience, showing how interesting anyone’s life is when we just listen. Some stories are unbelievably riveting. For example, listeners can go back to July 28, 1945 to The Day a Bomber Hit the Empire State Building, hearing an interview with Betty Lou Oliver, who worked as the building’s 19-year-old elevator operator, plunging 79 stories when the plane severed the elevator cables, for the longest survived elevator fall ever recorded. You can hear the actual 1945 recording of a businessman dictating a letter into his SoundScriber machine, hearing the sound of the airplane flying by his window, then a muffled boom of the plane’s impact as it hits the Empire State Building.
That story was brought back to life from its 1945 obscurity because Richman and his team took the time to listen to it.
What are your organization’s stories?
Business leaders often talk of the importance that listening plays in innovation and business success—which might explain why approximately 70% of businesses fail within ten years—All that talking about listening is easy. The actual listening is quite difficult for most people. Perhaps part of the problem for business leaders is that there is an overwhelming number of sources to whom they must listen—employees, customers, stockholders, boards of directors, the financial market, attorneys, competitors, their families… To counter that problem, some organizations have high level corporate storytellers whose sole job is to capture its stories.
In The Dragonfly Effect, Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith detail four types of stories that organizations should have on their “bookshelf”:
- The “Who am I?” story—how your organization began
- The “Vision” story—where you are headed in the future
- The “Apology and Recovery” story—how you handled adversity
- The “Personal” story— focusing on your own people
What can you do today to begin listening to your organization’s powerful stories?
Experience these stories and more at
The Radio Diaries podcasts.
Listen to the Mayo Clinic Transform2014 speakers.