The Power of Storytelling

A couple of months ago, I had the pleasure of speaking at two agile conferences; Agile Cymru and Agile on the bench. As an avid agile evangelist, I’m a firm believer that platforms like these are a big part of how we can help contribute and shape the paradigm shift within the software engineering and agile communities.

As I am sure many can imagine it can be daunting to deliver a speech at a conference, hoping that it will be received as a gripping and engaging piece. The last thing you want is to send people to sleep - or worse, have them engage in the law of two feet and get up and leave! This fear of public speaking is so common that I am reminded of the classic Seinfeld line - so good it’s often mistaken for fact:

“According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” 

London to Cardiff

The two day conference was held at the magnificent Millennium Centre. The lineup was phenomenal - Liz Keogh, Kim Morgan, Paul Goddard and many more evangelists and thought leaders. I was honoured to be included amongst these great speakers, although it did ramp the pressure up a notch and really pushed me to bring my A-game. The focus of my talk was based around two contradicting elements in the Agile world; managers and agile practices, a bit of a controversial subject so I knew there would be a good audience based solely on that.

It's fair to say that one of the main drives for my talk was also based on a lot of experience I have had working in the software development industry and what it takes to really change mindsets and behaviours within the workplace and build true agility. This was a great inspirational asset for my talk, in particular around the idea of how we as managers should and can change how we think, motivate and build internal discipline teams.

Always zoom out

It was imperative to step back and zoom out for this one. While I am no stranger to speaking at events, I had never spoken at one with such a high calibre of speakers. My first struggle was to figure out the best way to deliver my talk and to really express my emotion, passion and love for the topic.

Mulling this over was causing a mind-block, so I opted for a change of pace and went out for a walk to redirect my thought flow.

This change of scenery allowed me to stop thinking about the challenge at hand. Instead, I began to think about the fact that I was walking to change my thinking. With my mind focused on this, the answer to how I wanted to present my talk came to me. Nilofer Merchant’s TED Talk explained this very process in her talk entitled ‘Got a meeting? Go for a walk’. 

I arrived at my conclusion: the way I present should be based simply on the speaker, their experience and the story they have to tell.

My inspiration

The inspiration I gained on my walk led me to do some research. I thought about talks I had seen that have inspired me to think more about my own capabilities, passions and professional drive. Eventually, I narrowed the list down to three talks. These are each great examples of sharing experiences, struggles and successes through storytelling. They are also great examples of how I wanted to tell the story of my own experience. 

1. What’s in a name? Experimenting with titles - Martin Hynie.

About: This talk was delivered at Test Bash 2015, a software testing conference in Brighton. It is an insightful reflection on an 18 month experiment where job titles rotated within a project. It was fascinating to see how titles had such influence on individuals, teams and departments.

2. Your body language shapes who you are - Amy Cuddy.

About: A remarkable talk from a remarkable woman. Amy wasn’t supposed to become a successful scientist. In fact, she wasn’t even supposed to finish her undergraduate degree. After suffering severe head injury in a car accident, doctors told her she would never regain full mental capacity. Despite this, years later she is up on the TED stage telling her story to thousands of people. In this talk, Amy discusses her research on how “power poses” can increase self-confidence.

3. How to live before you die - Steve Jobs.

About: Steve Jobs gave the commencement address at the Stanford University graduation ceremony in 2005. It is widely recognised as one of the most powerful and iconic talks this century. He opens with two short but powerful sentences; “Today I want to tell you three stories from my life, that’s it. No big deal, just three stories.” The learnings he took from his own experiences, failures and successes was inspirational for the graduates, and indeed, for me. He put things simply: “If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.”

The Power of Storytelling

The experience of preparing for Agile Cymru has really helped me to realise the importance of storytelling as a presenter. This medium allows you to connect with a room full of strangers and inspire them with your own experiences. 

It’s important to realise that it is the story that we remember, not the event itself. However, the good stories are the ones that help us learn, and by extension shape us as people.