THE BLOG
01/21/2014 10:07 am ET Updated Mar 23, 2014

The Talk of My Life: How Stories Can Transform Us and How We Do Business

Public speaking is one of those fears that most people seem to have. It seems to rank up there with phobias about root canals, a fear of heights, or if you're a Bostonian like me, the Yankees winning the pennant. Throughout my career, I've had to do a lot of public speaking and if you'd asked me a few months back, I probably would've told you that the speaking-in-public thing gets easier, but that was before "my talk." For me, speeches in business settings all seemed to be of the same mode, someone -- usually on a dais, usually in a cavernous ballroom, usually after a meal of hotel-style chicken or salmon -- would stand behind a lectern and sprint through a series of notes, racing through a laundry list of exhausted ideas to an equally exhausted audience. That was before I had to give "my talk."

What made "the talk" different? It wasn't that there was no lectern to hold my notes (or hide behind). It wasn't that I was under the glare of spotlights, the glare of hundreds of my coworkers, and the CEO of my company. It wasn't knowing that my talk was going to get posted online here. It wasn't that it was part of a first-of-its-kind partnership between a financial institution, my company, State Street, and TED, the nonprofit organization devoted to "ideas worth spreading." It was different because, as part of the challenge, it was supposed to be the talk of my life. And to be the talk of my life, it had to be deeply personal. It had to be genuine and honest, and that meant showing the real me -- fears and all. In short, it had to be about something really real, not something you could get off an index card or TelePrompTer. For me, this talk of my life wasn't just different because the content was so close to who I am; it taught me just much impact storytelling can have.

When you move from the abstract to the personal, people become more invested in what you're saying -- and their ability to recall and retain the information is so much greater. That's why I've become so fascinated by the power that stories, not speeches, can bring to the workplace. The Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner said, "Every great leader is a great storyteller," and I've come to realize how true this is. The things we expect from a storyteller are the same things we expect from a leader -- precision, energy, clarity, vision, purpose, and connection. Leaders, like storytellers, need to persuade to win people's hearts and minds and stories allow us to supplement a rational, analytical mind with an imaginative, innovative one. Since my talk, I've been thinking more about the power of stories and how we can use them better in the workplace.

  • Stories spark action. Leaders use them to show their teams the way ahead and the rewards of change. Stories aren't just emotionally moving -- they actually inspire movement and movements.
  • Stories show who we are. You're never leading if there's no one following, and we don't follow people we don't trust. When we tell our own stories, we don't just build trust, we create empathy. We connect. That makes it easier for people to relate to our vision and goals.
  • Stories help us share our values. There's a school of thought that we're the sum of our decisions -- that how we face a thorny situation shapes who we are. The tales of how an organization sees the dilemmas it faces and why it makes the decisions it does become part and parcel of a company culture. Stories reinforce these values. Like parables, they help highlight what's important to an organization and why.
  • Stories build teams. Psychologist and author of Peak Performers Charles Garfield wrote, "Stories are the language of communities." Communities and collaboration exist where there are shared values, shared visions, and shared goals. Stories have the power to elicit true meaning and transmit values. They can connect teams and inspire them to work more closely and strive harder

Telling my story in the workplace was empowering. It let me share with my coworkers one of the things I think is absolutely important for all of us -- making a mark on those around us. Since that talk -- the talk of my life -- I've become especially attuned to how stories can help us make that mark. It's stories, not speeches that make a mark, and I'm ready for more of them in the workplace. After all, as Simon Sinek said in his TED Talk, "Martin Luther King didn't make the 'I have a Plan' speech...it was 'I Have a Dream.'"

See more of TED @StateStreet talks at the State Street Partners page on TED.com.