The easiest way to start exploring your stories is by completing your River of Life.
On one level, the purpose of this exercise is to find more stories and build a collection of stories to use to connect, engage, motivate, and influence others. This exercise also serves to help you reflect on your life experiences and discover moments where your experiences have influenced the things that are important to you.
The exercise will also help you acknowledge you have stories to tell. It will help you recognise the significance of some of your stories, and in time, the exercise (if repeated) will help you begin to discover your ‘why’ and your purpose. Exciting, I know!
But, to wholly live your truth, you must build a practice of self-reflection. Once you have completed your River of Life, use it as a reference guide for your stories. Go back over your river regularly. Reflect on your life experiences. Find other stories in your life that resonate.
The stories don’t have to be epic, they can be simple, everyday stories. Use them to connect with who you are and how you influence others. Using your stories will have meaning for you. You will bring appropriate relevant emotion to bear. You will have power and impact and an authenticity no-one can question.
Helping others find their stories
Working recently with a CEO of a global corporate business, my brief was to help him get ready for a very important business-defining public speaking engagement. He was to be the keynote speaker at a global industry conference with over a thousand delegates.
For Alan, this was a big deal. Alan was a good speaker. He had to be; he was a CEO. He had presented in business all his life, but something was missing for him. This wasn’t about presenting. This wasn’t about just sharing data. It was about him and who he was and what he represented. He needed to talk to the conference delegates, not present.
We spent four hours together. His first task was to complete the River of Life exercise before our initial meeting. He didn’t. “I didn’t have time, and I wasn’t sure why my personal stories would be relevant for this audience.”
His stories gave him the freedom to relive and connect with who he was
So I got him to stand up and present what he normally would. He shared some data and core messages. Factual. Very useful. But dull. I shared my thoughts – obviously in a constructive fashion – convincing him to explore the possibility that his stories could bring the data to life. He could be inspiring.
We began the exercise in earnest. Working through the exercise together, he noticed he had some deep and meaningful stories he could use as well as light, funny anecdotal stories which could bring the data to life. To draw these out, I asked him to take three moments in his life and to talk to me about them, relating them to at least one or two of the core messages within the data.
“I don’t know how to do that!” came his reply. “You think you don’t.” I sensed this was a time to be direct. I told him, “Let go of the desire for it to be perfect. Have the intent to play and explore. Be curious about your stories and how they could relate to your core messages.”
Alan got up and started talking about his stories. Almost instantaneously, he had one of those ‘Aha!’ moments. His stories gave him the freedom to relive and connect with who he was while speaking (not who he was from his past). He connected the stories to the messages.
He made the stories relevant, and the dull data not so dull. His letting go of his attachment to what he should be like and should sound like enabled him to relive the stories using appropriate, relevant emotion to connect his core messages to his stories.
His intent (the way he was being), core messages, and stories fitted perfectly together. He was in that moment being a truthful leader. Alan invited some colleagues into the room. “Let’s try this out on others, Deon.”
Let’s face it, we can never get away from our need for recognition
We are intrinsically needy. Even the most confident of us need approval. The reaction Alan got was just what he needed. Alan received a more significant degree of approval when the thousand-strong conference room stood to their feet and applauded him and his keynote.
Your truth as a leader lies within you. Allow yourself the freedom to mine it and trust you will let it out relevantly and appropriately. Let it happen.
Begin to create a bank of stories you can use
Once you have completed this exercise, I strongly suggest taking a brief note of the stories that resonate with you. Perhaps have a little black book. Note the stories, the core messages in them, then keep this book with you always, and whenever you are about your day and notice things and people, make a note.
The River of Life exercise
Find a quiet space to work where you won’t be interrupted for a good few hours. At least 2 hours.
Get a large sheet of paper and some coloured markers. You can spread out on the floor or tape your paper to the wall.
- Draw a river on the piece of paper winding from the lower left corner to the upper right corner.
- Label the lower left Birth and the upper right The Present. Get creative! Break the rules!
When you draw your river, let its shape and features represent what’s special about your life. I’ve seen swamps, bridges, waterfalls, forked rivers, circular rivers. Don’t strive for artistic perfection – improvise and surprise yourself.
Cast your mind back over your life, and draw islands in the river, each representing places you’ve lived, key people you’ve known or who’ve influenced you, and any other ‘landmarks’ along the river of your life.
Have fun with this – use different colours and symbols. Along each side of the river, add tributaries representing challenging and affirming moments from your life. Think of those events, decisions, choices, and turning points that taught you something or made a lasting impact on who you are.
Take a few minutes to look back over your river, adding any missing details. Make sure the river really captures every aspect of your life: family, work, spirituality, other life pursuits.
Once you’ve got this far, explore your river and note your insights:
- What patterns or trends do you notice?
- What experiences and people were especially significant?
- What are the stories in your experiences?
- What are the core messages in each experience/story? Note these down in your journal.
- How do you relate these stories to how your values have formed over time?
Here’s some advanced river work
Attach another piece of paper above the first and extend your river into the future. What do you envision happening in your own life, your family, your business? What key choices or decisions lie ahead? Where would you like to be in five or ten years? How can you use these stories in your talks and presentation?
Keep this river with you when constructing your next talk or presentation (take a photo of it on your phone). Remember, the key is about noticing your experiences. These experiences are rich stories you can use to connect with others.
- What have some of your life stories taught you?
- What are the core messages in your stories?
Get your little notebook and write down words or phrases as reminders of your stories and the core messages within them. Keep this with you always.
Add more stories and anecdotes as you go about living. Eventually you will build up a bank of relevant, usable personal stories.
Find moments to tell some of these stories to people. Even when not in a talk or presentation. Just in everyday life – at dinner, in the pub with friends. Notice how the story makes you feel when telling it.
Notice people’s reactions to you and your story. This can provide valuable insight into which stories to use and which parts of the story may not be necessary.