Unleashing Your Voice Blog


This is the second blog post in my three-part series on the who/why/what of branding, professional/leadership development and team/culture building. 

Last month, I had the amazing privilege of working with 1,500 educator-leaders at the National Education Association’s annual leadership summit.  These are educators who do even more than serve students in their classrooms and their communities—as if that wasn’t enough!  Every one of them has also taken on a local, state and/or national role as an activist and mobilizer for students and their inalienable rights to a great public education.  They’re as dedicated a group as I’ve ever seen.advocacy word written on wood block. Wooden alphabet on a blue background.

The work with NEA was designed to help attendees get in touch with a deeply authentic sense of self, and to claim a voice that leveraged what was most special, unique and different about each of them.  It was the first time I’d ever tried such a large-group story typing process.  And yes, it was daunting to think about how we could shape an experience that would engage 1,500 people.

I shouldn’t have worried.  This was exactly the right group for the work, and I think that’s because they have a fierce draw to the Why of their storyline—there’s a quest, a purpose, a reason for being that drives them.  We just needed to help them understand the nature of their Who (a strong individualized sense of best self) and how it aligned with their Why (the fuel that energizes and motivates them) so that a personal narrative could start taking recognizable shape.  Their conviction and passion took over from there.

Advocacy is at the Heart of Your Why

You couldn’t find better folks than the ones who are part of the NEA. There’s no question that their organization’s very heart beats to the drum of advocacy.  I had a little epiphany as I worked with them, too, and this is it:  We all need to be advocates.  I don’t think there are any exceptions.

  • Any organization that wants to build an inspired workforce, fiercely loyal customer base or highly engaged stakeholder group of any kind needs to start thinking of themselves as advocates for something
  • So does any leader who wants to build a productive, committed team
  • So does any professional who wants to make a meaningful, successful, enduring contribution with their work

Advocacy is at the very heart of purpose.  It articulates what you’re for (and isn’t that a relief in a world where we seem to spend all of our time talking about what we’re against?).  It motivates you to keep on going despite the challenges.  It builds common ground.  It defines your quest and shapes a storyline that draws other people in.  And here’s the great news:  every one of us can be a powerful advocate, and you don’t have to be saving the world to show up that way. You just need to answer one powerful question:

  • What are you deeply, meaningfully, intensely, vociferously, no-holds-barred for in the world?

The answer could be laughter or self expression or tolerance or chocolate (okay, the right kind of chocolate actually can save the world, can’t it)?

Story type can help you answer that question, because knowing who you are offers profound clues about your passion and conviction—and those are the key shapers of advocacy, purpose and Why.  It’s the Jester who lives for laughter and joy; the Creator who’s compelled to stand up for everyone’s right to tell their own story; the Everyperson who holds diversity most dearly and fiercely.  Once you’re clear on Who you are as the protagonist of an individual or collective story, an inevitable narrative arc begins to develop that takes you directly to insights about your quest, your purpose, your advocacy and your Why.  So if you want a great brand, team, culture or leadership identity, remember the following:

  • Why provides the motivating, energizing fuel that can inspire you or anyone inside your organization to get out of bed in the morning and keep moving throughout the day. A purposeless career, team or organizational life often ends up feeling devoid of meaning or a sense of aliveness.  A purposeful career, team or organizational life provides motivational drivers that keep people committed and contributory.
  • Why helps you inspire and involve others as well. Sharing a powerful purpose actually invite others to define their own best selves or higher callings—and can help them align with something aspirational about you or your organization that forges loyalty and builds deeper engagement.
  • Why helps shape a voice or brand that others relate to on a visceral, emotional level. That’s where relationships are forged and sustained, and where lasting value is created and built.

So once you’ve established your Who—and cast yourself in a meaningful, enduring role that captures your best self—move on to your Why.  Ask yourself what your protagonist most wants to advocate for and take in that energy and motivation.  Then, get moving on your quest!

In my next post, I’ll talk about the happy ending to your story—the promise you’re willing to make, and the outcome you’re committed to delivering for others.

 

This is the first blog post in a three-part series on the who/why/what of branding, professional/leadership development and team/culture building. 

Let me start with full disclosure.  Simon Sinek’s Start with Why treatise is one of the top 10 most watched Ted Talks of all time.  And I think Simon Sinek is great.  I refer my clients to his Ted Talk all the time.  Essentially, Sinek says that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”  Why is all about your purpose and your reason for being, according to Sinek, which he thinks is way more interesting than what it is you actually do.  He also says if you know your Why, you’ll figure out the What and then the How.

I totally agree with Simon, except for one thing—he starts a question too late for me.  Instead of starting with their WManWithColorshy, I think people and groups who want to understand themselves and/or compel others need to start with their Who.  Articulating who you really are is the key to finding your passion, your conviction, your authenticity and your voice.  It’s also the foundation on which trust, relationship and engagement are built.  That’s because we understand ourselves and each other through the framework of narratives—and stories always unfold in a who, why and what sequence.  Here are the three components that shape any great storyline:

  • Who: A protagonist (the best self of an individual or team that creates the impetus for a narrative based on something deeply true about their identity)
  • Why: A quest (the protagonist’s purpose, which ultimately is challenged by a conflict that stops its fulfillment)
  • What: A happy ending (the protagonist’s promise, or the ultimate conflict resolution the protagonist can enable or produce).

Using Your Who to Build Motivation, Engagement and Trust

Every truly developed individual, team or organization needs to explore and articulate who they are, why they need to exist and what they’ll do or deliver as a result.  The answers to those questions can shape an identity that makes compelling sense of us to ourselves and others—and frame a guidance system for our beliefs and actions that keeps us true to that essential sense of self.  Consider these other reasons for starting with Who instead of Why:

  • Who is a two-dimensional question—it makes us look at the dynamic combination of strengths and values that forge a best self. The protagonists in great stories always succeed because their most authentic strengths and values work in tandem, not as isolated parts.  The combination of genuine strengths and values makes any protagonist more credible, more deeply empowered and ultimately more likely to be successful.  This step is also the foundation in developing an inspiring leadership or professional presence.
  • Who is the foundation for answering the Why and the What of our existence. It’s really tough to know why you’re here if you don’t know who you are and how you want to be.  Many people I talk to say they don’t know what their passion or purpose is—often, it’s because they’ve skipped an exploration of their own character and capacity as a first step.
  • Who makes it much easier to tell our own story to others. My organizational clients often tell me they don’t know how to tell their own story well.  Any great story begins with characters that everyone can understand and relate to—so casting ourselves or our organizations in a role and/or locating ourselves in a storyline that conveys who we really are is the first step in knowing and sharing our real story.  It’s also the foundation of a great brand.
  • Who fuels positive intrinsic motivation and engagement. Knowing who we are can breathe more vivid life into everything we do, motivating and empowering us in our work and in our worlds.  When organizations help their people do this—and leverage the contribution quotient that’s discovered—true employee engagement can be developed.  Great teams and cultures can be built on this kind of foundation.
  • Who builds authenticity and trust. Customers or other stakeholders are also more likely to engage with organizations when their authentic strengths and values are clear.  It’s critical to remember that no relationship moves forward without trust (including the one we have with ourselves).

So, what are the best ways to find and express your Who?  The following steps apply to professionals/leaders, teams or organizations:

Step #1:  Cast yourself in an authentic individual or organizational role.  You can start that process using the free Professional Strengths, Values and Story Survey, which measures how much you relate to 12 universally well-known characters in stories that have recurred throughout time.  Here’s the link:   http://www.storybranding.com/take-the-svss-survey/.

Step #2:  Articulate your story-based strengths and values.  Once you’ve started working with a character, you need to understand your own way of expressing and living its core attributes.  Make a list of the specific strengths you bring to the table because you’re like this, and the related values that matter most to you when it comes to professional success, fulfillment and contribution.

Step #3:  Create a defining identity statement.   To anchor your sense of self, you can create a statement that articulates the real nature of who you are.  Here’s a template to fill out:

At my/our best, we’re most like a (fill in the character) because: _____________________________.

If you don’t want to work with the SVSS to establish a character, here’s another line you can work with:

At my/our best, who we really are is:___________________________________________________.

In my next post, I’ll talk about building on Who to get at your Why.  Meanwhile, feel free to share who you are in the comments!

Cindy Atlee is a Creator type who loves to help clients understand and express who they really are in the world.  She’s the principal of The Storybranding Group and co-author of the Professional Strengths, Values & Story Survey (SVSS).  Cindy also trains coaches and consultants to work with the story typing framework; find out about her next training from March 29-31 here:  http://bit.do/March2017StoryTypeTraining

I have this recurring dream where a large group of people I’m working with are mostly milling around in this very large, efotolia_120436866ntirely concrete building. All of them have come to me with important messages or ideas that they started out really excited to develop and share–but something is stopping them from doing that. Instead of working, they keep going back inside and sitting down in one of the building’s many small, empty, windowless rooms.

The rooms have thick, strong walls that don’t allow any sound to travel through. They’re gray and colorless, with nothing in them to fuel inspiration or imagination. They look a lot like cells, except for one thing. The rooms are entirely open in front, with no barrier at all to prevent anyone from walking right out and back into the world. Most of the people in my dream stay right where they are, though–inside these rooms with their ideas inside themselves, unexpressed.

It doesn’t take a dream analyst to interpret what’s going on for me here! My vision is for everyone to unleash a voice in the world–and to work in places and on teams where it’s heard and appreciated. I’ve always thought this dream was meant to remind me of what it looks like and feels like when that doesn’t happen.

Why don’t we let our voices be heard?

I never expected more concrete business information from a dream, though, but that’s what happened recently when I had a much longer version of it. This time, I was able to start asking people who were still in the rooms what was going on and why they weren’t excited about sharing their messages any longer. I always heard one of three things:
  • Some were deliberately reining themselves in–deciding what they have to say is too big or too bold so they have to scale it back, and killing their enthusiasm in the process.
  • Others had given up because they didn’t have a “perfect” message–they’d tinkered and tinkered with in, and ended up stripping most of the real life out of what they wanted to share.
  • A few people had sought out and taken too much input from other people–now they didn’t even recognize their own ideas or feel much of the passion that had fueled them in the first place.
So, I woke up and realized I needed to share what I learned from this dream. And before this turns into a bummer of a blog post, let’s flip what I found out was holding others back into really positive lessons for getting your own voice heard:
  • Lesson #1: Let your biggest, boldest ideas shape what you share. Those big ideas are what motivate you to act; get them out there and into the world if you want others to pay attention.
  • Lesson #2: Don’t overthink what you’re burning to say. The most important part of starting a dialog with real life in it means getting the conversation going.
  • Lesson #3: Find your own authentic point of view. Sure, it’s nice to know what other people think. But it’s your own point of view that sets you apart and gets you heard (even when others don’t agree with everything you’re saying).

I need to share more boldly, too

So, it turns out this dream wasn’t meant just for my clients. There’s a powerful message for me in here as well (after all, I was the dreamer!). I’ve got some ideas of my own that I may not share often enough or loudly enough, one for each area of my work life (branding, employee engagement & team/culture building, and leadership/professional development. Here they are (and look for blog posts on each topic in the coming weeks):
  • Branding: Great branding and messaging starts out as inside job. It tells your story in a way that invites others in–and its main objective is to create resonant aliveness with others.
  • Team/culture building and employee engagement: Workplaces need to start letting people bring their whole selves to work. Mostly, we let people tell half their story at work, and it’s the half about performance and what they do (not presence and who they are).
  • Leadership development: We need to start looking for authentic advantage in our workplaces-not competitive advantage. Competitive advantage says “I need to move as fast as I can and outmaneuver someone else and by doing that I’ll win.” Authentic advantage says “I have gifts and talents and ideas and intuitions that other people don’t, and if I contribute them we all get to win.”
Do you have a big idea to share? An unfiltered message? A passionate point of view? Join the ranks of the self expressed and tell me about it!  Post a comment or send me a tweet @storybrander.

And if you haven’t taken the Professional Strengths, Values & Story Survey yet, check it out here to find out who you are in the story you’re most moved to unleash in the world: http://www.storybranding.com/take-the-svss-survey/.

One of my favorite stories is about an apocryphal tribe where villagers say every child has a unique and special song. During a pregnancy, the mother-to-be and her friends go on their equivalent of a planning retreat–spending time in the woods until the unborn child has “taught” them his or her song. At birth, the entire village greets the newborn with that song, and it’s repeated on every milestone occasion. In this society, it’s said there is no legal system. When someone is suspected of wrongdoing, the tribe simply surrounds that villager and repeatedly sings the birth song–believing that no one goes astray if they remember who they really are.Handsome businessman with guitar singing in office

I love that story because it says so much about human identity.  It also says a lot about the potential power of branding.  If you give voice to something that’s deeply true about yourself or your organization, and that others can recognize as compellingly true for them as well, you can start to stand for something that’s indelible and uniquely you.

At the heart of a brand is an identity that’s real and matters. I believe every organization, every individual–every product and service–has a a unique and animating presence that defines what they’re meant to stand for in the world. (Okay, is anyone humming “Make Your Own Kind of Music” yet?).  Maybe this makes me a branding Pollyanna–and I’ll certainly admit to being a branding Idealist—but wouldn’t the world be a better place if people and organizations had an authentic sense of identity that shapes how they show up in the world?

So, how do you develop a “song sheet” for yourself or your organization?  Since no one is going out in the woods to find it for you, you’re going to have to do what Jennifer Warnes sings about in a song I often turn to for inspiration: go to “The Well” (listen on YouTube here: http://bit.ly/2chXhfp).  If you look deeply enough, here are three things you’ll find in your personal or organizational “well” that add up to a brand voice worth hearing:

1.  Know your own story. You can’t sing a brand to life if you don’t understand the story you’re meant to tell. Your story captures what’s most meaningful and motivating to you—and what’s most likely to draw others to you as well.  If you want to explore this further, take the free story typing survey on my website.  It will identify one of 12 great characters you or your organization is most like: http://www.storybranding.com/take-the-svss-survey/).

Defining a story is based on a startingly simple but powerful question:  Who are you?  We don’t ask this question enough of ourselves, and we certainly don’t ask it enough of each other.  In most workplaces, we spend a lot more time on another question:  What can you do?  The problem is that question shifts much of our focus to enhancing performance in ways that encourage people to leave their most important gifts off the table.  When we focus on performance to the exclusion of presence, we leave half of ourselves behind (and much of what energizes and activates us).

So finding an empowering story isn’t just about branding (personal or organizational).  It’s also a foundational component for developing leaders, engaging employees, building teams and creating cultures where people want to participate and contribute.  That’s because defining an authentic storyline captures what people have both the capacity and the will to do (and be).

2.  Explore your own unique combination of strengths and values. Your brand “song” should always be based on what’s best and most distinctive about you—the strengths that shape what you can truly offer the world and the values that connect you with others.  This is what makes for great stories in the first place.  The characters in them use something they’re good at (their strengths) to realize something that matters to them (their values).  It’s this dynamic combination that fascinates us and imbues a great story with both meaning and motivation.  Brands that are built on this pattern do the very same thing.

3.  Articulate your purpose and your promise. We all need inspiration and purpose to keep us invested in our journeys.  Purpose captures our very reason for being; it offers the fuel to enliven and motivate us.  So, after you’ve answer the question of who you are, you also need to explore why you’re here at all.

Finding your purpose is an inspiring and empowering journey.  But there’s another one question that has to be answered if you want to activate your purpose in the world:  What makes anyone else care?  Every great brand needs to get to the happy ending; the outcome you can always be counted on to deliver that matters to someone else.  It’s the energetic fuel that helps you engage others.

Ultimately, a great brand “song” captures your passion and purpose in a way that’s so alive others can feel it, see it and hear it.  If you want to create a brand that’s both inspiring and authentic, listen to yourself and also listen to the things that move you.  Then deliver on a promise that helps those you’re meant to serve drink from the well also.  As Jennifer Warnes sings, “The wild world is speaking, let’s go to the well.”

Who do you get out of bed in the morning to be? This isn’t the first question that most of my clients expect me to ask.  It may not even be something they’ve ever thought much about.  But if you want to really unleash your voice in the world—if you want to be heard and seen and appreciated for something that will get other people interested in you—it’s the first question you need to answer.

Traditional branding strategy says you should start by understanding your target audience–and knowing what they care about is a critical step if you want your message to resonate.  First, though, you need to understand who you are and what you’re passionate about offering up to the world so that you can have a vibrant, vital, authentic, arresting conversation about it.

Defining and articulating the essence of who you are is what unleashes your authentic voice, and allows you to engage others at the human level where real relationships grow and flourish. It’s what connects others to you in a lasting way, gives life and shape to what you have to offer, and provides a foundation for inspiring messages. When you understand yourself, you create the kind of zeal that gets attention. Your success can then be enhanced by shaping what you say in ways that are relevant to others.

What’s the best way to do this? It’s all about seeing your organization or yourself in the context of a meaningful and motivating narrative.

Doing that allows you to take the three most critical steps for unleashing your voice:

  • Step one: Defining and sharing the great story you’re moved to tell in the world
  • Step two: Fully stepping in to the role that helps others most understand and connect with your core purpose
  • Step three: Shifting your communications away from informational and promotional content to messages that connect and motivate

So if you’re a non-profit, it’s great for me to know you have 452 programs for helping those you support—but you won’t touch my heart until I see you as a Caregiver who recognizes and develops the potential in all. If you’re a government agency, I do want to know that you have the world’s largest database of critical scientific information—but I won’t feel a strong connection until I understand you as a Sage who uses that information to answer tough questions affecting my quality of life. If you’re a food manufacturer, it’s great to know that your nutrition bars have eight superfood ingredients—but I won’t feel much loyalty until I see you as a Hero on a mission to reshape healthy eating in this country.

Caregivers, Sages, Heroes—they’re all characters in great stories that people love to her and share. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, we all have an essential story we were born to tell that features a compelling character. The strengths and values of these characters can shape our organizational or individual purpose, and give us the courage to stand up and stand out in the world.

I get out of bed in the morning to be a Creator. When I build my business and my professional life around Creator gifts and talents, I’m at my most effective, productive and fulfilled. When I’m acting on my Creator mission—to help others understand and express who they are in the world—I’ve got a lot to talk about. Often, I find that the right people, partners and clients are listening. So, how about you? Who are you in the story you most want to tell?