How stories can change lives: my own personal journey

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2016 was a year of writing stories. In December I completed an in-house publication: Unfinished Business – 11 Voices of Success at VicRoads and through this process met a group of delightful, talented and inspirational women at the top of their game.

Which led me to reflect on the power of stories, some of which are embedded in my earliest childhood memories.

I’m back there now – six years old and tucked in my bed, with dad about to read me stories about Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel – frightening stories that taught girls they would only live happily ever after if they were good girls and adhered to female stereotypes around beauty, gentleness and obedience. Though it is many decades later, I can still feel the way my heart beat in my chest because, although I didn’t have language for it at the time, my six-year old self knew violence when I encountered it, even if it was in a fairytale.

Stories pack a huge punch. Research, trends, facts and numbers – they give our message credibility. It’s true that numbers can persuade, but they don’t necessarily stick in our minds as grippingly as a story, and on their own don’t necessarily motivate us to change. Stories, on the other hand, take a message from people’s heads to their hearts. Stories move people on two levels, emotionally and intellectually. Our values and beliefs are formed, tested and forged through stories and they inform our behaviour, motivating us to strive that much harder to reach a goal or realise a vision. If you observe the way great leaders communicate with others, you’ll notice they are ardent storytellers.

These days I am inspired reading memoirs of women at the top of their game. I laughed and cried throughout Magda Szubanski’s heart-rending memoir, Reckoning and it helped me make sense of some of my own childhood experiences. I was moved by Anna Bligh’s practical and optimistic biography, Through The Wall: Reflections on Leadership, Love and Survival. I couldn’t put down Christine Nixon’s book on her experiences as the first woman Chief Commissioner of Police in Victoria, in Fair Copand want to be as confident and outspoken as she. I was outraged reading about Julia Gillard’s struggles and challenges as our first female Prime Minister in My Story and want women to claim their rightful place on the leadership table, free of misogyny and prejudice.

Stories fire our imagination and help shift our thinking to new possibilities. Women tell me how they are encouraged reading stories of how other women succeeded against the odds, in my two earlier publications Sideways to The Top and Career Interrupted. These stories give them hope and understanding that there is a way through our own difficulties and challenges, after all.

I’m happy to report that I moved on from Grimm’s fairy tales. At a certain point I stopped relating to Cinderella’s tiny feet  (I grew into a shoe size 41 in my teenage years). In the 1970s I became enthralled by the comic books and TV shows around Wonder woman, and loved watching the first Princess Leila as a heroine in Star Wars. Both women are beautiful, but also capable and resourceful, fearless fighters in the war for justice, love, peace and gender equality. Gradually these messages began to influence my earliest feminism.

I was a good girl once, striving to conform to the stereotypes in fairy tales around how to be obedient and compliant. It didn’t work when it mattered. Now I prefer to fight for what I believe is right. Stories of struggle and triumph paved the pathway that led me here; facts and figures were just the scenery along the way.

Why not cultivate the art of storytelling in your own leadership style and see what happens?

Norah Breekveldt

Concept image with What is Your Story printed on an old typewriter



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