A Story for Engagement – Training Magazine Conference Report

As a featured speaker at the 2015 Training Magazine Conference and Expo, this was my second opportunity to interact with the nationwide learning and development community, and here I’m going to connect the dots between my seminar (“A Story for Engagement”) and new learning I received from the other speakers.

The topic is engagement, and given Recruiting Magazine’s  statistic that 75% of the 2015 workforce will be actively seeking other employment due to dissatisfaction with their current workplace, this issue couldn’t be more important for trainers, human resources, and learning & development professionals.

Dean Hyers of SagePresence spoke amongst speakers like Shawn Achor, Michelle Gielan,  and Dana Robinson

Dana Robinson, Michelle Gielan, and Shawn Achor at Training Magazine 2015

The two kickoff speakers, Dana Gaines Robinson and Michelle Gielan, along with keynote speaker Shawn Achor, provided valuable insight that dovetails with SagePresence’s approach to employee engagement.

Dana Gaines Robinson, author of Performance Consulting, spoke her way across the knowing/doing gap, pointing out that many work environments don’t support new skills, so training is wasted because people don’t do what they know unless the environment nurtures it.

In my presentation, I talked about how leaders can create that environmental support by facilitating story creation with teams. This approach spreads team-wide agreement around challenges, goals, and action plans, and can create an environment that nurtures new learning.

Michelle Gielan, a former broadcast journalist, talked about the stories that team members tell on a day-to-day basis within organizations. That storytelling can be positive or negative, and can affect the culture of the team. A study showed that amongst the positive employees found in statistical research, 31% of them remained silent, thus substantially tilting the effect of storytelling inside an organization toward the negative.

Story structure can align positive and negative people in an optimistic point of view because story has a place for both energies. In fact, story doesn’t view positivity and negativity as oppositional at all. It views these two charges as compatible and complementary.

Negativity is very valuable in defining a story beginning, where positivity is sourced in the goal outcome we desire. Together the two define a change, and provide both “push away from” and “pull toward” energy that excites people around actions that move the team forward.

Additionally, SagePresence has been able to find that “silent 31%” who at times remind me of that kid in the choir who stood next to me in the concert but didn’t sing. Personality inventories are a great starting point in finding the people less likely to serve as active voices in the positive “broadcast.”

DiSC profiles identify two personality types who are more private and soft-spoken. Learning and development professionals will want to reach out to those types with storytelling training to help them activate their voices for the greater good.

Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, spoke to the positivity principle by looking at group behavior instead of individual behavior. If you can develop “rational optimism” that recognizes problems while remaining positive, and if you can train positive body language into the team, the resulting “wireless communication” places optimism into the social script of your company culture.

As we’ve already discussed, story has a place for both problems and goals. It’s an ideal tool for rational optimism. Stressors  are the Beginnings and desires are the Endings of story. Actions are Middles. Group-wide participation in story-building creates a sense of ownership in the problem/solution/outcome sequence, which is a way to bring some intentionality to the social scripting that otherwise forms by default.

I was fascinated by Shawn’s “wireless connection” idea, which happens through body language. This takes us from story creation to storytelling, by focusing on aspects of delivery.

Emotions control body language and we train appreciation as an activity to practice and integrate into communication. This alone can represent a wireless communication message that integrates a tone-setting message into the naturally forming social script that defines a corporate culture.

Secondly, building an emotionally intelligent understanding of how to use feelings  – like happy to affirm, sad to share empathy, mad to show seriousness, and a mix of mad and happy to combine urgency with opportunity to drive actions – can liberate your employees to be authentic and free with their emotions, and use those emotions constructively in rationally optimistic story communication.

We’ve seen it happen, where people learn to create trust with appreciation, and tell complete stories with their heads and hearts at the same time, within messages that go toward positive places, amongst fellow team-members who participated in creating them.

Story creation and storytelling: These skills can be key in:

  • Engaging your team
  • Getting new training across the knowing/doing gap
  • Creating a culture that knows to nurture the skills you’re building
  • Encouraging rational optimism
  • Bringing positivity into the culture
  • Freeing your untapped positive team members
  • Building the wireless body language communication that sets cultural tone and forms social scripts intentionality

The 2015 Training Magazine Conference was a great experience, helping me recognize even more clearly the fit for Story inside of the challenges that corporate learning professionals are facing as they work to help leaders maximize the engagement of their teams.

As a member of today’s professional world, what is your experience around engagement? How would you characterize your own engagement level and your own ability to engage the team members around you? Share your thoughts below!


  1. Reuben on February 23, 2015 at 12:30 am

    glad you had a fun learning event!
    Define Storytelling in the context of a business team environment.

    Also, share what if referred to as: “wireless body language”?
    Possibly- discussing the nonverbal language between team members!


    Reuben Elijah

    • Dean Hyers on February 23, 2015 at 11:24 am

      Good question, Ruben. Part of why it’s hard to “define storytelling in the context of a business team environment” is because storytelling plays a role in so many ways. It’s like “communication,” which effects teams in multi-connected ways. Here’s my stab.

      1) Engagement is everyone being on the same page, with motivation, around what the team is (or “should be”) doing. Where does that “on the same page-ness” live? Well, I think in the minds of the team-members.

      2) What is it that lives in the minds of the team-members? I think it’s a story. And stories can be different, or similar, and the more similar they are, the more engaged the team (made up of many individuals with different minds) would be.

      3) Therefore, “story” in a team context would be similar stories in minds of team members – for what they’re doing, why, and what sense of urgency they have around it.

      4) I think “facilitating a story together as a team,” with the simple 3-part structure for a main character, is a straightforward way of getting them on the same page.

      5) Additionally, there are the stories we facilitate, and the daily stories people TELL in a thousand ways. If we all have different stories in mind, the stories we’re telling will also vary – when we talk, send emails, write proposals, lead meetings, etc.– which can breed inconsistency and confusion. If we all have the same stories in our minds, but we start hearing different stories told by others, our “on the same page-ness” erodes, and we end up not on the same page. If we are hearing similar stories, we gradually end up with the same stories in our minds, and those stories guide action toward consistency.

      6) Thus, story would be the aligned ideas in “most minds” of our team, which are spoken and written consistently to maintain “on the same page-ness.”

      7) So I care about actively getting on the same page with story, building storytelling skills to keep everyone talking on the same page and operating similarly, with motivation and engagement.

      As per part two: “Wireless body language,” that was a reference to a speech by Shawn Achor, who says that if you look at group behaviors, instead of individual behavior, you see that groups form community and come to “believe and act” in certain ways. Communities form like beliefs, that seem to hold while you’re inside that community. Shawn referred to this as a “social script,” which forms naturally in any and all groups, often unofficially, or even non-verbally.

      An example of this would be a company who’s social script prohibits criticism. It may be unofficial, part of no written policy, never taught nor spoken of, but the social script just formed to say, “we don’t criticize,” and nobody does, even when they should. So important feedback is never delivered, the teams are always guessing where they stand, and negative feelings are harbored instead of voiced, and a passive/aggressive culture could result where everyone is polite, but nobody knows where they stand or why.

      Shawn’s research showed that a large portion of a “social script,” positive or negative, comes from body language as well as the spoken message, and Shawn was making the analogy to this unspoken communication as being akin to a “wireless connection.” We don’t have wires connecting our minds, but even when we say nothing at all, we’re transmitting and receiving hundreds of silent messages. We don’t have to speak for ideas to exchange, and form the social script that we operate within.

      SagePresence recommends actively engaging (or at least participating) in creating these social scripts. Story would be the overt broadcast – we participate in building stories to align minds, and maintain the stories by telling them.

      Appreciation is our recommendation for managing the “wireless communication of body language.”

      Emotions tend to drive the bus as far as body language goes. Thoughts tend to drive our feelings. So if we actively appreciate, and train active appreciation, our body language is “wirelessly” transmitting messages of care and trust. If we can be transmitting these messages, we are also going to be receiving them, and that triggers feelings of being cared about and trusted, which forms thoughts that reinforce our social script of being a kind, caring, trusting environment.

      Together, the verbal broadcast and the wireless broadcast can create a very engaging team environment established and supported by the power of story and storytelling.

      (Ruben, if this still isn’t answering your question, ask it again and steer me closer to where the concept isn’t clear.)

  2. CrowbarJoe on February 28, 2015 at 2:09 pm

    Your post, and your response to Ruben, reminded me of a conversation I had in the office just yesterday. I was talking with a fellow employee, someone in the same role as me, who had come to the conclusion that the organization’s mission had become solely one of profit generation – that the societal goal had receded to the point of insignificance. This feeling was nearly 180 degrees different from my own point of view; however, I realized in that moment that the only productive way to navigate this conversation was to listen, and to try to understand.

    As you probably suspect, what I heard was my colleague’s story – the whole story, complete with both thoughts and feelings, told completely consistently from an individual viewpoint, with plenty of internal “evidence” of the primacy of the profit motive. I heard this story, and I empathized with it fully, but I also recognized, perhaps for the first time, one of the primary contributing causes. To me, it is simple: those who think primarily in business terms sometimes take the societal mission as much for granted as those who think in terms of that mission sometimes take the business motive for granted. To us, the business folks just don’t seem to “get it;” just as to them (I’m guessing), we just don’t seem to get the profit motive.

    At any rate, my thanks to you, Dean, for helping me realize that this disconnect between their story and our story might possibly be addressed by making it the starting point of the next, perhaps more promising, story. That story (I hope) is about how a great organization makes a significant profit by making a positive difference for a significant number of people.

    • Dean Hyers on March 1, 2015 at 1:13 pm

      Wow, a lot of thoughts are stirred up by your comment. One of my favorite ideas here is that two groups are speaking the wrong language to each other, asking why “they” don’t get it.

      If I’m motivated by the social difference and another is motivated by the profit difference, could we not align and engage by incorporating both into the story.

      Interestingly, I’m hearing more and more about the movement toward “consciousness evolution” of companies (called “conscious capitalism” http://www.consciouscapitalism.org/).

      Apparently, for the first time in history, the AVERAGE consumer is paying attention to, and will choose the products of, companies showing higher-consciousness and responsibility over companies who don’t, and that companies can’t afford not to focus simultaneously on profit and societal mission.

      Inside those companies will be people who care more about one than the other, but your idea of aligning the two is quite useful to recognize.

  3. Bob Gately on March 4, 2015 at 6:01 pm

    Hello Dean,

    80% of employees self-report that they are not engaged.
    80% of managers are ill suited to effectively manage people.
    The two 80 percents are closely related.

    Employers keep hiring the wrong people to be their managers and then they wonder why they have so few successful, long-term engaged employees.

    Successful employees have all three of the following success predictors while unsuccessful employee lack one or two and usually it is Job Talent that they lack.
    1. Competence
    2. Cultural Fit
    3. Job Talent

    Employers do a…
    A. GREAT job of hiring competent employees, about 95%
    B. good job of hiring competent employees who fit the culture, about 70%
    C. POOR job of hiring competent employees who fit the culture and who have a talent for the job, about 20%

    Identifying the talent required for each job seems to be missing from talent and management discussions. If we ignore any of the three criteria, our workforce will be less successful with higher turnover than if we do not ignore any of the three criteria.
    1. Competence
    2. Cultural Fit
    3. Job Talent

    There are many factors to consider when hiring and managing talent but first we need to define talent unless “hiring talent” means “hiring employees.” Everyone wants to hire for and manage talent but if we can’t answer the five questions below with specificity, we can’t hire or manage talent effectively.
    1. How do we define talent?
    2. How do we measure talent?
    3. How do we know a candidate’s talent?
    4. How do we know what talent is required for each job?
    5. How do we match a candidate’s talent to the talent demanded by the job?

    Most managers cannot answer the five questions with specificity but the answers provide the framework for hiring successful employees and creating an engaged workforce.

    Talent is not found in resumes or interviews or background checks or college transcripts.

    Talent must be hired since it cannot be acquired or imparted after the hire.

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