What do the Walt Disney Company, LinkedIn, and Avery Dennison all have in common? They have all had the privilege to work with storyteller and communicator, Christopher Swan. But Christopher’s previous work experience isn’t even the most interesting (or impressive) thing about him. On his podcast, My Big Story, he interviews fascinating people doing good work across the USA. Christopher also helps organizations and their audiences find deeper connections in their life and work, as a communications consultant.

 

Chuck Gose: How the heck are you Christopher?

Christoper Swan: I’m doing great actually! About to end the season of my show and I’m feeling so good.

Chuck: That’s amazing. So for those that don’t know, what is “my show?”

Christopher: It’s My Big Story with Christopher Swan podcast, where I travel the US interviewing uniquely amazing people about their big stories.


Chuck:
So this isn’t “your” big story but “their” big stories.

I know this can be like picking a favorite child, but do you have a favorite story?

Christopher: First let me clarify the big story.

The title is actually a meta-theme: the big stories of my guests and my big story evolves as I create the show. The audiences gets to listen as it happens.

Now a favorite story, that is tough. I did really love hearing about Daniel Trust, surviving the Rwandan genocide and creating an amazing life afterward.

 


Chuck:
What prompted you to create this platform to tell these big stories? Where does the passion come from?

Christopher: It all started when I was feeling a little lost in my career, wanting to do more, to push further. I realized I could just go meet people that were “doing life” great and discover answers.

Long story short, the show evolved to tell even bigger stories that connect to my passion for spreading discussions and ideas about diversity and inclusion. And of course, none of this would be possible without my years in communications.

Chuck: And that’s how we first met. Before starting your current journey, you were an in-house internal communicator at some pretty amazing companies.

Christopher: That’s all true.

I think of my years at Disney as growing professionally, learning internal communications. Then trying different industries with Avery Dennison and LinkedIn. All of them offered wonderful adventures and opportunities.

"Give more time and focus on the voice of employees."

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Chuck: Do you miss that life?

Christopher: I don’t, and here’s why: I still work with organizations, big and small shaping communications and stories. In fact, a goal of my current show is to also help organizations tell similar stories.

Also, I love the freedom of what I’m creating.

Chuck: You chose a podcast as your primary platform for telling these stories. How do you feel about companies using podcasts for internal comms? For telling their own big stories?

Christopher: I think it can make a lot of sense.

However, it isn’t, or shouldn’t be a one size fits all approach, because employees are not a one size audience. That can mean trying brief episodes or different angles.

But podcasting does let leaders and corporate folks get intimate with their employees and that can move people.

Chuck: And when you’re telling internal stories about employees, they should move people.

So I like the idea of creating a storytelling campaign but letting the story decide the format.

Or should the person who owns the story decide what format it takes?

Christopher: I’d probably lean toward the story deciding the format.

I’d rather let the storyteller/owner shine and help them do that in the format and style that makes sense.

"Stop when you hear things you don’t know, and ask more about it."

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Chuck: I think sometimes it’s the comfort zone of the storyteller, too. I know you can encourage people to branch out, but sometimes the stories are best in a setting where the storyteller is most comfortable.

So now that you’ve been doing My Big Story for a while, what’s next?

Christopher: Season 3 of the show will be coming in the fall and it’ll bring a fun big surprise.

Then, I’m launching a companion piece/website to help people use their inspiration (from the show) and their power for good.

And finally, I hope to offer limited series versions of My Big Story, partnering with organizations.

Chuck: What have you learned now from doing My Big Story that you wish you would have learned when you were an internal communicator?

Christopher: Give more time and focus on the voice of employees.

In internal communications, the communicator creates so much of the message. But if we listen more, we can let the voices that should shine, be heard.

Chuck: I know first-hand that a lot of communicators struggle with listening.

Correction, people do in general. It’s more that we’re waiting for our turn to talk instead of listening.

How have you listened more or differently to uncover these stories?

Christopher: It really started when I realized how much I didn’t know.

Stop when you hear things you don’t know and ask more about it. Don’t let those things simply pass by. Stay humble and understand that we always have a lot to learn.

"When we stop and listen, and ask, we will become better at our jobs and better employees."

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Chuck: There’s a pressure to be in the know. But there’s also a lot to be had from vulnerability and admitting what you don’t know and asking to learn more.

And it’s not just about learning to be better at your job or be a better employee.

Christopher: Actually, when we stop, listen, and ask, we will become better at our jobs and better employees. It’s digging deeper that gets us the right answers.

Chuck: What I hear from communicators is that they don’t know how to find the good stories. And we know that simply listening is one way to uncover them.

Any other recommendations?

Christopher: Stay curious about people!

Get out of your office, off the intranet, and go meet people from all over the company. Have coffee, lunch, or whatever. Simply connecting with more people genuinely will unearth ideas and stories we didn’t even know to ask.

"Simply connecting with more people genuinely will unearth ideas and stories we didn’t even know to ask."

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Chuck:
Another struggle communicators have is not knowing how to tell a story.

Do you have any tricks or advice on how to get started?

Christopher: The first thing I always start with is asking what and why.

What is happening here? Why did they do it? Why does it matter?

The more questions we ask, even as we’re researching, the more we’ll understand the important landmarks of a story. Then, start to stitch together all of the answers in an order that makes sense for the audience.

Chuck: Do you ever worry about being formulaic with storytelling?

Christopher: All of the time! I think about that as I’m working on each episode.

Here’s what I discovered: If I let each story unfold without forcing it into a formula, then the unexpected can happen.

Once I go to produce it, I find that I have different elements than the last story I produced. The trick is to not try to capture a story in a set formula.

Chuck: That’s great advice because I think a lot of communicators try to focus on the quickest method and not always the best method.

Christopher: Yes, and an example of that is always using the same questions when interviewing an employee. Don’t!

Use your standard questions as a guideline to get to know the person. But then ask about the stuff you’re hearing in return. That’s where the story will show up.

Watch our Internal Comms Storytelling webinar here.


Chuck:
That’s a bit why we started Chuck Chats.

I was tired of the same questions being asked over and over. What I don’t think a lot people realize is that this is a real conversation, and not pre-prepared.

Christopher: I also think the audience is bored of hearing the same questions too, not just the interviewer.

Chuck: Makes it more fun this way and gives both the interviewer and interviewee freedom to take the conversation in any direction they want.

And I think that’s an issue sometimes with corporate storytelling. We have this preconceived notion of exactly what story we want to tell before even having the conversation.

Christopher: Yes. I especially think corporate storytelling thinks of itself as something different than all other storytelling. It’s not. That can get in the way.

We want to focus on the uniqueness of the stories, just like we would see in a great show or podcast externally.

Chuck: Let’s say a communicator wants to tell a story but is scared to. Maybe they are risk averse or worry about repercussions. What would you encourage them to do?

Christopher: First, make sure whatever you’re thinking about will fit within the culture of the organization. It’s okay to push boundaries a little. But not with a giant leap.

Then, push past the fear a little and have faith by starting small. Test the waters. Tell a story that won’t have the entire company looking at it. Maybe do something that a smaller group can see and appreciate.

If it lands well, do something a little bigger next time.

Chuck: I feel what’s missing from a lot of corporate storytelling is letting listeners/readers/viewers know who the villain is.

Do you think a villain is necessary for a good story?

Christopher: A villain does make for a good story. But I also think that word may create some confusion.

I love a great underdog story, and these work well for employee stories. Now, we could call the circumstances this person overcame the villain. The point is to show an arc, and that can show up in different ways.

Chuck: Such as?

Christopher: In this same example, let’s say the employee was trying to grow their career. The problem they encountered was a lack of knowledge, training, etc. They enrolled in various classes, joined a mentoring group, all encouraged and paid for by the company. So there was no villain.

But there is a challenge.

Of course, there is more to the story. But it shows us how the employee can overcome a roadblock and succeed.

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Chuck:
So let’s say someone made it through this whole chat and they’ve said to themselves, “I have a big story.” How do they go about telling their own stories?

Christopher: The hardest part is just starting. I tell people often, just go do it. Start a blog. Or share it at community storytelling event. Or record a video and put it online. The how doesn’t really matter.

Chuck: I’ve seen some really great examples of people starting with simply a LinkedIn post. Or even on Instagram. But like you said, get started.

Let’s wrap this up the way we do every Chuck Chat, except with a twist. Instead of focusing solely on internal comms, I want you to share your thoughts about storytelling in emojis only.  

Christopher: 🎤😆😳🎥

Chuck: Thanks for being on Chuck Chats!

Christopher: Thanks Chuck. This was terrific!