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Spotlight on Corporate Storytelling: Interview with Jeff Frenster
Justina Wu

We caught up with Jeff Frenster, one of our corporate clients and later a veteran of our stage, to find out what he thought about Beyond Borders Storytelling's corporate offerings. Here's what he had to say.

BBS: Last year we trained your employees on storytelling and prepared some of them to tell personal stories in front of 300 coworkers at your company's annual meeting. What was the impetus for reaching out to us about what you wanted to do? What made you choose us?

JF: In my role of employee relations, my primary responsibility is the development and maintenance of the firm's culture. Our managing partner, Brian, and I have lived in the space of storytelling as part of how we onboard new associates as well as [how we conduct] our annual meetings. We'd been going to a conference called Wisdom 2.0 in San Francisco for the past four years. Those things made us feel that storytelling was a really important cultural touchstone for us, a way of passing on important aspects of the culture as new people came in. But also, we wanted to promote it as a way of communicating about non-cultural things, and potentially improve our effectiveness with clients.

Brian knew Megan, your co-founder. We went to one of your story jams and one of your workshops, and we were very impressed with the format and how people's stories developed. So we felt it might be a mutual benefit for both you folks and us to try to bring this program into the workplace. Many people knew nothing about what it was or were even skeptical. But coming out of the annual meeting, it really lit a fire under people around the whole concept of storytelling. Some departments have [even] incorporated short storytelling into part of their regular get-togethers.

BBS: Tell me a little more about that.

JF: We have at least two groups where, to build trust within the group, they have a forum where they provide the opportunity in a small group setting for people to share stories. I think that has really helped kind of build a rapport amongst the people in that group, because you naturally develop more trust when you feel that you have a safe place to share a story, particularly if the story is along a more intimate or personal line. And I know that the partners in charge of those departments are very big fans of storytelling.

BBS: Did the results of the annual meeting and the workshops we did for you meet your expectations?

JF: Speaking honestly, in no case did they not meet our expectations, and in a number of ways it exceeded it. The experience and the undeniable impact that hearing from storytellers had on the firm cannot be overstated. And subsequently it shows up in other ways. For example, this year in our annual meeting our theme was Find your Why, and we gave everyone in the firm the opportunity to record a short video about why they are at the firm. And ultimately about twenty people did that, and we showed all of them at the annual meeting. It didn't come with a capital S label, but in fact many were short stories about what those peoples' experience had been at the firm and why they were here. So rather than the managing partner talking about potentially why people should be here, it was a tremendously powerful format for people to hear from their peers instead.




BBS: Were you nervous or skeptical at any point along the way when we were doing this event for you?

JF: Yes. I was concerned about two things. One was whether people would be open enough to what was then a brand new idea or concept at the firm, to actually be willing to give it a chance. After all, we're dealing with an accounting firm, where the general rule is to be much more in the thinking space than the feeling space. The essence of storytelling is really about feelings. And so there's a built-in challenge of, how do you get people whose day job involves being very rigorous and fact-based and analytical to channel and get in touch with their own feelings? That's a non-trivial exercise. And second, would people be willing, even if they invested in the training, to go up in front of their entire professional community and bare their souls? That was the most impressive thing, and something that we definitely had trepidation about beforehand. Are we going to have people [tell stories] and are they going to be able to rise to the occasion, given that this is not their day job?

BBS: So what were some of the things that you did to persuade people that this would be fun and beneficial and something that wouldn't feel like torture?

JF: You folks were very helpful coming to the practices. We gave them a vision, although the reality actually exceeded the vision, of how it would fit into the theme for the day and how it would impact their colleagues, their fellow members of the firm community. So kind of like, this really does matter, it's not like a freak show type thing where we're going to put you up there and see if you're able to make it through. It's going to be an amazing experience. The audience will 100% be appreciative of what it takes for you to be up there and will be behind you. So it won't be crickets. It won't be people throwing stuff up on stage. Everyone is going to say, like, wow, I could probably never do like that. And that's what we offered people, the combination of, it's really going to make a difference, and more than you can imagine, people will be in your corner.

BBS: And what kind of feedback did you get from your storytellers after they went through the process?

JF: Every [storyteller] had people who wanted to talk to them about, hey, I can really relate to your story or here's a similar experience that I went through. Just the validation and the number of new connections that occurred because of it really can't be overstated. So I think everyone felt in big or small ways that at a minimum it changed their work life, if not bigger than that for sure.

BBS: Do you have any examples of specific things that people said to you, the storytellers in particular, about their experience?

JF: My colleague Kenny told a very emotional story, you could argue maybe even the quintessential American story, about coming to the US when he was a young kid with his mom. And it deeply impacted him, he said, to be able to share that, and totally changed the way particularly people in his group viewed him. Because they didn't all necessarily know what he had experienced, and it subsequently allowed them to have much more sympathy towards many decisions he made which are really focused on his mom. And people get that, in a way that they wouldn't if they hadn't heard this story. Which is what we were really hoping, to kind of see people in a different way. They now know about this event that really shaped who he was.

And there's another lady who told a story and it's made her much more, in her view, accessible to the staff. She's a very senior person, and she shows up in her role most of the time as much more confident or take charge, which is appropriate for her role. And yet people who were there, even very young staff, feel more connected to her, and have more open conversations with her because of the fact that she shared a very personal story about when she was growing up. So it showed a side that literally no one at work sees. And so that was really a game-changer for her.

BBS: Do you have any advice for those who are interested in integrating storytelling into their corporate culture?

JF: I think it's really important for members of management, the more senior the better, to lead by example, because that will really encourage others. There's no doubt that when a person of influence can take a brave step, what I would call emotionally intimate, it will provoke a reciprocal response in other people. It's a really tall order to say, for example as a CEO, hey I want our very youngest people to do something that I myself haven't done yet or demonstrated how much I personally believe in it. I think our managing partner Brian is a master storyteller and that really helped to gain some traction because that's his chosen format for communicating with the firm. It can't be, okay we're just rolling this out, so who's interested? It needs to be a personal pet project of senior management.

BBS: What was most helpful to your employees about the training we provided to prepare them to tell stories?

JF: How structured [your workshop] was. You literally started people with, okay, here's the basic arc of a good story. So let's talk about it and let's roll up our sleeves and let's practice the whole art of how do you first think about something that might be a story, and then how do you tease the story out of that in a scientific way. I think the thing that really gave people a safety net was, okay there's a real process to this whole thing. It takes awhile. It's not necessarily simple but there's a process you can follow which will allow you to feel comfortable that you're sharing the best version of your story that you can. And I think that's one of the strongest things that you folks bring to it.

BBS: You decided, after this annual meeting we did for you, that you wanted to tell a story on our stage and go through our storytelling program. How was telling a story on stage and crafting the story different from the public speaking that you do at work? Or was it different?

JF: No, it was! That's actually a great question, because there was a very specific reason why I embarked on doing an initial story and why, I'm sure it was obvious to you, I kind of got bit by the bug. What I really wanted was my own personal touchstone, to really test out the impact of storytelling. Can I metaphorically go without a net, walk out there in front of people who know absolutely zero about me--in contrast to the other extreme, the people at work, many who have known me for ten years--and in the span of ten minutes actually establish a connection or bond? And so that's really what drew me to it.

BBS: And do you feel like you did that?

JF: Oh yeah. I was nervous at first and everything, but after the first time I did it, I loved the process. I loved working with other storytellers so much that, without exaggeration, there's very few times that I feel more comfortable and more alive than when I'm sharing a story in that format. It's not a chore, it's not something to be survived, it's really the height of being alive. I'm so thrilled about it. One of the really neat things about it, and I share this with people internally who ask me about Beyond Borders, is the concept of collaboration with your fellow storytellers. Everyone helps each other and helps refine the stories. And on the night of the show, I sincerely don't view it as a monologue. I view it as a collaboration with the audience. At minimum the audience gives you their energy. And they may give you more than that in terms of instantaneous feedback about what resonates with them or what doesn't, what's working in your story. So I really view it like you're on a journey with the audience. To me the exact opposite of that would be like a press conference, where the person walks up to the podium and they just deliver something because they have a message that they set out to deliver, and it's independent of what reaction if any they get from the people listening.

BBS: Is there anything else that you want to mention that I haven't brought up?

JF: There's such a unifying thing, such a bringing people together, a cohesion thing from storytelling. One of the things that we set out to do in all of our annual meetings was we wanted there to be several times during the day where everyone in the room is feeling the same emotion. Because there's just this electric thing that happens, kind of the same as going to a movie, where everyone is feeling the same thing in that moment, and there's tremendous bonding because of that. I think that's one of the many benefits of doing storytelling within the corporate environment. And it's a tremendously effective way of working with clients. Two of the senior partners in the firm are pitching a super-big potential client today, and one way of looking at what they're going to be doing is sharing stories. Because this client really wants to know about the values of firms that they work with and how they treat their employees. And so this is essentially what I was doing with our senior partner to help her prepare, helping her develop a couple short stories about the firm. What are we about, how do we treat employees, what kind of environment is it here? These are not facts on a piece of paper, these are anecdotal things in the emotional space about what we really believe in. And so that directly flows from the whole storytelling concept.

BBS: Thank you very much, Jeff, I really appreciate your candid responses. And I also appreciate your support. Even after the event we helped you with, you've kept in touch and you've been a fan of our shows and you've brought so many people to our programs. We really appreciate that.

JF: Absolutely. I love the format. And I'm kind of the self-dubbed analogy king so if you'll permit me, the experience of meeting people that I'd never ever cross paths with otherwise, fellow storytellers, is not unlike going for jury duty. People are thrown together in ways that would maybe never happen organically. I probably never would have crossed paths with any of those folks. And I've become good friends with many of them. Just the whole process leading up to the night of the show, and the six or seven people doing the show are kind of all on the same team providing a great experience for the audience. It's not an individual sport in that sense. And I think that's really enriching.