The Power of Storytelling
An Interview with Terry Bream

Terry Bream, RN, MN began her Kaiser Permanente (KP) career at the Los Angeles Medical Center in 1989. Since 1995 she has been at the region where she is currently the Manager of Nursing Services. Over the last 10 years Terry has spoken frequently on the topic of storytelling within and outside of KP, both statewide and nationally. She is convinced that stories can be a powerful leadership tool. Storytelling is on her top ten list of powerful leadership attributes. Terry has been the past president of the Association of California Nurse Leaders (ACNL) and of the California Hospital Association of Southern California – Nursing Directors. She has published in both Nursing Management and the American Journal of Nursing. In 1991, Terry participated in the Johnson & Johnson – Wharton Fellows Program in Management for Nurses. It was while she was at Wharton that she first learned about the benefits of storytelling in the work place. Terry was interviewed by Karen Casady of Communications Plus.

KC: Why is storytelling important?
TLB: There are many reasons storytelling is important. Telling stories helps us connect with each other. We use them to pass on information. A story can provide an empathic response to a situation or serve as a stress intervention. Stories are easier to remember than data and statistics, help build trusting relationships and can enhance education and training efforts. They help reinforce the mission and values of Kaiser Permanente and ultimately create the fiber of our legacy and value to our organization.

The challenge is in making storytelling relevant to everyday situations. When most of us think about storytelling, we remember reading stories to our children or we think about family stories that our grandparents might have passed down to us. You might think about an anthropology class you took where you learned that storytelling was how early people communicated, passed down and remembered their history. These are all sensible and true descriptions of storytelling.

But, when you really think about healthcare, in particular, it’s filled with stories. Some are sad. Some are poignant. Some teach us lessons about how we recovered from situations that took us to the precipice and back. Many are joyful and have memorable moments that have changed the way we look at our lives or our colleagues. Healthcare lends itself so naturally to the art of storytelling.

Storytelling is taught in some of this country’s most prestigious business schools because it is a solid, proven, impactful communication tool. When you add that piece together with what we know about our healthcare stories, it seems obvious that telling them will have an impact on how we communicate to our patients, how we communicate as leaders to staff, how we communicate to the public in terms of our value and view, and how we communicate to each other.

KC: Who should tell stories?
TLB: Anybody and everybody can tell a story. We all have them. The most obvious stories are shared between patients and providers. Leaders can use stories to share vision and values and to reinforce policy. Coworkers can share stories to inspire and support each other. Stories can also be shared with the community to educate and connect. Stories draw us back to why we became healthcare providers in the first place.

It’s about developing your own storytelling ability; of getting in touch with those important moments in your life. Think about what first got you into healthcare; what got you through school; what has kept you in your profession. Is there someone that you remember when you have a life-changing professional experience; someone who started you on your journey? Those people and stories are there. We don’t forget about them but we may not think to share them. Yet they are exquisite examples that teach and communicate about who we are.

KC: Sounds like getting in touch with and then telling our personal stories can be important to make us feel positive about ourselves.
TLB: Definitely. One of the goals of this book project is to really get in touch with why we became nurses and care providers in the first place, and how that self-knowledge can uplift you wherever you might find yourself. Personal storytelling empowers you in terms of your role in healthcare, of the importance of who you are, of how you make a difference with either a person or an institution, or of how you leave a legacy. That’s a power base that only you can really express and own and share. Nobody can take it away from you. It’s your story, your impact, your legacy.

KC: Is there a reason that we don’t tell our stories?
TLB: Storytelling is almost a lost art. Looking at storytelling historically, it was a communication form that was essential. Storytelling today has not necessarily been a part of our workplace tools but it could be. It’s really about sharing something about yourself that will help someone else understand what is going on. It can be an analogy… a personal story…a relevant example.

Most of us have memories from our childhood of a favorite story or storyteller. We might not think to translate this vehicle into our grownup leadership roles. Storytelling can be used to create enthusiasm and energy. It becomes a very valuable communication tool.

How can storytelling benefit us?
Our ancestors evolved by sitting around a fire, telling stories, and sharing dreams with each other; groups together bringing richness to other people’s experiences. That’s the essence and that’s how it should work with us too. One of the reasons we don’t tell our stories is that we might feel we are bragging or we might feel uncomfortable talking about ourselves. But if you tell your stories then people learn about who you are. So, it creates an intimacy and a personal connection that helps build relationships, helps build credibility and also helps teach.

That’s another opportunity. While it’s the relationship and your own personal being that you share, it also becomes the chance to tell a story within the context of what you are doing, to show an example of an idea, to, in fact, teach. When you tell a story about, “Well, I remembered when I was in the same difficult situation” you open yourself up to others. It’s a beginning. It’s a connection. It’s sharing experiences. Particularly when someone’s going through a difficult time, storytelling adds credibility to your being able to be an intervener.

Not only do we forget about storytelling from our childhood, but we’ve been told many times, ‘Leave your personal life at home. Don’t get overly involved. Don’t get too personal.’ Think about the possible connectiveness of a personal story especially when you’re going to help somebody else understand a situation and they know that you’ve been through it too. Think about what could be lost or, more importantly, gained.

KC: Why shouldn’t we leave our personal life at home?
TLB: Because when you lose access to people’s personal stories, you lose portions of their wisdom, passion and even heroism. When you isolate your being from who you are on the job so much is potentially lost. Think about the gifts your personal tales have to offer; the joys and the empathy. What values, interests, and specific life experiences do they convey? What about these gifts might be relevant?

When I say ‘I’m proud to be a nurse’ how much more proud am I to say, ‘I’m proud to be a nurse; I’m proud that my daughter chose nursing as a career.’ I’m proud to have been involved in a very significant experience in her life, but, at the same time, it was a significant experience in my life that I had never experienced before. I share that story whenever I can.

What got you into storytelling?
I was a fellow at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. One of the professors gave a lecture about storytelling. It seemed odd at first, teaching storytelling at a prestigious business school. But, they were looking at ways for leaders to connect more with their staff. They found that leaders who were able to connect in a personal way were more effective. One way was to talk about personal experiences and tell stories that had relevance to the matter at hand.

I learned that a story has to be relevant to the topic and also create a personal connection between the storyteller and the audience. I started to research and find books about the subject. There are many. (See Terry’s Reading Corner.) There are clubs and organizations devoted only to storytelling.

Then I tried my hand at it with my story about my daughter. It was a way to express my love of nursing on many different levels. It reinforced a human connection. Everybody has a story. We might not think anyone would want to hear it, but they do. Offering your own experiences makes you more empathetic and connected to the world around you.

KC: Why do we need to collect our stories and publish them?
TLB: Peggy Neuhauser, the author of the book Corporate Legends and Lore: the Power of Storytelling as a Management Tool, talks about the traditional sacred bundles of many Native American tribes. These contain actual physical items and there’s a story connected to each one of them. When the sacred bundle comes out, the stories get told. Those are the legends and lore of that group of people to whom the sacred bundle belongs.

Neuhauser took this idea and applied it to corporations implying that groups of that nature also have sacred bundles; that these are comprised of the legends, lore and traditions that make up the culture of an organization. With the creation of our book, we are founding our own sacred bundle. Not just for Kaiser Permanente as an organization but specifically for Kaiser Permanente healthcare professionals. We are writing down the sacred bundle of stories about those of us who provide care. We are drawing out and putting down on paper the lore and the legends that Kaiser Permanente providers act out and live everyday.

KC: Why was a quilt picked as the cover for this book?
TLB: People identified with it immediately when we tested the idea. They liked the creativity and individuality that a quilt represents; the different fabrics, how a quilt can wrap around and provide comfort and how no two quilts are exactly the same.

I liked the creativity and the artistic aspect of using a quilt for cover art because I’ve always found that there’s a very creative side to nursing. But being creative isn’t something we think about when we are concerned with being methodical and professional, and neat and tidy.

When you wrap nursing in a creative cover and use that creativity to get to an end result, it can take our regular, everyday routines and make them interesting. It can take the ordinariness out of them. It creates a new dimension.

The quilt on the cover is a patchwork quilt. Each patch is different and that’s the beauty of it. So, just as a quilt comes together with a multitude of color and patterns so it is with this book; a coming together of stories reflecting the many of us who work at Kaiser Permanente and our shared wisdom, strength, knowledge and fortitude.

Legacies can be left without knowing that we are doing it but I think it is better to be cognizant about it. That is what Caring: Making a Difference One Story at a Time is – a deliberate, purposeful, reflective effort to let our stories out into the world; to let people know who we are and what we are all about.