What I do 

I help leaders engage their teams and their stakeholders, so that their change programs are successful, instead of being mired in resistance. I often work with folks in information technology, information services, research and higher education, but I work with all kinds of other people too.  

If you're reading this, I'm guessing you're leading some kind of transformation. Maybe it's a digital transformation initiative. Maybe it's a new strategic direction. Maybe it's changing your organisational culture, or the way you approach aspects of your own leadership and life.

And you can probably use some help with getting other people on board, with building trust and influence as a leader, or with finding the bigger story you're part of. Imagine what it would be like if the next time you were talking with someone about your ideas, you could see that they really understood what you were talking about, and not only that but they were excited about the possibilities and wanted to be part of it.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks I see with trying to inspire meaningful change, is that we've been conditioned to communicate at work only in analytical, left-brain-style information. We've also been conditioned to use this kind of weird, dehumanised, abstract business-speak that's had all the real meaning stripped out of it. Then we throw in some expert terminology for good measure, either because we want to look authoritative and cutting-edge, or because we're so used to using it with our peers we don't realise other people have no idea what we're talking about. 

We bring out the strategic plan with its five pillars and 29 core initiatives, and its pie charts and 2x2 matrices. It has of course been circulated beforehand as a 50-page PDF. And we talk our way through it at the meeting with appropriately branded PowerPoint slides.

So people have been informed. And the diagrams were pretty clear, really.

But they still don't get it. They're confused about what it means. They don't relate to it. It doesn't inspire them. They don't see themselves as part it. 

They start making up their own stories about why you're taking this direction. They start to grumble about how their work is changing, how they're not able to give customers the kind of personal service they used to, how there won't be opportunities for them under the new structure. And the new direction (that you were pretty excited about actually) either turns into a massive struggle, or it just falls flat.

You're thinking there must be a better way to communicate this stuff so that people can see the same potential in it that you do and so that they want to be part of it. And you're right. There is.

The problem is that information isn't enough. Our communication at work is missing the human element that reaches people's emotions and sense of purpose, and because people decide and act based on their emotions, this is what's essential for any kind of meaningful change.

Starting to communicate at this more human level at work can feel awkward until you're used to it, like the first time you drove a car. But it's something everyone can learn to do; in fact humans naturally communicate through story, so it's simply a matter of reconnecting with a capability you already have and gaining confidence and practice in using it. That's what I can help you with.

How I got Into Storytelling

Back in 2002, right before Christmas, I had one of those moments when I realised I didn’t know who I was or what my life was about. When you and I are chatting face-to-face over coffee sometime, I’ll tell you more about it.

I learned later that just about everyone has these moments in their life. OK, maybe not Donald Trump, but most other people. When I first experienced it, though, it felt like it was happening only to me. Things had been going along fine and then suddenly.…not so much. 

Dante described it in the opening of his Divine Comedy:

“In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in a dark wood, where the true way was wholly lost.”  
(translation by David Whyte)

And that’s exactly what it felt like.

I decided that just going through the motions was not an acceptable way to continue, so I embarked on a quest and a long journey to try to understand who I am and what’s important to me. Of course, I didn’t think of it as a quest at the time; I didn’t have a name for it. I was just searching and exploring, trying to fill the gaping hole I was experiencing.

While I was searching, I came across stories as a way of helping me to understand myself better. I started exploring the stories around the moments in my life that have had an impact on me. I started paying more attention to other people’s stories. I’ve always been a reader; I explored the stories found in literature. The wonderful psychologist, Gunter Swoboda, introduced me to the work of Joseph Campbell on mythology and quests. (That’s when I realised I was on a quest.) I discovered the ancient tradition of oral storytelling and became an accredited storyteller myself.

Hooked now, I learned everything I could about the neuroscience, psychology, evolutionary biology and business applications of stories. I started to use some stories in my presentations and conversations at work—I worked in information technology, on projects to build national technology infrastructure for researchers across Australia. I was astounded at the difference stories made in how people understood what I was saying and how they responded to me and to my ideas. I developed a huge appreciation for how powerful stories are.

I have found that there is no better or more satisfying way to make sense and meaning out of the complexity that is life and work, than to listen to, tell, explore, and create our own stories. Stories, after all, are how humans have always made sense and meaning out of our experiences, for thousands upon thousands of years. There is no better way to relate to one another as humans and build the awareness we need to make the decisions that will create the future we want for ourselves, whether that’s in our own lives, our organisations, or our communities and societies.

When I look around, I see lots of places where this sense-making and meaning-making is needed desperately. As the world goes into hyperdrive and becomes more digital, automated, and interconnected, we have more opportunities and agility than ever before to shape the future. The question is, what shape do we want it to take? Are we just going to go through the motions, skim over the surface of our days and let the future happen to us, or are we going to pay attention, dive deeper and turn it into something wonderful?

A Bit More about me

I grew up in small towns in Ohio and Pennsylvania. My Dad is a mechanical engineer and Mom is a pianist, so the analytical/artistic dichotomy has always been a theme of my life.  I majored in mathematics as an undergraduate, but I took all the literature courses I could, and I was the first person ever to score 100% on the final exam for Dr James Dixon's Shakespeare course. (Incidentally, Dr Dixon was also a mathematician before he turned to literature and theatre.) 

I worked in information technology for around 20 years, first as a programmer and later as a business analyst, project manager, and director of strategic initiatives. My first professional job was at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Then I came to Australia in 1998 and worked for The University of Queensland, Macquarie University, and The University of Sydney, and later on national projects under NCRIS (National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy) and for CAUDIT, the Council of Australian University Directors of IT.

A few things I love include traditional jazz and blues music, swing dancing, my partner Dom, a good book, a good meal, and a walk outdoors. Or as Omar Kayyám, eleventh century Persian poet, mathematician and astronomer, said it:

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
(translation by Edward FitzGerald)

I'm an oral storyteller accredited by Storytellers NSW. I love to perform personal stories and traditional folk tales for a variety of audiences, just for fun. Some of my favourite storytellers include Daniel Morden, Garrison Keillor, Clare Murphy, Regi Carpenter and David Whyte. I try to go to at least one international storytelling festival every year to learn from the world's best storytellers.

What Now?

If this sounds interesting and you'd like to hear more, a great way to stay in touch is to subscribe to my fortnightly newsletter, Connection Points. It's full of storytelling tips and examples. And if there's something I can do right now to help you, send me an email at patricia@patriciamcmillan.com or give me a call on +61 434 602 050.