All About HR Welcomes Karen Eber, CEO & Chief Storyteller

On this episode of the All About HR podcast, Tom welcomes distinguished guest Karen Eber. Karen is CEO and Chief Storyteller of Eber Leadership Group, author, leadership consultant, and keynote speaker. This exciting conversation centers around the art of impactful storytelling and the intricacies that go along with it. The episode begins with digging into how Karen discovered her aptitude for creating culture through storytelling and walking us through the roadmap that got her to where she is today. From here, Karen tells us more about using storytelling strategically in the workplace and how to effectively use a parallel story to help get your point across. Along with this, they talk about what’s really going on in your brain when you’re listening to a story and the science behind it. They wrap up the episode and leave us pondering a fun question: What would Dolly Parton’s famous “9 to 5” song sound like if it was rewritten today to reflect the current workplace?

Welcoming Karen Eber, CEO & Chief Storyteller

Karen Eber is a global leadership consultant, and keynote speaker. Her TED talk, How Your Brain Responds to Stories and Why They’re Crucial for Leaders continues to inspire millions. As the CEO and Chief Storyteller of Eber Leadership Group, Karen helps communities build leaders, teams, and cultures, one story at a time. Karen works with Fortune 500 companies like General Electric, Facebook, Kraft, Heinz, Kate Spade (love their stuff), and Microsoft. She guest lectures at universities including the London School of Business, MIT, and Stanford. She is a former Head of Culture, Chief Learning Officer, and Head of Leadership Development at GE, Deloitte, and HP. She is a frequent contributor to publications like Fast Company, Business Insider, USAWire, and more. Karen is publishing her new book, How to Tell Stories that Inform, Influence, and Inspire with HarperCollins which is now available for pre-order and will officially launch on October 3, 2023.

Twitter: @KarenEber1 

LinkedIn: Karen Eber 

Eber Leadership Group 

Karen’s TED Talk: How Your Brain Responds to Stories – and Why They’re Crucial for Leaders 

Episode Summary:

How Karen found her perspective on creating culture, empathy, and engagement

Tom kicks off this episode by wanting to learn a little more about Karen’s career background. He asks how she was able to find her perspective on creating culture, and the path she took for her career in leadership development. Karen takes us back to her early days and walks us through her journey.

“Like everybody it's probably a career path that weaves and is a little convoluted. I started out wanting to be a nurse—if you can believe that. In college, I made a pivot towards psychology and wanted to focus on how I could help people be their best in professional environments. So, my education and internships were in these spaces of adult learning and education, leadership development, and helping people do their best performance. I started out in roles where I was a consultant within an organization and worked across the organization to do that. Then that evolved into Deloitte and other things. So, I have actually been a person who is working in a field where I got my degree, and I'm applying it. It has just deepened along the way."

“As I've moved through my career, I started to realize that as things get more complicated with technology, as teams become more global, we take on these crazy projects, and the world gets more complicated—you realize how you relate to each other, the environment you work in, the leader you have, the team you're on, has an impact on everything. So, I wanted to really dig in and figure out how I could explore that more. When you put your lens on something, and you really focus on the aperture, you start to see what works and doesn't work and you start to see patterns of common mistakes."

“I do a lot of work with teams from C suite all the way down. There's not a huge difference in the mistakes that are made on those teams. So you start to realize that there are some basic things that happen in the day-to-day environment that are hard, or things that people just don't have a background on. I found that one of the things I have an innate talent for is figuring out what people need to know to be successful. How can I help them recognize why it's hard and why it is okay that they're not being successful today? How do I help remove the shame and the blame, and then give them the tools to get there? So, it's just been going down the path and deepening that along the way.”

Karen shares that as she moved into roles like Head of Culture at large, 90,000-employee organizations, she discovered that storytelling was a way for her to touch each person and leave them with something to think about. From there, she was able to learn how to be strategic about building culture and engagement through stories.

Using parallel stories to “slow the no”

Later in the conversation, Tom and Karen talk about the concept of “slow the no” in business development. Karen mentions that oftentimes when you’re working in an organization and you want to make a change, there might be one or two people who have the ability in the budget to say yes, but there can be 50 others who have the ability to say no. This is where you have to get creative to get people to ‘slow their no’ and give you time to share your perspective, and hopefully get them on your side as a ‘yes’.

Karen tells us that this is where you can use something like a parallel story to help reframe their thinking. A parallel story is a story with a completely different context or meaning from your current situation but it reinforces the point you want to make. So, how do you do it? She tells us that there are a couple of key components that go into your story. First, you need to meet the audience where they are at. You can’t expect them to make the connection automatically. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that because you see how the stories fit together, they will too. Second, take the time to map out what you want the takeaway to be, and make sure you are hitting the right points. It is your role to act as the buffer to give enough context and help connect the dots for them.

Karen shares an example with us that she says demonstrates what not to do when using a parallel story. She tells us about a time when she was hosting an educational session for a group of executive leaders on negotiations and how her plan fell flat. She thought it would be interesting to invite a hostage negotiator from the NYPD to dinner with them so that he could share stories and insight on negotiations. In her head, she could see the similarities between his work and the takeaways her group could gain from his techniques. Unfortunately, her group did not see these similarities so easily and were caught up in how his high-stakes work was drastically different from theirs and the connection wasn’t made. In retrospect, Karen tells us that in order to have made that session more successful she could have acted more as a bridge between the stories and her audience. She outlines how it would have been helpful to sit down with the hostage negotiator and map out the points she wanted him to hit on in the stories to help them resonate more with that particular group. She adds that she could have paused him at different times to pull in her audience and ask them how that situation could relate to them, and make sure that they were grasping the connection.

The main point here is that when done correctly, a difference in story can create a more profound impact on your audience because they aren’t comparing it to their own experience the entire time. It allows them to take a step back, take their own emotions out of it, and receive the message.

What goes on in your head when you are listening?

Do you ever notice that you can walk out of a meeting and can’t really remember half of what was discussed, but you can remember that story a coworker told you last week? That’s because there is a real science behind how your brain processes stories versus regular conversation and it all has to do with comprehension and senses. Karen breaks it down for us:

“Your brain looks at what's coming in, and it compares it to your internal dictionary. Your brain asks itself, do we know this word? Is this in our dictionary? If yes, comprehension, if no, it falls into the ‘I don't know what that means’ category, which you then seek to comprehend or you forget it. So, this basic comprehension is happening all the time only activating a very small part of your brain. This is why we sit in the meeting, and maybe 20 minutes later we struggle to remember half of what was discussed because there's nothing happening to commit it to memory. There’s no interaction with it, it is just pure comprehension. When you start listening to a story, for example, if I talk about walking down the beach, and I say how I feel the warm sand between my toes, and the wind is blowing my hair, and there's a seagull crying ahead, and you hear the waves crashing on shore, and you can almost taste the salt on your lips—your brain starts lighting up in those respective areas of your senses. We're taking in information through our senses and having experiences, they get stamped with emotions, and they get stored in our long-term memory. The more dynamic, the more emotional or impactful they are, the stronger these memories are.”

So, stories aren’t just more exciting to listen to, they get more parts of your brain firing and ultimately commit themselves to memory better than just regular conversation.

What would Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” sound like in 2023?

Tom and Karen wrap up the episode with a few more interesting topics like how she is able to remember all of the stories she tells, the reason behind having a crayon on the cover of her new book, and how a well-timed pause can give people a second to process information.

One final piece from this episode that was worth mentioning is their conversation about Dolly Parton. Inspired by Karen talking about how much the workplace and overall work-life balance has shifted over the last 30 years, Tom asks Karen what she thinks Dolly’s iconic “9 to 5” song would sound like if she wrote it today. They joke that the name would probably have to be changed to something more like “All the time”. Karen tells us that she just might have to write an article exploring the 2023 version of “9 to 5” so keep your eyes peeled for that.

You can find the full transcript of this episode below:

Full Transcript

Tom Horne  00:03

Welcome to All About HR. I’m your host, Tom Horne, and I’m on a journey to learn about all things in HR. I’m documenting my conversations with thought leaders, HR professionals, and real employees about everything from recruiting, workplace of the future, benefits, you name it, we’re all about HR, let’s go.

We are back to season four, episode two of All About HR. This is a conversation that I’ve been building towards for two, three years now. With a guest that I highly respect and absolutely love, the content, the conversation, the perspective, almost every time. You know that band, every time you listen, you’re like I like every song they play that is this guest for me today. So, we’re going to jump right into it. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover. So, I’m going to skip all the how’re you doing and what’s going on out there in the HR space.

I’m going to introduce our guest. Karen Eber, is a global leadership consultant, and keynote speaker. Her TED talk, How Your Brain Responds to Stories and Why They’re Crucial for Leaders continues to inspire millions. As the CEO and Chief Storyteller of Eber Leadership Group, Karen helps communities build leaders, teams, and cultures, one story at a time. Karen works with Fortune 500 companies like General Electric, Facebook, Kraft, Heinz, Kate Spade (love their stuff), and Microsoft. She guest lectures at universities including the London School of Business, MIT, and Stanford. She is a former Head of Culture, Chief Learning Officer, Head of Leadership Development at General Electric and Deloitte and is a frequent contributor to Fast Company. Today, we’re really going to focus on a book Karen is publishing, The Perfect Story: How to Tell Stories that Inform, Influence, and Inspire with HarperCollins. Available on October 3, 2023. Karen, welcome to All About HR.

Karen Eber  01:57

Hi, I’ve been so looking forward to this. I’m so happy we got to talk today.

Tom Horne  02:02

Hopefully this is a really exciting stamp on your book tour. I would imagine you’re doing a lot of these podcasts these days.

Karen Eber  02:10

I am. It’s going to clock in around 50, but this one’s special, this is going to be a fun conversation.

Tom Horne  02:17

I appreciate you saying that and now I have to listen to all 50 to see if this one really ends up being special. I know for me, it is. It’s funny. When people asked me about what I was doing with All About HR and why I was doing All About HR, one of the things I would tell people was, I wanted to have a different perspective to the podcast in the HR space. I didn’t just want it being I’m the Global Head of HR for GE and I wrote a book and that’s what the podcast is about which you kind of see what I did there. That’s exactly what this is about, and it’s perfect, because I want the perspective to be someone learning and growing and really just organically coming out of the community and that’s why you are here. The fact that you are someone that’s had such a distinguished career that’s doing 50 other podcasts that has an awesome book coming out. I’m super excited to break the mold because that’s how excited I am to have you on this podcast. So, welcome.

Karen Eber  03:21

Well, it’s a delight for me and I’m learning too. So, I’m looking forward to our conversation.

Tom Horne  03:26

Well, let’s start at the beginning, or I’ll at least share where I felt so excited and connected to follow you and get you here eventually, on this podcast. You were on my hit list from day one. So, it took a lot. Finally, I saw the book and got the guts to invite you. So, I do want to start your career and I want to talk briefly about it, because this book is so exciting and the stories in it are so exciting. I want to make sure to focus there, but just your perspective on culture and creating culture and engagement and empathy. Where does that come from? I look at your titles, I look at your career, but like how did you focus on this space? How did you come to focus and become an expert in this area? Because I felt like you had 100% batting average when you talk about this. Is it natural? Did it come from a job? Where did your perspective in the space come from?

Karen Eber  04:21

Like everybody it’s probably a career path that leaps and is a little convoluted. I started out wanting to be a nurse if you can believe that and in college, I made a pivot towards psychology and wanted to focus on how I can help people be their best in professional environments. So, my education and internships and all of that were in these spaces of adult learning and education, leadership development and helping people do their best performance. I started out in roles where I was a consultant within an organization that worked out cross the organization to do that, and then that evolved into Deloitte and other things. So, I have actually been a person that I’m working in where I got my degree, and I’m applying it. It just deepened along the way. So, you know, I started out my very first job, I was developing training for different groups and that broadened because not everything is a training solution to how to develop people. This was back when knowledge management was a filing cabinet. So, it’s a very different time, but as I’ve moved through my career, you start to realize as things get more complicated with technology, as teams become more global, and we take on these crazy projects, and the world is getting more complicated, how you relate to each other, the environment you work in, the leader you have, the team you’re on, like how that impacts everything. So, I wanted to really dig in and figure out how I could do more of this. When you put your lens on something, and you really focus on the aperture, you start to see what works and doesn’t work and you start to see patterns of common mistakes. You know, I do a lot of work with teams from C suite all the way down. There’s not a huge difference in the mistakes that are made on the teams and so you start to realize, like, oh, there’s some basic things that happen in the day-to-day environment that are hard or that people just don’t have a background on. I found that one of the things I do think I have an innate talent for is, what do people need to know to be successful? How can you help them recognize why it’s hard? Why is it okay that they’re not being successful today? How do you help remove the shame and the blame, and then give them the tools to get there. So, it’s just been keep going down the path and deepening that along the way.

Tom Horne  06:46

I love that it’s an innate curiosity, to keep asking questions as you go down that path sounds like.

Karen Eber  06:53

My mom would tell you that I was the child that asked why all the time. So, it’s truly one of those like most people, you look back, and you can see the steps that led you here, but if I stood back at that person who is 21 or 22, I would have never predicted this is where I would be.

Tom Horne  07:10

Well, welcome to where you are.

Karen Eber  07:14

I’m still trying to accept it like all of us.

Tom Horne  07:16

Like all of us. That’s the disclaimer at the end. I think this is a nice bridge into the storytelling is, you know, there is a lot of data out there, especially in HR in the leadership and the organizational development space. There’s a lot of data there. There’s a lot of commonalities. You know, when someone asked me what the trends are, of HR and for work, I kind of look at like, well, what are we coming out of? We have so many employees that we don’t have to care about culture, and that starts to fade and then there’s this big turnover, and everything seems to be this pretty continuous wheel and there’s lots of data and there’s lots of evidence, but how do you get that nuance? How do we get the global workforce? How do we get different organizations to really not just understand the data and understand what’s going on but form a story and understand their story so that they can leverage this and stop this wheel of engaged, not engaged, hire a bunch, then fire a bunch. I feel like it’s just a continuous trend wheel. So, I love that that’s what you identified. How did understanding these trends and follow this specific path you’ve been on since college, how does that turn into where you’re at now with the book, storytelling, the focus?

Karen Eber  08:42

Yeah, let me give a little bit of a long answer. So, bear with me because it really is looking at how work has changed. You know, my father worked in the banking industry, fortune 500, where people went to work at nine, and they went home at five and you didn’t do work on the weekends and if he went on a business trip, he was given a cash stipend in advance. It was like this completely different way of working. Even at the time I got into work, which is over 20 years ago, it was different, and it just exploded with the Internet. So, in his era, and for many elder, Gen X and Boomers, this like why are we talking about engagement? Why are we doing all of these things seems a little silly, because they just grew up in a different era where there wasn’t a need to focus on that stuff, because there was time for separation and thinking and resilience and all of that. I feel like if you’re a Gen X or younger, you’ve been on basically your whole career. It’s only increased as we’ve put mobile phones in our pockets and stuff. That is where I think the need for all of this came to be because you had this explosive growth with the Internet where you suddenly have many people that are being promoted based on of our technical ability, but not having any leadership development, and it introduced this new era where we’re putting people in positions and not equipping them with expectations or tools. That is incredibly hard and then we start to hear questions about work life balance. So, this has only increased and will continue to increase, because work has taken up a different space in our lives, and the type of work and the choices that we need. So, I feel like the need to really be thoughtful about the environment we’re creating, to deliver business outcomes, but also to attract and retain talent requires different thought.

I feel like we tend to over rotate on some stuff, which we can talk about more. So, all of that lays the groundwork for, here I am trying to create better workplaces and equip leaders with tools that do make it better and try to get companies and my own leaders and organizations to invest in technology or to invest in leadership programs or things where maybe one or two people in the organization have the ability in the budget to say yes, but like 50 or 100 have the ability to say no. When you’re that person trying to convince them, and you get a bunch of naysayers, you have to get creative, because what I needed is all those people that would say no to slow their no and help me convince the people that own the budget. I started to use stories to connect with them differently, to lift them out of their day-to-day and what they were facing and help them think about it differently and to relate in a different way. As I moved into roles, like the Head of Culture role in one of the businesses at General Electric, I had 90,000 employees and 150 countries working in the business I was in and the only way you shaped culture is when someone thinks like what does this mean for me and what do I want to do? To do that, that means you have to touch each person and help them have things to think about, like what are the expectations? What do you want? That’s not the values on the website. So, I found storytelling was such a helpful way for me to touch each person and help shape those things that we wanted to have our leaders do and our employees do.

Tom Horne  12:13

I love your long answer. That is fantastic.

Karen Eber  12:17

They  won’t be that long, I promise.

Tom Horne  12:19

This is probably a side shoot superman, but a question jumped in my head from the start of that story. If Dolly Parton rewrote Nine to Five right now, would it be reflective of the glory days of that was better? Would it be that we’ve evolved? Like if put yourself in Dolly Parton shoes rewriting Nine to Five, what’s the vibe of the song in 2023?

Karen Eber  12:48

First, can I use that as a potential article because that is brilliant. Noting that, I might indeed do that. That’s a really good question. It would probably be something like always on? I don’t know, but if you take Dolly Parton as an example, she goes out in public and you have no idea it’s her because she wears wigs all the time. She looks dramatically different. So, she has her own, like, here’s what I do when I’m off so, no one knows. We’re always on, but we all have to think about what is our off and how do we protect that? What does that look like? And gosh, it’s so much easier when you have leaders that you’re working with and teams that you’re working with that support that. I need to come back to you on this one on what that would be. I love it, it’s such a good question.

Tom Horne  13:40

Also just to note, I am in business development. “Slow the no” trying to get to the two people that can say yes, and get through the other 100 to 50. That is such a great perspective of just directly my day-to-day work and that’s what I’m trying to do. I keep having these great transitions, I’m supposed to start the show with “what are you listening to now?” but I keep getting these great transition stories. So, I’m going to ask you that at some point, we’re going off the rails here a little bit. I just want to thank you for that, because that’s the world I live in, and I think that’s a great perspective. I have a meeting with my team later today and “slow their no” is definitely going to be a highlight of that.

Karen Eber  14:23

Just one thing on that, you know, a lot of times when people think about storytelling, they try to think of it as a personal story, or it’s got to be a story about the topic at hand or whatever. So, often, my ability to slow and no comes from a story that has nothing to do with the topic at hand, especially when it’s something that people are really defensive about. So, I worked with the leadership team that was facing really significant quality issues like in the millions, and every time, every quarter, every month, they’d sit down to review financials and they would see the number and instead of what’s happening here, why is this happening? It would be a conversation about let’s put more operations in place and more rules and more procedures. That’s not what was needed. So, I joined one of our meetings and I talked about NASA, and the Apollo, the Challenger and Columbia missions were, tragically, astronauts died. In those after-action reviews that NASA had, they found out that people knew there were mistakes that they were not escalating, or if they were people weren’t doing anything about it, they thought someone else would handle it. It came out to be like this whole terrible miscommunication, and people not feeling safe enough to communicate the way they needed. What NASA did is they put this whole safety culture in place where anyone can stop a launch at any point, even if it’s SpaceX or some other organization, they’ve really tried very hard to change their culture and create this place where it’s okay. So, I’m working with this team, and I tell them this story, which has absolutely nothing to do with their quality issues, but what happened is that they became less defensive, because it was almost this recognition of, oh, I get it, others have this problem, too. It’s okay for us to admit that we have this problem, we don’t have to feel shame or blame each other, now we can really start to talk about what’s needed. So, part of that slow their is no is sometimes telling a story that has nothing to do with the example at hand but reinforces the points you want to make.

Tom Horne  16:19

I know you talked about that in the book too, about how the parallel story can have a big impact. Let’s stay on this and go a little bit deeper, because I think, that is probably one of the number one mistakes I see in businesses and companies that I’ve worked with and for. Everything is literal, everything’s pointed, straightforward. Everything’s operations, everything’s structured. How can we do what you just described? What are some of the ways to learn to do that and integrate that into our business workings?

Karen Eber  17:03

Let me tell you how not to do it first, because I think that’s probably more important. So, before I opened my company, I was in a Head of Leadership Development role at Deloitte, where I was putting together leadership development for the owners, the principals and partners and directors. One of the topics was negotiations, because that’s a huge part of consulting and advising. It can feel intimidating and really hard. We had a wonderful set up for work and it was two days, overnight, there was a dinner, and I brought in a hostage negotiator from the New York Police Department, because the principles they were learning in the class were very similar to some of the same things that he did on the job. I thought, well, this will be fun. You know, I wanted to have the cool factor who doesn’t want to have dinner with this New York, NYPD, you know, hostage negotiator, super cool. It completely flopped, because he’s telling me stories, he was involved with a situation that informed the movie Dog Day Afternoon, so pretty heavy stuff. He tells me stories, and every single person there, like their eyes got wide. You could see they were thinking like, oh, my gosh, this is nothing like I am doing, I’m just trying to sell services for this technology project, holy cow. Instead of hearing him share some of the same things he’s doing to build rapport and to deescalate and to sense his timing, and what are some of the different techniques he uses to move forward and the negotiation or understand what the person wants, they just heard it as completely different. I didn’t realize because this was my fault. I didn’t realize until we were too far down that evening, that it wasn’t landing the way I wanted. What he did was fine, what they needed was almost like translation of how did that apply to them? How is that meaningful? Exactly, how can they still take what he’s saying, and just appreciate a different perspective and different stories. So, what not to do when you’re telling this parallel story, meaning a story of a completely different context and meaning but reinforces the takeaway is, you have to meet the audience where they’re at, you’ve got to help understand what their current understanding is, and what might be challenges in how they’re understanding things that you can connect them to it. Because as we listen, or we read, we make assumptions. If you’re not helping connect that person to where they are and where you want to get them to, they’re going to make assumptions that go off in the wrong direction. So, you can take so many different things that have nothing to do with your situation and tell a story about it, but it’s the way you connect it to the person how you make sure they understand and translate it throughout. That’s going to make the difference on it.

Tom Horne  19:54

So how can you do that? What was even like pausing to answer but like, not really like, what are some of the actual techniques you can do as you’re doing it like you have that awareness what are some of the bridges?

Karen Eber  20:10

Yeah, and that particular example, just to do one with context, what probably should have happened is I should have paused him, as he was setting the scene for something, I should have paused and asked the group like, do you have a situation related to this? What does this make you think of, or offer statements, but pull them into it. Because what happened is they were watching something, and they just kept thinking, this isn’t me, this doesn’t relate to me, holy cow, this guy is doing this with lives on the line, I could have been that bridge, asking the questions to make sure they were tracking and kind of pausing along the way and having more discussion. I think that would have made a difference. What he could have done differently, had we known this was the way it was going to go, as I would have sat with him to map out the audience and say, hey, look, let’s talk about what we want them to come away thinking differently or doing differently. Let’s think about what they’re feeling about negotiations and what we want them to feel and then let’s map it out. Okay, when you say this, let’s talk about how we can translate that to be meaningful to them. So, you’re saying, you know I’m sitting outside the building in Times Square, and then translate that to just like you’re about to walk in the room with the negotiation with your client. There are little things like that we could have done that is really thinking about what the story is, and stopping to back up and say, this isn’t about the story, this is about the audience. How can I make sure they’re going to track and understand this by thinking about what I want them to know differently by the end of it, what I want them to do differently by the end of it, how I can move them forward, and what they’re feeling.

Tom Horne  21:55

I love that, it brings me back to when I go to conferences. My favorite speakers are the ones that aren’t HR, organizational leadership type of people, it’s people that I’m thinking, why were they booked and how’s their story going to relate to what I’m here for? I can’t even figure it out in my head. I’m definitely going into this session. I’d say 90% of the time I leave going, yeah, good, right? Cool, because I didn’t expect it, it’s something I know is there I just can’t figure out how it happens and that’s what gets me excited about their stories and their presentations.

Karen Eber  22:35

What’s really cool about that is you’re going to have more a-ha moments in your head as you listen to them. If there’s enough connection, you’re going to be having your own realizations of like, oh, yeah, that’s like this and oh, I could do that and that’s really interesting, because it’s a different context. Like there’s more inner dialogue going for you, which can create more meaning. If it was about a situation that was very similar to a project you just did, or we’re bidding on, then you’d be so caught up in your emotions about that project and the experiences of it that you just might be having this mental battle with the speaker. Like, no, that’s not what my experience was. So, sometimes that difference in story and setting can create a more profound impact.

Tom Horne  23:19

I love that I just want to highlight too, Sarah Thomas, she’s the first female referee in the NFL. Like that was one of my favorites. I was at a restaurant convention, it was just so starkly different and so powerful that her story and what she gained from that story, has stuck with me ever since. I’ve incorporated several different pieces from that story in a completely different setting. So, I wanted to give a shout out one of my favorite speakers I’ve ever gotten to see, Sarah Thomas, really, really cool.

So, we’re going to take a quick pause here. Then when we come back, you started touching on what’s going on inside your head when you’re hearing these stories, these internal battles you can have, I want to kind of get into what goes on inside people’s heads as they’re hearing stories and talk about the science behind this. We’ll be right back.

. . .

All right, it is time for the HR hot sauce with Karen. Are you ready?

Karen Eber  24:20

I’m ready.

Tom Horne  24:22

What is the best job you have ever had?

Karen Eber  24:24

The one I’m in now.

Tom Horne  24:25

My favorite answer. What’s one phrase at work that drives you nuts?

Karen Eber  24:30

There are so many. Culture doesn’t eat strategy…what’s that saying? Culture doesn’t eat strategy for breakfast, don’t it’s awful.

Tom Horne  24:42

Do you like working on rainy or sunny days?

Karen Eber  24:44

Both. Rainy days give me good time for writing and reflection. Sunny days give the mood boost and energy lift.

Tom Horne  24:52

That is me and I wish I heard that answer more often. That’s great. How can someone make your day at work?

Karen Eber  24:59

Either I get to see an aha moment that they have where they unlock new thinking, or they remove some obstacle that they have, or if they tell me something that they read or listen to of mine that they loved.

Tom Horne  25:14

Best useless skill?

Karen Eber  25:16

Of mine?

Tom Horne  25:17

Of course.

Karen Eber  25:18

Of mine. Okay. Well, what came to mind is I play the piccolo and community band and so it’s fun and you know, we do put on concerts, but it’s not changing anything, and I am extremely average.

Tom Horne  25:35

I’m sure it brings joy but we’ll count it. Incidentally, my favorite musical instrument all through elementary school is a piccolo, I don’t know why I just always love piccolo.

Karen Eber  25:45

I love that, amazing.

Tom Horne  25:47

Super. Mild, medium, hot or nuclear?

Karen Eber  25:52


Tom Horne  25:54

Favorite interview question to ask for be asked?

Karen Eber  25:58

I don’t have a favorite, but I’ll tell you the one that I don’t love is, how’d you get started in storytelling?

Tom Horne  26:07

Cross that off the list. Favorite song to bring you out of a funk?

Karen Eber  26:15

Okay, disclaimer, the song I’ve been listening to a lot lately is because of the storytelling and it is Taylor Swift All Too Well, 10-minute version. I just love the way she weaves the story through it, and it builds, so right now it is that one.

Tom Horne  26:30

That is a great song to be talking about. I love it. All right, we’re done with HR hot sauce. Let’s get back to the show.

. . .

All right, and we are back. That was a great HR hot sauce. Karen, when we paused, we were talking about kind of what goes on in your head when you’re hearing stories. What can stop you from connecting to stories? Why do some stories connect, why do some stories not? Take us through that piece of storytelling, the receiving storytelling. When you’re telling the stories, the people listening and understanding what’s going on in their heads?

Karen Eber  27:13

There’s a few different things that are happening in the brain. Let me start with the first one, which is we are not hardwired for stories. I hate it when people say we’re hardwired for stories. That’s like saying you’re hardwired to run a marathon. You have physical components, but you’re not going to walk out and do it without any practice or preparation. So, you’re not hardwired. When you are listening to words, there’s this really small part of your brain that lights up it’s called Broca’s area, or we’re in Nicky’s area, it’s like the size of a walnut. What happens is your sense of hearing or your eyes, a sense of vision are taking in the information, your brain looks at what’s coming in, and it compares it to your internal dictionary and it says like, do we know this word is this in our dictionary, and if yes, comprehension, if no, it falls into I don’t know what that means, which you then seek it or you forget it. So, this basic comprehension is happening all the time with a really small part of your brain that’s activated. Not much happens with that though, which is why we sit in the meeting, and maybe 20 minutes later, we struggle to remember half of what’s discussed, because there’s nothing happening committing it to memory or having you interact with it, it is pure comprehension. When you start listening to a story, so if I talk about walking down the beach, and I feel in the warm sand between my toes, and the wind is blowing my hair, and there’s a seagull crying ahead, and you hear the waves crashing on shore, and you can almost taste the salt on your lips, your brain starts lighting up in those respective areas of your senses. So, you go from a real estate perspective, from something the size of a walnut to something that’s more dynamically engaging more parts of your brain. Which in real estate 101, more space means better outcomes and stuff.

That’s just a small part of what happens because as we take in information through our senses, they get stamped with emotions. So, it’s a little bit like if you take a photo on your phone, and you swipe up, it’s stamped with the date, the location, the F stop all of the things about the photo, like without you doing anything, it’s immediately stored on it. That’s what happens with our senses. We’re taking in information through our senses and having experiences, they get stamped with emotions, and they get stored in our long-term memory. The more dynamic, the more emotional or impactful they are, the stronger these memories are. What happens when we’re facing a choice or we’re encountering a situation, our brain goes to all of those past experiences and looks at them to inform the predictions for the choices that we’re going to make. Our brain spends the majority of its time making predictions because you want to be on your front foot, not your back foot because it helps you respond and not react which can be really draining and dangerous and have you be in a sense of danger. So, when you have all this information stored, and your brain uses that to make predictions, it’s going to help you make choices. Where storytelling comes into play in all of that is, the more you’re engaging senses and emotions, the more you’re impacting what’s stored and informing future decisions. So, a great story can have you commit things to memory without realizing it, it gets stamped with emotions, so that when you face these situations, your brain automatically knows what to do. So, for example, opening story of my TED talk is about this woman, Maria, who’s walking into the elevator at work, drops her phone and it goes down that little opening straight down the elevator shaft to the basement. She has to go through this process of getting it back and it’s a story really about leadership and how you treat people, but what happens is I get messages from strangers all over the world telling me that they hold their phone tighter, when they walk into an elevator now, because they’ve heard this. They hear the story, they experience a discomfort which gets stored in their long term memory and the next time they’re about to walk into the elevator, the brain says, oh, we know something’s dangerous here, hold on to your phone. So, stories have this ability to create these experiences to inform what our memories are to help inform future decisions and give people the chance to not only decide what they want to do now but inform potential decisions in the future.

Tom Horne  31:41

I love that initial story. I think the reason I love it is because it did make me feel a certain way it did make me remember it. How do you remember all these stories? How do you store it in your brain, all these different stories? Do you just have to be good at memorizing things? Is it just the best stories will connect with you in the right way? But for me, I love stories, but I feel like I’m always going wait, what’s that story for this time? Is there any technique you can help me with? And ‘no’ is a perfectly fine answer.

Karen Eber  32:20

The first is you have to feel something towards the story. If you’re not feeling any interest or excitement or intrigue, the story is going to be flat and bland. We’ve all sat through versions of that, but that isn’t fun. So, anytime you find something that piques your interest, like you’ve heard a story, or you note something—I play the flute, I was playing in a retirement home and a holiday concert and in the center of the room was a disco ball. I was like that is fabulous. I filed that away in my head like I’m going to do something with this, I don’t know what but that’s just fabulous. If I end up in a retirement home it has to have a disco ball, because why not. So, it’s a bit of a curiosity as you move through the world of what are those things that are catching your attention. The second piece of it though, is you need a place to capture your stories, because most often you’ll have these things that are interesting and then you just think, I’ll remember it later. Then when it’s time to tell the story, you can’t remember what it is. It was something about a retirement home, I can’t remember what. So, whatever works for you, for me it is I use an app on my phone, and I just dump ideas in there when they come up. A lot of it is I personally think in stories because I do so much of this and so examples will come to me quite often. I know okay, that’s a potential story. I capture it and then every now and then I move them into a spreadsheet for a longer list when I want to be able to scan if I am trying to tell a story and I don’t know what one could be. Having a place to put it is important. Noticing the energy around those things that capture your attention is important.

Tom Horne  34:00

Thank you for that I will start using my note app. One of my goals this year was to start using the note app on my iPhone just to like, put stuff down in real time and I go back and look at it and it’s crazy. There’s actually some stuff in there and I forget about it and it’s all over the map, but it really is helping.

Karen Eber  34:20

I’ll tell you, I switched to Google Keep for that reason, because the Notes app is just like this running list that’s really hard. Whereas in Google Keep, you could have checkboxes and it’s easier to sort and filter and categorize and so that’s my go to for capturing ideas, but I do some in the notes when I want to be able to expand on the ideas a little bit.

Tom Horne  34:41

I’d say one story from your book right off the bat is the story about don’t eat the crayons, that resonated for me. You can talk a little bit about the story and I gotta tell you what resonated, and I see on the book cover behind you, there’s actually a crayon, my brain had not made that connection. Maybe it did and I didn’t know. I don’t know, but that’s story really hit with me because of the way you took the world coming at you people coming at you with this question, I’ll let you tell the story and then you twist it. To me that resonated strongly with something that you know, it’s so minuscule, but it just totally resonated with that clutching your cell phone as you walk onto an elevator type of reflex for me. So, would you mind sharing that story from the book? It was one of my favorites.

Karen Eber  35:41

Yeah, can we trade crayon stories? I’ll tell you one and then you tell me yours? So, the reason there is a crayon in the covers, because of the opening story of the book. I have two different color eyes, I have a brown eye and a green eye and it is my favorite thing about myself. It’s always made me unique, and I’ve loved them. Around the time I started to get into school, though, I realized that while I loved it, other people thought it was really weird. You start to notice these patterns in conversations where someone will be talking to you and their words slow down dramatically, and they just stop mid-sentence, and you see their eyes going back and forth between both eyes. I know exactly what’s happening and where it’s gonna go. Exactly, yep, your brand’s like here comes and it always starts with did you know you have two different color eyes? To which my response is usually, (gasp) no!? Like, what do you mean did you know? Of course, and then it goes into, I know a dog with a different color eyes, like thank you? What are you supposed to do with that? Usually followed by David Bowie. He had two different color eyes, which he didn’t, he had an accident and one of his pupils was dilated and it would be this barrage of questions. You know, how did that happen? What color eyes do your parents have? Do you see different colors in each eye? Like the silliest questions, your answers aren’t even important, because they just keep piling on the questions and it eventually ends with how did that happen?

This thing that I loved about myself suddenly became this burden where they would be calling other people over, hey come over here, we’ve got to see your eyes and there’d be you know, 10 people looking at you like you’re this weird sideshow and a circus. It just felt like a burden. I got tired of it. I one day, told the story of how when I was a young child I was born with brown eyes, like most kids, I had same color eyes, and I was in my room coloring one night and I have that big box of crayons that you have. For me it was a cigar box, but we all have it you know, we have your perfect crayons and your peeled crayons, and your broken crayons and I was coloring, and I was hungry, and dinner wasn’t going to be for a few hours. So, I picked up a green crayon and I sniffed it, and it smelled kind of interesting. I took a nibble, and it tasted pretty good. So, I ate it and then I ate all the green crayons in the box. I woke up the next day and my eyes was green. I would tell that story. Then I would wait. Be quiet and inevitably what happens? Yes, the pause. People would look at me sideways, like is she for real? Like I can’t tell if she’s being serious or not, but what happened in that moment is an energy shift, because it was no longer this weird thing of why I was different and people being called over, it became this energy shift. So, I would admit that I did not eat the crayon that my eyes were naturally to different colors, but it changed our interaction, and they would start laughing and I would start laughing and they would realize all the crazy questions they asked and would apologize, but we had a different exchange. That exchange led to meaningful connections, even to the point where some 20 odd years later people tell me they think of me when they see crayons. So, I wanted to share that as the opening story to show that this isn’t just about telling a story to give a presentation at work. It’s about human connection and energy and how stories have a way to reinforce that or even shift that and awkward moments.

Tom Horne  39:29

That’s a great story. It allowed you to change the entire story of the conversation, the perspective and kind of take that power back for yourself. Yeah, I did laugh because my friend does have one of the dogs with whatever so when you said that I immediately thought of that, and I was like just what you want right like thank you. Yes, just like a dog. Thank you.

You know, my crayons story is my name is Tom Horne, H-O-R-N-E and the sheer number of times that my name comes up where I’m being introduced or I’m in a group and it’s horny? You’re horny? Your name is horny? It’s like one of those, like, come on, it’s like the power gets sucked out of me once that happens. So in college, you know, college kids, it was like that times 10. It was like the epicenter of being called horny all the time. Whenever I would hear that I would go, no, it’s Hor-nay. Family is French, we immigrated to America and they didn’t used to be an E, and we put an E on it, to really kind of like help show who we’re talking to, where they’re educated and they know the E was silent. You know, were they going to make a joke if the joke was there or let it pass. So, we really did that so we could understand who we were talking to, and just be able to direct ourselves better in this new world. I’d stop and people would just stare at me, look at me and they’re like, oh, crap, like, what did he just say? No, I’m just kidding. It’s Horne. I have no clue why there is an E, but you can say horn with E, come on and then everyone laughs and then it just poof goes away. So, for me, maybe I used a little bit more kind of condescendingly, but like, that was never the goal. The goal was to take the power back for me. To rephrase, and just change that whole perspective so I didn’t have to deal with Horn-e, from those same people for the next 20 times I’d interact with them. To make sure it never stuck to me. So, that was kind of my take the power, just changed the perspective.

Karen Eber  39:59

It makes such a difference in the energy shift and it’s not just it gets it off you the people then realize like, oh, yeah, that was kind of silly.

Tom Horne  41:45

It was kind of silly, and I was never offended, but I just didn’t want to have to, like, have that always be a thing.

Karen Eber  42:03

But you said it sucked all the energy out of you. Like that’s exactly what it was, for me. This thing that was joyful to me, like left me feeling depleted and why should you feel bad about anything about yourself, and I know that we’re privileged, and this happens to people all the time, wherever you can reclaim that you should.

Tom Horne  42:21

I felt a little bit guilty over claiming sometimes but thank you for that. Two things I want to touch on before we land this wonderful story conversation that we’re having. The word pause came up several times. I’m in business development, I use it very strategically. I love the idea of the pause. Can we just talk about your perspective on how you use a pause?

Karen Eber  42:47

Yeah, I talk about pauses of character in my story and communications. Our tendency in person or virtually is fill every moment of air, especially, because if I stop talking, someone else is going to jump in, but that’s not what happens, because if you’re not incorporating any pause, then whomever you’re speaking with, their brain can’t catch up. No matter what you’re saying, no matter what I’m saying to you, your brain has its own internal dialogue. So, if I’m trying to introduce an idea to you, or make you feel something, or help you connect with something, you need that pause for it to land and for your brain to think about and accept, like, okay, I agree with this, or I don’t agree with this or that lands on me in a way that I feel it. Pause is so important for that it’s the brain friendly thing that allows all of us to internalize. Our tendency is cramming every single moment of time with words and gestures and animation. That just leaves us feeling fatigued. Especially in this hybrid world. When we’re on different screens, you don’t have the same nonverbals cues you have when you’re in the room. So, pause is more important than ever, you need to use it and not be afraid that someone’s going to jump in and interrupt it. The way you do that, I use pause frequently, but I use it when I’m trying to land a point. I will often accelerate as I’m leading up to the point and you hear a change in my voice and my inflection and then I pause. Then when I come back, I’m usually a little different pace, a little different pitch and so that too is getting the listeners brain to say oh, there’s something different here. Experiment with incorporating it and experiment with your cadence around it and people won’t jump in but it will allow for them to understand. I’ll also say though is, I another rant of mine is I cannot stand when speakers say let me say that again or repeat that to you. We don’t need you to say it again. What we need you to do is be quiet so we can say it in our own brains. If you have done it right and you’ve led up to it in a way where you can tell from the timbre of the voice and the cadence that this is a big deal, you don’t need to repeat it.

Tom Horne  45:09

Listening is active, but 100% of understanding is retroactive. Be it by milliseconds, seconds, weeks. That story that hits you in the shower two weeks later and you go I got it! Understanding is totally retroactive and that pause allows you to catch up, allows you to understand, allows things to sink in. I love that.

Karen Eber  45:40

When there’s no pause, it’s a little bit like the cartoons with the roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote where the steamroller would roll over the Coyote and he would be flattened into the size of a paper and that’s what happens when there’s no pause, like the words just run you over and there’s no way for them to make an impact.

Tom Horne  46:01

It always goes back to analogy I learned early on, it’s about Eric Clapton and they called him Slow hand, because it’s not about the notes he played, he could play any note invented on a guitar, but the notes he didn’t play were the most important part of the song because it helps you understand and take in and feel the space around you. I think that’s a lot of the same thing. Karen I could listen to you and tell stories, I look at my notes and cool I touched like 3% of what I wanted to talk about, but I got out 120% of what I wanted to get out of this conversation. So, this has been fantastic. I really appreciate your time. I cannot wait. You can find the book on Amazon, you can pre order it. I pre-ordered mine. I knew I was pre-ordering this before there was even a podcast. So, I encourage everyone to go out and check it out, but as we’re finishing our story, what do you want people to take away from this conversation?

Karen Eber  47:06

I think to the extent to which you can have curiosity, work is better. To have curiosity you have to be rested and not feel fully stressed and have the space for it, but curiosity can lead to connections, it can lead to new ideas and understanding it can lead to stories. I can always tell when work is out of balance for me because I feel like I don’t have any time for curiosity. I know I need to make shifts, but the more you have that I think the more you can create better workplaces and enjoy yourself more.

Tom Horne  47:43

I love it. Where can people find you, Karen? I’ll put it on the notes, but let’s hear it.

Karen Eber  47:48

Yeah, my website’s easiest way to find me, it is my name, kareneber.com.

Tom Horne  47:54

All right. We got everything there. Karen, this has been fantastic. Thank you for joining. I’ve learned all about HR, because HR should be telling that story. HR are storytellers and that’s how you get outside of your just HR. You’re the policeman, you’re the person that hires and fires. Have a story, bring approach, integrate some of these pieces, buy the book, take the journey and make sure you pause along the way. Karen, thank you so much.

Karen Eber  48:22

Thank you.

Tom Horne  48:23

Everyone. Thank you for listening and we’ll see you back here soon.

. . .

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