Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Story-telling at the EVPA Conference

The EVPA conference had three outstanding featured speakers. I have to admit that I am not a sucker for plenary sessions and guest speakers usually as I tend to get bored quickly during those. Jacqueline Novogratz, the founder and CEO of Acumen Fund, Percy Barnevik, ex-CEO of Swedish giant ABB and founder of Hand in Hand, and Sir Ronald Cohen, founder of European PE pioneer Apax Partners and social investor with BridgesVentures, were the featured speakers. They are pretty extraordinary individuals and each talked about his/her own organization that occupies a specific segment in the broader venture philanthropy and social investing universe.

It was quite interesting to hear how differently the three conveyed their message to the audience. Jacqueline and Percy mainly used story-telling while Sir Ronald was much more fact-based. Jacqueline told her usual Blue Sweater story which is her life story really as it starts in her early childhood. Barnevik did the same though he did not go as far back as Jacqueline did and started with his corporate days. Sir Ronald told us about his background growing up in Egypt and having to flee the country with his family after the Suez Canal crisis but the rest of his presentation focused on his last 10 years in the social sector trying to develop hybrid business models and, more recently, financial products targeting the social sector (social bonds).

All three got a pretty enthusiastic response though I felt (but I may be biased) that Cohen was the one best received. Also, I am used to seeing a much more emotional response to Jacqueline’s speeches across the pond in the US where it is not rare to see standing ovations and teary eyes among audience members after she has told her story.

The art of story-telling is based on the premise that the listener will come up with his/her own interpretations and draw conclusions and implications of what s/he hears. In contrast, the more factual presentation feeds information to an audience, thus lending itself to more limited interpretation. Also, personal stories in particular draw on others’ empathy. We tend to put ourselves in the shoes of the one telling his/her story. By eliciting our emotions the one relating her story will seek to compel us, to draw us to her, and also to possibly make us experience a a-ha moment of sort.

Therefore, there is much more processing going on with story-telling and that processing is often done through a very personal and subjective filter, especially when a personal story is involved. The audience has to work harder and the range of lessons and conclusions drawn will be wider than in the case of a factual presentation. But in the end listeners will be more engaged if they feel resonance with the story that they have been told. However, if they do not connect with the story the rest of the process, i.e. drawing lessons and conclusions and possibly experiencing personal growth thanks to a light bulb moment, will not happen.

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