Help To Grow Talk: Communication Skills

4. Storytelling & Vocal Justice - A Talk With Shawon Jackson (Stanford GSB & Vocal Justice)

August 29, 2023 Help To Grow Talk Productions
4. Storytelling & Vocal Justice - A Talk With Shawon Jackson (Stanford GSB & Vocal Justice)
Help To Grow Talk: Communication Skills
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Help To Grow Talk: Communication Skills
4. Storytelling & Vocal Justice - A Talk With Shawon Jackson (Stanford GSB & Vocal Justice)
Aug 29, 2023
Help To Grow Talk Productions

We would love to hear your feedback on this episode! Please click here to share your thoughts via text message. We can't wait to hear what's on your mind!

Listen, and learn about Storytelling & Vocal Justice in this talk with our guest Shawon Jackson, Adjunct Lecturer in Management at Stanford University Graduate School of Business and Founder & CEO at Vocal Justice.

In this episode about Sortytelling & Vocal Justice, we cover the following topics: the what and why of storytelling, and its different elements; Vocal Justice - a nonprofit organization envisioning a world where everyone is liberated because everyone is cared for -; and recommended resources for listeners who want to learn more.


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We would love to hear your feedback on this episode! Please click here to share your thoughts via text message. We can't wait to hear what's on your mind!

Listen, and learn about Storytelling & Vocal Justice in this talk with our guest Shawon Jackson, Adjunct Lecturer in Management at Stanford University Graduate School of Business and Founder & CEO at Vocal Justice.

In this episode about Sortytelling & Vocal Justice, we cover the following topics: the what and why of storytelling, and its different elements; Vocal Justice - a nonprofit organization envisioning a world where everyone is liberated because everyone is cared for -; and recommended resources for listeners who want to learn more.


Support the Show.

Contact Help To Grow Talk

Thanks for Listening & Tune in Next Time!


Welcome to the podcast Help To Grow Grow Talk, where we talk about growing your communication skills. How can you better communicate and change the way you live, work, interact with others, and help make the world a better place?

Shawon Jackson: 0:21

"And so, a lot of my time working with folks on their communication is to really understand what specifically needs to happen: from your tone of voice to the words that you use for your authentic voice to come through clearly. Because that is a way for your audience to really connect with the real you, which in effect, allows your message to land more powerfully with them in the end."

Desiree Timmermans: 0:45

You just listened to our guest, Shawon Jackson, Adjunct Lecturer in Management at Stanford Graduate School of Business, and Founder and CEO, Vocal Justice. In this episode, he talks about storytelling, a communication tool that effectively helps to deliver your message and make a difference.

Desiree Timmermans: 1:06

My name is Desiree Timmermans your podcast host. Let's go.

Desiree Timmermans: 1:15

Welcome, Shawon, to the podcast.

Shawon Jackson: 1:18

Thank you.

Desiree Timmermans: 1:20

I'm really happy that you're here and that we are going to talk about Storytelling and Vocal Justice, an organization from which you are the Founder. So, let's start with the first question. What is storytelling, and why is it important?

Shawon Jackson: 1:34

Well, first of all, thank you for having me here today. I'm very excited to be in conversation with you.

Storytelling is a communication tool that we use where we have a specific anecdote, following the journey of an individual or group of individuals, in order to impart a lesson or significance to a topic that we care about.

And the reason why storytelling matters is for two primary reasons, in my opinion. One is that humans are wired for stories. And this is backed by science, where our minds are able to better retain information if we're able to really engage with a particular story, as opposed to just a set of stats and figures about a particular topic. So when you can bring people into that particular moment, you're increasing the likelihood that they'll remember what you want them to about that topic. And the second reason is for engagement. When you're speaking to an audience, and you want them listening to what you're saying, using the story is a beautiful way to capture your audience's attention because they're able to connect to the emotions of the characters. And there's an actual arc that they're following, as opposed to just listing out punch topics for a particular topic. So, that retention piece in terms of memory and then also the engagement piece are the two primary reasons why I think storytelling matters.

Desiree Timmermans: 3:01

Can you give us an example of storytelling that really got you engaged or that really made you take action?

Shawon Jackson: 3:09

One of my favorite storytellers is Brian Stevenson. He is a nonprofit leader in the US who is doing a lot of work to improve our criminal legal system. He wrote a book called Just Mercy highly recommended for anyone who's listening now. And in that book he has several stories in it to help elucidate a lot of the issues that are happening in the US when it comes to our prison system.

And the main story that he includes is following the journey of someone named Walter, who was wrongly put on death row for a crime that folks said he committed in the South. And through this book, Bryan Stevenson is including really specific details about his interactions with Walter: meeting while he's incarcerated, talking about what his life looked like before the suppose incident and afterwards. And the more you read the book, the more you really start to connect with his character Walter and say: wow, I understand the humanity behind somebody who's been wrongfully convicted, and I feel compelled now to say we shouldn't have something like the death penalty.

And this book has been one of the books that's really, I think, shifted a lot of the conversations in the US about death row in our criminal legal system. And I think it's in part because of this really specific anecdote where you can connect with an individual who's impacted by this injustice firsthand. So there's several other anecdotes in that book as well that highlight a lot of the injustice is within our system, but that main one with Walter is a powerful one to say: I should think twice about why we have this system set up as it is now.

Desiree Timmermans: 4:48

So, if we look at this character, Walter, what kind of character is it?

Shawon Jackson: 4:53

Walter is a character who you start to build a lot of sympathy with because you understand his frustrations as somebody who is wrongly incarcerated. So it's a young black man who's in the South, Alabama, in the US, who's been wrongfully convicted. You learn about his time in prison. And you really start to feel that frustration and anger that he has thinking about how he's going to potentially lose his life because of this wrongful conviction. And so the beautiful piece around this story is that the more that you hear conversations between Bryan Stevenson, who's a lawyer, and then Walter, who's incarcerated, the more you start to really feel what this character is feeling. And that's the power of storytelling. From an engagement standpoint, it's like: wow, I really can kind of resonate with what this character is going through in a sense. Even if my life experiences are really different, I can connect to that human emotion of anger and frustration.

Desiree Timmermans: 5:54

And storytelling has different elements. If you look at this story, which elements would you like to emphasize? And if I'm not wrong, there's also a movie about it?

Shawon Jackson: 6:02

Yes. There is a movie about it that came out in 2020. And the movie is really powerful, as is the book.

I think one of the key elements that comes up through Bryan Stevenson's work is the power of details that seem meaningless but actually are quite powerful. So, might be details about the scene where you are understanding the lack of humanity that can exist within the prison walls. So you get a vivid description of what prisons actually look like. You're getting descriptions about people's attire; you're getting details about the language that they're using. And all of those small details actually have a big impact because they bring you into a particular moment.

And so when you're reading the book, in many ways, you can visualize what the movie ends up showing because of that vivid description of what the setting looks like, the emotions that the character holds, and what their interactions with other people look like.

So, in a lot of my coaching today, with storytelling, I push folks to think about adding the detail that you think isn't that important, that can actually paint a clearer picture for your audience of that specific moment because that's what's going to draw them in. And, I think Brian Stevenson does a phenomenal job of highlighting those details well. And there are other elements of storytelling, too, that I'm happy to talk about and that I think it's important for folks to consider independent of this example.

Desiree Timmermans: 7:27

Because you're also teaching a program at Stanford GSB, maybe you can tell us more about the program because, I suppose, some of the elements of storytelling are also in this program.

Shawon Jackson: 7:40

Yes. I co-teach a course called Essentials of Strategic Communication with Matt Abrahams, a previous guest on this podcast.

Desiree Timmermans: 7:49

We know him.

Shawon Jackson: 7:50

Yes. And, through that course, we're really helping students think about how they can communicate concisely and compellingly in front of different business audiences. We also hope that the communication skills we help them develop will be useful in their personal lives. Storytelling is a big part of this course. And, we begin the course by having students present a brief story, where they bring us into a particular moment. And then, they zoom out to share what the takeaway is for.

And one of the key pieces when it comes to storytelling to make your communication effective is about how you started. And so, with introductions, we think a lot about three key pieces. One is the hook, which is probably going to draw your audience in. The second piece is how you can establish credibility about why you should be the person communicating that story at this time. Then, the third piece is providing a movie poster of what the rest of your story will entail but not giving it all away where people don't actually want to watch it.

And to share a bit more about each of those pieces, when it comes to the hook, this might be you jumping right into the story itself. So, you might go into the middle of a scene and leave your audience wondering what is going on. It's really action-oriented, it's engaging, there's a lot of emotion. That's one tactic. Another tactic simply might be a question that's controversial: where you pose that question first and then use a story as a way to answer what your perspective is on that question. So long as it's something in that first sentence or two is going to really hook your audience, that's what matters the most.

And then the second piece is around credibility. And this doesn't need to be bragging about your resume before you start sharing your story. Instead, this could simply be a brief sentence where you connect yourself to the story that you're sharing, namely that story you experienced yourself. Or perhaps you can briefly note that you've been studying the topic for a while and wanted to elucidate your ideas through a particular story.

The last piece for introducing the story is giving the audience a clearer sense of where that story might be headed. And this piece is tricky because you both want to give a clear roadmap or a sense of why people should continue listening to you without giving away so much information that they just check out and say: well, I heard everything, so why should I keep listening to this story?

Desiree Timmermans: 10:27

So, you'll need to keep it vivid. How do you do that?

Shawon Jackson: 10:31

To keep it vivid requires a few things. First is around vivid action verbs that you can use. And when I think about this, for example, I might think about someone running swiftly through the hallways, or I might say they were jumping up and down frantically or clapping their hands really loudly. Whatever is going to show what people in your story are actually doing. And using adverbs can be helpful here, too, so that people can really understand the magnitude of those actions.

The second piece is about the setting, which we talked a bit about earlier—and really naming colors and naming images that are in the room so that people can start to envision themselves in that place.

And then the third piece, when it comes to vivid language, is around analogies. I think analogies are really beautiful and poetic ways to help people understand what's happening in your story in a more creative manner. And so I might say: I was sweating, you know, very profusely as if I had just finished running a two-mile race. Or I might say: I was shaking incessantly as if I were standing outside in the middle of the winter with no coat on. That way, people can start to feel it a bit more; it's a bit more engaging. So, I think using those analogies is another way to bring those details alive.

Desiree Timmermans: 12:00

So it's about using your words.

Shawon Jackson: 12:02


Desiree Timmermans: 12:03

And not being afraid to do that. Describe what you're seeing, describe what you felt, describe where you want to go.

Shawon Jackson: 12:10

Yes. And I think the piece I would emphasise here is show not tell. And it's the perhaps most obvious piece of writing and communication advice that we learned growing up. It's also the most forgotten. When we're in a rush with our communications, it's easy to just tell the audience what happened or tell the audience what the takeaway is. But when you can show them through a story through vivid language, through action through dialogue, what's actually occurring, you engage them a lot more and making more memorable. So taking your time to really flesh out that showpiece is critical.

Desiree Timmermans: 12:50

And what I see sometimes people say: yeah, but I don't have the time to prepare that. Then what can they do? Because I think you need to take the time to prepare.

Shawon Jackson: 12:59

Yes, I agree with that.

Now, some people will say: okay, I've adjusted my schedule. I found a little bit more time to prepare, but I still don't have as much time as I want. What can I actually do? I think what's important here is thinking about minimal preparation, that's actually required to deliver an effective talk. And this is why I think outlines are really helpful. So when it comes to preparing the talk, the goal is not to say: here is every single word I'm going to include. Instead, the goal is to say: my introduction will be a short story about when I was six years old; my three points for this talk will be one, two, and three; and in point number two, I'm going to include a brief anecdote about my friend who did such and such; and then I'll wrap up with a conclusion where I emphasize this takeaway. That can be done effectively in 15 to 20 minutes: taking the time to think through that structure, being clear about what the anecdote is, and then having a reminder to yourself to lean into the details as you're sharing that story.

The last piece that I suggest to folks is to take the time to talk to a friend about your idea. This doesn't need to be going into a room and giving a formal speech and asking for feedback on their speech. Instead, this can be very conversational. And, in fact, the more conversational it is, the better it's going to land with your audience because it is going to feel human and feel real. And so what I suggest to folks is finding a buddy and saying: hey, let's just chat about this talk I'm going to be giving next week. I'm going to share this story about myself when I was six; here's something about sharing it: how does that resonate with you? And then I also wanted to share this other story; what do you think about that? Having that informal dialogue, I think, can lower the pressure you might feel in terms of the formality. And also get you some good input as you prepare.

Desiree Timmermans: 15:26

And it makes it also more fun to share it already and to talk about it and to get some feedback, because then you also get engaged.

You just were talking about hooks, can you tell us a bit more about it?

Shawon Jackson: 15:33

Hooks are so important in a world where attention span is decreasing every day. In the world of social media, I mean, I noticed it for myself just scrolling through TikTok. And if I don't hear that hook in the first five seconds, maybe I'm going to scroll to the next video. So, I think we have to pay a lot of attention to them. And they can take different forms. Some hooks are a story itself, as we've talked about; some hooks might be a question, and some hooks might be a compelling statistic about the issue that you're describing.

When deciding what hook to include, I think you want to consider both your audience and yourself as a communicator. In terms of your audience, you might be talking to folks who are really data-driven. And you know, if you lead with a compelling statistic, their eyes are going to perk up. And they're going to really listen to what you have to say. Or you might be talking to some folks who love stories and the humanities and really want to connect with a person. You start with a brief anecdote. If you're not sure what your audience is going to enjoy more you have a mix of folks, then you can, you know, take your best stab and get some feedback from folks as you prepare.

And the other piece you want to consider is yourself as a communicator. There are some people who feel really comfortable sharing stories. There are others who feel really comfortable talking about numbers. You want to find that middle ground between what's going to suit your audience well at the beginning and what's going to feel good to you. The reason why I emphasize that latter point is because, in my experience with coaching, the first 30 seconds to one minute of your talk is the most nerve-wracking. I feel it myself when I'm presenting. It takes time for your body to relax and say: I got this.

Desiree Timmermans: 17:28


Shawon Jackson: 17:29

And so if you can find an introduction that is going to calm your nerves, help you to really engage with your audience to feel confident, that is, in my view, as important - if not a bit more important -than an introduction that is also going to hit home with your audience. And it's not an either-or. But I think you do yourself a disservice if you think too much about the hook that's going to get your audience's attention without also thinking about a hook that's going to help you feel confident as you continue your talk.

Desiree Timmermans: 17:59

And that also has to do with authenticity. What is that for you authenticity? For me, it's opening up and being honest. Because if you're being honest, then it's also easier to share your story. And that also has to do with authenticity.

Shawon Jackson: 18:11


Desiree Timmermans: 18:13

So for me, authenticity is about being honest to yourself, and to the audience. So what is it for you?

Shawon Jackson: 18:20

I really liked that definition in terms of honesty.

How I think about authenticity is freedom. The reason why I say freedom is because when you are communicating in an authentic way, you're free to express yourself in ways that align with your personality and your values. There are no mental blockers or real blockers from other people that inhibit you from portraying an idea or from using a communication style, whether it's your tone of voice or humor. Instead, you have the freedom to just put it all on the table as you would like. And that's so important when it comes to storytelling to your point because you can share the fullness of your story. And that gives your audience more information to work with and to connect with because you're not hiding bits and pieces of the story.

The other reason why it matters, though, is from a delivery perspective. When you are communicating as your most authentic self, you can be more human in the moment. And humans are really good at sensing whether or not someone is being inauthentic at the moment or whether someone's being fake or fraud or to formal or robotic. We have lots of words to describe this phenomenon of authenticity, and we yearn as humans to really understand who you are as a person. And so a lot of my time working with folks on their communication is to really understand what specifically needs to happen from your tone of voice to the words that you use for your authentic voice to come through clearly because that is a way for your audience to really connect with a real you, which in effect allows your message to land more powerfully with them in the end.

Desiree Timmermans: 20:16

Well, thank you for that. That's a really clear explanation.

And that brings me to Vocal Justice, and Vocal Justice, just for the listeners; I'm looking to Shawon at the moment, and he has a wonderful purple t-shirt with big letters Vocal Justice. It's really nice.

Shawon Jackson: 20.36

Thank you.

Desiree Timmermans: 20:36

We'll share a picture on social media with that. It's really nice. But if we talk about Vocal Justice, it's an organization that you founded, and you are the CEO. What is it?

Shawon Jackson: 20:47

Vocal Justice is an education nonprofit that's focused on helping young people who are proximate to injustice become leaders for social change. And when we say young people who are proximate to injustice, we are largely thinking about black and brown youth who are in resource-constrained communities in the US. Though, we're broadly thinking about any young person who's experienced some adversity because of the identities that they hold.

And our mission is to make sure those young people have the communication skills, community, and social justice knowledge to be incredible leaders for social change, which we know they can be. And the way that we do that is through a leadership education program that's focused on storytelling and social justice education. And the reason why we focus on storytelling is for all the reasons that we talked about in this conversation today. It's a critical skill to be a social change communicator. And there's a lot of scientific research that talks about how you can use stories and your communication. It helps other folks to be more bought into the social cause that you're advocating for. And so, we coupled training around social justice with storytelling to make sure that you have one of the most important skills needed to be an effective leader for social change.

Desiree Timmermans: 22:14

Can you share this story from one of the students that you remember?

Shawon Jackson: 22:19


Back in summer 2019, when I was running my first pilot for Vocal Justice, I had a student who - the first couple of weeks of this four-week program - was not that engaged. And she was like: I don't know if I want to do this; I don't want to get in front of the group and share my thoughts. And, come the end of the program, something clicked. And I think it was another student just saying, you know, I'm gonna get up there; I want you to get up there. She finally got up there, and she did well on her final presentation with her grade. And they were kind of joking with each other at some point; it's just like, look, you really did that; it's good that you finally got up there and shared your perspective.

And her final speech actually was quite beautiful, where she shared a personal story about how she had to take care of her younger brother. She described the hardships that her mother had to face as a black woman in the United States. And seeing her leaning to her power in that final moment, speaking in front of maybe 20 people in the room, was really special. So, I think about her quite a bit in this work.

Now, the story related to that one was a student who ended up not giving his final presentation. We went back and forth for maybe 15 minutes, and he was like: I don't know, I don't want to do it. I have my camera out to record him, and he's going to the front of the room, and he's walking back, and he's going up again and walking back. And we're going back and forth about whether or not he'll give his final presentation. And he decided not to. And as much as I, you know, would have loved that, it was a lesson for me to say: agency is really important - that choice about when and how you want to share your story. And you can't force everyone to do it at any time. Something we think about a lot at Vocal Justice now is choice and having different ways for young people to speak up and not just forcing one particular form of presentation upon them.

Desiree Timmermans: 24:15

So, also make sure that they are in a safe environment where they can share their knowledge, who they are, and their stories. But I often see also that when you take the time to listen to somebody, and if you're really interested and you listen to their story, you also become connected and can understand each other a lot better.

Shawon Jackson: 24:39

That really resonates. One of my favorite activities from Vocal Justice is called life maps. In this activity, students are creating a visual representation of the people in places that have shaped who they are. So what this looks like practically is your own Google Slides; you put icons, things that you care about - and some people put flags for the countries where their parents have emigrated from - people put different pictures from their neighborhood on there. And, when students are presenting these life maps to each other, we encourage them to lean into vulnerability: talking about not just the good of their life today but also some of the challenging moments and really taking their time as they share that story.

Consistent feedback that we get from students is: when I heard another student share their story, I realized I'm not alone. There's somebody else who's gone through a similar struggle. There's someone else who's thinking about their mental health. There is someone else who has struggled academically or someone else who has parents who have immigrated to this country. And so, the connection piece is critical here. And that sometimes is only realized when you open up about the parts of your life that are a bit more difficult to share. And doing that at the beginning of our curriculum is important because it helps to build community. And create a safe haven for young people to then go on and practice storytelling skills, talking about more difficult and complex topics as they relate to social justice.

Desiree Timmermans: 26:17

Yes, and then they can also support each other because they understand what is going on in their lives.

Shawon Jackson: 26:24

And then, they can go on and choose a future story to tell about a particular social justice topic that connects to their own lived experiences. And I think that's the piece of our work that is really important to me: how you can pursue a leadership path that's in alignment with your own lived experiences because you have a unique perspective on that topic.

I shared a story about how my parent was deported from the US. And then four months later into the curriculum, you're talking about social justice, you're talking about immigration, and you're going to have insight on that particular topic based on your own experience. And you might not share that story about your parent as you advocate for immigration reform. But you at least have a connection to that topic that provides meaning for you as you're doing this work and gives the people you're talking to more personal insight into that topic.

Desiree Timmermans: 27:23

Yes, I agree. And I think the mission of Vocal Justice is envision a world where everyone is liberated because everyone is cared for. So now I'm going to ask you: how will the movie poster of this look like for you?

Shawon Jackson: 27:40

A preview of what this world looks like is young people sitting in the classroom with 14 other students. They are wearing a whole host of things, and there are vibrant color t-shirts, quotes on some shirts, bands, and artists listed on other shirts. A teacher is sitting at the front of the room, laughing with students as they reflect on what their days have been like so far. And they go home to families who are really happy to see them at the end of the day, asking them how their days went. And, sitting together for a nice dinner meal, enjoy whatever food they want. So it's really about joy, comfort, and connection.

Desiree Timmermans: 28:29

That is wonderful. I hope the movie will be there within a couple of years. 

Shawon Jackson: 28:34

That will be a dream.

Desiree Timmermans: 28:36

We have now talked about storytelling, Vocal Justice. For the listeners who want to know more about it, can you recommend them some resources?

Shawon Jackson: 28:45

There is a site called The Science of Story Building. It's a medium article site that lists different frameworks for storytelling that you can consider and then also includes some research about the effectiveness of storytelling.

And there is also a book by Chris Anderson, who's the former head of TED, and his book is called TED Talks. And I think that's a great book that includes some storytelling tips, as well as some other communication tips.

Desiree Timmermans: 29:18

Okay. These are great resources. They definitely will enjoy that.

So, we are already coming to the end of the podcast, but is there anything else that you would like to share with the listeners?

Shawon Jackson: 29:28

The last thing I'll share or emphasize is that the more we each open up about our personal stories and are vulnerable, the more we inspire others to do the same. So what it requires is someone taking that first risk. And I think it's on us as leaders to be the first movers so that we can start a chain reaction of folks who are opening up and sharing this story so that we have a more connected and, I think more beautiful world.

Desiree Timmermans: 30:00

Yes, I think that's important. Make the world a better place.

Shawon, I would say thank you very much for being on the podcast and for sharing your expertise, your knowledge, and your engagement. Thank you very much.

Shawon Jackson: 30:15

Thank you for having me. It's been a pleasure connecting with you, and thank you to everyone who has listened in on this conversation.


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Storytelling: What & Why
Vocal Justice
Recommended Resources