Jessica Lawrence always loved stories. She grew up in a small New Hampshire town, the daughter of attorneys and the oldest of two children. Her parents put the kids to bed at night by reading stories to them. "I needed some type of storytelling happening in the background as I fell asleep," she recalls. But the demand outstripped supply; Lawrence wanted to hear more stories than her parents were able to tell. Eventually her parents bought and played tapes of Native American folklore. Lawrence would fall asleep hearing an old American Indian myth about why eclipses happened.
She began college as an English major, winding up a psych major. All the while, she kept up an active practice of journaling. When she graduated, she joined the Girl Scouts of America, focusing on fundraising for the San Gorgonio, Calif., chapter. Soon, she learned that her approach to grant proposal writing was distinctive. Those reading her proposals said they actually enjoyed reading them, for a change. Instead of including dry data, Lawrence had gotten into the habit of telling stories.
For instance, she had shared in a funding proposal for STEM education the story of a girl whose father owned an alarm system business. Her mother said that prior to STEM training, the girl helped her father with simple tasks like stuffing envelopes. After a few weeks of STEM training, she went to her father and said, "I don’t want to help you stuff envelopes. I want to help you install the alarm systems."
Later, the same trick that worked on funders, she tried on her own colleagues. When she found that colleagues weren’t assimilating key information from a PowerPoint presentation she’d made, she racked her brain for how to improve her presentation. "The idea came to me that I should just illustrate this with a character," she recalls. She drew a rudimentary stick figure with a Girls Scout sash and beanie, called her Sally the Girl Scout, and "just basically hand-drew a storyboard," she said. When she started using this rudimentary video, "I’d see people’s faces light up. Using storytelling and a fictional character made a huge difference in terms of being able to move forward," she recalls.
Around this time, she and some colleagues were struggling to communicate to a tech firm about what they wanted from their "CRM," or customer relationship management, system. They made a lot of lists and sketches, but it still wasn’t clicking. That’s when Lawrence did something weird.
She needed a new mode to communicate the idea that something was broken, something that had the potential to be way, way better.
She opened a Word document and typed: "Once upon a time..." Then she finished the sentence: "there was a Girl Scout council with an amazing CRM system."
Lawrence went on to write an entire fairy tale, following several characters who work at a Girl Scout council that had a perfect CRM system that did everything she and her colleagues wanted. It got into specifics about how a mother whose child was sick could still use the system from home. It was realistic about how people behaved, how software could fit into their lives. "When you’re thinking about what you want, out of what you don’t have, what you have in your mind is a fairy tale," she recalls now.
She wrote out the last sentences: "The Facebook post is done right through the CRM system and the VP of product sales has a great conversation with the volunteer and posts her call notes, confirming that the issue has been resolved. And with that, the council and its amazing CRM system lived happily ever after."
She recalls, "I knew some people would find it incredibly weird, but I kind of didn’t care. I was trying to solve a problem." She knew no better way to communicate what she wanted—both to herself, and to others. "Storytelling gets to the heart of what I want someone’s user experience to be," she says.
She sent the fairy tale to the tech consultants. "When they saw it, they loved it. They saw, ‘Oh, they want the system to be able to do this.’"
Years later, when she joined New York Tech Meetup (first as its managing director, now as its executive director), Lawrence again found herself relying on fairy tale-like narratives to solve problems. Sitting down to plan a conference, she decided to write herself a letter from the point of view of a someone who had just attended the perfect conference, and was thrilled.
"In going through that process, I got to thinking more about what details I could add to make this especially impactful for people," she recalls. "It triggered a lot of creative thinking about what I could do to make people feel welcome." For instance, the venue had a huge unused chalkboard. Writing the fake letter gave Lawrence the idea to hire a chalkboard artist to draw chalk portraits of every person attending. At the actual conference, it was a hit. "Everyone started posing next to their portrait," she recalls. "Thinking about those details made people feel welcome, and without that trigger of writing that letter from the perspective of someone excited about the experience—what they would have to say about it, what they would be feeling—I wouldn’t have come up with all those details."
She now calls storytelling "one of my favorite business tools," and one of the most effective ways of getting unstuck.
"I think that storytelling is such a fundamentally human way of relating to the world," she says. "I think that in the business world, we often try to take the humanity out of our processes and act like a well-oiled machine. We try to get everything into perfect alignment with lists and diagrams. Storytelling brings back that human side of business."