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How To Practice The Art Of Storytelling In Your Career With Laura Lewis-Barr

Now that the previous series has helped you realize your worth, it is time to communicate that to your manager or potential employer. For the second guest in the storytelling series, Rosie Zilinskas sits down with Laura Lewis-Barr to help you become a storyteller in your career. An award-winning writer, Laura has been practicing the art of storytelling and coaching others to perfect their stories, so they can inspire, motivate, and persuade. In this episode, she talks about accessing this superpower and using storytelling to your advantage, especially as leaders. She also shares some of the research about the relation of storytelling and our brain, and how stories can give us a competitive advantage when communicating. Tune in as Laura tells us more about how we can turn our stories into art, representing our authentic selves as we move up the ladders of our careers.

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How To Practice The Art Of Storytelling In Your Career With Laura Lewis-Barr

Storytelling Series Episode 2 Of 3

In this episode, we’re going to continue our conversation on storytelling. We have Laura Lewis-Barr. She’s going to talk to us about how to become a better storyteller in your career. Let me tell you a little bit about Laura. Laura Lewis-Barr has explored authenticity on theater stages in corporate boardrooms for many years. She specializes in helping executives and staff communicate their ideas with humor, vitality, and presence. An award-winning writer, Laura is practiced in the art of storytelling and often coaches on perfecting stories to inspire, motivate, and persuade others. She has worked with managers from Chase Bank, Thomson Reuters, Dow Chemical, AOL, Toyota, and many other large and small companies. A few things that we’re going to talk about are how leaders can use storytelling to their advantage, what is the research about storytelling in the brain, and how stories give you a competitive edge when communicating. These are the things that we’re going to be focusing on in this episode. The reason why we’re doing this is that we’ve already done the negotiation series. You’ve already done all the hard work. You already know your worth. How do you communicate that to your manager or a potential employer? Laura gives us a key to how to use storytelling in your career. This is going to be a great episode because Laura has been doing this for many years and is very eloquent. Stay tuned for Laura Lewis-Barr.

Laura, thank you so much for being here on the show. I know you’re a storyteller. You say that with storytelling, anyone can be a leader. What do you mean by that? Thank you for having me. When we tell stories, we connect with people in a powerful way. There has been research that when we tell a story, our brains light up fully when we tell a story well. As opposed to when we’re giving a factoid, bullet point data, only the verbal parts of the brain light up. We’re hacking into someone’s brain when we tell a story. When we can do that, we have the ability to influence, persuade, and motivate, which is what leaders are doing. We can all have that access to that superpower when we tell a story well. I love the fact that you said it’s a superpower because my show is focused on women in the corporate world trying to advance in their careers. Often, people in the corporate world and the business world forget that storytelling is part of your tool belt to have this superpower in being able to show your value and your worth. You and I are recording a 3 or 4-part series on storytelling. We published a series on negotiating. This segues well into the negotiation because you’ve done all the work on how to show your worth, and now we want to talk about how to articulate that. One of the things that I say is I help women articulate their worth with massive confidence, conviction, and clarity. Storytelling is so key in doing that. How can leaders use storytelling to their advantage more specifically? You may ask me about this. To do storytelling well isn’t natural to us. In fact, our educational process takes us away from that ability. We’re all trained to think at the 40,000-foot abstract level. When I go micro and tell a story to you about a small event, then I’m able to build rapport and empathy. Those are also the building blocks of relationship and leadership. That answered the question you asked me. The question there is when you are a leader, you have to think not in facts, figures, and numbers, but how those facts impact maybe your customer. Do you have any examples of how people can use storytelling to impact their clients or customers? I can give personal examples, but the best example I have is the President of the United States who gives the state of the union tells stories. You would think that the president would be giving us huge figures of this massive country we live in, but the brain doesn’t work that way. I coach a lot of salespeople. They’re always saying, “There’s no story here,” but we’re swimming in stories. There’s the story of the client problem that was fixed. There’s the story of the client who chose not to use the fix and the terrible thing that happened. There’s a story about how the product was developed and why. There’s nothing but story. We don’t see we’re swimming in it. That is so incredible. I love that you said that because we are so oblivious. You talked a little bit about school. We’re so focused on memorizing facts and regurgitating, and then when you regurgitate it, it’s gone. A lot of people cram for tests. You pass the test, and then you forget. It’s so interesting that when you use those stories, it lights up different parts of your brain and you remember things more. That’s one of the main keys, especially in education, to use stories. I’m also a speaker. A lot of times, when you think about a speech, you want to think about it in visuals or pictures. It’s much easier to remember and be comfortable with giving a speech when you’re thinking about it in pictures versus a lot of facts and a lot of detail that you have to relate to. Would you agree with that? Totally. The brain works that way. The people that have been influential like Jesus and other people speak in stories. It’s always stories. I’m partial to the hero’s journey as the template of a story. The how to tell a story is something that we’re going to practice our stories. What they have to include that we never include in our daily life is the obstacle because that is what we’re all interested in. How are you living this difficult life? How are you managing your job, work, and kids? That’s why we read novels and go to plays and movies. We’re interested in this heroic journey we’re all on even in the smallest ways. You talked about The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell. I’m re-listening to the book, so it’s so interesting that you mention it. Let’s talk a little bit about the research on the brain. You mentioned it a little bit. What do you know or how much have you studied the research of storytelling when it comes to the brain? I have done some studies on that. I know there’s somebody out of Princeton whose name is escaping me at the moment. His research was saying that when I tell a story well, our brains start to sync up, which is another way of saying hacking into the brain. The way we know that the whole brain lights up are through MRI studies of people listening to the story. When we think about the fact that through millennia, before written language, people were listening to a story, that might explain why the brain may be evolved that way. We do know that stories land in the brain differently. That’s why when you give a presentation or anybody does, the story is what we remember. I also know people may not remember what you said, but they will remember how you made them feel. It’s so interesting. I was watching the commercial, and I was perfectly fine and emotionally stable. All of a sudden, I got so emotional with the commercial. I don’t even remember what the commercial was, but I do remember that I felt such emotion because it was a family thing. My son moved to Arizona, so I’m missing him. I got so emotional. I’m like, “This is a stupid commercial.” I got so emotional with the story in the commercial. It was effective. You bring up a great point in terms of stories that imply emotion. Those are the two areas that I’ve focused on in my life, which are storytelling and emotional intelligence. They go together very strongly. There are two things that we want to leave out of the corporate world. We’re like, “Leave my emotion out of it. Leave the story out of it. Let’s have the facts,” and then we are not reaching each other where we live. I have heard corporations are trying to bring the whole person into the company, not just the employee. Many different companies are doing many different things as far as diversity, equity, inclusion, health, and stuff like that. You’re right. We are all humans, and we are all trying to work at whatever corporation. Sometimes, we’re so stifled or suffocated by the business and not bringing in that emotional intelligence, which is so important. If you do a proper emotional intelligence study on your team and figure out what makes each person tick, then you’re going to be able to get better productivity out of your team. You have to go through the process of doing that study, whether it’s the DISC, Facet5, StrengthsFinder, or whatever different analytics. There is something to be said about treating the employee as a human being with emotions and stories. That’s great. I know you say that there is a competitive advantage whenever you’re relating to your boss or other people in the corporate world when you tell stories. What do you think is that competitive advantage? When I tell a story, I’m inviting the other person to feel their humanness. When I first started working in emotional intelligence, I was trained to do more childlike colors and games. I was working with little pieces of wire and physical things. I went to my instructor and said, “How can I do this in the corporate world? How can I do this with CEOs?” When you tell a story, you invite the other person to feel their humanness. – Laura Lewis-Barr Share on X When we’re all desperate to feel our humanity, stories invite that. They build rapport and empathy. I have a competitive advantage when I go to that place. It requires me to be vulnerable in a certain way, but when I’m vulnerable, it creates a safety and connection with the other person. I coach a lot of people for using stories in the interview process. Whether I’m interviewing for a new job or a promotion, it is the key way to help me make that deep connection or that memorable connection so that I’m the one that comes back to the 2nd or 3rd interview and gets that job. When you say making that connection, if someone is reading and they are either interviewing or maybe wanting to ask for a raise or a promotion, how can they start figuring out where to pull those stories from when it comes to their work? That’s where the disconnect is. How do you do that with some of your clients? Here’s the advantage I have. I have worked in stories since my childhood. My background’s in the theater. I’m a filmmaker. I recognize that there’s an arc to a story and a journey that we go on in a story. The journey we want to take our boss on is the challenge we had and how we overcame it. We never tell the challenge. I might say to you, “I made a full-length film in 2010.” So what if I tell you the journey of that? We have the tough challenge because our stories have to be brief in the business world. We’re not giving a TED Talk. This is one of the reasons why we have to practice because we want to take someone on a quick but powerful journey. Those could be a few key moments of my struggle and some key images that I’m going to put in your brain about my struggle and how I overcame it. That’s the basic formula. We’re going to have to give a little backstory so that they know what we’re talking about. This is where we get hung up when storytellers give so much backstory. We’ve all been there. Someone launches a story. They’re going on and on and we don’t know where the story’s going. They’ve lost us. A little backstory, the obstacle, and how we overcame it is one formula. Years ago, I worked with a professional resume writer. It was a similar process because I went in with my resume, which was ten years old. I started talking to her. She asked me a lot of questions and I answered them. When she gave me my resume, it was this beautiful work of art. It sounds like that’s similar to what you do with your clients. What do you do with your clients then? I love that. Our stories should be works of art. We practice them out loud a bunch of times and find out what is vital to take us on that journey. Working with my clients, especially for interview coaching, one thing I notice is that clients have to tell me a bunch of stories, and a lot of them would never tell them in an interview. They have to get them out. The other thing that I also notice is we’re all so hard on ourselves. We’re all so brutal on ourselves. We don’t see the heroic journey we’ve taken. We don’t see heroism in our everyday lives. What screenwriters or novelists do is they have a skill to take the ordinary and elevate it so that we can see. You know. You mentioned being a mom. You swim in the heroism of that role constantly. There are a zillion stories that you could use even in business. It’s not always, but there are moments. If you tell a story about raising your son as a parallel to the work we do, you’re going to connect with all the parents. I like that. The key thing there is you almost have to sit down and brainstorm to come up with a lot of different stories. The way I tell my clients to do that is there are behavioral interview questions. I tell them, “When you’re at home on the weekend and you’re watching TV, grab your laptop. Research behavioral interview questions and make sure that you have a story for each question. It could be 30 random questions.” What that does is it accelerates your brain to think about things that you haven’t thought about in years. I’m like, “Either physically write it down or type it.” That’s because it jogs your memory on different examples that you can use during the interview. That’s what you’re saying. It’s to make sure that you look at the mundane or the things that you may not think are a big deal but could be a good example of a story to use in the interview. That’s brilliant. The only thing I would add to that is we have to practice them out loud, which nobody wants to do because we feel dorky. We got to do it because the brain and the mouth are separate. The other thing I do with clients, if they’re going for a job, is to use that job description for the stories. The interview is telling you everything that they care about. Use that and find stories for each of those things. That makes a lot of sense too. I like that. You said that a well-designed story has three parts. Let’s go through those three parts again, and then tell us some other tips that you usually use with your clients when you are putting together a story. We need the basic context. That’s the who, what, and where maybe, but it’s usually much briefer than we do. That’s a huge struggle for my clients to recognize, “I don’t need all that backstory.” What is the story about? Give me those basics. The other thing I coach people on is recognizing that a story is usually one moment in time, not in general. We have to force ourselves not to talk generally about how we work with our clients, but talk about the time that we had. We want to use names and numbers to make a story land. Joe and I worked for interview coaching, and he had left a job in a bad way. He had had a bad ending. He was terrified about doing the interview process and how he was going to deal with that scary question of, “What happened in your last job? Why did you leave?” We practiced. First, he told me what happened. He was feeling so bad about it, but I could see in the story how heroically he had tried. The focus of the story was not to trash his previous employer but to give the facts of what happened and how he dealt with them. He recognized he had a beautiful story to tell. I pivoted there because I was doing what I said not to do, which is to talk in general. We have to talk specifically, and that’s the struggle. It is to get out of the macro and get to the micro. We end the story generally with what the story is about. Some stories are very complicated. We have to work hard to figure out how we’re going to end it, but we don’t have to give the listener every single event that happened from A to Z. We can jump anywhere we want. A lot of times, that is the biggest issue. You have, let’s say, an event that happens to you and you want to tell every little thing that happened. It’s so overwhelming. Sometimes, specifically, the people that are interviewing or the interviewers, typically, if they have five minutes to look at your resume before you sit in front of them, that’s a lot. A lot of people are like, “I have 30 seconds to look at the summary and graze through the resume. That’s all I have.” When you are telling those stories, you’re right. You have to be concise to the point and get your point across without all of the stuff that is not necessary. I don’t know if you’ve seen the commercial. They’re advertising a vehicle. I don’t even know what kind of vehicle it is. The commercial starts with a young man. He gets in his brand-new car and his mom is on the phone. He’s taking a really long ride, and the mom keeps talking. She’s giving him so many details and this poor man is like, “Uh-huh.” She’s like, “Are you listening to me? Do you want me to repeat that?” He was like, “No. Don’t repeat it.” It was 45 minutes of this woman talking. That is a good commercial because you can relate to situations where you need, “Just give me the information that I need. Don’t give me all of the details and backstory because I don’t have time for that.” It reminds me back to what we were saying. It’s a work of art. There are a couple of things there. One is people are so sincere that they want to give me every single moment because that’s what happened. Art is art because we’re changing it from the way life is. We’re not lying ever. We’re giving the gist of the truth. If my story contains a conversation I had with a client, I’m not transcribing word for word. I’m giving the gist. Art is art because we're changing it from the way life is. – Laura Lewis-Barr Share on X I live in Chicago. If you go to the Chicago Art Institute and walk around, every single painting has a story. I have no idea what the story could have been, but a lot of times, it’s very obvious. To your point, an artist paints something. They have this whole story in their head as to what they want to create. They have one picture or one work of art to display. The person looking at it then interprets it, which is the interviewee and the interviewer’s role. You’re trying to give them the best of you, and then the interviewer trying to receive the best of you and trying to make sure it’s a good fit so that you can get hired, hopefully. It is to practice and create that work of art or that small story that illustrates who you are and to take that time in that interview. When the interviewer says, “Tell me about yourself,” you don’t go into factoid things in your resume, but you launch into a beautiful story that you have prepared. You’ll become super memorable. That’s so key. That’s why I don’t use that framework for our show. If you noticed at the beginning of our show, I didn’t say, “Tell me about yourself.” I went straight into a question. That’s because although I’m interested to learn about you and I will ask you about yourself, I don’t want people to go like, “I was born in 1969.” Tell me about yourself is so ambiguous that you need to hone in on what it is that you want to showcase. This conversation is so critically important for anyone in the corporate world that is trying to do some kind of goal, whether it’s getting a promotion or a raise. You have to go and show your worth, and the way you’re going to do it is through word, through communication, and primarily through a story. What is the relation between empathy, rapport, and storytelling? We have mentioned this before. It’s that when I’m telling a story well about my struggle, the listener immediately feels some empathy because they struggle. That builds empathy and rapport together. We feel closer, which is why we have to bring emotions into the workplace. It’s the only way. To talk about what if I have a difficult conversation with someone and I’m giving the facts, that’s one way. If I say, “I’m struggling to communicate with you because we’ve been here before. We’ve had this tough conversation before. I’m scared, concerned, or frustrated,” those words build empathy and rapport even though it’s difficult. You have emotions. We have emotions.
NWB 55 | Storytelling In Your Career
Storytelling In Your Career: When I’m telling a story about my struggle, the listener immediately feels some empathy because they struggle.
It’s to be able to recognize that the manager is not the end-all-be-all. Managers are human beings, and they have feelings, too. I talked to one of my guests in the negotiation series. They said one of the things that they do is as a manager, when they are going to be having a difficult conversation, they will start with something like, as an example, “I have observed some things that I would like to share with you. Is it okay if I share that information with you?” It’s almost like asking permission or asking for their agreement to have that two-way conversation. If you approach somebody and say, “You’re screwing up,” it’s a different way of approaching. You can reach that person to buy into you wanting to help them, but there has to be that back-and-forth emotional path between the manager and the employee. It’s the more the manager can bring forward their own emotional state. It’s like, “I know our last conversation was a bit of a struggle. I feel a little nervous, but are you willing to try again?” I’m bringing myself into it. I’m not God. I’m a person. I love that. I used to be a manager. One of the things that I did when one of my coworkers, because I always call them coworkers even though we had different levels, would walk into my office and my computer would be facing away from the door. When they would come in, I would physically turn my body to them so that they knew that I was looking at them. That had such a difference in relating to the person and me treating them as an individual. I also remember sometimes I would walk in first thing in the morning. This is when we were all back in the offices. I’m sitting and putting my stuff away, code away, or whatever. Someone would walk in and ask me a question. The first thing I would say is, “Good morning, Sarah,” or, “Good morning, Jim,” or whatever. Acknowledge me as a person first and then ask me the question. I wouldn’t care if they’re like, “How are you? I have a question. I have someone on the phone.” Acknowledge me as a person first and then go into your questions. Some of us who are task-oriented forget that. There are some of that WD-40 that we need to grease our relationships with each other and make smooth. You have a lot of experience in storytelling. I do want to hear a little bit about your journey. You said that you have been pretty much storytelling since you were a child. How did you know as you were growing up that that’s what you were focusing on, and then you were able to coach people with storytelling? I’d like to know about your story. Sometimes, for myself and maybe others, stories reveal themselves in retrospect. It wasn’t that I knew. As I think about it, I was telling stories as a kid. The theater was my vehicle. I got my degrees in Theater. I taught theater and public speaking for many years. For me, story has always been both fiction and non-fiction. There’s been my work as a playwright, screenwriter, and filmmaker, and then my work with clients in non-fiction. They’re all stories. I know that my fiction work informs my ability to help other people craft and recognize the arc of their own stories. There is such a power to recognize that I am living a heroic story. There’s something almost religious about recognizing that my life is meaningful. There are stories here.
NWB 55 | Storytelling In Your Career
Storytelling In Your Career: There is such a power to recognize that I am living a heroic story. There’s something almost religious about recognizing that my life is meaningful.
I love that. When did you start coaching clients with storytelling? Many years ago, I left college teaching. I moved into corporate training and did all sorts of emotional intelligence and communication training. Certainly, when COVID hit, then it was all online and one-on-one. I was doing one-on-one before that, but there is nothing like that Zoom intimacy when you’re with one person. I did a lot of interview coaching then and still do. You’re an award-winning writer. I’d like to know what did you write and what award you received. I’ve received a number of awards for screenwriting and playwriting. I’ve had film festival awards or awards from theaters or colleges regarding my writing. The reason I ask is because you’re an award-winning writer. Storytelling is so important. Did you act? Were you on a theater stage in high school or college, or were you behind the scenes in the theater? I was a performer for years. Musical comedy was one of the things I love doing, but my skill is more directing and writing than performing. I saw that pretty early on. Corporate training became a wonderful way back to be on the stages you know and do this little edutainment where you make the training fun. All my theater skills are always being utilized. That’s awesome. We talked about emotional intelligence. When it comes to emotional intelligence, I want you to explain a little bit about what exactly is emotional intelligence and how can people use it in their stories. EI is recognizing that our emotions themselves have an intelligence that we can utilize. When I feel afraid or angry, there’s a message there for me that is important to decode. Our emotions are there as a guide. They’re our internal GPS. When we ignore them, we lose this valuable information. Likewise for managers, when they ignore the emotions of their team, they’re losing incredibly valuable information or the emotions of their clients. In terms of storytelling, there’s so much. In terms of presenting our stories, when our amygdala is firing, and that’s the emotional center of the brain, we don’t think as well. Our verbal centers get shut down by the fight-flight. As we work with our emotions, we cannot be maybe so run by them and get more access to our higher-thinking brain. We’re using our emotions to figure out how to tell our story better. Let’s say I’m terrified of speaking. Many of us have struggled or struggle with that. I’m terrified that I’m going to forget what I was going to say. I can work with fear and practice my presentation so I feel less afraid and I get more confidence. I start to recognize that I’m not forgetting things because I’m more relaxed as I speak. Instead of ignoring that fear, it is recognizing where it comes from. You’re like, “What can I do about it?” Instead of ignoring that fear, recognize where it comes from. – Laura Lewis-Barr Share on X The, “What can I do about it,” is practice and practice because that’s the way you’re going to feel comfortable telling the story. 70% or 80% of people are afraid of public speaking. That’s the number one fear of people in the world. It’s important to be able to practice. The more you practice, the more natural it is and the less you forget. I find that sometimes when I do my same signature talk, I may forget a little piece here and there. It’s not always perfect because I don’t have notes and I’m not reading stuff or whatever. I might forget one thing that I was like, “I forgot that,” but nobody knows what I was going to say anyway, so it’s okay. I have noticed that the more I do my talk, the more natural it is that I’m incorporating all the important pieces of the conversation that I wanted to incorporate. It does take practice. I know we talked about the classic story template. Is that what we opened with as far as the three-part template for a story? Yes. Sometimes, I make it into 4, but 3 is easier to remember. It’s the context, the obstacle, and the resolution. Every single movie, play, and even song a lot of times has that. I appreciate everything that you have shared. You are coaching clients. If someone in the corporate world wanted to work with you, do you work with corporate clients in order to advance their career, whether it’s interviewing, talking to their manager, or anything like that? What kind of coaching do you do for them? I coach one-on-one and I go into companies. When I go into companies, what’s cool is if we do a public speaking workshop, that storytelling becomes an essential part of it. I’ve done a few. The coworkers and the manager hear each other’s stories and some stories they’ve never heard before. It becomes not only learning about storytelling and public speaking, but it becomes almost a retreat for the group because they’re spending the day hearing each other’s stories. It’s powerful. That’s so cool. We have your website. You have given us some tremendous information. I typically ask my guests if there are maybe two actionable tips that you can provide the audience that they can use in either their life or their corporate careers. The repetition is good to say that practice our stories out loud and then tell them. Tell stories. Tell short stories. The more we tell, the more we will remember and the more we will see stories that we can incorporate every day. It will become not the water that’s invisible, but the water that we’re swimming in very consciously.
NWB 55 | Storytelling In Your Career
Storytelling In Your Career: Practice our stories out loud and then tell them. The more we tell, the more we will remember and the more we will see stories that we can incorporate every day.
I love that. We have the negotiating series, and then we’re doing the storytelling series. It’s so important because you need to know yourself, your worth, and your value. What I mean by that is knowing your skills, knowing how much you want to get paid, knowing what you want, and asking for what you want. Those are the concrete things that you’re going after. The beauty of this is that with storytelling, you know that you need to make those things as concise and precise as possible so that you have a good story when you go in and talk to whomever you’re going to talk to. This has been fabulous. Thank you. Do you have any final words that you want to leave our audience with? The final word is we are all living beautifully. Sometimes, our struggles can be beautiful and our stories can be beautiful. The more we tell them, the more we create a connection in our world with each other. That’s wonderful. Thank you so much for your time. I appreciate you coming to the show. I hope that everybody has paid attention to this because this has been a very important conversation. Thank you. Thanks, Rosie.

Some of the takeaways that I got out of this great conversation with Laura is that storytelling is a superpower. Often, we forget that we can pair up storytelling with emotional intelligence. It resonates whenever we’re using those in the corporate world. She also says that when you’re telling a story and being vulnerable, it shows your humanity. That makes you relatable. A good story has three parts. 1) A very short backstory. 2) The obstacle. 3) How you get over that obstacle. What is the solution? You also want to make sure that the story is a moment in time and not over several years. It’s one moment in time. Use names and numbers to make sure that the story lands well. Another thing that she said is to use the job description so that you can choose the right stories to match the job description. If you’re using stories that highlight those skills that they’re looking for in the job description, then you’re a sure thing to at least get a callback. Laura does provide us with two tips. 1) Practice the story out loud. Practice the story and do it out loud. 2) Tell the story to family, friends, your spouse, or kids. By doing so, you might get some good feedback from your family and friends if the story is too long or too short, or maybe you need to put in some more names and numbers in the story. This is great information that Laura shared. I was very appreciative that she could spend time with us. With that, remember to be brave, be bold, and take action.

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About Laura Lewis-Barr

NWB 55 | Storytelling In Your CareerLaura Lewis-Barr has explored authenticity on theatre stages and corporate boardrooms for 20 years. She specializes in helping executives and staff communicate their ideas with humor, vitality, and presence. An award-winning writer, Laura is practiced in the art of storytelling and often coaches on perfecting stories to inspire, motivate, and persuade others. She has worked with managers from Chase Bank, Thomson Reuters, Dow Chemical, AOL, Toyota, and many other large and small companies.