Whether it's sitting around a campfire, flopping down in front of the TV, or gathering 'round for Show & Tell each week, stories bring people closer together.
So when Naike Romain, Wistia's Product Marketing Specialist, attended a storytelling night earlier this year across town at HubSpot, she immediately knew she wanted to bring the event in some capacity to Wistia.
Similar to the structure popularized by The Moth (but without any of the fierce competition or unfamiliar faces in attendance), Storytelling Night would be a chance for Wistians to come together around a single theme and share tales about that theme in front of a supportive audience.
What most impressed Naike about HubSpot's event was the obvious amount of effort the company had put into creating a safe environment for their storytelling employees, in addition to showcasing storytellers from different teams across the company—not to mention those who were based remotely in cities like Dublin. Naike was keen to replicate that sense of camaraderie at Wistia’s event. "We knew that if we pulled it off, all of our hard work was going to be worth it just to make that feeling of connection happen," she said.
Soon after, a theme was decided upon—"growth"—which Naike liked because participants could take it in many different ways. "Some of the stories were about childhood, others about adulthood . . . There was a nice variety that ran the gamut in terms of how funny or serious they were."
Maria Theo, a Customer Champion who helped coordinate the event, agreed. "We knew [the topic of growth] could evoke a lot of different responses from people," she said. "We didn't want it to be totally sad or lighthearted, and that topic leant itself to be taken in different directions."
The plan's the thing
With the night's theme in place, Naike, Maria, and the rest of the Diverstia planning committee (a group of Wistians that meet weekly to promote inclusion and diversity at the company) set out to create a space where everyone felt safe enough to be vulnerable, all with the end goal of building empathy amongst their teammates through the medium of telling stories.
In order to do that, Naike and Maria knew they needed to set specific deadlines not only for themselves, but especially for the Wistians who took on the challenge of sharing their stories. Getting up in front of an audience of your peers to (in some cases) bare your soul isn't exactly a walk in the park.
Wistia co-founder and CTO Brendan Schwartz was one of those participants who needed a bit of prodding at first. "I always try to avoid any public speaking because usually I volunteer, then end up regretting it immensely," he joked. "But it just felt like something that was important. It was clear that a ton of thought had gone into [the event] from the get-go."
Maria sent regular emails to participants, detailing how far along they should be in their story structure at each checkpoint. And even before that, she made sure to include members from every team at Wistia, be it customer support, sales, or people operations—no team was left unrepresented. "It would've felt different if it was focusing only on a group of insular, like-minded people," Brendan added. "This brought everyone together."
Maria even shot and edited a video entirely on her own (she doesn't work on the Creative team, mind you) to get other Wistians amped up for the big night.
Stories we tell
After 6 intense weeks of planning, self-imposed deadlines, and a dress rehearsal that let everyone get their jitters out, it was showtime.
Through Diverstia's careful planning, the Wistia bleachers that are so often cramped with people sitting awkwardly had been transformed into a cabaret-type atmosphere with high seating, dim lights, and an overall mood that rivaled your intimate neighborhood jazz club. "It was important to us that the space look differently so that it didn't feel like your average company meeting," Naike said. "From the moment the night started, people were respectful, attentive, and supportive, and I think the atmosphere had a lot to do with that."
Dinner was catered, libations were poured, everyone's favorite host (Tom Green from Wistia's Customer Happiness team) was on hand to move things along, and 15 storytellers from Wistia, both in-person and remote, took to the stage to share their wits, their pains, and their realities.
Growing individually, and as a company
At the end of the night, through the copious guffaws from the audience—and even a few tears—the stories had done their jobs: they had allowed people who had so often worked together to connect on a more personal level, ultimately making for a stronger, more empathetic team when they returned to the office the next day.
"For me, the storytelling format was by far the most successful activity yet in making me feel more connected to those I work with," said Dan Mills, Creative Director at Wistia.
Maria attributes much of that success to the audience itself. "Some storytelling nights can be more on the competitive side, but everyone [at Wistia] was supportive," she said. "We were all rooting for each other." So much so, in fact, that the Diverstia is already looking at dates to start planning the next Storytelling Night.
Still, Brendan says hosting a similar event might not work for every company. "I can see how it could go horribly wrong if you're just doing it for the sake of doing it," he said. "You need to build it on a foundation where people are already trusting and encouraging, which is something many companies hopefully already have in place."
For Naike, what stood out most was the sense of community that was fostered and built upon that night. "One of my biggest hopes it that the event will encourage folks to feel safe enough to share with their peers more often and feel connected to the people they work with," she said. "It was encouraging to see audience members who didn’t tell a story that night ask if they could participate next time."
And for Brendan (who said he was most blown away by the quality of the storytelling itself), he thinks Storytelling Night helped break down the barriers of casual workplace conversations that are so typical. "It was cool to see people feeling comfortable and encouraged to jump in and share who they really are," he said. "After all, relationships and trust are what make the world go around." Not to mention the workplace.