I can help because I’ve spent years developing and directing storytelling projects as well as coaching hundreds of authors, speakers and business owners. I’ve discovered the power real-life stories have to uniquely influence and “wow” others.How I do this is through my personalized story coaching and consulting, Story Focus Days and Story Retreats all of which equip my clients with the most effective communications tool ever. I can turn you into a master storyteller so that you become more memorable to your audiences who then tell others that you’re the best speaker ever.
One of the key principles of great storytelling is that the main character has epiphanies or what I call “light bulb-moments.” These are key times when he or she realizes something which then changes everything.
See if you can find those light bulb moments when reading my personal stories below! Hover over words that signal discovery or “A-ha” moments to see which words light up!
My Career Story
Growing up, my grandmother told engaging stories about herself and her family. As we roared with laughter and asked to hear those stories again and again, I began to realize that these stories were keeping our family together and connected in what was otherwise a difficult childhood for me.
In my mid-twenties, I became the youngest president and then producer for a Philadelphia-based Gilbert & Sullivan opera company – The Savoy Company, the oldest of its kind in the world. Those years spent in managing hundreds of volunteers, doing some amateur acting and producing their shows not only brought me out of my shell but also launched me on a path which eventually led to founding my own local live theater company called Celebration Theater.
Launching Celebration Theater in Lansdowne, PA., was a crazy combination of enthusiasm, creativity and mission. Lansdowne is an older suburb just outside of Philly and had lost its heart over the years – businesses were sketchy, residents leaving, school system in decline. Yet it retained charming Victorian homes, a great location and a vibrant history of the arts.
One day, while driving through Lansdowne on the way to work, it suddenly occurred to me that a high-level community theatre could help build community and reinvigorate the town (you can read more about this by reading my “Looking Through the Windshield” story).
So, I stepped out of my comfort zone and pitched this vision of a live theater to the town’s mayor, borough council, organizations and local business owners. To my surprise, they wholeheartedly got behind the project. I sold my house in order to initially fund the theater, recruited a large volunteer artistic and business staff and after a lot of sweat and nerves the theater launched in December, 1999 with A Christmas Carol – and every performance sold out I nurtured and led Celebration Theater for more four years, selling out most of the productions through unique events which got a lot of publicity, and finally turned it over to leaders in the community for them to carry the project forward.
I moved on because those years spent in inventing and growing Celebration had attracted the attention of key decision makers in Philadelphia’s historic district. In 2004 I was contracted to work as creative consultant with Historic Philadelphia, Inc., a non-profit organization founded in 1994 by then Mayor Ed Rendell, who by now had become Governor of Pennsylvania.
They had invited me to become their first Artistic & Storytelling Director and so I helped conceive and direct many of their visitor experiences, especially the Once Upon a Nation award-winning storytelling program. This visitor attraction, extremely popular to this day, we designed to make American history come engaging and relevant. By now, Once Upon A Nation storytelling has interacted with over 2 million kids, parents and tourists who visit Philadelphia’s historic district, and has inspired countless testimonials which serve as proof that stories, correctly crafted and told, can make any subject come alive…even American history!
During those years I also began what is now a twenty-five year relationship with Bradley Communications Corp. located outside Philadelphia. This company provides top-level publicity and marketing coaching, programs and events to help authors, speakers and business owners get their message out. I became their Senior Coach and have trained thousands of their clients in how to communicate to their markets and to the media. I have also introduced my unique storytelling processes to their clients, resulting in standing ovations and increased book sales for those with whom I’ve worked.
In early 2012, I was invited to do consulting and training work with the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, which is managed by Delaware North Company for NASA who wanted my help in telling their stories. I directed a new tour inside the Launch Control Center, helped script a new tour of the famed Launch Pad 39A and provided various training and consulting services during the three seasons I contracted with them.
My first corporate workshop was in 2013 when I was asked to deliver a customized “Influencing Through Storytelling” full-day workshop for senior IT leaders at Unum Global Services. As the VP of this department shared afterwards, my workshop “…helped reinforce the importance of using stories to win hearts and minds in order to influence organizational decisions and create business value…” Since then, I’ve continued to deliver speeches and workshops nationwide for major corporations and non-profit organizations.
I’m all about helping you connect with and relate to your audiences and I do this through custom-tailored workshops, my Story Focus Days, Story Retreats and consulting services. My passion is to make sure your “seats are filled and your audience clamors for more!”
When I Discovered the Power of Storytelling
In 2004, I was invited to join a creative team tasked with inventing a unique storytelling project for Historic Philadelphia, Inc. (HPI). This nonprofit organization provides engaging programming for tourists to Philadelphia’s historic district. They approached me because a few years previously I founded a local theater company designed to build community and help economic development in a small suburban town outside of Philadelphia. In order to bring attention to the onstage productions I created what I called “theater, plus” – extra events tied to the specific show that generated publicity and drove ticket sales. This work eventually got me on the radar of the folks at Historic Philadelphia.
HPI wanted to solve a problem which is faced by most museums and history-based tourist attractions, namely how to really engage the visitor. When people are overwhelmed with data, numbers, names, events, buildings and objects they tend to lose interest in the subject. Unfortunately, this is the basis of the way most of American history is taught.
So, HPI was asked to create, from scratch, a new project called Once Upon A Nation, the heart of which would be an outdoor storytelling attraction. They assembled a creative team and I was paired with a nationally known historian who was an expert in tourist engagement. We got to work and eventually came up with the first few experimental stories which we believed were an innovative approach to delivering the real-life historical events centered in Philadelphia.
As their Storytelling & Artistic Director, I was in charge of bringing those new “story scripts” to life. We hired dozens of professional actors, college students and history buffs and went into rehearsal. For each script I came up with creative ways to make them fun, interactive, emotional and so on…as long as they were engaging and not dry and boring.. I recall the first time we tried out one of those story scripts to a group of travel writers. As I finished the story, I was thrilled to see them put their notepads down and applaud! Journalists applauding? That was the first sign that perhaps we were on to something.
* * *
Fast forward a few months. It’s now mid-May of 2005 and Once Upon A Nation is to launch in mid-June. I was hoping for a soft start, but their PR folks decided to roll out the program at a press conference — and the guest of honor would be the primary visionary and funder for HPI: Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell.
You’ve got to be kidding me! The Governor? The Press? No pressure.
So, the big day arrives. The future hinges on this press conference. Would Once Upon A Nation please Rendell? How would the news media react? And, between you and me, my own career, which had been stalled for a number of years, really depended on this working out. So, everything hinged on how a one hour press conference went on this sunny Tuesday morning in May.
So, here we are inside the historic Free Quaker Meeting House, a small 18th century building perched on the corner of 5th and Arch Streets, just a block away from the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. I am already inside with one of our Storytellers, Jill – both of us nervous about how this would go. We watch as local TV cameramen arrive and set up in the corner, as journalists walk in and soon other dignitaries as well. There’s a buzz of conversation in the room as we wait for Governor Rendell to arrive. He’s late. Finally, there’s a commotion outside, the door opens, two secret service guards enter, glance around the room, then motion for the Governor to come in. He takes a seat in the front row, with one of his staff members on either side of him. He looks preoccupied.
I’m standing (well, pacing) in the back of the room, trying to look calm.
After some opening remarks , Jill takes center stage and begins to tell the story of an elderly Quaker woman, Lydia Darragh, whose home has been taken over by British officers during the occupation of Philadelphia. One night she creeps downstairs, listens at a keyhole and overhears their secret plan to attack Washington and his army who are camped nearby. A surprise attack could end the American Revolution once and for all. So, she decides to try to warn them.
The next morning, Lydia grabs an empty burlap sack in order to “get some baking flour” and begins walking to the city limits. Lydia approaches the sentries and nervously shows her pass. They wave her through (after all, what harm could this old lady do?) and she soon finds herself on a country road on the way to Whitemarsh.
I’m watching Jill share these events, but also keeping an eagle eye on Rendell. Up to this point he’s been glancing up at her but also whispering to his aides and messaging on his Blackberry – I mean, after all he is the Governor of a major state and has a lot going on. I’m looking at him and wondering: is he engaged or not? Will he approve? If he doesn’t approve, will he stop funding for this project? Can a story engagingly scripted and well- told really affect people… or not?
Will this experiment fail right here and now, as the TV cameras roll?
Lydia, as portrayed by Jill, pauses on the dusty isolated road. She has made it so far but is increasingly worried that the British could be marching out of the city, just a few miles behind her. Catching her breath, she looks up to Heaven and prays that she can make it. I’ve directed this historical “scene” in order to make it the heart of the story, the suspenseful, emotion-based center. I’ve asked Jill to pause and go quiet during that prayerful moment, and as she does so I experience the biggest “aha moment” of my life.
In that brief silence, I see the Governor suddenly pause in his multi-tasking, look up at the Storyteller and then lean forward in his seat. I watch him put his Blackberry aside, stop whispering to his aides and intently watch the rest of the story, and I know something very special has just happened. A piece of history, delivered via a well-crafted story — and told from the heart — has just transfixed the entire audience. Rendell wasn’t the only one leaning forward. Everyone else had gone still as well; it was as if the entire room breathed as one.
* * *
Once Upon A Nation was born right at that moment. By now, over 2 million visitors have heard our stories. The project has won national awards and is going strong eleven years after that first press conference.
I was honored to direct the Once Upon A Nation program for over seven seasons. What I learned after training hundreds of storytellers and observing thousands of reactions to those stories is what I now teach to companies, nonprofits, leaders, small business owners, authors and speakers.
So…if you want to learn how to harness what I know to be the most powerful communications tool ever, let’s get going. You may be one story away from getting anything you want.
Epilogue: One week after we launched Once Upon A Nation, the emails began pouring in. My second “aha” was reading one sent to us from an eight-year old boy from the Midwest. “I used to hate history but after hearing your stories I’m now playing a Quaker spy with my sister in our swimming pool! I love history now.” (This may not be quite historically accurate, but it proves that stories work!)
Looking Through the Windshield
There was a time in my life when every morning I woke up, heaved a sigh, dressed and drove to work thinking “Game over. I’ve got nothing – no hope, no skills, no future.”
I was in my mid- thirties and had been groomed to run the family business – a couple of discount fabric stores just outside Philadelphia. These stores had been created by my grandfather to support us back when my parents divorced, a divorce which left the teenage me without a father and an emotionally abusive mother. My grandparents stepped into this gap financially, practically, lovingly – they were my best friends and I remember them with love to this day.
Eventually my grandfather retired, and once I graduated college it was my turn to manage those stores. Two problems faced me: 1) after many successful years, they were now in decline and (2) I hated being in the “rag business.” Everything in me knew this was a dead-end.
“Nanny” and “Grandad” had also shared with me their love of culture – theatre, fine arts and opera especially. When I was a teenager, we’d hop on an early train to New York. The morning would be spent visiting wholesalers to buy fabric for the stores, then at noon everything shifted as we’d seek out a wonderful restaurant for lunch followed by catching a matinee or visiting a museum.
So, I became the product of this combination of the arts and business. After graduating, my workdays were spent managing the stores, then most evenings volunteering with local theater groups where I experienced how they fostered creativity, built community and nurtured friendships.
Years passed and finally it was clear that I had to pull the plug on those stores. I remember in particular one grey late March morning drive to work. My route took me through a domino of rather depressing work-a-day aging suburban towns and over the years I’d become numb to the old worn brick storefronts and occasional vacant buildings.
A light, cold rain begun to fall as I waited to get through a busy intersection. “Perfect,” I thought. “A perfect match to how I feel.” With my left hand, I flicked the switch to turn on the windshield wipers as I gloomily gazed ahead, idling in more ways than one.
Flick-flick went the wipers, cars wooshed by on the cross street. Then, just for a moment my eyes rested on a big abandoned bank building diagonally across the busy intersection. I had glanced at it a thousand times before, but this time I took a second look. Suddenly, I realized that this abandoned brick and marble-trimmed building could possibly be turned into a performing arts center.
Then, I thought that maybe, just maybe, I could combine my business experience along with my work in theater to be the one to make this happen.
But, that’s just what I did. In that moment, an idea had come to me which soon changed my life forever.
Looking back to that rain-soaked morning, I believe that while those wipers were clearing that windshield, God was also at work clearing something else. He wiped away hopelessness and gave me a clear vision. Now, I only glance at rear-view mirrors, knowing that what’s ahead is where the adventures await.
Geoffrey Berwind is one of the foremost experts in the world on how to use the power of story to make you relatable, influential and take your presentations to the next level.
He co-created and directed the award-winning Once Upon A Nation storytelling program for Historic Philadelphia, Inc. (over 2 million stories told to date!), and provides consulting, coaching and training services for corporations, non-profits, entrepreneurs and speakers nationwide. Geoffrey’s many clients have included the National Park Service, the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Audubon Society, Vanguard Charitable and Bradley Communications.
In addition to providing workshops and executive coaching for companies and organizations, he has helped thousands of authors, speakers and experts hone their message, get publicity, market their services and use the power of real-life stories to sell more products and get standing ovations.