Wednesday, February 22, 2023

by Tom Snee

Tippie student Amelia Szczerba went through some difficult times when she moved to the United States as a child. She hopes telling stories about those struggles will help make her a relatable business leader someday.

To help turn her compelling life stories into stories to tell, she’s participating in a new part of the Tippie College of Business’ leadership development program called Story Lab. The inaugural offering kicked off this spring with 20 undergraduate student participants.

Nick Westergaard, a lecturer of management and entrepreneurship who leads the program, says business leaders need to learn storytelling because it helps them more effectively make their case to employees or investors by creating an emotional connection.

The business case for storytelling is clear. Studies show it is a far more powerful method of leadership communication than, say, droning on in front of a slide deck full of bullet points. Research shows people are 22% more likely to remember statistics and facts if they’re presented within a story. There’s a reason why TED Talks are so popular.

“Brain scans show that when the brain is exposed to stories instead of bullet points, the whole brain lights up, especially the areas responsible for memory and the transmission of information,” Westergaard said. As a result, he said storytelling makes it easier for leaders to convince others to commit to a vision, share values and knowledge, and go along with change—all of which are vital skills for future business leaders to learn.

Story Lab, he said, positions storytelling as a fundamental skill in leadership that students need to understand. The Story Lab experience also develops other soft skills in communications, something so many employers say new college graduates lack.

The program uses a combination of peer mentoring, improv games, workshopping, and feedback from Westergaard to build student skills. He also uses the book “How to Tell a Story,” published by The Moth, a non-profit organization dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling.

After arriving on a theme, the students will meet occasionally through the semester to develop and sharpen their stories. The program will culminate with a storytelling showcase April 28 at The Merge business incubator in downtown Iowa City.

Szczerba is participating in the program because she thinks telling her story in the most compelling way possible will set her apart when she is job hunting to start her career.

“It will help me voice my opinions, ideas, and show everything I have to offer,” said the junior, who is majoring in management and leadership and minoring in computer science.

Her story is compelling. Szczerba spent much of her early life in Italy, living just two blocks from a beach and a short drive to the cosmopolitan treasures of Rome. But when she was eight, her family moved to the suburbs of Chicago and the transition was difficult. She refused to eat American food and didn’t unpack her bags for a year, hoping to move back to the familiar comforts of Europe and be closer to her extended family.

Then one night, while giving in to American cuisine and munching on a hot dog, she sat down on the sidewalk in front of her house and watched the headlights on the cars pass by on a nearby highway. She realized this was now her reality and she had to make the best of it.

And so, she did. She taught herself to dance. She joined clubs. She started a business and designed a website for a pizza place. She took advantage of whatever opportunities came her way.

The lesson of her story: you can’t run away from fear. Embrace it instead, because that opens a lot more paths than running away.

“I think my stories can motivate people to get to where they want to be,” she said. “They can also show who I am and why I think the way I do.”

Photo cutline: Tippie junior Amelia Szczerba talks with Story Lab instructor Nick Westergaard about how to tell the story of her life. By Justin Torner

MEDIA CONTACT: Tom Snee, 319-384-0010 (o); 319-541-8434 (c);