Each of us has a story to share. It’s a mixture of lived experiences, planned and unplanned, that come together and give our existence shape and identity. But in a world where we rely on screens and images for communication and self-expression, do we really know how to tell our story? Do you know how to tell yours?
In his new book, Story Like You Mean It, Dr. Dennis Rebelo helps you communicate with ease and connect with others by constructing a self-narrative with intention and purpose. At the intersection of academic theory and practical experience, Dr. Rebelo shares insights he has gained coaching clients on how to build and then share their life-work narratives.
What raw experiences made you who you are today and how do you express them meaningfully to showcase your work? When you dive into the intricacies of Dr. Rebelo’s StoryPathing, you become the master of your own narrative and you’ll reap the benefits of sharing who you really are.
Drew Appelbaum: Hey listeners, my name is Drew Applebaum and I’m excited to be here today with Dr. Dennis Rebelo, author of Story Like You Mean It: How to Build and Use Your Personal Narrative to Illustrate Who You Really Are. Dr. D. Thank you for joining, welcome to The Author Hour Podcast.
Dr. Dennis Rebelo: Thanks Drew, good to be here today.
Drew Appelbaum: Let’s kick this off, can you give us a rundown of your professional background?
Dr. Dennis Rebelo: Absolutely. Right now, I’m a professor of technology, leadership, and management at Roger Williams University and I have a practice that supports leaders around the globe, from folks who are leading pharma companies to folks who are leading companies like Spartan, Joe De Sena, which is the world’s largest obstacle course racing company. To many bank presidents and folks who are executives, folks who run ad agencies, creative agencies from New York, DC, wealth advisory firms, financial planning companies. That’s the space that I’m in. I’m a professor during the day and at night, 24-hours-a-day, really. I also have a practice that supports executive leadership but through a narrative lens.
The book is, Story Like You Mean It, and the idea of supporting executives is to ensure that their narratives are unfolding in a way that informs their organizations. I guess that probably says who I am and what I’m about today but the story’s bigger than that. You tell me where you want to go with it, Drew.
Drew Appelbaum: I mean, there’s a lot going on right there. Now, why was now the time to share the stories in the book? Did you have an “aha moment,” was there something inspiring out there, or is it something as simple as you had a lot of time in your hands because of COVID?
Dr. Dennis Rebelo: Well, it was a long time coming. So, my first job was at La Salle Military Academy, teaching students who were almost my age when I left the University of Rochester. It was a great job before I went to graduate school, but it also informed me that students had the ability to self-author themselves right forward in life and that they could use reflection, back then anyway, in the 90s, as a tool to understand themselves.
Now, I didn’t know all of the ways this would come back later, it was just, I suspected that these students I was teaching probably could make sense of their stories, that were fascinating by the way, they were from international backgrounds, they were at a private military, all-boys boarding school in New York, right? Kind of an unusual place.
That was my first step into teaching. It came up again when I thought of how many students I met at the university who were trying to tell their stories to get into schools, get their first jobs and first internships, and then clients started asking me, “Can you talk to my son or daughter? Their friends need a little help.”
I decided to democratize really, the methodology that I was using to inform my practice, which was an executive performance coaching practice, and get it to more people. Since then, I’ve witnessed students like Hannah Ung, who is from Providence and who came from Cambodia, win not a $20,000 scholarship, but a $20,000 per year scholarship from the Rhode Island Foundation. The Rhode Island Foundation gave her $20,000 a year, unrestricted. So, during her first 48 months of school, she was able to go to three different countries because she had some extra money on hand. Now, she’s at Northeastern University up in the New England area, which is where I’m from.
When I started to use and see connections and use elements of my executive coaching practice with younger students, I realized I should probably democratize this methodology and get it to more people. Because if you can make sense of your life, past, now, and future and you can stitch it together into a narrative that you can use to self-represent who you are, in a way that shows your value and worth, those lived experiences are embedded into the story, boy, wouldn’t that be a provocative way to show evidence of how you can contribute to a school, a job, an internship, or maybe even a project if you’re currently employed.
That’s the genesis and the evolution of Story Like You Mean It.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, a lot of authors have this idea of the book rattling around in their head and you might even have an outline of the idea of what the book might look like, but during the writing process and by digging deeper into some of the subjects you talk about there could be major breakthroughs and learnings. Did you have any of these along your writing journey?
Dr. Dennis Rebelo: Well, I started in a different place. What we decided to do, my wife is an instructional designer. She runs an online education firm and what they were able to do is publish a digital version of the book, which was driven by videos, two, three, four, five-minute videos of me presenting what would become the chapters of the book. We had the ability to iterate off of online development and provide those online digital tools, which is still an offering.
The StoryPathing course is what it’s called and the StoryPathing course actually helped me tremendously see the value of the Peak Storytelling model, which is the model to explain how one should inspect their lived experiences and then organize them. Off this tool, the Peak Storytelling map, to be able to actually story in a way that shows meaning when it comes time to answer the question, “Tell me about yourself.” Which is the question that even adults stammer over. “Hey, I just met you, tell me about yourself?” “Well, you know, I’ve been doing this…”
Yeah, well, there’s a reason for that, right? We’ve had a lot of experiences and I’m not making fun of human beings. It’s just, you’ve had a lot of experiences and you’re quickly trying to figure out who are you right now, right? Why would this matter and what lived experiences should you rake out of your brain to order up, to have a smooth telling, that can be very difficult.
In my initial research, I found that even people who are leading, executives who are self-proclaimed experts in storytelling, were actually having problems identifying a pathway to tell their stories.
Remarkable, right? Because the method usually is, you stammer a little bit, you think of a lived experience, then you serve it up, then you have a rough unfolding, you realize time is expired, you look at the non-verbal and the verbal cues, you listen to those, you adjust the story and then you hurry up and finish and then you realize you’re pretty motivated to correct that crap that you just spun out. You thought it was pretty good while you were doing it but then in retrospect, you realize, maybe it wasn’t so good after all.
Everyone Can Tell a Provocative Story
Drew Appelbaum: Well, I think you actually walked me into my next question, which is, who is this book for? Is this more for introverted folks or can people who are relatively confident and successful have takeaways from the book?
Dr. Dennis Rebelo: We look at three personas. Sometimes people will tell you to think of your avatar when you’re writing a book, right? I’ve worked with a lot of authors and consulted them in the past in different areas of their business enterprise and even in their authorship.
In this case, I said, that would be foolish because everyone can story like they mean it. They can tell a provocative story, right? They can answer the question, whether in an interview or assuming a leadership role or giving a speech, that this is who I am en route to giving the speech or embedded into the speech.
Three groups, the first one is students. Because getting there early, matters. Helping people discern their life, career decisions, writing college essays, is a great opportunity for students. Second, careers that are in transition. Anyone who is in that sort of bracket, if your career is in transition, it might mean that your job ended, or the project stopped, or something happened. It might be that you don’t want to be where you are, and you know you’re going to be in the interviewing game again. That’s a great opportunity to consider and rethink your narrative so that you’re positively cultivating lived experiences to import into the story that inevitably, you’re going to have to tell as an interviewee when somebody looks at you, looks at your resume, and says, “Well, tell me about yourself?” There’s no book that answers that question.
The third is, as a leader, you shape culture. If you are in an organization, if it’s a non-profit, if it’s a school, university, an institute, you’re telling your story to influence culture and if you don’t know that, you ought to take note that you are influencing culture. Culture is the whisper in people’s ears that says, “Do this here, you’ll be rewarded, do this here and that’s not good.” Right?
When a leader can cultivate a story, they’re actually curating culture and influencing it. They’re also helping other people in their organization at all levels. Not just the other leaders but everywhere, understand the positive mentorship component of leadership storytelling.
The modern worker wants to have meaningful work and they want self-expression, according to Towers and Watson’s studies. If that’s the case, where are we seeing that? The leader typically controls the audience, controls the time of the meeting, and can strut in late to the meeting.
If they start to import storytelling in a way that’s authentic and pure and clean, they can start to cleanse the culture that might have some debris from previous leaders. Helping leaders tell their story and also reclaim a sense of passion in meaning-making within their work as it evolves.
Because the leader can also shift and have different inflection points in her career and their careers and his career. That’s the other application.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, I want to go back to something you mentioned right at the beginning, which is the idea of somebody saying to you, “Tell me about yourself,” as one of the toughest questions for people to answer. I will second that because about half of the authors who come on this podcast struggle with my first question, which is simply, tell me about your professional background. Why do so many folks struggle with that question?
Dr. Dennis Rebelo: Well, as human beings, you know, we walk around and live and drive and Zoom, and video connect and we collect experiences but the book, Story Like You Mean It, really addresses helping you at any age and stage of life, address landing on the most formative experiences that you’ve had. These are self-event connections that somehow have influenced your identity.
With the cadence of the world, we don’t necessarily go back and reflect on those moments. What I did was, I used something called a story stamp, which allows you, anyone, Drew, to go back and look at their lived experiences and unpack key-lived experiences.
We look at them as three types. Heroic ones where you overcame an obstacle, you showed grit or perseverance, maybe adaptability or self-leadership, and that could happen zero to 13 in life, zero to 20, whatever. Those are past. Past hero experiences. Think about them as the basis of the triangle because they show that you have cred and power as a human being alone in the world–not a hero in the traditional sense that you’re going to save another human being.
The second is, collaborative. We live as social creatures in relationship to others. You’ll eventually have a school project with somebody if you’re in college or in high school. You eventually work with others, right? You have to be with others at some point. Those experiences, collaborative, aren’t just because you’re belonging, it’s not like ambient belonging or sort of passive belonging. It’s actually when you’re collaborating, you’re creating something with the help of others. Think about them as working together stories. Those stories can be formative. The formative ones we want to unpack.
Now, the last one is the peak, at the top of the triangle so to speak. Not the middle, that’s collaborative, not the bottom, that’s hero. The peak ones are the virtuous ones, that’s when you catch a whiff of the aroma if you will–I love coffee, I’m Portuguese, I love to use coffee references by the way. Because we, as a culture, love coffee in Portuguese-Americans.
Those are the ones where you say, “But I love this thing,” right? It would be immoral for me, Drew, to not interview authors to understand their stories, to understand why they actually authored a book, to understand their life and why they were motivated to do this thing.
For me, it’s teaching. For somebody else, it might be building a business, it might be artwork, it might be being a caregiver, a provider, a pioneer, a quester. Under some circumstance, you probably caught a whiff of that already. Even though that’s not your future, it gives you evidence of what could be a future, it gives you juice to create an imagined version of your future.
Think about it this way, Drew. Past heroic experiences get you to the cred, the grit, the toughness, the ability to obliterate obstacles. The other formative experience type is collaborative, working together stories, and virtuous are the ones that get you to say, “I love this, it would be immoral for me to stop doing this activity.” If you can get to those, those are the ones that inform the future.
Then you can manufacture a formative experience in terms of a future type of work, school, et cetera, and it would bring you joy and engagement in the world so that you could actually live a fulfilled life.
If we’re going to apply for a job and we can cite a hero experience, a collaborative one, and a virtuous one together and it’s woven together and it’s thematically connected–remember, theme is just a way to hook the dots of life and connect them. If we can do that as individuals, if somebody can do that, they have actually shown how they spiraled up and how they belong right now in this place as not the interviewee but the ideal candidate, exotic bird, or creature that should have this job now, that is the right sales rep that you should have. Is the right financial planner, right? Is the right whoever to be in your life and we want to give those people attention. When we see a great singer, hear a great musician, we want to experience great acting, we want to pay more money for those tickets to see that performer again. Likewise, we want the best dentists, doctors, teachers.
Your story allows you to show your value, your worth but only if you are a good lawyer and you show precedent, right, case law, dots, blue dots we call them in the book. Self-event connections that standout–that are indicative of why you are who you are. Those three dots, you hear this all the time Drew. Connect the dots. Sometimes that doesn’t happen until way late. Wouldn’t it be great if it started happening and you could hear every day people connect the dots of their lives as they answered the question, “Tell me about yourself?”
Wouldn’t you be able to make a better decision about the financial planner that you’re going to hire if they actually love problem solving, and love complex financial problems and that they’re capable of securing your financial future even in a risky sort of highly volatile complex environments? If that story supports that outcome, that’s the right person. Wouldn’t that be great?
If you can do that through the system, you’ve used it well and you are able to actually feel liberated in who you are, and your work becomes meaningful and you’re doing that self-expression that the modern worker wants.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, is everyone capable of doing this? Is everyone capable of telling their story and StoryPathing? What about folks who are naturally good storytellers but maybe just don’t have the formal structure around it?
Dr. Dennis Rebelo: So, a structure is just an apparatus. Think about it this way, you could be a strong person but if you work out haphazardly, you’re going to get injured. Storytelling is a little bit like that. If you say, “Hey, I like to talk a lot”, it doesn’t mean you’re a great storyteller. It just means you like to talk a lot and you have a big muscle, the communication muscle, which fires off pretty automatically. That is very different than someone who knows how to tell their story in a discernible way or feed it into an environment. That’s contextualizing it.
So yeah, anybody can do it. We’ve had students who are immigrants, English is a second language and they’ve learned to take their narrative and feed it into an application to get into the school of their choice for college. That is really powerful. I’ve had 16-year-olds, 15-year-olds in college classes who have used the methodology. I’ve had folks who were sort of at the tail end of their career who are making sense of their next season of work. We’ve had folks who were athletes for a living who became non-profit leaders who wanted to help others in their organization.
It really is something that is a structure, a process, and a bit of an apparatus. Think about it. To organize how you can find those moments, unpack them, sort them and then synthesize and create your story, whether you’re a 14 or 84, you can use StoryPathing and you can use the book, Story Like You Mean It, to really tell your Peak Story.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, is there anything wrong inherently with being a little bit reserved and having that wall up, or what are you really missing by just not having that story ready to go?
Dr. Dennis Rebelo: You tell me, Drew, what do you think it is?
Drew Appelbaum: You know you have one moment, right? It’s like even when I do all of these podcasts, I talk to authors afterwards, and everybody is like, “I wish I answered a question this way or that way,” and I guess you don’t have to worry about that anymore.
Dr. Dennis Rebelo: Yeah, the only downside is that you don’t stress. My conversations can be more joyful, it can be with the exception of maybe taking a break to have some water in our conversation at the beginning. It can be focused on a really rich to and fro exchange. I don’t get nervous or worried if I am a storyteller, if I am a 16-year-old student or maybe somebody looking for a career transition who might be you know, 55 years old looking to move from let’s say biopharma stuff to maybe education.
Because if they have done the work, they can tell their story in a really prepared way that shows that there are crossover skills that were honed in biopharma work that actually work really well in education. You know, the only thing that you do is you honor your audience more and you honor yourself more. I don’t think there is any downside at all. I think it is just upside.
Drew Appelbaum: Can you talk a little bit about the research that you did behind the whole StoryPathing approach?
Dr. Dennis Rebelo: Absolutely. I actually wrote my dissertation, which by the way has a really long title, so who’s going to buy that book? That was an academic sort of undertaking. That was called, Phenomenological Storytelling, Work-Life Integration Narratives as a Means of Psychological Wholeness and Emotional Subtleness. What does that really mean? Wouldn’t it be nice if your life and your work wove together so you could feel more emotionally liberated and more at home with who you are?
Identity, who you are, is not just work and it is not just non-work. It is probably four lanes of life. Work and education, family and friends, it’s driven by those events that are there. It is also driven by what you do recreationally, and it’s probably driven by another role, which is maybe spirituality or being in nature. I looked at different ways identity was cultivated socially. I looked at it from what’s called a phenomenological lens, which was really, how do you learn to story-tell? What’s that experience like for a leader, for a student, for different populations?
I really looked at it from a psychological standpoint and a social psychological standpoint, as well as a performance standpoint. What is the concept of narrative identity? That is different than story, a narrative identity over time. It is who you are over time. And also, what is so troubling about cultivating positive experiences and how do you do that?
I took everything that I could find from what was an identity formation experience in one’s person literature and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and how does that connect to formative experiences to rhetoric performance and I said, “I’ve got to figure out a way to create a simplified model that isn’t reducing the power of all of this research.” That is where I came up with the Peak Storytelling methodology, which is basically a diagram that has two other tools that hang from it that are used in the process.
The book has a bunch of academic references, none of which I overtly weave into, “Here is the contribution,” other than an author reference or a research reference because I wanted the book to be really digestible to folks from 14 to 84. Because it is such a specialty book that answers a problem that is just begging for a structural process, and at the end, this model actually can become a philosophy for living because if you think about it, how do we make sense of life? That is what a philosophy does.
If I know that my life has different types of stories in it and that together my Peak Story is really my life-work narrative, then I can start to make decisions about the kind of places and people and motivations that drive me, the intrapersonal relationship that I have with myself, answering the question, “Who am I?” and as well as some cognitive development, “What evidence do I have that actually makes sense of who I am and the relationships that matter and the things that I can do?”
Basically, I took all of the research and created a unified model because if you can codify something that you can write on a whiteboard in five minutes and explain to anyone, then you can get people excited about engaging in it. Now as a teacher, as a professor, that was the important part to me because I knew I would be teaching across audiences and the book really has been born and came from a lot of the experiences, again, from my practice but also teaching to folks in a class called IDS 2.10 at Roger Williams University, which was and is called, “Speaking Across Audiences.” It is a public speaking class.
Drew, you know when you have sergeants in the police force, 16-year-old kids from Providence, Navy-enlisted personnel on ships out at sea, also paralegal students, pre-law students, cybersecurity students in a class, you have a very diverse multi-generational, multicultural group of human beings and my goal was to make this model really digestible to everyone at every stage and age of life and so it is a really refined process.
As I say, it is 10 years in the making, maybe 12, maybe 15, but over the last year, I just made the decision that this book was going to be written and from March to December, it was written and the manuscript was finalized and now it is ready for consumption coming out on March 16th.
Tell Me About Yourself
Drew Appelbaum: Now, if you are listening to this interview and if you just dig into the intro of your book, you’re going to be sold and you’re going to understand the importance of StoryPathing and learning about your Peak Story. How does someone start? What does that first step look like?
Dr. Dennis Rebelo: What it looks like is, you got to get the book. Because the book will map you through. It will probably be the best 30 bucks you have ever spent because you are not hiring an executive coach. So, you have to do that, number one. You have to be open and give yourself some time. Each chapter really introduces part of the method, but the first two chapters introduce the background that really should support you becoming more confident that you can actually do this work.
A, you need 30 bucks. B, you need some time. C, you need to trust the process that each chapter we’ll tackle, from chapter three to the end, is part of the process that you’ll build your Peak Storytelling expertise and your Peak Story just by following the exercises at the end of each chapter. It could take 10 weeks, it could take 10 days, depending how much time you have available and if you have an iPhone or a smartphone or an old-school recorder, you can absolutely get better by practicing over and over and over again once your Peak Story is formed.
We always say to folks, if you want to turn pro, you’ve gotta record yourself, right? That is what pro-athletes do. That’s what professional speakers do. And you’ll hear the pauses and the tonality of your voice. You will actually hear the hesitation that you used to have at the beginning.
Here’s a neat trick or a funny challenge. Record yourself answering the question, “Tell me about yourself?” Or the prompt, at the beginning of the process. Buy the book, answer that question, then go through the book, build your Peak Story and then tell your Peak Story and record that and just listen to it. What richness do you hear from your own life now embedded into your Peak Story? What value points emerge? What traits are really obvious? What evidence do you have in that story that those traits are really true, and they carried over time and created a theme?
That is what we do in class, in the actual formal class. We actually have folks do a startup story, do that video, go through the process and do an outtake video, and then they go back and they actually criticize their video, in a positive way, as positive as you can be. And you can imagine this is challenging because you go back and you listen to yourself and you say, “My gosh, it sounded boilerplate.” It sounded like just sort of run of the mill stuff. It’s the same thing I do all the time when I enter a class or a program or a conference or a meeting. My gosh, I’ll never do that again and you know what I think? That’s success man.
Drew Appelbaum: Yeah.
Dr. Dennis Rebelo: When we get the outcomes that we wanted, didn’t we?
Drew Appelbaum: Now, Dr. D, we just touched the surface of the book here, but I want to say that writing a book like this, which is going to help so many people find comfort and find a voice they can share with the world, it’s no small feat. Congratulations on being published.
Dr. Dennis Rebelo: Thank you so much Drew, I really appreciate that. Yeah, it feels good.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, one last question, the hot seat question. If readers could take away only one thing from the book, what would you want it to be?
Dr. Dennis Rebelo: Your life matters. Your life matters, wrinkles in it, pitfalls. Once you examine them, you’ll find that if you use the process, it will start to automatically reframe to the positive and your life will matter even more because you’ll be more conscious of the skills, the traits, the motivations that drive you.
Maybe you like an outdoor life and you want to be around horses, and you want to do retreats around education, but everyone is telling you to be a classic elementary school teacher but now, you learn that through the process, that you are more tuned into nature, and you might even start to understand the kinds of people that you want to have in your life.
So, your life matters, number one. Number two and number three are that when you realize that every lived experience in your path contributes to your becoming, then you are more engaged and more settled. Also, speaking, public speaking becomes easier. Your body never lies, you start to feel at home, your voice doesn’t tremor. It doesn’t shake and your breathing is calm. There is no running away from the moment of the story. There is embodied storytelling, so your life matters would be my answer.
Drew Appelbaum: That is a great answer. This has been a pleasure and I am so excited for people to check out this book. Everyone, the book is called, Story Like You Mean It, and you can find it on Amazon. Dr. D, besides checking out the book, where can people connect with you?
Dr. Dennis Rebelo: They can connect with me on my website, which is drdennisrebelo.com. That’s drdennisrebelo.com.
Drew Appelbaum: Well Dr. Rebelo, thank you so much for coming on the show today and best of luck with your new book.
Dr. Dennis Rebelo: Thanks so much Drew. It’s an honor.