“It’s time for a break,” my grandfather grumbled to himself leaving his workbench and walking into the house. I was a teenager at the time, playing outside and watching him fix our family car under the humid heat in Hawai’i. The car’s ignition wasn’t working, and after hours of reading and tinkering, he seemed to have made zero progress.  

As I watched him enter the house, I inspected the car. As a teenager with grand bravado, I was certain I could find the solution. Going over the numerous sketches of wiring, pieces of metal hanging around, and the bizarre puzzle that is a car engine, I realized this was not a problem worthy of my time.  

After 20 minutes of playing volleyball, my grandfather picked up his tools and began to work at a silent and meaningful pace. Though I was determined to practice my serve, I couldn’t help but be pulled in by how quickly he was moving at his age. He moved gracefully between operating giant metal contraptions and soldering wires.  

By the end of the day, the car was working again, and I had been slammed in the face multiple times for not paying attention to the ball. While my friends departed laughing, I walked over to help my grandfather clean.  

My grandfather wasn’t a mechanic. While he drove buses in the past, he never fixed them. However, he had achieved something in a single day that people dedicate years of their lives to accomplish. We silently worked, and as we finished, I asked, “How did you figure out what to do?” 

He looked at me with soft eyes before smiling and saying, “If you take the time to plan where you need to go, you won’t get lost on your journey there.” 


Mo’olelo, or storytelling, has been an integral part of my identity. Throughout my career, I’ve worked in universities teaching students and on corporate learning and development (L&D) teams at global companies. I saw the power of storytelling, whether I was teaching students how to create an effective elevator pitch or training a group of managers how to lead effective one-on-ones.  

Storytelling provides a vehicle to help people understand information in a manner that allows for better long-term retention. Let’s explore my opening story as an example.  

Why Stories Are Memorable 

Many people in the training industry know the power of storytelling and backward planning. A stakeholder comes to you with a problem and you utilize your consulting skills to identify the root cause. You start with the behaviors that need to be developed and then work backward to create the training solution. Throughout the process, you create storyboards and project plans, and map out what needs to be done and by when.  

However, the lesson, “planning is important” isn’t simply memorable because we were told it in a classroom setting. We remember this lesson because we had a lived experience. All of us have a memory of how improper planning or rushing into something leads to errors and chaos. When we recall why “planning is important,” we don’t see those words in a book in our minds, we relive the memory that taught us that lesson. For some, it was their first time failing an exam because they didn’t study properly. Others may have had a difficult conversation at work for failing to meet expectations. For myself, it’s the story of my grandfather.  

That’s the power of storytelling. It allows us to make knowledge personal, and that is the key to unlocking true change. When we’re able to understand why information is meaningful and connected to our lived and learned experiences, information translates into memory and thus into action.  

Building an Inclusive Workplace

While the magic of storytelling is becoming more of a science as it becomes more recognized for the powerful impact it has on our minds, a new phenomenon is appearing: Acknowledging what stories we might be missing.

“We can’t fumble this.” “This is an easy home run for us.” “We’re putting you on the bench for this project.” I can’t count the times I’ve sat in a meeting and listened to someone share one of these variations of the same sports analogy. As a tennis and volleyball player, I don’t mind the allusions myself. I have resonated with them many times before. However, I’m not the only person in a meeting.

In one meeting, I had two colleagues join me to talk to a senior executive. We were discussing a new program we wanted to launch to support employee engagement when the commonly heard “home run” phrase was thrown out. I nodded my head in agreement, but saw my colleagues look confused. I quickly responded by sharing, “I agree. This program is an easy win for us with our employees,” which immediately led to nods and smiles from the other two.

After the meeting, they both came up to me and thanked me for my translation. Neither of them had heard the term before and weren’t sure whether the person we were meeting with liked or hated the idea we had been working on for months. We made some jokes and went our separate ways. However, as I walked back to my office, I couldn’t help but feel a pit in my stomach.

While sports analogies can be empowering and easy ways to express one’s thoughts, they can also create a feeling of being “othered” for those who can’t understand the point. People go to great measures to protect their self-perceptions and work to develop a personal brand they can be proud of. When you don’t fully understand what’s going on, you can begin to question your self-worth.

I remember the first time I sat down at an executive meeting with other directors. As we all took our places around the table, I couldn’t help but notice I was the only Indigenous person in the room. It was the middle of summer, so as we prepared for the meeting to start, folks were talking about their travel plans: “I’m heading to my condo by the shore this weekend. I haven’t been there in months.” “My kids and I are excited to head to our vacation home, too!” “Makana, I’m thinking of renting a house in Hawai’i next month. You’ll need to tell me everything I should do.”

I grew up in a small town on the Big Island known for farming. I didn’t go on family vacations, and after growing up in Hawai’i, my first time outside of the islands was in Ohio when I went to graduate school. I remember times as a college student when I would count change to see if I had enough to pay for a meal. Needless to say, I did not feel like I was sitting at the right table in that meeting.

My colleagues didn’t intend to make me feel othered. These were their lives, and they were speaking from what was normal to them. However, the impact of being in a space where my story didn’t match led me to feel disengaged. I struggled to feel psychologically safe, which made me spend more time wondering how to prove I belong than doing good work — and I’m not the only one who has gone through this situation.

That is why I advocate for us to move from being storytellers from our personal experiences to being story explorers, who assess the needs of our community and share stories that will resonate with those around us.

Storytelling Exercises

In early education, there’s a theory of mirrors and windows. A window is an experience that allows people to understand differences. A mirror is a way for someone to see themselves in the work they’re doing. For example, as a Native Hawaiian, a mirror for me is when people greet me with “aloha” when they see me. A window I can provide to others about my culture is talking about ho’oponopono when leading a mediation between employees. I recommend taking a moment when creating a training to think about the mirrors and windows you can create.

Second, you need to actively seek out and understand the stories and experiences of others. The reason why I chose the word “explorer” and not “curator” is because you will never own the stories of others. However, you can experience them with others, and then respectfully honor those stories when you share them.

Whenever developing a training, I meet with many different people to understand their views. I ask permission to share their stories and understandings with others so I can honor their experiences and model the way for others.

Anyone can become a better storyteller with some practice. I encourage you to begin your journey today. Ask questions, be curious and always honor the stories you have the privilege of being a side character in. You never know when a story will be the shift that helps someone blossom.