Before anyone truly decides to follow and be influenced by you they will ask themselves, ‘Who are you and what do you stand for?’
Think back to the last time you had a new boss and I suspect that question was not far from your mind. If we are fortunate then our leaders will let us know the answer to these questions but all too often they do not. What happens if they don’t tell us-well we will make it up! It is part of our human nature to fill the vacuum with our own ‘reckonings’ and assumptions. These might be on target-or not! So how can you make sure that the messages you want to put across are as powerful and persuasive as possible? Some of the most powerful leaders we have worked with over recent years have chosen the vehicle of storytelling to achieve this. Skilful storytellers have influenced the world for centuries and we all remember the power of the compelling story from our childhoods and just how memorable it can be. As business leaders we may need to refresh our story telling skills to fit today’s business world.
But what is story telling in a business context? It is certainly not just making something up-rather it is telling a true, believable story that is interesting and compelling and which at it its heart has a very clear message.
Annette Simmons, in her excellent book ‘The Story Factor’ talks about the different types of stories leaders can tell. We have picked the three that we believe every leader should think about and take the time to reflect on your experiences and identify a story that you can tell that will get your message across:
Who am I? – What is my background, what have I achieved, what have I learned or overcome along the way that will help you understand me better? This might consist of a personal story-perhaps who has influenced you in your life-a parent, teacher or past manager. Or it may be a story about someone else that illustrates what is important to you because you have chosen that person and that story as an example.
A manager we once worked with told us about how a recent visit to South Africa and Robbin Island where Nelson Mandela had been imprisoned gave him the inspiration for a story which he told to his new team the previous week-a group of very different personalities and with a wide range of backgrounds who he realised were working more as a collection of individuals rather than as a team. He told them this story of ‘each one teach one’:
‘And then we came to the limestone quarry where Mandela and many others toiled for those long years-cut off from the rest of the world. Can you imagine sitting on the floor with a hammer, spending the day making rocks into smaller rocks? Can you imagine spending 18 years of such days?
Our guide that day was once a prisoner himself on the island and he showed us a small cave in the quarry, which doubled as a toilet, but also secretly as a classroom. Whenever the opportunity arose the prisoners would teach each other. They were lawyers, and doctors, and teachers, and farmers. Each one had something to give and the phrase they used for this was; ‘each one teach one’.
So the experience for me was about the power of sharing; our knowledge, our time, our care and our humanity and that we all have something to give and something to learn from one another.’
The Vision – what direction are we going in – where am I leading you and why? Can I paint a picture of the journey, the obstacles and what it will be like when we get to our final destination?
A very old story that we have heard in many forms is about the three stone masons:
‘A traveller came upon a group of three hard-at-work stonemasons, and asked each in turn what he was doing. The first said, “I am sanding down this block of marble.” The second said, “I am preparing a foundation.” The third said, “I am building a cathedral.”
At a time when everyone is concerned with how companies can keep employees motivated in a downturn, especially if you can no longer encourage them with bonuses how do we as leaders give our ‘stonemasons’ a sense of meaning and make sure that they understand that they are not just laying bricks but ‘building the cathedral.’
Values in action – what is important to me, what are my values both as a leader and as a person and how have I demonstrated these in my life so far?
A story that illustrates this powerfully is the story of Mahatma Ghandi and the sugar.
‘A woman once brought her son to visit Mahatma Ghandi who was always willing to be visited by the people of India. She asked him to please tell her son that he should stop eating sugar because she was worried for his health. “Come back in three days and I will grant your request,” he said. Three days later, she came back with her son, and Ghandi knelt down beside the boy and, looking him in the eyes, said “You really should stop eating sugar, as your mother wishes.” The boy promised he would stop. The woman, curious, asked Ghandi why he did not do this on their first visit, three days earlier. He replied “Three days ago, I had not stopped eating sugar.”
Surely, this story says so much more about integrity and leading by example than any management presentation on the subject of company ‘values’.
What makes a good story?
A good story takes effort if it is to be engaging, memorable and powerful. So to start you off we offer you 5 key elements of a good story for you to consider when constructing your next leadership story.
The more passionate the storyteller is, the more authentic they sound and the more compelling their story becomes. You have to believe in your story-to connect with it emotionally. A colleague of ours tells a great story about Bill Clinton at a large book launch and how he shared credit for his success with his editor. When he tells it he never fails to engage the audience-so next workshop I tried telling the same story….it fell flat. The reason was that I had not truly connected with the story, in my heart it felt a bit artificial and contrived-not surprisingly my audience could tell. I had no real passion for the story and it showed in my voice and my body language. So I found one that did and it made all the difference.
There needs to be a hero or protagonist in your story; somebody who can be respected and related to. You need to make this person or group really come alive, pay attention to detail so that your audience can see them before them and really engage with them. Make them care about what happens to them and make them want to learn more about them.
If there is nothing at stake, there is no story. What is the hero up against? There doesn’t need to be a evil villain; it could be the fight against a major competitor, the loss of a major account, tough economic times or a new challenge in your industry.
The ‘Aha’ moment
What’s the “Aha!” moment in your story? A moment where people learn or realise something they otherwise wouldn’t have. Did the hero learn something? What was the meaning behind the story? How does it link with what we are facing at work right now? What is the relevance of your story to your audience-this needs to be really clear if you are to get their full attention.
What has changed throughout the length of the story? Think about the impact, what is different and what has changed as a result of the story you are telling. Again, you don’t need to thwart some mythical villain and restore order to the universe; a personal success or any little change can be very moving.
We believe that taking the time to do this will be a good investment because these stories, when told respectfully will always be more powerful, memorable and inspirational than even the best crafted presentations, case studies c.v’s or bios because they tell the story of who you really are, what you stand for and why they should follow you even when times are tough. Storytelling is special because it shares an experience with your audience. You can inject your story – and in turn, your audience – with emotions and compelling imagery that enables them to connect to you and your message much better.