Good leaders need to understand the power of narrative if they want to influence others. Matt McAllister finds out why storytelling is an essential business skill
From films to football matches, and from adverts to anecdotes, every aspect of our lives is made up of stories.
In his seminal screenwriting book, Story, creative writing lecturer Robert McKee says that we’re so obsessed with stories because they mirror our lives – they are metaphors for our hopes and fears, our successes and failures.
Business, too, is stitched together by stories. The stories that the employer and candidate exchange during interviews. Stories about brands. The stories used in coaching sessions. The stories put forward during times of change. The stories used to motivate teams.
If successful, these stories will resonate with customers, clients and employees, who will link aspects of their personal and professional lives with the narratives.
“Storytelling is useful in far more situations than most leaders realise,” says Paul Smith, author of Lead With a Story: A Guide to Crafting Business Narratives That Captivate, Convince and Inspire.
“The five most common situations are: setting a vision; defining culture and values; inspiring the organisation; teaching important lessons; and explaining who you are and what you believe. The last one can be applied to both an individual – their image, a brand or an entire company.”
Smith adds that storytelling is a far more effective management technique than simply telling people to do something.
“You can’t successfully order people to ‘follow the rules’ since the only people that read the rulebook are the ones who wrote it,” he says. “But most people will read a good story about somebody that broke the rules and got fired, or someone who followed the rules and got a raise.”
DNA of meaning
Annette Simmons, author of Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins: How to Find, Develop and Deliver Stories to Communicate With Power and Impact, says that stories are a powerful tool because they act as simulated experiences.
“Story is the DNA of meaning. It is crucial any time that a leader wants to embed a sense of meaning into a goal, a beginning or an end, a relationship, a value, a team or an individual. In fact, story is useful in every situation where communication is important.”
Simmons says that whether you’re giving a presentation or asking for a pay rise, narratives need to be as brief and coherent as possible.
She uses Steve Jobs as an example of a leader that was exceptional at creating clear business narratives.
Stories about you, the leader, are often the most effective. Especially if it’s a story about five years ago when you had the job that your listener has today, and you were facing the same problems.
She explains: “In 1981 Jobs issued the edict that no one was to buy typewriters anymore. He felt the company needed to believe the typewriter is obsolete before they tried to convince their customers. That first step meant the company had to tell the story from the inside out.
“He also made brilliant and sophisticated uses of narrative like the great David vs Goliath battle with Microsoft. Every part of Apple, every interaction, even their packaging tells the same story, which is that they’re bringing us the best."
Smith agrees that Steve Jobs is an excellent storyteller, and also points to John Bryant, CEO of Kellogg’s and Jack Welch of General Motors (Welch once famously said “I’m Irish. I tell stories!”).
But he adds that storytelling isn’t just something an elite few can master. Anyone can do it.
“If you’re looking for storytelling role models, I’d suggest looking at the leaders in the place you work,” he says. “Which ones are the most effective, inspirational leaders? Those will be your great storytellers. Watch them, and learn.”
So how can leaders and managers hone their storytelling skills to create messages that will resonate with their audience?
Smith has four key tips:
1) Start with the context
“Poor storytellers often skip the context and background and get right to the action of the story. As a result, their stories are confusing and therefore forgettable.
“The speaker excitedly launches into a story about something that happened and soon the listeners are scratching their heads. The teller realises, stops and says something like, ‘Oh, wait, I guess I should back up a bit and explain why all this happened. You see, my boss had just gotten fired, and so . . .’
“Once they explain the context, the listeners’ eyes light up and they say, ‘Oh, I get it. I’m with you now.’ Then the teller gets back to the story, already in mid-action. That’s the sign that the storyteller skipped the context.
"If they’re lucky, the confused look on their audience’s faces will remind them to go back and tell the context. If they’re not lucky enough to notice, their story is doomed to mediocrity.”
2) Have a relatable hero
“The hero of the story should be someone your audience can identify with. They should be able to see themselves in the hero’s place because the hero is like them and facing a situation they’re likely to face in the future.
“If your story is about Superman, that might make for an entertaining story. But it won’t help or influence anyone, which makes it useless as a business narrative. That’s because your audience can’t fly or bend steel bars. So the fact that Superman saved the world won’t help your audience do the same.
“Stories about you, the leader, are often the most effective. Especially if it’s a story about five years ago when you had the job that your listener has today, and you were facing the same problems. Whether you succeeded or failed, they’ll learn from your story.”
3) Remember to include a villain
“A villain could be a person (like your school nemesis) or an organisation (like your key competitor) or a thing (like the photocopying machine in your office that never works).
"It’s someone or something that gets in the way of the hero accomplishing whatever it is they are trying to accomplish. Unfortunately, novice storytellers often leave out the bad guy. The result is a boring, useless story.
“You’ve seen this too, I’m sure. It’s the story from the office braggart who tells everyone about how lousy things were before he arrived. Since then, he claims, sales have turned around, profitability has improved, the stock price is growing again, and his team even won the company football tournament!
“Similar to the Superman stories, stories without a villain won’t help anyone. This hero didn’t meet any adversity – or if so it wasn’t explained. He didn’t overcome any obstacles; no challenges were thrown his way. In short, it sounds like he got lucky.
"Telling a story about how you got lucky won’t teach anyone anything.”
4) Ensure you have enough material
“One of the biggest barriers to telling stories at work is not having any stories to tell. Most companies keep a database of every piece of information imaginable, except for the most important sources of wisdom in the company – its stories.
“So pay attention. When you hear something interesting or something memorable happens to you, write it down. A great story is about to be born.”
Lead with a Story: A Guide to Crafting Business Narratives That Captivate, Convince and Inspire by Paul Smith is out in August 2012 (AMACOM Books), www.leadwithastory.com
Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins: How to Find, Develop and Deliver Stories to Communicate With Power and Impact by Annette Simmons is out now (AMACOM Books), www.annettesimmons.com