What is the best way of getting your message across? Steve Weiner argues that storytelling is a critical part of the leader’s toolkit, and suggests ways you can bring it into your leadership practice.
Whilst working as a commercial litigator in London, I started moonlighting as a standup comic (mainly because my mum said I was funny). I repeatedly humiliated myself above pubs around England for next to no money honing my craft until, in 2008, whilst working as a performance coach for a global law firm, I won a prestigious national comedy competition. Despite my mum’s support, the victory was a shock. Signed by one of the largest comedy agents in the UK, over a number of years I ended up performing around 1500 live performance comedy shows around the UK plus lots of TV and radio work on the side. Ah….live comedy. Remember that?!
Anyway, that’s interesting information for me but it’s not particularly useful for you. The important question is what did I actually learn from the experience and how might it be useful for business leaders – in a real, grounded way?
If you’ve ever watched live or recorded comedy, you’ll know that some of the best comics make you laugh because they make you recognise something that is universal. In other words, they provoke laughter because they highlight something amusing or strange you already know but hadn’t quite connected with. It might be how ridiculous people appear when they try to stifle a yawn in the middle of a conversation, how difficult it is to renegotiate a mobile phone contract or how most cats are just out of emotional reach. Whatever it is, it’s something that makes you realise (or visualise) that, as human beings, we share basic experiences.
It’s this ‘connectivity’ and narrative thread that helps observational comics build trust, chemistry and rapport with an audience. Theoretically, it’s simple – the more they paint a picture of shared experience, the more chance there is of more people laughing out of recognition. Of course it’s more complicated than that but this hypothesis serves to illustrate a relevant point. In the leadership development context we are not interested in the funny. This isn’t the point or a legitimate goal. The transferable lesson from comedy it that a key skill for leaders needing to capture the attention of and motivate those that they lead is being able to connect with what we will call the ‘story of us’. How can we, as leaders, help our people and teams feel like they are in the same boat as us using narrative and story to build trust?
I’d argue that the use of story as a leader isn’t a soft and fluffy performance skill for big set-piece events behind lecterns. It’s a way of thinking; of auditing your communication style to help others to connect with the real you, to breathe life into potentially dry information and to ground theory in real, gritty and emotionally loaded experiences.
There’s a problem though. The word ‘story’ is loaded. I hear leaders telling me all the time that they are not ‘story-tellers’. “I’m not paid to tell stories, I’m paid to lead a team and manage the business…”, they say. I don’t think that’s true. We all tell stories. And we do it well. We just don’t necessarily know we’re doing it. Some work suggests 85% of the time parents spend with their kids is in story-telling mode. It fires their and our imagination, building trust and passing on knowledge.
Something happens, though, when we come through the revolving doors of the office (or appear awkwardly on Zoom). I call it the ‘reverse Superman effect’. We lose the ability to tell stories because our ‘shadow voice’ (the DVD commentary on our life – that little voice that undermines your confidence or questions your ability) tells us it’s not appropriate to tell stories. It’s unprofessional. It’s not ‘needed’. The reverse is true. If a leader is able to relay his or her experience of a set of events, a threat or a development they are more likely to put their team or team member into neuroscientific ‘reward’ as opposed to ‘threat’. Stories provoke a biochemical reaction – they build trust, create warmth and make dry facts sticky. Using (as opposed to ‘telling’) stories also doesn’t need to involve humour, shock or wackiness. Stories just need to relate to and connect with the information the leader is trying to impart.
It’s here where we need to understand the difference between ‘being’ a story-teller and using the skill of telling stories.
It’s also about recognising that stories aren’t always appropriate. It’s about having the awareness to spot situations where the use of story might add value. And avoid telling them where it would have the opposite effect undermining rapport and trust. After all, from the world of comedy and joke writing, if it doesn’t add it subtracts…
When should leaders ‘use’ story?
As Harvard Professor Marshall Ganz tells us, “Leadership is accepting responsibility for enabling others to achieve shared purpose under conditions of uncertainty”. To this end, he continues, “like a poem, a story moves by evoking the emotional content of a particular moment through which we can grasp insight into the values at stake”.
So, how can leaders think about using story in a real, practical way to capture both the hearts (‘emotional mapping’) and the minds (‘cognitive mapping’) of their people and/or teams to bring clarity to a situation or challenge?
I’d argue that it’s all about mindset and not performance. Yes, leaders can work on their presentation ‘style’ and ‘personal impact’ but I think it goes much deeper than that. It’s about planning and mental preparation in the first instance.
Stories, I often suggest, are a bit like the wrapping around a gift. They make the gift attractive, they ‘hook’ your communication recipient’s interest and they make your recipient feel like they’ve connected with you. Most importantly, they want to see what’s inside. Ever been given a gift in a plastic bag because the giver couldn’t be bothered to wrap it nicely? It’s a curious feeling – I’m grateful for the gift but I don’t feel like you really – emotionally – wanted to give it to me.
What, therefore, should leaders think about before crafting a specific story?
So, before wrapping the gift, it’s all about purpose. Stories start with purpose. You’ve got a meeting with your team. Something has happened/is about to happen and you need to deliver a message. Is there a story you could tell that would breathe life into your purpose?
To un-earth the purpose and your link to it, try thinking about the following questions:
- Why are you communicating this message?
- Why to this group, now/today?
- What do you want them to think, feel or do as a result?
- What is your personal experience of this topic, situation or challenge?
- Why are you communicating this message?
It’s in answering number 5 where the ‘rubber hits the road’. The answer isn’t just ‘because I’m charge of the team’ or ‘because I’m the most senior person’. It’s about why they should listen to and respect you in this specific context. What is your personal connection with this subject-matter? How does that help your team members ‘get’ you and how does it help them understand why they need to connect with your purpose? How can you tell it in a way that places an emotional picture-frame around facts?
As with any new skill, it’s about practice. It’s about finding your own, authentic way to navigate through a new behaviour. And it’s also about giving it a go, making mistakes and then having the humility to learn from the experience. When a presentation, conversation, meeting or situation goes badly, are you taking the time to analyse what went wrong and to make changes in time for the next opportunity?
In comedy we talk about the fact that you learn nothing from a good gig. I would argue that the same applies to leadership.