Many leaders underestimate the importance of the skill of storytelling. In fact, storytelling is often viewed as a “soft skill” despite the critical role it plays in bringing strategies to life. But why? Leaders simply haven’t given storytelling the attention it deserves. It’s not unusual for people to get stuck in their beliefs and to keep doing what they’ve always done.
Consider this: 100 years ago, dentists recommended that parents buy cocaine drops – yes, cocaine drops – to ease their kids’ toothaches. Fifty years ago, medical professionals were known to tout the health benefits of cigarettes, and just 40 years ago, carbonated soft drinks were promoted as good for you! Looking back, it seems ridiculous that people bought into these beliefs and kept them alive for so many years. However, we find similar belief patterns in leadership today.
Leaders Think They’re Compelling Storytellers. They’re Wrong.
Over the past 20 years, we’ve found five blind spots that preclude us from leading people in the most enlightened way, one of which is storytelling. Leaders believe they’re telling compelling stories that resonate with their people. They believe the way they’re sharing their strategy and integrating their folks into its activation is working. In reality, it isn’t working at all. There’s a reason we don’t take a PowerPoint presentation to our kids at bedtime, and it’s because this method of sharing information almost always lacks emotion and meaning. Yet it’s exactly what we’ve been using to communicate with our employees for decades!
Collectively, all of us, myself included, may not be as good at storytelling as we think we are. It’s time to address it, and we can begin by following these three steps.
- Clarify your story with an effective headline.
- Create shared meaning.
- Tell your story in an authentic and meaningful way.
Creating a Powerful Headline
To improve your storytelling skills, it’s important to start with the headline of the story. This is your vision. I can’t tell you how many organizations I’ve worked with where this vision is the result of too many leaders in one room coming up with a statement that ends up almost entirely devoid of meaning. You don’t want a headline that consists of buzzwords. You don’t want a headline that is so vague that it could be talking about any business or industry. As you think about the headline of your story or your vision statement, here are three questions to ask.
- To what degree does this statement effectively describe what winning “looks like” or the exciting future state you’re working to achieve?
- To what degree does this statement effectively describe what’s unique about what you do and the difference you make?
- Does this statement create an emotional connection that makes people want to be part of what you want to do?
Aligning People Through a Shared Meaning
The second component of good storytelling to focus on is shared meaning. Creating shared meaning is important, as one word can evoke different meanings and imagery depending on whom you ask. For example, if you ask a group of people what comes to mind when they hear the word “bear,” some might think of a polar bear. Some might think of a black bear; others, a panda. Some might think of the bear market. If a leadership team says the organization’s mission is about innovation or transformation, people will have different interpretations of what this means. When you ask people to execute, you’ll have a lot of options and ideas for how to do this. Without shared meaning, alignment is impossible. Without alignment, successful action is impossible too.
Encouraging Others to Connect to Your Story
It’s not enough just to recite a story. Let’s talk about one of the most effective storytellers in history: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As the 1963 March on Washington came to a close, King was set to speak in front of the massive crowd. He had been working on his multi-page speech, which was filled with compelling facts and data about civil rights and racism, with his team for days. But when King began to deliver his speech, he just wasn’t capturing the crowd. At this point in the event, people didn’t want to hear about policy. One of King’s advisors told him to forget his speech and to tell people about his dream. So that’s just what he did. King spoke from the heart and connected with hundreds of thousands of people that day.
While many of us will never have the speaking capabilities King had, we can all learn from how he leveraged emotions to connect with his audience and relied on authenticity to create a truly powerful moment. So, when you’re talking to your people about a new strategy, think about who you’re trying to reach. Are you conscious about sharing the “why” with your people? What are you doing and saying to engage them in it? Your employees are the customers of your story, the customers of your activation. Therefore, the words you use to share the “why,” “how,” “when,” and “what” with them are critical. Make your story powerful by telling it with authentic emotion so you can connect with your audience.
It’s Time to Remove This Blind Spot
Author, salesman, and motivational speaker Zig Ziglar once said, “People buy on emotion and justify on logic.” This is why leaders can’t rely on data and stats alone. We need to work hard to accomplish a goal together. It’s not enough to share a presentation or send an email.
Storytelling is a leadership blind spot that has been facing the business world for the past 20 years. It’s time to address this. Collectively, all of us, myself included, may not be as good at storytelling as we think we are. But we can improve by:
- Clarifying our stories with an effective headline
- Creating a shared meaning
- Telling our story in an authentic manner that connects and resonates with our intended audience
Are you ready to make storytelling a priority? Are you willing to adjust how you’ve been doing things? The time is now to address this blind spot and ensure that the messages, strategies, and mission you’re sharing with your people are as compelling to them as they are to you.