Any good facilitator will tell you that powerful stories are worth their weight in gold while conducting a workshop. Nothing captivates a group’s attention than a powerful story told in the right context.
But, is there a place for story telling in leadership also? One insight we have gained while facilitating senior leadership workshops is that that many effective leaders are also good story tellers. They are able to weave in elements of storytelling to demonstrate various aspects of leadership – including sharing a vision, managing change and many more. Yet, many leaders still struggle with this important skill. They subject their teams to dozens of PowerPoint presentations when a simple 5 minute story could have done the job more effectively.
Paul Smith in his brilliant book on storytelling, Lead with a Story, talks about one such story to bring out the power of storytelling in the corporate world. As part of their renewed focus on core values, a large retailer started companywide measures to demonstrate customer centricity. Yet one story making the rounds in the organization conveys the same message, in a way none of the other mediums could capture. The story goes something like this – As part of their drive on customer focus, the company changed the policy on the parking lot at their corporate headquarters. The premium parking lots closer of the office entrance were usually reserved for company officials and top management. To align with their value of customer focus, they reassigned these slots to customers who visited their office and moved the employee parking lots further down the road (involving a longer walk to the office).
One day during the rainy season, the CEO’s car arrived at the parking lot. The rain was pouring down. The CEO had to make a choice between taking a nearby parking lot (reserved for the customer) or park at his usual spot and risk getting drenched in the rain. Considering that he was scheduled to attend an important customer meeting later, people watching from the office window expected him to take one of the closer parking slots and make a quick dash for the door. To their surprise, the car did not stop but went straight ahead to the usual spot further down the lot. The CEO then made a desperate dash to the office building. His suit got ruined, prompting a visit to the clothes store in the same building to change into something presentable for the customer meeting. He walked into his office wearing a cheap suit (with some smirks and quiet sniggers in the background from amused employees), but having delivered an unforgettable lesson on customer focus. I don’t think, anyone needed a PowerPoint presentation to imprint customer focus in their memory after that!
So what are some things that leaders need to keep in mind while using story telling at work?
1. Purpose –
When crafting a story, be clear on your objective behind telling the story. What is the key takeaway that you want to linger on in the mind of the audience? A simple way to put a structure to your core message is to try telling your story in one line! Pixar, the animation powerhouse is one of the masters of storytelling. All pitches for movies in Pixar have to be made in a simple 6 line format which starts with the classic, Once Upon a time. You can read more about the Pixar Pitch and some new pitching techniques in Dan Pink’s new book, “To Sell is Human”. Prakash Iyer in his book “Habit of Winning” shares the story of Karoly Takacs, a legendary Hungarian athlete. Takacs was one of the favourites to win the gold at the 1940 Olympics – but fate had other plans. He seriously injured his arm in a grenade accident in 1938 and many people wrote off his chances of ever returning to competitive shooting again. To their surprise, he returned to compete in the Hungarian National Championships in 1939 and won the event, shooting with his left hand!
(He later went on to win the gold in the next Olympics in 1948 post World War 2).
In the Karoly Takacs story, the message is about not giving up when the situation looks tough. In your story, what is the one thing that the audience would remember?
2. Context –
Many stories fall flat because the audience is not able to identify with the story – it simply doesn’t fit their context. To motivate a sales team aiming for a high target, a story on someone struggling to achieve the impossible is good, but they have to be able to relate to the same. So if you plan to use the story of man’s first landing on the moon, it is unlikely to strike a chord with the audience. Make the story as close to the audience’s own as possible. When you are thinking of a storyline, put yourself in the shoes of the audience – If I was sitting in the audience, would I relate to this story? A classic example of good storytelling was the recent election campaign in India by BJP. The advertisements all featured real people whom the majority of the audience could identify themselves with and issues which they were likely to face. We recently witnessed a good corporate example of this at a workshop we were facilitating. A sales leader was mulling over the presentation planned for his team. He wanted to instil the importance of self-belief in achieving the high targets planned for the coming year. Instead of going in for lifeless PowerPoints and statistics about market potential, he had the audience eating out his hand by telling a story which involved everyone in the room. He asked them to visualize how success looked like during his story. At the end of the story, the team was asked to close their eyes and visualize themselves celebrating in Las Vegas after achieving their target. That got the message through much more easily than any number laden PPT would ever have!
3. Characters –
Try to think of a good story without any characters at all. Almost impossible, isn’t it? Characters are what make a story powerful. In the classic book “Tell to Win”, Peter Guber talks about the story of Myspace.com. The founder, Richard Rosenblatt sold his company to Rupert Murdoch for USD 650 million in 20 minutes by telling a story which had the media mogul spell bound – simply because Murdoch could picture himself as the main character in the story who conquers a new market! In almost every story, there is a main character/characters (Good guys) who are caught in conflict with other characters or situations (Bad guys). Everyone likes a story where good triumphs over bad!
From a corporate perspective, the bad guys can be metaphorical. For a sales team competing in a cutthroat market, the competition could be the bad guys. For a team operating in a saturated low growth market, the market itself could be the villain that you are trying to overcome!
4. “Ah ha” moment –
Does your story have enough suspense and at least one “Ah Ha Moment”? In the story about the CEO in the parking lot, the suspense for the listener is the crucial moment where the CEO has to decide whether to park in the customer space or the far away lot. The Ah-ha moment is when the CEO decides to do the right thing (in a way good succeeds over bad even in this context). So when you are preparing a storyline, think about your Ah-ha moment in the story. If you are using the Karoly Takacs story, start by talking about the background of the athlete and build up the suspense to the part where the main character returns to shoot with his other hand. That is your “Ah-Ha” moment! What is the “Ah-Ha” moment in your story?
If you don’t use stories in your leadership journey, start today! Do share your stories too..:-)