In sports, there seem to be some athletes who are remembered over others. Some leaders manage to make their mark on our psyche and connect with us. There may be athletes who aren’t as successful as others, but yet we are more inspired by them or feel closer to them. These are the sportsmen and women who have a story to tell. If we look back at the Olympics now, some of the great champions who come to mind immediately are Mo Farah (who I wrote about a few weeks ago), Jess Ennis and Tom Daley. All of whom have inspired us with their personal stories.
However, the importance of storytelling in leadership has often been overlooked in contemporary leadership literature. Throughout history, leaders, in sport and business, have used storytelling as a powerful motivational tool, particularly during times of uncertainty or in response to crises. The art of storytelling is still, despite recent advances in communication technologies, an essential skill for leaders.
“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.
Stories work for leaders as a successful communication technique for several reasons. Storytelling translates dry and abstract numbers into compelling pictures of a leader’s goals. Stories convey emotion effectively, and emotion united with a strong idea is persuasive. We remember what we feel and our emotions inspire us to take action. Charts can leave listeners bemused; documents remain unread and dialogue is just too laborious and slow. Although good business cases are developed through the use of numbers, when faced with the task of persuading others to get enthusiastic about a major change, storytelling is the only thing that works. Stories are memorable: research claims that we are up to 22 times more likely to remember a story than a set of disconnected facts.
In the sporting world, one of the most successful coaches of all time is Phil Jackson. His reputation was established as head coach of the Chicago Bulls from 1989 through to 1998, during which time Chicago won six NBA titles. His next team, the Los Angeles Lakers, won five NBA titles from 2000 to 2010.
Jackson made extensive use of personal storytelling from a variety of sources, his own experience, Zen Buddhism, or the Lakota Sioux tribe of his native North Dakota. Jackson used these stories to guide the team in the direction of trust, collaboration and superior cohesion. Under the coach’s leadership, their ultimate mission became more about creating a unique team spirit than about the mere act of winning games or even championships.
Himself a deep thinker influenced by diverse cultures and philosophies, Jackson has co-created with his team a “who we are” story consistent with his “who I am” story. We have a unique identity, we are different and we are more than basketball players.
In the business world, Steve Jobs is another example of a leader that was exceptional at creating clear business narratives. 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. His story telling power can probably been best seen during his product launches and legendary marketing campaigns.
In successful organisations, whether in business, sport or elsewhere, I often find leaders who are able to connect their group’s endeavours to a higher purpose, to lead them on a quest that gives deeper meaning to their day-to-day activities. To me, the extraordinary success of leaders such as Phil Jackson and Steve Jobs has its roots in the skill of getting their teams to see a bigger picture.
So how do you do it?
The ﬁrst step to become a storytelling leader is to develop an awareness of the stories that swirl around you every day. Whenever a set of events strikes you as remarkable, take note of what happened and ask yourself, “What does that set of events say about the behaviours I want to instil or dispel in my group?”
You then need to move your style of speaking away from being predominantly rational and argument-based to being a good mixture of stories and argument. Humans are afﬂicted by what psychologists call the conﬁrmation bias, which results in us digging in our heels whenever someone tries to convince us to change our minds with sophisticated rationale. In fact we often come away from these exchanges doubly convinced of our own opinions. Think about how most presentations normally ﬂow: we outline our argument, and then follow on with examples, having already unwittingly activated that pesky conﬁrmation bias.
We can avoid triggering this bias by starting our presentations with examples instead. Speciﬁcally, it’s beneﬁcial to start with a negative story to grab their attention. We are hardwired to notice negative stories, but negativity rarely changes our minds. So we follow that with a positive story of what’s possible. These two examples give the listener the opportunity to gain a new perspective and shift their position, without telling them what to think. At this point, a rational argument can now be effective.
Just like any other memory story from your childhood, always remember to have a hero we can all root for and a clear villain! 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 are likely to face in the future. 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.”
A ‘villain’ could be a person 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. Novice storytellers often leave out the bad guy with the result that the story lacks impact.
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Why not try using a story this week. If it is not your natural style keep it simple, make sure it illustrates your point and try it in a small group or one to one setting. See what works and build on that for next time. Little hint, unless your audience are 5 years old it isn’t necessary to start with “Once upon a time…”