Posted by: malstott | November 20, 2012

Leaders Communicate via Story

On a TV interview last night a rather boring sounding older gentleman began his answer to a question with the phrase, “let me tell you a story.” He had my attention. Stories are like magnets. We all are interested in a story.  Humans have told stories forever. In recent decades we have gathered around radios and then TV’s to listen to stories. Now we watch reality TV to see and hear the semi-real stories of others. Somehow stories stick to us. They make more sense to us than lists of facts or even an interesting lecture. We want to know what happens and we dive in with our imaginations and our full selves. It isn’t academic. It is human.

A story’s job is to simulate potential realities. Our brains can then think through the situation without taking risk or really much time. It is a learning tool that is efficient and effective. No wonder stories are so powerful as a way to communicate. Advertisers know this of course. Hallmark commercials are all about the narrative. Even short beer commercials tell a story about what could be if only a certain beer is purchased. Drug commercials try hard to stick to the story even when in the background the poor narrator is listing all of the awful side effects that are possible with the drug. Lucky for drug companies we pay more attention to the pictures of the story than to the list of all of the ways you will potentially suffer.

Leaders need to use the power of the story to move organizations forward. Creating a vision and motivating people to join on the mission toward that future state is part of what we as leaders do. Consider the following ways to incorporate this into your leadership toolkit:

  • Share something of yourself – This does two things at once. It hooks people in via the motif of story and it connects them to you as a person.
  • Think in simile – What are you trying to accomplish and how is this like other things in life. Is there a way to compare? Finishing this task will be like completing a marathon. Simplifying this product line will be like cleaning up your garage.
  • Bring in the stories of others – Consider what is going on in the news or in the lives of your team. Perhaps someone just had a new baby. Maybe a space shuttle is being launched or is landing. Connect what you are doing to what is happening in the rest of the world.
  • Create a narrative about the task at hand – If there is a beginning, middle and end to the path you are on with your team, paint that picture. Use your imagination. As the real story unfolds, reflect back on what you visualized with the group.
  • Read and Listen – If you are connected to the rest of the world via books, newspapers, TV, radio you will see the connections between what you do and what is happening elsewhere. You can create context and back story to what is going on in your business. You can paint a picture of how your work fits in and connects.

We all want to be part of a bigger narrative. We want to hear how our stories connect. If you use this kind of language while leading you will tap into a very basic need in all of us. Your organization will not only listen more closely, they will remember more completely.  And most important, they will identify with the journey and join in.

“Great stories happen to those who can tell them.”

Ira Glass  (a wonderful NPR storyteller)


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