Thursday, June 14, 2012

Storytelling part 1: Six ways to get executives to try storytelling

Think back to 2002. Real estate was a surefire investment. CD collections commanded entire walls. Men in Black II had just come out and no one thought they’d ever make another one. And since this was before smartphones, Twitter, Facebook and heck, even MySpace, people actually talked to each other at lunch. I was in corporate communications at Whirlpool, where every day a group of 20-something employees and interns would park it in the cafeteria at what was (in retrospect) obviously the kids’ table. One day a man approached us, tray in hand. “I’m Dave,” he said. “I work in our North American Division. May I join you?”

What he didn’t mention was that he was Dave Swift, his title was president, and he RAN the North American Division. In other words, he was a Big Deal. Yet he somehow found time to eat in the cafeteria with commoners like us.

A big part of my job is helping leaders develop stronger connections with their employees. I could tell an executive they need to listen to their people. Demonstrate humility. Show respect. On and on and on. Instead, I take 20 seconds and tell this one story.

I also tell this story is to demonstrate the effectiveness of storytelling itself. Stories are your power tools of persuasion. They make a point without preaching. They grab you. They stick with you. It’s been 10 years and I STILL remember that lunch like it happened at noon today. Storytelling is, in short, a really smart communication tactic.

But you probably already that. Because everyone has something to say about storytelling these days. Storytelling is the skinny neon jeans of communications right now – hot, trendy and seemingly new until you actually think about it. Moreover, the people who care the most about storytelling are those of us who already do it every day: as communicators, marketers, writers, journalists. We get storytelling. We know it’s important. We do it all the time.

But what about the rest of the world? What about the leaders who run our companies, the ones who are supposed to inspire, motivate and direct their organizations to do great things? I’d argue that these are the most important storytellers of all. Yet many executives don’t come from a communications background. They’re focused on running their business, not dreaming up plots and protagonists. They leave the storytelling up to the communications department – which is ironic since the most authentic anecdotes are the ones from the storyteller’s own life.

I say communicators could do more to help leaders come up with their own stories. My team runs a training program on this very topic, and it’s something I’m personally passionate about. Chalk it up to my days as a newspaper reporter when I was still in college – I love eliciting a good anecdote out of someone, and I’ve never met an open-ended question I didn’t like.

To that end, I’m kicking off a series of posts on how leaders can become better storytellers - and how communicators can help them do that. I don’t have all the answers, of course, so please weigh in with your own recommendations as comments. This week, let’s start at the most logical place: the beginning.

Selling in storytelling
Let’s say you’re the director of internal communications for a decentralized company, with many locations scattered across the globe. Your CEO has charged you with rolling out a new business initiative, which will require employees’ emotional commitment and buy-in. You know you’ve got to rely upon local leaders to create that connection, and you want them to embrace storytelling as a core strategy.

How do you get those executives to buy into your approach? Sure, everyone knows that storytelling’s a good, worthwhile thing. But there are a lot of good, worthwhile things that leaders know they should take the time to do but don’t, like saying hello to employees in the hall or eating lunch with them.  How do you make the business case for storytelling to people who don’t do communications for a living? To start, here are six tips:
  1. Be clear what you are – and are not - asking. You’re not turning your leaders into Steven Spielberg. You’re not suggesting they write novels at night. You’re asking them to sprinkle a little storytelling into their everyday interactions.  Start with a small, quantifiable goal, such as, “we want you to try telling one story a day, or replacing one slide with an anecdote at every meeting.” 
  2. Link storytelling to your leaders’ goals. What’s important to your leaders? It’s probably not storytelling. They care about things like driving innovation, creating a productive culture, striving for operational excellence and hitting performance targets. As always, speak to the things that matter most to your audience. Explain the tangible benefits of using stories to align people around a common cause – busy executives aren’t going to sign up for storytelling for its own sake.  Paint it as a means to an end.
  3. Explain how storytelling will make what leaders are already doing more effective. You’re at the gym, slogging through 50 reverse crunches and hating life. A trainer comes by and says, “If you make this one small adjustment, each rep would be far more effective and you’d get the same workout from just 25. Can I show you?” You’d want to know, right? It is swimsuit season after all. Leaders are already expected to communicate with their teams, so show them how storytelling can help them do that more powerfully with little extra effort. For example, suppose a leader is trying to convey a complex, highly technical message, such as how a pharmaceutical company’s new drug works inside a patient’s body. It’s hard for a leader without a scientific background to recite all those details. And it’s even more difficult for the average employee to grasp. Instead of memorizing key messages, a leader could tell a simple, illustrative story, perhaps about a patient or a completely unrelated metaphor that still conveys the same concept. That’s easier on the leader and more memorable for the audience. 
  4. Have a good storyteller introduce the concept. Ideally, this is your CEO. But if he or she has the storytelling skills of a calculator, tap a more captivating leader to be your “I’ve tried it and it works” champion.
  5. Provide tools, training and support. Storytelling is learned skill, just like cooking, painting and packing for two weeks in a carry-on. It takes practice. Make sure leaders know no one’s expecting them to go out and start telling stories tomorrow like a correspondent. Offer group practice workshops, one-on-one coaching and specific prompts to help them identify their own narratives. (I’ll be sharing some specific examples in an upcoming post.)  
  6. Emphasize that anyone can become a good – or better -  storyteller. No need to have the comedic timing of Jerry Seinfeld. In fact, the least gregarious leaders often benefit the most from experimenting with storytelling, as a powerful personal story can demystify and build trust in even the iciest executive.  In other words, storytelling can make you look good. And who doesn’t want that?
Next week, I’ll share some specific tips on what makes a good leadership story. Here’s a hint: It involves unicorns.

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