Thursday, September 20, 2012

Putting it all together: Six essential elements of a strong leadership story

This post is part of my series on leadership storytelling.

It was dirty. Disgusting. And it involved copious amounts of mud.

When people ask how I got into communications, I tell them how initially I wanted to be a journalist. The summer before my senior year in college, I worked as a general assignment reporter for my hometown newspaper. That meant I didn’t cover a regular beat, so I got all the random leftover stories - think amazing animals, cute babies, quirky local festivals, the kinds of things Robin on How I Met Your Mother is forever covering. For example, while covering a barnstorming festival, I rode shotgun in a 1920s-era open-cockpit biplane, decked out in an aviator hood and goggles (Yes, they ran a photo. No, I'm not posting it.) I went on every single ride at the county fair and rated each according to how sick I felt afterwards. I spent an afternoon interviewing members of the local Coast Guard who got busted for shooting water balloons at the county sheriff. You can’t make this stuff up.

I wanted to prove myself in the working world and thus threw myself into this role of intrepid cub reporter. That is, until the day the US Geological Survey came to town for a dig. I trekked out to the site to interview the scientists, who were all very smart and interesting and friendly. The only problem: It was pouring. There I was, immobilized in thigh-deep mud, mascara cascading down my face, futilely jotting notes on a soaked notepad that quickly dissolved into an inky mush. It was in that moment that I decided I wanted an office job.

I graduated and promptly got a job in corporate communications for Whirlpool. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a fulfilling career ever since, and I’m glad I didn’t go into journalism. Yet I learned three important lessons during that summer as a reporter:

  1. Knowing what you don’t want to do with your life is just as important as knowing what you do want.
  2. It’s more important to ask the right questions than to have the answers. I learned how to loosen people up with non-threatening, open-ended questions – a skill I use every day as a counselor. 
  3. It gave me perspective. No matter how hairy things get in my current job, at least I’m not covered in mud.

My message to you is this: Embrace new experiences. Try out the new, the unfamiliar, the scary. You are guaranteed to learn something in the process.

What makes a good leadership story
Why did I just tell you that whole long-winded story? Well, this is a post on storytelling, so you do the math. As I mentioned in my post about leadership storytelling gone wrong, some stories are more effective at inspiring, building trust or educating employees. In that entry, I shared five common types of stories leaders tell and the situations for which each is most appropriate. (The anecdote above is an “Introducing Me” story.)

Characteristics of a great story
Today, I wanted to take a look at the specific elements of a truly great leadership story. When I’m helping a leader develop his or her own stories, I try to get them to focus on stories that are:

  • Personal and authentic. It can be hard to come up with a story from your own life that illustrates the point at hand. But it just takes some thoughtful preparation. I ask leaders, what are you passionate about? What matters to you? How do you spend most of your time outside work? I encourage them to think about their hobbies, family and personal challenges for inspiration. For example, if a leader is trying to rally employees to undertake a significant change, I’d suggest they describe a change they made in their personal life – what worked, what was challenging, and how the end result was worth the effort.
  • Rich in details. So often, leaders think they’re telling an inspiring story when they’re really just citing metaphors or hypothetical situations. Including just a couple specific details – about the setting or the characters involved – will make any story more authentic and believable. 
  • About a person or people. People are entertaining. We gossip about celebrities, not high-minded ideas. Often leaders will talk about the company or organization as if it’s the central character in their story. It’s not. Instead, talk about a specific person who personifies what the company is going through.
  • Short. Anything longer than two minutes isn’t as memorable or easily repeatable.

Essential story elements
All right. Let’s assume a leader has an idea for a story that’s personal, detailed, about a person and short, and they’re ready to give it a little structure and actually start telling it. What specific elements does their story need to pack the most powerful, memorable punch? Here are six:  

  • Protagonist: As with my story about the mud pit, this is often the storyteller themselves. The audience should be able to relate to this person, and they should have some sort of mission (such as finding out whether I wanted to pursue journalism as a career.) 
  • Scene: Not just the physical setting, the scene explains what is going on around the protagonist and provides context for their actions. In my story, I explained that was a young reporter pursuing every conceivable type of bizarre story in hopes of proving myself.
  • Plot and/or conflict: What stands in your protagonist’s way? What challenges must they overcome to achieve their mission? For me, it was the mud. Tension or struggles move a story forward so your audience wants to know what happened. 
  • Transformation: This is your story’s turning point. Often it’s a realization, a triumph over adversity, a change of heart. In my story, it was the revelation that I wanted a job where I wouldn’t come home covered in filth.  
  • Moral: What’s the key learning for your audience? Here’s your opportunity to link to larger themes and the actual situation at hand. In my story, I learned what I didn’t want out of my career while also picking up skills I still use to this day.     
  • Call to action: What do you want people to DO upon hearing your story? This is arguably the most important part, yet it’s often overlooked. Take your moral and translate it into tangible actions. For example, if I were telling my journalism story to a group of employees, I could encourage them to seek out new experiences and roles within the company.


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