How do we persuade people to adopt our ideas, listen to what we have to say and even be inspired to act?
If you lived in 16th century Venice, the answer would be easy. You would do it through fear, as suggested by diplomat and political theorist, Niccolờ Machiavelli. However successful, smart leaders in the 21st century know that hard power (fear, command and control, yell and tell) is not the way to create long-lasting, sustainable influence or change.
In the 1990s, Professor Joseph Nye introduced us to the idea of soft power–creating change through connecting, consulting and collaborating. Most leaders know that soft power is how we get people on board. Think of soft power as sowing seeds and planting a garden—worth the long-term results but difficult for the impatient. We saw a remarkable display of soft power on the world stage, at President Trump and Kim Jong-un’s historic Singapore summit.This was after several months of hard power posturing that had the globe on edge.
Yet business leaders, who use just these two tools (hard power and soft power) will see many of their change efforts fail.
Check out my interview with Dr Susan Inglis Professor of Practice at La Trobe University to explore these ideas further.
The new currency of change is as old as time yet is the contemporary tool of our time. It is business storytelling. A purposeful, authentic story in business can influence, persuade and motivate people. Here’s an example from a client on what this looks like.
John Kotter, the leading authority on change, declared, ‘Change leaders make their points in ways that are as emotionally engaging and compelling as possible. They rely on vivid stories that are told and retold. You don’t have to spend a million dollars and six months to prepare for a change effort. You do have to make sure that you touch people emotionally…’
Simply stated, hard power informs, soft power invites and story power inspires.
Not for a moment am I suggesting to share one story, and you will instantly influence 100% of the people. No one story can do that, and no one deserves that level of influence; you would never want to have a bad idea in that case. But, over and over again with clients, I have seen that purposeful stories, crafted and shared with authenticity, inspire, power and have seismic impact.
The currency of business itself has changed. Are you trading in this new currency?
What’s the secret sauce that makes some stories better than others and some storytellers more successful than others? The answers might surprise you.
Small beats big
In business storytelling, David beats Goliath every time. Quite often, my clients start by putting themselves under pressure, thinking that their stories have to be mega—about scaling Mount Everest or sailing around the world solo, for example. With products or brands we feel we have to share the entire history, instead of focusing on individual customer experiences.
But surprisingly, what works best is small, everyday, relatable stories. In a world in which bigger is better, brash is bought and bold is rewarded, this is a hard truth to face. In storytelling, every time you go small and intimate, you set yourself up for success.
Even in a small, everyday, relatable story, something has to be at stake. Your reputation? Your integrity? Your career?
A story about a barista not making your coffee right, while annoying, simply doesn’t have the stakes to engage your audience. We almost dismiss this as a first-world problem and you as a princess/prince! On the other hand, consider a story that starts with dropping your child off at school (most people can immediately relate to this) and then you discover (during the ride) that he is being bullied. The stakes are suddenly high. When that happens, your audience is immediately engaged. Equally important is that you are sharing something that matters to you as well.
Make it personal
A client recently highlighted how one of his CEOs used to obsessively share stories about Jack Welch and GE. The minute either of these two words was mentioned, everybody would roll their eyes, thinking “here we go again.” Sadly, that CEO (who didn’t last very long in the role) interpreted business storytelling very literally—meaning stories about business.
Business storytelling is about humanising us—allowing us to make an H2H (human to human connection) at work. There is no more powerful yet simple way to do this than through personal stories.
You can occasionally use business stories, but successful storytellers know to always go personal.
So, are you ready to use these 3 secrets to become an epic storyteller?
Please share, I love hearing from you.
Millions of people can’t be wrong. Both in terms of Mari Kondo’s bestseller on the Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (the inspiration for this blog’s title) and in the practice of Hanami.
I have just returned from Tokyo where I was working with Goldman Sachs on business storytelling. My trip luckily coincided with the cherry blossom season. Nothing prepares you for the beauty, the lushness and the bliss like sensory experience. Cherry blossom season however is fleeting, the magic ephemeral and the beauty disappears after a short intense period.
So the Japanese celebrate this season through Hanami. Hanami is the practice of viewing cherry blossoms when they are in full bloom. At a deeper level it is spending time contemplating their beauty and fragility. Hanami could be a walk through the park or sitting on viewing benches in front of the trees or attending picnic parties under the blooms. Hanami seems to be both an act of contemplation and celebration. Joyous to experience.
My experience made me reflect on how we could all do with more hanami at work. Not literally as hard to do in Melbourne with narry a cherry blossom in sight. But metaphorically, taking time out to contemplate, to think about our lives and work. Instead of always relentlessly surging forward to conquer that next item on our do list, deadline or project.
Hanami or my interpretation is the space we make in our lives for pausing, contemplating and celebrating. Something as simple as 3 deep breaths, can help us experience a moment of hanami. Sitting down in your favourite café and savouring that perfect cup of coffee instead of rushing off with a take away cup. Walking through a park on the way to the office. Looking deeply at a work of art – immersing yourself in its beauty. Stopping to listen to a busker.
This might sound like schmaltzy advice. For me the gritty take away is the practice of hanami is a micro holiday at work. It creates more time and energy for us to do our best work, to go deeper with our creative instincts and savour life’s moments.
Not long ago, I took part in a Melbourne Moth Story Slam. I share my video further down. I won! Now, I know what you are thinking: I had an unfair advantage because I am a professional storyteller. But the rules for the stories told at The Moth are very different than the rules of business storytelling. (Or that’s my story, and I am sticking to it!)
Importantly, I learned some lessons from the story slam that helped me push the boundaries when I tell business stories. I’ll share them with you here:
At The Moth, you cannot share how you were raised in a cupboard under the stairs or that, when you were 9, you discovered that you were a wizard and went to wizard school (unless you are actually Harry Potter, of course). The Moth is all about true personal events. They have to be your stories. Storytellers share tales that mean something to them—you have to own your story.
In business, many people make the mistake of reaching for the well-worn, impersonal stories—starfish, anyone? Yawn… boring. Or they rely on stories about their business. We can all afford to get much more personal. And the difference between using a business story and a personal story is the difference between a good result and a great result.
At The Moth, the audience loathes anything overdone, over-scripted or over-performed.
Even with my clients, I always advise them that stories are the opposite of every other communication. They work best when we don’t nail down every word, script it to a ‘T’ and memorize it. In fact, these 3 things doom your story to fail.
At The Moth, and in business, it’s the sweet spot between knowing what you are going to say and not overcooking it. In fact, The Moth also has no notes and recommends being unscripted in its guidelines.
Angry red face, squeaky high-pitched voice, deep golden sunset. Did your mind immediately conjure up images for each of those words?
All of the above phrases are examples of sensory details. When storytellers use any one of the five senses—sight, sound, touch, smell or taste—they are weaving in sensory detail. Rich sensory detail makes stories come alive. So much of the blandness in business comes from lack of any sensory texture.
Please comment. I love hearing from you.
Last year, I debuted as a stand-up comedian! I am being quite generous with my use of the word “debut.” A more accurate description would be a humble start of some sort. While my street cred has skyrocketed, people are always intrigued by why stand-up comedy? Stand-up comedy is simply the best personal and professional development I can get as a presenter. So, here are secrets from the world of comedy that every presenter can use. And being funny is optional.
‘All comedy starts by writing.’ This is the first thing my comedy teacher said. DUH! I simply wasn’t expecting that. But, as soon as he said it, it was bleeding obvious. Delivery might look ‘off the cuff’ (and sometimes it is), but every comedian spends time writing and rewriting. From seasoned professionals to rank amateurs, comedians write content into their iPhones, in a trusted black book and on the fly. The key aim with writing is economy of words. Finding the least amount of words that can take you from A to funny. Similarly, if you want to be a brilliant presenter, start by writing down your words. Then edit with the knife of economy. (I never said any of this would be easy!).
Even if airline food jokes have been done to death, they still persist. Why? Because what matters in comedy is your unique perspective on things. Great comedy gets its edge from the comedian’s unique perspective. One of the simplest ways to give your presentation an edge is to bring your personal perspective in¾perhaps through a story or an example. And, if you want to be a presentation superstar, what works best is a funny story.
Comedy comes from emotion, not from a neutral state. It comes from something you were excited about, or that made you mad, or you found funny*. In business, the hard truth is that presentations without any emotion simply flat-line for your audience. We all want to hear from presenters who care about their messages, are passionate (but not evangelical) about their content and connect to the audience through conviction. The alternative is a presentation fail.
You can’t fill from an empty cup. For anyone to enjoy your content (whether you are a comedian or a presenter), you first have to look like you are enjoying it. Is there a bounce in your step, a twinkle in your eye and a smile on your lips? These are visual cues for your audience.
Recently, people doing the ‘open mic’ comedy circuit (which is free for audiences and performers) were surprised to see Dave Hughes performing. Dave Hughes is a huge Australian comedy star with his own radio and TV shows. Yet, he was out there, doing the hard yards, cheek and jowl, with people trying to break into the business. Hughes was demonstrating what all good comedians do¾they embrace a beta mindset. They constantly practice, showcase and road test material. Most importantly, a beta mindset learns from both the bombs and the bouquets.
OK, here’s a video of my debut performance.
Also an invitation to the Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2018 where I will be performing in a ‘Best of showcase’ for newbies. Excited and terrified!
*Of course, there are comedians whose shtick is total deadpan, and that works for them. But remember, they offset this lack of emotion by content that is hysterically funny. So, if your business presentation is hysterically funny, then go for the ‘no emotion’ show.
Leaders often ask me, “How do we use business storytelling effectively in our presentations?” Smart, successful professionals know that stories can make your presentations memorable. Here are my top business storytelling techniques for presentations.
It is important that every story you relate links to a message. Otherwise, you are wasting your audience’s time by being self-indulgent. Your stories are there to help your audience connect and remember your messages, so use your stories purposefully.
There is a humor drought in most organizations. In fact, in any other context, a drought of this magnitude would be declared a global emergency. If you want your business storytelling to rock your next presentation, make sure some of your stories are funny. Watch any TED talk by Ken Robinson, who is a storytelling master. Even the most serious story should incorporate at least one funny line.
Magic happens when you share a purposeful, funny story that is also personal. This is a trifecta. The holy grail of business storytelling.
There is a scene from The Matrix, a 1999 science fiction film, in which Neo (Keanu Reeves) points to a helicopter and asks Trinity, “Can you fly that thing?” She replies, “Not yet.” Then she calls Tank and says, “Tank, I need a pilot program for a B-212 helicopter,” and he uploads it into her brain!
Isn’t this every presenter’s dream? Where your presentation is so good that people immediately get it and remember it? While we don’t have Tank’s program, using business storytelling well is our best bet yet. Stories are Velcro for your audience’s brain, sadly almost everything else is Teflon.
Please comment, I love hearing from you.
Recently, I completed a stand-up comedy course at the School of hard knock knocks (I know!) No plans for a career change, just professional development that feeds into my speaking.
The first thing our instructor said was, ‘All comedy starts with writing.’ You could have heard a pin drop in the room. None of us ever thought that comedy starts with writing! Jerry Seinfeld writes a joke every day. He says that, at the start of every year, he hangs up a large year-at-a-glance calendar on his wall. Every day, when he writes a joke, he marks a red “X” over that day. Eventually, he creates a chain of red Xs. He says the idea is to never break that chain.
Storytelling is no different―it all starts with writing your story down. It sounds simple, but is a powerful step that separates amateurs (who try to wing it) from the pros. The trick is to write like you speak so your story isn’t stilted. Writing forces you to think, and disciplines you to keep your story short and stick to a structure (beginning, middle and end). Also once you have written your story down, you can then continue to tweak it and make improvements.
The other business storytelling technique that separates pros is they use personal stories to land a business message. Personal stories immediately engage a business audience. Yet, for a storyteller, personal stories in business take skill and confidence. It’s often challenging to find the right personal story that serves our purpose and our audience. We feel vulnerable when we share personal stories, yet we know instinctively that they pack a punch. Personal stories pressure test our risk capacity. It feels risky but with the right business storytelling training, need not be. And, as in life, the greater the risk the greater the reward. The pros know the power of business storytelling rests with personal stories.
Finally, pros make it all seem so effortless. When they share a story, it is like they are sharing it for the first time ever, even though we know this not to be true. So, what’s their secret? We had the opportunity to interview John Stewart, then CEO of National Australia Bank, who we were told was a natural storyteller. When we asked him, he laughed and replied ‘My most ad-libbed stories have been practiced for hours in front of the mirror.’ Just like in every other field (sports, music, public speaking, etc.), all pros practice.
So to be a pro at business storytelling: write your stories down, use personal stories and practice.
Please comment, I love hearing from you.
Why are so many films about love, or the battle between good and evil, or ‘coming of age?’ Because these are universal themes with which people across cultures or geographies can connect. In a sense, they all speak to our human condition. Universal is that which resonates with all of us.
In Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, author Lisa Cron describes it as, ‘The universal is the portal that allows us to climb into the skin of characters completely different from us and miraculously feel what they feel.’
But, whether it is a script for Hollywood or your next business story, the universal has to be packaged in the specific to become accessible. Specific makes it tangible for your audience. Specific―what happens to one specific person in a specific moment in time―is when we start to unlock the magic of business storytelling.