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.
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.
However, research informs us that over 70% of change efforts in organisations simply fail. So, using just these two tools (hard power and soft power) will make many of our change efforts unsuccessful.
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 and create and power and mandate for change.
The currency of change has changed. Are you trading in this new currency?
You can’t throw a stone without hitting a storytelling consultant today. Yet, I remember a lot of blank stares when we co-founded Australia’s first storytelling company 10 years ago. Our first 18 months were spent answering questions from puzzled people, such as ‘How can you storytell in business?’ and ‘Aren’t storytellers natural?’
Yes, we know today you can storytell in business, and you should if you want to connect with and engage your audience. However, storytelling is not a natural gift, but everyone can learn how to get better at it.
It’s wonderful to see how, in just the last decade, business storytelling has become established as essential in both business and leadership. It is widely taught across the globe and part of most leadership development programs. This then begs the question, what’s next for business storytelling?
We are going to experience a tsunami of storytelling across all platforms, digital media and sectors—marketing, advertising and professional services, just to name a few. In addition to data, stories are going to become de rigueur. Nobody is going to buy or be persuaded to change simply based on data.
‘Show me the money’ is going to be reinvented as ‘Tell me the story.’ Google’s own ad on search is a wonderful example of this. Already there is a recognition that storytelling is the fuel that drives compelling engagement face to face and on social media.
In turn, this means our audiences are going to be much more discerning. The authentic, well-told story will wow. Spin passed off as stories will incur well-deserved wrath. Social media will amplify success and failure.
So, where will storytelling be one year from now? Here’s my snapshot view:
- More competition—everyone will be doing it across industries and in roles from leadership to marketing
- Audiences will be more discerning and more vocal
- This is the biggie – There will be a chasm between good, bad and ugly storytelling
So, how are you preparing for this storytelling revolution?
Please share, I love hearing from you.
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.
I introduced myself at a recent event as a business storyteller, which is what I am. There was a time when no one understood what the word meant. Not so today. The person next to me then introduced himself: ‘I am a storyteller too and tell stories with numbers.’ Everyone just looked confused. We later found out that he was an accountant!
One part of me celebrated. The word storyteller is now so sexy that it’s being hijacked. But another part of me was unconvinced.
Stefan Semester, of the design firm, Sagmeister & Walsh, doesn’t mince his words when he calls this bluff: “I think all the storytellers are not storytellers. Recently I read an interview with someone who designs roller coasters and he referred to himself as a ‘storyteller.’ No @%$#head, you are not a storyteller, you’re a roller coaster designer! And that’s fantastic and more power to you, but why would you want to be a storyteller if you design roller coasters?”
Until I read his work, I thought I was being precious about labels.
It turns out we all can and should story tell—it makes what we do engaging, interesting and relevant. But using storytelling as a tool versus being a storyteller are two totally different things.
It’s not (just) that my nose is out of joint (really!). I worry that it reflects a deeper problem. If you describe yourself as a storyteller when you are an accountant, then the very first story you are sharing is spin. Not cool.
I totally get that in a fluid agile work environment, the work we do cannot always be distilled into one or two words. Right till the 1980s the census job question only asked what is your title? Today the census features a 2-part question: What is your title? What do you do? Because titles like ‘Chief Fun Officer’ beg for more information.
So whether you are filling a census form or describing what you do to someone my advice is the same. Celebrate what you do! And find a sexy way to describe it (without hijacking the word storyteller). Unless, of course, you really are a professional business storyteller.
How would you describe what you do?
Please share, I love hearing from you.
One of our highest needs is appreciation. This is true even if you are not normally needy!
My daughter was telling me her violin teacher has created a simple way for the kids to appreciate one other after a performance. They use a system called “star and a suggestion.” A star would be one thing I liked about your violin playing, and a suggestion is one thing to do better/differently. A simple frame and an easy way for kids to learn the art of appreciation.
Business, of course, is a much more hard-nosed place. We, as employees, want our individuality and our contributions at work recognised in some way. Imagine our delight if we are recognised as customers.
A group of customers was invited to test out a new model ATM for TD Bank in Canada. When they tested these ATMs, they found out that they were Automated Thanking Machines and not Automated Teller Machines. The ATMs spat out gifts instead of balances, not just mundane movie tickets but well thought-out gifts. A mother with a sick daughter in Trinidad received a plane ticket. Another parent received a family pack of passes to take her kids to Disneyland. Through #TDThanksYou day, the bank thanked over 30,000 customers—some receiving money in their bank accounts at a branch or via direct deposit. The emotionally heartfelt responses of their customers speak to the thoughtfulness of this idea.
The #TDThanksYou day event continues to this day following its successful launch in 2014.
#TDThanksYou day poses a challenge for all of us in business. It raises the bar. While we might have plenty of suggestions for our customers, how can we give them a star?
Please comment, I love hearing from you.
Our biggest fear with storytelling is that we might disclose too much. It is after all storytelling and not group therapy! At work, no one wants to be like that friend on Facebook who overshares.
The paradox is that successful storytelling requires vulnerability. This then begs the question—how can we do storytelling and do it well?
When working with clients, I suggest thinking in terms of ‘storytelling wells’. These wells are what you use to draw your stories. They provide you with storytelling ideas. The wells help us strike a balance between vulnerability and oversharing.
Public story well
These are stories that are available in the public domain.
For example, check out how thought leader Carolyn Tate uses the Golden Buddha story (available in the public domain) to create a link to her message. You could use this story too and land it on a message that is relevant to your audience.
Professional story well
These are stories about things that happen at work. Zappos is an online retailer with a core value to ‘deliver WOW through service’. A legendary customer service story is how Zappos shipped a pair of shoes at no charge to a customer whose Zappos shoe order had been delivered to the wrong location. The customer was a best man at a wedding, and the replacement order literally saved the day.
Personal story well
This is powerful stuff in business yet it requires some level of self-disclosure and vulnerability. Here is an example of a personal story I share on my website and LinkedIn profile.
Private story well
These are stories you decide not to share; they are private. You as the storyteller decide what is private for you. Sometimes a client wants to share a story about having undergone a serious illness. The test I recommend my clients use is, what is the purpose of this? And how does this serve the room (help your audience)? If the line between personal and private is blurry, this simple test can help you.
Understanding and using these storytelling wells prevent your stories from floundering on the rocks of inappropriate disclosure.
Please comment, I love hearing from you.
“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” is one of William Shakespeare’s famous lines from Romeo and Juliet.
But, I’m sure you will agree that, in business, your name matters and you don’t want to be called by the wrong name. Remembering and using people’s names is the most powerful and authentic way to build connections. Yet, sadly, most people claim that they are hopeless with names.
If you are reading this, chances are we have worked together. My clients always comment on how good I am with names (and how brilliant I am with storytelling!). Surprisingly, I get very few comments on my modesty, but remembering names always impresses.
Here are some things that work for me:
Channel Bob and Barrack
So often, whether it is a new exercise program or a tool, our mindset matters. I am going to ask you to adopt a useful belief: honing your name recall is a skill, and we can all get better at it. It’s literally a muscle that you can grow. So channel Bob the Builder (and the slogan used by the 2008 Barack Obama presidential campaign) and respond with “Yes we can!”
Anchor in your senses
When you hear someone’s name, you need to anchor it in your senses.Kinaesthetically in physical contact, a handshake works best. You hear their name so your auditory senses are engaged. Another anchoring method is repeating their name back to them while maintaining constant eye contact, thereby using your aural and visual senses. When you repeat their name back make sure it is not done in a creepy way! And don’t try too hard. Weave their name back in a sentence such as ‘*|FNAME|*, thank you for reading this.’
If you’ve never been very good at names, you probably didn’t use these anchor points. It is important to use at least 3 senses, otherwise it is like trying to pitch a tent with only one peg. While anchoring in your senses is pretty failproof, the downside is that if you get a name wrong, that gets anchored too and is hard (but not impossible) to rewire!
Finally, it’s all about practice. Start with two names today–your barista and the IT help desk person. And then build on it.
So your mission should you choose/decide to accept it, is to try these strategies. And please comment, I love hearing from you.
P.S. My personal best is 100 names in a room. I know!!
Recently I was walking past a popular bar near my house and the ad in the window said:
Beer too cold
No empty seats’
The tag line: ‘Come in and see why 7% of people don’t like us’.
I love it – taking a negative and crafting it into a positive narrative, using humour and authenticity. An anti-ad ad.
In a hyped-up world, where most products pretend to be perfect, the ugly ducklings stand out. Especially uglies that are comfortable in their skin and craft it into a strength.
What does this have to do with diamonds you ask? In the Argyle diamond mines in Australia, the diamonds mined were all brown. A potential marketing catastrophe. Customers eagerly seek glistening white diamonds, known as Champagne diamonds. Might customers spurn what seemed like an inferior diamond, based on its colour? Urban legend has it that the global advertising company, Saatchi & Saatchi, were paid mega bucks to solve this challenge. They came up with the idea of calling brown diamonds, Cognac. So diamonds range from Champagne to Cognac. Sheer genius.
So what needs to be considered when we showcase our ‘uglies’?
- It can’t be a ‘faux’ ugly. You know, like the interview candidate who, when asked for their weaknesses, says ‘Oh. I’m a perfectionist’. Right! Next. No, it’s got to be real – not fishing for compliments – that is just annoying and twee.
- Don’t fake it. Don’t call attention to uglies that exist only in your imagination. A speaker might apologise for their accent when the audience is thinking, what accent?
- Sometimes it’s OK to admit to an ugly – an undeniable one –acknowledge it (customers love honesty), and then switch to focus on a positive.
So how are you going to turn your uglies around? Please share I love hearing from you.
Recently an oncologist friend shared how the hardest part of his job is giving patients bad news. It’s the toughest communication that anyone has to impart or receive.
Leaders are often the bearers of bad news. Not life and death but job losses, restructures, demotions. So how can we deliver bad news and leave people with their dignity intact and some hope for the future?
Make it private
The best way to deliver bad news is face to face and ideally one on one, not a mass meeting and definitely not in an email. A few years ago Denise Cosgrove, the then CEO of Victorian WorkCover Authority, sent an email after a public holiday describing a lovely spa weekend she had in Daylesford. She talked about how she was loving the role, the organisation and the people. And finally the punch line: ‘We’re proposing some immediate restructuring and changes to roles and unfortunately this will result in some job losses’. The email was leaked to the media by furious employees.
An acid test for leaders is ‘How would you like to receive bad news?’ The answer would probably be ‘Face to face and privately’ and the same would apply for people who work for you.
Experts advise that warning the person that bad news is coming lessens the shock that follows and also allows them to process the news. Examples of warning phrases include, ‘Unfortunately I’ve got some bad news to tell you’ or ‘I’m sorry to tell you that…’. Obviously, this is not the time to present a mixed bag like ‘The holiday you always wanted to take is all yours for the taking’ etc.
Shut up & Listen!
Once the bad news is delivered the next thing for leaders to do is to stop talking. It’s not about you anymore. Anything said after this point, will only sound like ‘Blah, blah blah’ as your audience is in an emotionally turbulent state. Most people react to bad news emotionally with anger, silence, shock, disappointment, disbelief or even tears. In that moment, you as the leader are the employee’s most important source of psychological support. Validate their feelings with phrases like ‘I understand this is very disappointing for you’ and show solidarity.
What next and the power of touch
The next challenge is then where to from here? Discussing options and next steps might be appropriate depending on you, them and your organisation. And finally, most humans seek solace in touch. So a handshake, a hug or a pat on the shoulder are very important. Of course not all three at the same time! Lisa Marshall says ‘This is hardly the time to give a non-verbal message that “you’re untouchable” to someone’.
Delivering bad news is probably one of the hardest things leaders have to do. But as leaders, we can deliver bad news in a way that is respectful and allows people to retain their dignity. Anything less would not be leadership.
Please comment, I love hearing from you.