Storytelling isn’t just a way to make messages more interesting – it’s how we understand.
Communication skills are a expected competency, yet research from Bersin & Associates shows that 67% of Senior Executives report that leaders and mangers on their teams lack adequate presentation skills and communication skills for todays marketplace and workforce.
Storytelling may be a subset of communication, be we want to suggest moving it to the forefront to empower vision, delegation, team-building, presentation and general communication. Story is an underutilized tool that’s already in your toolbox, and you can dust it off with five simple ideas.
- Vision with story. Story is a not-so-happy beginning, with an action that creates a change to a happier-ending. That beginning/middle/end structure should be used in everything you vision, be it a vision-statement, a presentation, a meeting, a conversation, or an employee review.
- Include the feelings so the story can be experienced. Without feelings, your story is only information. For “data” to be experienced, you have to use feeling words, and feel them when you say them. Listeners will experience a journey from fear to confidence, frustration to relief, or apathy to enthusiasm if you provide the head/heart experience they’re wired to receive.
- Involve others to draw stories out collaboratively. Storytelling doesn’t have to mean “telling” at all. By asking questions about where people are, where they want to be, and how they plan to get there, stories can be crafted in conversations and meetings, aligning everyone to convergent thinking with a story they helped create.
- Sell actions by telling the story out of order. When you want buy-in on a plan, process, action, or point-of-view, you want to consider a Beginning, Ending, Middle order. Beginning and End map the journey and provide context for the action in the Middle. When everyone sees the same journey, it’s easier to align teams around the “vehicle” you’re proposing to get them there.
- Design stories about those you are trying to help. Get the main character of the story right, and it’s probably not you. In the age of servant leadership, the true leader sees everything through the lens of who they are trying to help. Make the main character whoever is in a not-so-happy beginning, and talk about what actions will take them to a better place.
These five storytelling tips will make you the leader who makes sense, the leader who creates progress, and the leader people want to follow. Let’s look at each of the five storytelling tips in more detail, so you can lead better regardless of position or authority.
Vision with story. Whether the vision for the company, or a vision for how the team should operate, let story be the backbone of your communication design.
Classic vision statements capture a possibility and say, “This is how it will be.” That’s a static situation, a mere one-third of story. Story is a journey, and it starts with the not-so-happy now. Then it goes on to what we’re going to do, and ends with the happier situation made possible by the actions we took. Every meeting, discussion, presentation, report, or review can follow this Beginning, Middle, End structure. Here is where we are now. This is what we’re doing. It’s going to look like this when we arrive.
Include the feelings so the story can be experienced. Both by using feeling words, and by feeling the words you’re using, leadership stories benefit from emotion. Without emotion you have only information. Feelings make it an experience.
The beginning is less than ideal, and the ending is more ideal. What are the feelings that accompany the journey? If the story is about a risk we’re facing, the emotions might be worry at the beginning, and confidence at the end. If you’re trying to rise from a plateau, the team might be apathetic in the beginning and driven passionately at the end. Place feeling words in your story, and feel them when you say them, so your audience will experience the story.
Involve others to draw stories out out collaboratively. Leadership isn’t always commanding. Much more of the leadership experience should be “pull” rather than “push.” Ask questions about Beginnings, Middles, and Ends to create a story collaboratively in discussion.
“What’s the situation right now?” will draw the not-so-happy beginning right to the forefront. “Where do we need to be and when?” will focus everyone on defining a possibility (a goal) and placing it somewhere in time. “Okay team, how are we going to get there?” kicks off the problem-solving, and while the meeting to follow won’t sound like a story, it will be. Ask story-structured questions to involve everyone in the story of where we are, where we need to be, and how we’ll get there.
Sell actions by telling the story out of order. A Beginning is a bad situation (a problem). Middle is an action (a solution) causing a change. Ending is a better situation (an outcome). A Beginning, Ending, Middle story structure is the best way to achieve buy-in on an action, process, idea, or plan. If you can get buy-in on the beginning and end before discussing what actions will get you there, you’ve aligned on a context that will motivate interest in the action to get there. “Right now leadership is considering phasing out our department and we’re all worried for our jobs. I want to see us back on the top, proud and valued again in no more than twelve months from today.” This leader has created a push away from the negative beginning and a pull toward a happier ending. If his next sentence is “I’ve come to explore a plan with you that I believe will take us there,” his team is now listening. Consider beginning, ending, middle as a motivating order for your story structure, especially when you’re selling an action.
Design stories about those you are trying to help. Too often, we make ourselves the main characters of our stories. “I’ve come to share my plan.” Because the stakes are high, our attention can be drawn back on ourselves. If you look closely, you’ll see that every plan serves somebody. Every service creates a change that people experience. Every action worth taking makes a difference for a person or group. Make sure that someone is the focus of your story.
“This company is threatened by a new competitor.” “Our clients are facing more risk than ever before.” “We are all experiencing fatigue and burnout.” Human beings feel good when they help, and most believe that by helping others, good things will come back to them, and they’ll feel rewarded by the work they’re doing. Embody servant leadership in the way you tell stories that focus on who you’re helping, with an action that takes them from a not-so-happy beginning to a happier ending.
Summary: These five tips harness the power of story to help you lead better. However, it’s important to note that learning isn’t enough. Being is the goal. And the gap between knowing and being is accomplished by doing. You have endless opportunities to practice story structure within your daily routines (or daily chaos as the case may be). Practice visioning everything as a beginning (negative), middle (action), and ending (positive). Add feelings to make it an experience. Build stories conversationally and inclusively. “Sell” actions and ideas with the Beginning/Ending/Middle order. And focus your stories on the main character who you help from a not-so-happy beginning, to a happier ending.
These five tips will change your communication, and we’d love you to share your experiences and questions right here on this post. If you need more help, we’re here for you, and the storytelling subject is richly explored in our book, Winning Presence for Business Presenters along with products supporting and extending its value.
Also, check out our ExecSense webinar here to help you jumpstart the year for your team.