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Leaders are Good Storytellers
I recently spoke with the VP of Human Resources of a Silicon Valley company regarding providing executive coaching for the company CEO. She asked some very pertinent questions to determine fit. She specifically wanted to know how I worked with different personality styles, and my methods for initiating behavioral change.
The VP of HR and I spoke about my approach to coaching, and my belief that possessing a psychological understanding of human behavior and business acumen are important competencies for coaching executives. We also spoke of the need for her organization to create a culture where innovation flourishes.
The VP of HR is interested in partnering with me in helping the CEO to develop her executive presence and become a better storyteller. We further discussed how company executives can benefit by working with a seasoned executive coach.
Let Me Tell You a Story...
Do you know people who can masterfully tell the right story at the right time?
Quite often, the best storytellers become our managers and leaders. Even if you have no designs on becoming a CEO or leading a division, you undoubtedly crave more control over your work, ideas, sphere of influence and others’ perceptions.
Effective storytelling can help you gain more control, while also building employee morale, strengthening teamwork and defining how problems can be solved. You’ll find it much easier to develop original and effective solutions to everyday challenges.
What’s in a Story?
Cold, hard facts don’t inspire people to change. Straightforward analysis doesn’t excite anyone about a goal. Storytelling creates an optimal learning environment: We quickly process information when it’s delivered in the form of a story, and we personalize the tale so we can relate it to our own experiences.
A story is “a fact, wrapped in an emotion, that compels us to take an action that transforms our world,” write TV writer/producer Richard Maxwell and executive coach Robert Dickman in The Elements of Persuasion: Use Storytelling to Pitch Better, Sell Faster & Win More Business (HarperBusiness, 2007).
Research tells us:
- Stories don’t have to be long.
- Stories don’t have to be verbal (think of brand logos).
- The right story, at the right time, helps us shape and control our world.
Crafting a memorable, inspirational and transformational story begins with a good outline, note Maxwell and Dickman. A successful story must have five basic elements:
- Passion (the enthusiasm and energy with which you tell the story).
- A relatable hero who gives your story a point of view and allows your audience to enter into the story in their own minds.
- An obstacle or an antagonist who presents problems that must be faced. This struggle involves strong emotions that engage the audience.
- A moment of awareness when everything changes for the hero (the problem is solved, and there is an emotional release). The audience learns from the story as it plays out in their minds.
- A transformation that occurs within the hero, which improves his situation or allows him to make new discoveries.
Make Your Story Come Alive
There are some important caveats about these five elements.
First, your hero should be relatable—someone who’s similar to members of your audience. He cannot be Superman or a rock star, nor should you use yourself as the hero (unless you want to appear arrogant).
Second, emotions should be the highlight of your story. Facts without emotions are dry, lifeless and forgettable. Don’t be afraid to expose life’s inherently raw emotions. Why does the hero care? Why does this story matter?
Third, make your story realistic to achieve authenticity. While embellishment is sometimes necessary to a good story, provide realistic details to make it vivid.
Finally, stories don’t necessarily have happy endings. People often pay greater attention to bad news. Close with the lessons to be learned from your story. Minds may wander, or your audience may reach an unexpected conclusion, so be sure to emphasize the points you want to make.
Use plain, simple and direct language when telling a story so its moral can shine through. You don’t want to clutter the story with lots of descriptive words or too much detail.
Incorporate five key elements to add interest:
- Surprise: Why is this story unusual?
- Mystery: What piques our curiosity?
- Conflict: A main character should face a challenging situation to which the audience can relate.
- Brevity: Use enough words to make the story come alive—but no more.
- Repetition: Used appropriately, a catchphrase can drive your message home.
Where to Find Stories
Potential stories are everywhere, but you may not notice them until you practice storytelling for a while. It’s fine to start with borrowed stories from other speakers, books and the Internet, but be sure to credit them appropriately.
You can reap an endless supply of great stories by paying attention to the anecdotes other share. Start a story notebook or computer file so you can access them for the appropriate occasion.
Anything that captures your attention can be turned into a story. Often, life’s little details contain big lessons, so begin to develop your sense of “story radar.” After an interesting conversation or encounter, ask yourself if you can use the incident to illustrate a leadership principle.
As with anything, you sharpen your skills through practice. Make a commitment to yourself to start practicing this week. Pick three stories to tell, and play with the details to figure out how to accentuate key points.
Alternatively, pick a challenge or lesson you want to teach through story. Then, match the story to the objective.
Make a list of your most important leadership issues, such as:
- Envisioning the future
- Strategic purpose and goals
- Team alignment
- Values and corporate culture
- Customer service and focus
How you can teach leadership principles through stories of real people in your particular industry?
Look for stories about people who implement their core values in day-to-day tasks. Values tend to be vague until you integrate them into stories about actual experiences.
Encourage people to view a situation through their own lens, but in a new way. This will help them make progress in implementing organizational goals.
Are you working in a company where executive coaches provide leadership development to grow emotionally intelligent leaders? Does your organization provide strength-based executive coaching for leaders? Sustainable leaders tap into their emotional intelligence and social intelligence skills to create a more compelling future.
One of the most powerful questions you can ask yourself is “Am I a good storyteller?” Emotionally intelligent and socially intelligent organizations provide executive coaching as part of their leadership development programs.
Working with a seasoned executive coach and leadership consultant trained in emotional intelligence and incorporating assessments such as the Bar-On EQ-I, CPI 260 and Denison Culture Survey can help leaders develop their executive presence and become better storytellers. You can become a leader who models emotional intelligence and social intelligence, and who inspires people to become fully engaged with the vision, mission and strategy of your company.
About Dr. Maynard Brusman
Dr. Maynard Brusman is a consulting psychologist, executive coach and trusted advisor to senior leadership teams. He is the president of Working Resources, a leadership consulting and executive coaching firm. We specialize in helping San Francisco Bay Area companies and law firms assess, select, coach, and retain emotionally intelligent leaders. Maynard is a highly sought-after speaker and workshop leader. He facilitates leadership retreats in Northern California and Costa Rica. The Society for Advancement of Consulting (SAC) awarded Dr. Maynard Brusman "Board Approved" designations in the specialties of Executive Coaching and Leadership Development.