Now more than ever great leaders are great storytellers. Storytelling helps executives weave rich narratives that inspire their organizations, set a vision, teach important lessons, and define the culture and values. Perhaps most importantly, stories explain who you are, how you got here, and what you believe most deeply about your work and about each other.
According to branding expert Dan Schwabel, storytelling is useful when leading change or making recommendations. It’s also good for approaching delicate issues like diversity and inclusion, or giving people feedback in a way that will be better received.
One leader who told a compelling story was Hubertus von Grünberg, a former CEO and chairman at Continental AG. In the mid-1990s, Continental, the world’s fourth-largest tire company, was a powerhouse in its native Germany but held a small relative share in the global market. Continental’s executives understood that for Continental to survive, it would have to build new core capabilities and grow its international business.
Von Grünberg knew he had to persuade his team to accept this fact. So he told them a story about Continental’s shrinking place in an increasingly competitive industry. He then talked about the company’s prideful heritage, which had previously prevented him from identifying outside partners that could strengthen the company’s competitiveness. He said that he had to think more broadly about partnership prospects and he challenged the group to do the same. In essence, he told all in attendance that adhering to the same behaviors and mind-set that once made Continental great might be the biggest obstacle to the company’s transformation. (The above story was retold by Douglas A. Ready.)
While it sounds wonderful, storytelling can be hard work and labor-intensive. You don’t want to tell just any story, but rather one that really captures your call to action. These steps, adapted from an article by Robert Thompson, can help you develop effective stories for your workplace.
- What is your present story? Identify as clearly and as succinctly as possible the positives and negatives of your current situation. Include your company’s history to provide context and build connection.
- Clarify your vision. Decide on where you want to be moving forward and why. Identify the compelling elements of that future as well as possible roadblocks to achieving your goals. Detail the benefits that you and your colleagues could expect by doing this.
- Involve others. Personally invite others to join with you in developing your story.
- Get started. Let your story flow as organically as possible from your pen or keyboard. Rewrite and edit later.
- Write it for impact. Metaphors are packed with meaning. Often, a well-placed metaphor can add much to your story’s meaning and make it more memorable. Use rich descriptors and emotive expressions; studies show that these drive decision making.
- Don’t skimp on clarity. Keep in mind that most people do not know your story, so clarity is crucial. Make sure to offer context at the very beginning. Keep your message clear and concrete, while avoiding vague generalities.
- Be brief and to the point. Most business narratives should be 2 to 5 minutes long.
Keep in mind that people will tell stories about you and your company whether you asked them to or not. If you tell them first then at least they will hear your version and perhaps even borrow from it for their own narrative.
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