Once Upon a Time: Tell Your Story, Inspire Others and Build Your Teams

iStock_000006665839XSmallBy Nneka Orji

Over the years I have become convinced that we learn best—and change—from hearing stories that strike a chord within us…Those in leadership positions who fail to grasp or use the power of stories risk failure for their companies and for themselves.” John Kotter

The idea that storytelling can be a powerful tool to convey important messages and inspire is not new, but its impact in a business context is only more recently gaining traction with the wider management community. While data and analysis go some way in convincing audiences of the need to act, on their own they have limited impact on inspiring the audience to act.

Make an Impression, Make an Impact
According to Paul Smith, author of Lead with a Story: A Guide to Crafting Business Narratives that Captivate, Convince, and Inspire, stories are a powerful tool which leaders can use effectively to inspire an organisation, set a vision, teach important lessons, define the culture and values, and explain who the leader is and what his / her beliefs are. Smith provides examples where organisations have not only acknowledged the importance of storytelling, but have invested in developing storytelling skills across their leadership team. For example, Proctor & Gamble brought in Hollywood movie directors to teach their executives and a number of Motorola’s leadership belong to improvisational or theatre groups. By formulating their messages as stories, executives were in a stronger position to lead organisational change and influence delicate issues like diversity and inclusion.

Storytelling can also be instrumental in improving employee engagement, both in the short and long term. For organisations looking to identify and develop the next generation of leaders, the leadership’s ability to engage and inspire must be at the core of their talent strategy. In a 2002 article for the MIT Sloan Management Review, Douglas Ready states that “storytelling by a company’s senior executives is a way of providing potential leaders with the necessary context from respected role models.”

Uri Hasson’s research with his Princeton team also demonstrated the power of storytelling; when telling a story, the storyteller can directly influence the brain activity of each audience member to map the storyteller’s brain activity. In the study, when the storyteller’s insula (emotional brain region) was activated, activity was also seen in the insula of the listeners. Paul Zak’s work on oxytocin-rich environments also highlights how personal connections through storytelling and other means evoke empathy across employees and customers, leading to “better business.”

What does this mean for leaders who are trying to influence organisations through periods of change? To ensure employees join their executives on the organisation’s change journey, leaders must take their employees on the emotional journey too. And they can do this through storytelling.

Don’t Just Tell, Do
While storytelling by leaders has been shown to be successful, Ty Montague (CEO of co:collective) argues that storydoingTM is the differentiator. In addition to telling the stories, leaders and organisations need to engrain the stories in their organisation through their strategies and direct action. Based on Montague’s studies (during 2007-2011), storydoingTM organisations see improved performance; annualised revenue growth rate is 4.3% higher than those of storytellers, social media mentions for storydoers was twenty times greater, and share price growth between was positive compared to negative for storytellers. StorydoingTM companies such as Red Bull, TOMS shoes and NIKE are outperforming storytellers like Dr. Pepper, Reebok and Adidas.

If a leader or an organisation cannot reflect the ideals or key messages of their story in their action, the story cannot have the intended impact. Blake Mycoskie, CEO of TOMS Shoes – a storydoer, also highlights that a good story and corresponding action, will lead to further sharing of the story: “I realised the importance of having a story today is really what separates companies. People don’t just wear our shoes, they tell our stories.”

Telling a Good Tale
According to Jeremy Hsu’s Scientific American article, 65% of our conversations are made up of personal anecdotes and gossip. If this is indeed the case, we all need to ensure that the stories we tell, and more importantly the stories others tell of us, reflect ourselves and our goals.

So, how do we tell a good tale in a business context?

In a video on the Lean In community, Professor Jennifer Aaker, Stanford Graduate School of Business states that stories are twenty-two times more memorable than facts. This encourages us to use stories, but just as a good story will be remembered more than a fact, likewise a bad story will also stick.

According to Aaker, a good story has four elements: goal (why tell the story), grab attention (why would the audience listen), engage (why would the audience care), enable action (why would they share the story). By ensuring your story includes all these elements, you can narrow the gap between the way in which others view you and how you view yourself. To assess the success of your story, confirm whether your audience has changed their view of you, whether they better understand your position on the subject, or empathises with you and your cause.

If your story has not had the desired impact, take the time to work on it and practice it. Like all skills, especially leadership skills, good storytelling is the result of practice.

A story a day, makes others stay…
We all know leaders who have one story they tell over and over again with different audiences, and each time with success. These “signature stories” are an important part of storytelling. While Aaker encourages us all to have a portfolio of stories, she also suggests that having our own signature story can be beneficial.

During the performance management and promotion cycles, organisations tend to talk about “your case” for promotion. A more appropriate and effective term would be “your story.” Rather than showing your achievements as a list of facts and data, try to tell a story to ensure your sponsors and other decision makers understand where you are and where you’re going – putting them in a stronger position to support you.

…engaged and aligned
Have you noticed the effect a politician can have on a crowd through a simple story? When managing and building teams throughout your career, applying a similar approach to storytelling can have a profound effect on how engaged your teams feel. Evoking empathy in your team will not only help them understand where you’re coming from, but also make them comfortable to share their stories with you – keeping you working together as a unit with a shared goal.

Stories are an important part of your career. Set your goal and decide which stories will best help you achieve it. Taking your signature story and portfolio of stories to work every day can have a direct impact on your career. While you might feel that storytelling might not come naturally, you should be encouraged that once developed, it is one of the most effective tools by which to shape how you are perceived.

Also, remember that storytelling must be accompanied by action – storydoingTM. We can’t just talk the talk; we must also walk the walk.