A friend shared this storytelling article on Linkedin recently from the New York Times. When I saw the headline, I thought it was another one of those articles on Linkedin, a quasi-native advertising snippet from some individual who has “re-branded” himself and can show you all the secrets of storytelling for your business or job search if you can follow along and pay a not-so-small nominal fee. I’m more of a Wall Street Journal kind of guy, but I loved the article. And as both a storyteller and business professional it resonated well with me as I hustle back to New York City on Acela, after meeting with another old friend and powerful storyteller back from my Microsoft days.
In one’s business persona, most individuals exhibit some dominant characteristics. You can say these are strengths, but they perhaps can also be negatives. I’m also of the belief that as much as anyone will tell you they are the same person at work and at home, and that in today’s world, there are no lines between them, that’s just not entirely true. There’s a reason you (hopefully) don’t share cat videos on Linkedin while you may do with your friends on Facebook, and most likely the conversations you have (or had) with your lifelong friends at a bar at 2:17 AM are vastly different from the nature of your dialogue in a work environment.
For me, storytelling has always been a crucial way of how I work and how I live, but the manifestation is quite different in my work world. Storytelling was important when I was showing a client why to procure our products or what our future might mean to them and the impact of our offering on their business from a revenue, cost, time, or industry perspective (think analogies, or speaking within the customer’s language.) I found it particularly important during one negotiation with a Telecommunications firm who expressed faux horror at our pricing during one deal, which they insinuated was ridiculously usurious. I asked my counterparts across the table about their pricing and profit from offering call-waiting as a stand-alone service (for you young’un’s, yes call-waiting was indeed sold this way once up a time) when its profit margin was significantly higher than ours. They did not love the comparison:-).
But within my business persona, storytelling was foremost a key construct of my leadership, both for my team of hundreds of people, and with the individuals themselves that made up this team, but also to my peers and various superiors. And it could take many different forms.
The past few weeks, I’ve been contacted by a number of former employees thanking for introducing me to the Unbroken story of Louis Zamperini from Laura Hillenbrand’s book if I intended to see the upcoming film. I used the remarkable story on an organization wide call, and yes I will see the film, as an example of persistence, faith, hard work and resourcefulness when my team was faced with some challenging obstacles that were surely a hell of lot less dire than Mr. Zamperini’s. I love the historical parallels of storytelling, particularly ones where you can highlight the human aspect of the challenge or learning. That helps the team member or leader sincerely relate.
The storytelling doesn’t always have to be how a group or person overcame some insurmountable obstacle – there’s a time and place for the dramatic, but if you use it too often, the impact is substantially lessened. Humor, including examples born from the self-deprecating side of a leader, can be very effective. But a key rule here is to know your audience – and your and the organization’s culture – to ensure you stay within the acceptable norms. One of my former bosses once told me “You don’t know where a line is until you cross it.” Using humor to make a point to your team, however, should not be one of those times.
In one of my roles I was reporting to a different superior, Robert, a senior executive running a multi-billion dollar business of all North American operations. Brilliant, wise, and not a lifelong ‘Softie, Robert exhibited a deeply insightful yet humble gravitas in his leadership style, whether at the CEO or sales person level. And Robert was a phenomenal storyteller.
In the wake of the late aughts’ financial crisis, Robert introduced to his extended leadership team the story of Ernest Shackleton, a renown explorer who embarked on a number of expeditions to the Antarctic, and in the case of some extreme circumstances during frozen seas, was able to keep his team’s morale flowing. Robert shared Shackleton’s focus on keeping rituals and celebrating the little moments, even Christmas Day, as they persevered.
When Robert first mentioned the story, I thought (I may have been tired that day in Seattle after some jet lag), he was speaking of Charles Shackelford, a 1980s college basketball player who subsequently got in trouble with the law and reportedly had this gem of a quote, “Left hand, right hand, it doesn’t matter. I’m amphibious.”
But I digress. Robert used the Shackleton example, and many others, serious and light-hearted, witty and insightful, to motivate his group of senior leaders for many years. When I delivered a QBR – that’s Quarterly Business Review – with my team to Robert, I always tried to end with a lighthearted slide with our group’s Book Club – sharing great stories with a great storyteller. One time we used a “duality of man” theme to explain both sides of our business –taken from a favorite movie of mine, Full Metal Jacket, including a snapshot of Private Joker wearing a helmet that said “Born To Kill” but nevertheless a peace symbol on his lapel. You can re-read my points on humor and knowing your audience, as apt as the comparison may have been:-)
One time Robert and I were discussing a potential hire for an open position. We talked about the need for energy and wittiness for whomever we hired for this challenging role. Debating one potential candidate who had a perceived deficiency in these areas, Robert and I debated whether you could indeed coach charisma. I’m not sure you can, but I think that you can coach and develop storytelling as a leadership competency, if neither a sister nor cousin of charisma, then perhaps a brother-in-law.
How do you do it? You can outsource the coaching of it, as The Times article notes. But if you’re a leader, in any sense of the world, not merely managing people, the impetus for storytelling is right under your nose. What excites and inspires you? What are the external stimuli in your environment, anything from books or films, how the person who made your bacon-and–egg sandwich that morning dealt with an irascible customer, or perhaps a witty story from your seven-year old learning to ride your bike?
And, as my friend in DC reminded me, there are many “modalities” today to communicate and tell a story. It doesn’t have to be a speech or video presentation to hundreds, it can be a one-one call, brief or email. Or in today’s world, maybe it’s a tweet with a link, a photo collage, an interactive Prezi, or a video of a training session to share lessons learned. I never thought that a “book trailer” existed, but yet, I now have one for my novel.
Two of my favorite bands are The Kinks and Steely Dan. I love their music, but it’s their storytelling abilities (including the solo careers of respective founders Ray Davies and Donald Fagen) that have catapulted them into the pantheon of my all-time favorite artists. Perhaps there’s song in your past, or your present, that tells a story most appropriate for your idea or your team?
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the negative perception, or perhaps baggage, of storytelling. Whether it’s governmental advisors or corporate flacks developing “talking points” or owning a “narrative,” an “FAQ” that is more Orwellian than insightful, or even just “sticking to the script” in an internal or client situation…well, that’s not what I am writing about.
True storytelling is not about “containing the damage” or “keeping on track” in the above examples. Instead, it’s about opening a world of possibilities for you and your audience, developed from what motivates you and what you experience, and relating it to the times and tasks at hand. Call it glass half-full storytelling vs. glass half-empty talking points, if you will.
Storytelling to me in the workplace is simply about using all those wonderful stimuli in your life to share your ideas, visions and hopes with others to view opportunities and challenges in ways they might otherwise miss, often by very meaningful human experience. And who knows, you just may work one of these stories into that conversation at 2:17 AM with your lifelong friends.