We’re interested in hearing from you. What did you think about this Storytelling series?

From The Washington Post – January 14, 2010

Over the last decade we’ve had villainous leaders who have brought us “shock and awe,” Axes of Evil, greed, corruption, fiscal mismanagement, soaring international debt, destructive political partisanship, Enron, Worldcom, and AIG. These stories are embedded in our public consciousness and over time they become our reality, a collective tale of the power of leadership at work in our lives — for the worse.

We’re in a cultural, as much as an economic, recession, and this narrative often includes themes like, “Others are to blame” or, “There’s nothing I can do about it,” or “That’s just the way things are.” The recession happened, and we’re all victims.

But while powerful forces are at work in the world around us, we deceive ourselves if we fail to recognize that each of us plays a role in constructing this reality. We also deceive ourselves by thinking the current story of our world condition is the only possible scenario. If we simply preserve the status quo, we deserve to be vilified by our children.

Here’s my advice for shedding the narrative of cultural malaise and finding the narrative you want to inhabit.

Raise your sights. During this series I’ve invited you to concentrate on the narratives you want to tell in your business, the stories you want your people to create, and those that will uncover new alignment in your company. Cumulatively, this will have a sizeable impact.

Now look beyond that for a moment. Imagine you could influence positive change in the world over the coming decade. How can we influence something larger than just ourselves or our businesses? How can each of us play a part in creating a new reality? Can stories be powerful instruments for change?

In other words, what’s the story we want to craft versus the story we must live with?

Meeting the moment. Just as 9/11 was a defining moment, the world after the recession of ’09 will never be the same. This is a critical juncture. And while the challenges are huge, I prefer to call this moment a creative juncture because of the many possibilities open to us all.

This is precisely the moment to examine and articulate your personal values and principles, and incorporate them in new narratives about your business.

Feed your imagination. Clif Bar Founder Gary Erickson faced a critical moment when the dominant story about his company was that it would never become successful without a buyout to enable him to scale the business and pay off his crippling debt. At the last minute, Erickson rejected that doomsday scenario, challenging the conventional wisdom.

He began by asking himself two questions: “Why does Clif Bar exist?” and “What are our reasons for being?” Very different questions than just how to maximize profit and shareholder value, but they had foundational meaning for him and his people. Answering these questions guided them all towards shaping a new narrative going forward — one based on impact and the company’s core values: the ability to sustain its brands, business, people, community, and planet. Outsiders called him crazy, but now that he’s a success, he’s called “inspirational”.

Or take your lead from Body Shop founder Anita Roddick whose business and campaigning were both founded on the power of stories. Anita’s core questions included: “Why waste a container when you can refill it?” “Why buy more of something than you need?” She combined this approach with a belief that businesses have the power to do good and she used her stores and products to communicate human rights and environmental issues.

After stepping down as co-chairman of the firm in 2002, Roddick spent most of her time advancing important causes and campaigns against human rights abuses and the exploitation of the underprivileged. She founded charitable organizations, spoke at conferences worldwide and participated in think tank councils. In her book, “Business As Unusual” she advocated that every business had a story which could both attract customers and influence positive change in the world. “If you think you’re too small to have an impact, try going to sleep with a mosquito in the room.”

Our legacies are built upon the stories we tell, not the quotas we meet. In the words of the Celtic musician and storyteller Charles de Lint, “We’re all made of stories. When they finally put us underground, the stories are what will go on. It’s a kind of immortality…”

If an energy bar business or a cosmetics shop can be a platform to improve lives, then so can yours. What new steps can you take and how can your business become a force for change?

Practice time

Ask yourself and your team these questions:

1. Beyond the service you provide, what can your business be a platform for?

2. What impact do you want your company to have in the world?

3. What stories do you want people to tell about your company when you’re gone?

Finding the answer may be the first step in creating a new and better narrative for yourself and those you lead.

Read below and let us know how the exercises are progressing.

Why become an effective storyteller? Yes, you can repair your reputation, deliver more effective messages and have a greater impact on your people. But, ultimately, storytelling also enables you to create a more powerful organization.

Narratives promote alignment, and a more cohesive culture yields greater performance and productivity. But alignment doesn’t mean coercing others to agree with you. When people are encouraged to share the fundamental principles that are essential to their lives and work, they discover commonalities. An enduring bond forms, outlasting daily disagreements, pressures and stress. Over time, this organic approach can shape your new legacy and lift your company to a higher level of effectiveness.

Here are five ways to use storytelling to promote alignment in your organization.

Beware the superficial. It’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to “build” or “impose” alignment from the outside. Many businesses take this superficial approach. Consider the CEO of a newly-merged company who hired an advertising agency to define the values and vision. Based on one “brainstorming” session with only the senior team, they constructed a “new narrative.” At the expensive launch party, they rolled out some hip new slogans, logos and giveaways. It was the perfect “outsourced solution.” Within three months, however, 25 percent of the staff had departed. Productivity and customer service collapsed.

Uncover authentic alignment. Imposed or assumed alignment isn’t real. True alignment must be uncovered. It’s there within your company no matter how divisive the behaviors may appear. Stories uncover shared identities and principles. Once your people begin to articulate their values through stories, they’ll reach out to each other in new ways. Your job as chief storyteller is to fully promote that bonding.

I’m encouraged that more companies are using the transformative power of storytelling. One multinational I know of has struggled for years with a damaging market perception. Despite playing a crucial role in global commerce, they have a reputation for only driving profits and dominating markets. Compelling scientific data and aggressive marketing campaigns have not been effective.

But now senior management is undertaking a radical experiment. People at all levels are being encouraged to tell their own stories. The themes include: “Why are you passionate about your work?” and “What’s the impact you want to have through it?” Already there is evidence of renewed vitality and partnership. Perceptions and experience are shifting “one story at a time.”

Storytelling is contagious. We all experience how stories prompt sharing: “Your story reminds me of the time…” While you’re the Chief Storyteller, yours isn’t the only important account waiting to be told. You’re just the catalyst. It’s your job to help other narratives find the light of day by:

• Inviting people to tell you how they see the company going forward and what their role will be in making that happen; and,

• Creating opportunities for them to speak in team meetings, conferences, town halls and through internal publications.

This is essential. Stories form the basis of a collective identity and they are the first step towards the deep-seated alignment I’m referring to.

Keep asking questions. As you craft your own narrative, ask people about the issues on their minds. What do they need you to address? Ask good questions and people will know you’re listening.

When you deliver your narrative, remember your listeners are carrying on a dialogue with you in their own minds. Encourage this “virtual” participation with questions like: “What does that mean for your work going forward?” or “Will this change your approach? If so, how?” Acknowledge what they might be thinking: “I appreciate this might change your thinking.” Or “This is a new approach. Let’s think it through.”

By the way, never ask rhetorical questions — they always sounds like you’re talking to yourself.

After your presentation, the real work starts. Seek feedback. Do people relate to you and identify with the mission? How? You’ll hear similar themes and ideas, both pro and con. No matter how divided you think people might be, you’ll also hear shared themes. Point them out. They’re the bedrock of your new culture.

The power of inclusion. The language you use to convey your narrative is powerful. Don’t take it for granted. Encourage shared ownership and strong relationships. Use words like “we”, “us” and “our”, rather than “I”, “me” and “mine”.

And in all discussions, replace “Yes, but…” with “Yes, and…” This approach invites collaboration and exploration.

PRACTICE TIME. Ask your people about meaningful moments they’ve had at work. What made them noteworthy and how can they be replicated?

Invite exploration. Where do they see the company going? What’s the impact they’d like to have? What support do they need from you? When you hear common themes, acknowledge the similarities in viewpoints and aspirations.
Earlier posts in this series:

Crafting the irresistible narrative

Mastering the three ‘I’s’ of storytelling

From CEO to chief story teller: Part one, the challenge.”

From The Washington Post article, December 17, 2009
Exercises at end.

Marley was dead: to begin with.”

Dickens’ dramatic opening to A Christmas Carol immediately grabs our attention. We must read on.

In creating your own story for employees and clients, you have to grab interest in a similarly dramatic way. I started this series saying now’s the time for beleaguered CEOs to reframe how they’re seen and what they want — and powerful storytelling is one of the most effective ways of accomplishing this. Here are the essentials to riveting your audience.

Excite instant attention. For maximum impact, your story has to get the immediately galvanize your listeners.

First, consider this powerful opener:

Yesterday, December 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

If, like Roosevelt, you can be bold and dramatic from the start your audience will feel the urgency of the moment. They’ll feel your sense of mission to fix something that’s out of balance. Don’t leave this thinking to your advisors. Own your message and say what you stand for.

As part of a plan to lift company-wide performance, I recently encouraged a client to take control of the speeches he made to his worldwide leadership team. As a former division head, he knew his people better than anyone else. And when he spoke about his own values, he immediately grew in stature and authority. “My speechwriters could never have come up with anything this meaningful,” he later told me.

Engage their emotions. When you pose a strong challenge at the outset, you have to stimulate everyone’s emotions in a way that inspires them to action. Intellectual concepts aren’t enough.

In Elie Wiesel’s “Perils of Indifference” speech, he boldly evoked the senses to raise the consciousness of the world against Genocide: “Over there, behind the black gates of Auschwitz, the most tragic of all prisoners were… wrapped in their torn blankets, they would sit or lie on the ground, staring vacantly into space, unaware of who or where they were, strangers to their surroundings. They no longer felt pain, hunger, thirst. They feared nothing. They felt nothing.”

These harrowing images and excruciating details immediately add real and evocative texture.

Whatever your message, evocative details create a visceral experience for your listeners — even though they haven’t moved from their seats.

Make it personal. To achieve buy in, articulate what the message really means to you.

“Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing,” legendary football coach Vince Lombardi famously said. We knew exactly where he came from. Don’t offer vague, generic concepts. What’s your personal stake in the mission? How does it connect to your values?

By truly personalizing what you have to say, the audience feels your demand to them to feel personally about the issue as well. It challenges them to confront their own hopes and fears — and honestly consider their individual investment in their role.

If you are serious about getting buy-in, ownership, collaboration, enhanced innovation and productivity, then you have to show up as fully engaged yourself.

Dare to inspire. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz titled his book: Pour Your Heart into It. Good advice.

That means stepping back from the grind of cash flow and targets. It’s your essential principles and ethics that give work inspiration and meaning. That’s what others need to know about. How do your personal qualities carry over into work?

When you’re disciplined about this self-reflection, you’ll find out what drives you towards greater achievement. And when you start telling stories that illustrate these “essential drivers,” others start to understand who you really are. This motivates them to explore the meaning of their own contributions — and to find their own inspiration.

Practice time. These are the core ingredients of your irresistible story. Get that pencil out again. Before your next team meeting:

• Turn the core of your message into an opening statement of a sentence or two.
• Frame it so that it compels others to follow.
• Practice ahead of time with someone you trust to find out if it’s working. What’s the impact? Are they intrigued?

When you’ve got the opening down, consider the mission: What’s the challenge and how exactly do you want to inspire the audience? Tell everyone directly why what you’re saying is important.

Finally, in telling your story, remember your role as Chief Investigator. Ask people how they relate to it and what they’re going to do now.

When we return after the holidays, I’ll tell you how to help people create their own stories and bring them all into alignment.

The Washington Post – Creating the Irresistible Narrative

From December 10, 2009 article in The Washington Post
Exercises at end. Read on.

You’re on the road to becoming your company’s Chief Story Teller. Let’s begin with the good news: You’re already better than you might think. Here, we’ll explore three capabilities that will help you become a pro.

I’m so confident about your abilities for one reason: you tell stories every day. When you come home, how often do you start with something like: “You won’t believe what happened today…?”

As you begin even a simple conversation with a spouse or a friend, you hook your listener’s imagination with a colorful detail while monitoring his or her response. With every step, your body becomes more expressive. Instinctively telling your story and observing the reaction you’re having, you search for maximum impact.

Remember the “Three R’s” of your early education: reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic? Now consider the “three I’s” of storytelling: invitation, imagination, and impact. Here’s how you can master them.

Invitation. Remember Steve Jobs’ famous invitation to Pepsi’s then-CEO John Sculley when he lured him to Apple with: “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?” Engage your listeners by stimulating their curiosity and asking them to share in something exciting with you.

Imagination. Enlivening people’s imaginations is easy. What happens before you visit the doctor? Or when you’re waiting for the board’s reaction to your latest strategic plan? Your imagination puts on quite a show. Who needs PowerPoint or technological wizardry?

In 1961, JFK recognized the need for a new U.S. narrative to galvanize the space race. Before a joint session of Congress, he boldly announced that by the end of the decade the country would be dedicated to “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” Despite widespread doubts, and the fact that NASA had not yet even sent a man into orbit around the Earth, he electrified the collective imagination of the country.

Imagination is the direct access point to our creativity. Simply ask “imagine this…” and people’s creative juices start flowing. They’re transported to a different and vivid new reality without leaving their seats.

Impact. We crave impact. We want to be seen and know that what we do has meaning. In baseball terms, it’s called “looking the ball to the bat.” As a storyteller, that means watching your audience closely to see how your content is affecting them.

In 1995, Nelson Mandela knew he had to shore up his government’s tenuous hold on post-apartheid unity. Adopting the strategy of “Don’t address their brains, address their hearts,” Mandela convinced the Springboks rugby team, until then the country’s symbol of white supremacy, to join him. At the commencement of rugby’s World Cup final then being held in South Africa, Mandela and the team symbolically broke all barriers by singing Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, the anthem of the black resistance movement, to a still-divided nation and a worldwide television audience. The Springboks won the World Cup and South Africa moved toward reconciliation.

Brilliant ideas without brilliant human connection usually die fast. That connection builds trust and cultivates relationships. When you see how you move others and are moved by them, you grow in stature and authority.

Now, keep this in mind: What you’re saying isn’t for you. It’s for your team.

Exercises for you to do
Post below the impact you’re hungry for. Who are you trying to reach? With what message?

Try these techniques at your next team meeting. Come back and share with us what happens:

• Be an “investigator” – not a content dumper. Ask, don’t tell.
• Watch carefully for the impact of what you’re saying on your team.
• Don’t rush on to the next point until you see them absorb the previous one. Don’t assume everyone’s with you. Ask questions like “Are you with me?” “How do you relate to this?”

At your next client meeting:

• Slow down. Don’t race your narrative simply to get to the end. If you are a racer, considering practicing on someone first and ask them to tell you when you’re speeding through your story.
• Create images to get the client engaged in your story: “Imagine this…”, “Picture that…”
• Stop occasionally and observe your effect on everyone in the room, moment by moment. You’ll be happily surprised.

Remember, your team and your clients are your creative partners — so use them. Katherine Hepburn said: “If you give audiences half a chance, they’ll do half your acting for you.”

From The Washington Post article.

Storytelling Exercises

December 3, 2009

If CEO was ever a revered position, worthy of respect, that time is gone. In our collective consciousness, CEOs have become villains. The term itself now evokes Wall Street tycoons asking for government handouts, heartless downsizers, and those who reward themselves with perks despite the call for belt-tightening.

If you’re a CEO yourself, you’re probably bristling right now and saying, “That doesn’t describe me.” But the fact is, dear CEOs, even the innocent among us have work to do. In a time of economic hardship, we need to not only renew our business mission and inspire followers, but also redefine the very role of a CEO — and that starts with storytelling.

Your capacity to re-energize the creative thinking of yourself and your colleagues and followers depends on your ability to tell the right story. Powerful narratives can effectively reframe the past, reposition the present, and stimulate innovation. The good news is you don’t have to spend time and money on strategic reviews, retreats and consulting services. Rather, you simply need to understand that being a CEO means that you are your organization’s Chief Story Teller.

Why storytelling? We’ve been telling stories to each other since we started sitting around fires. On a very basic human level, narratives give meaning to strategy and help us identify what’s really important. As U.K.-based innovation strategist Matt Kingdon says, “the greatest tool of engagement of all is a story well told.”

As an organization’s leader, the Chief Story Teller role is yours alone. Only you can positively connect the facts, meaning and emotional impact of change. And only you can give permission for risk taking and innovation. Left alone, employees create their own stories, which usually emphasize what’s going wrong rather than what’s going right. Your job is to acknowledge those difficulties while recognizing success so your stories become the company’s stories.

Storytelling works Consider the CEO of a global listed company who was hired and fired late last year. He left a battered share price and demoralized workforce. It wasn’t because he hid the bad news — this CEO spoke plainly about the company’s situation. But he failed to synthesize the company’s past or present; he couldn’t shape a new narrative. This was a critical failure. While he defined objectives and strategies clearly, he did not imbue those facts with a spark of meaning, so crucial for inspiring employees and stockholders.

Contrast this with the compelling narrative of national courage created by Sir Winston Churchill as Britain faced overwhelming odds in 1940. Or Abraham Lincoln unfolding the story of an indivisible nation as the Civil War raged around him. Or Barack Obama’s narrative of change in the midst of the worst downturn since the Great Depression. Powerful stories win elections and wars. They inspire people to reach beyond their limits.

Start experimenting In upcoming blogs, I’ll share examples where storytelling has worked in companies large and small. And I’ll be offering you practical help in how to become the Chief Story Teller, including how to uncover your own storytelling talents (even if you’re not aware of them); how to build a new narrative for your own company, and how to help your employees find their own place in your company’s story. Finally, you’ll learn what to expect when you adopt this approach as your own.

To further your investigation, try this…

(1) Think of five different stories that made a strong impression on you. They could come from books, film, articles, your own experiences, etc. Post below the most memorable moment in each of those stories.

  • What made it memorable?
  • Who were the most memorable characters and why?

(2) Look back at what you wrote to both questions above.

  • Do you find any similar ideas or themes?
  • If so, what are they and why are they so important to you?

(3) Over the next week, observe where else in your life those themes are also true (i.e. friendships, hobbies, other relationships, etc.). These are some examples of your core principles and values.

They are essential components of your leadership style. You should always convey these principles in order to craft compelling stories and communicate more effectively.

Washington Post – Becoming Chief Storyteller