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Tips on how to use storytelling in leadership

Most leadership teams realise that to make any change happen people need to understand what that change is and why it matters to them. Why should they get on board? What is the point of all this constant change? To what end will it bring us.

Instinctively people resist change and this is one of probably the biggest modern leadership challenges. Change is a part of modern life. Innovation, growth, competition and customers who expect service and product improvements all contribute to a world of constant change.

Although I work mainly in the business branding space helping leadership teams to align around high-level brand strategies, more and more I am being asked to help give advice and coaching on storytelling to individuals to help them effect changes in their organisations.

Photo by Miguel Henriques on Unsplash

The best way to lead people through change

The best way to help lead people through a change is to tell stories. A story which helps explain your vision of the future and how together we can face the challenges and obstacles which we may face on the way.

Stories are the way we, as humans, make sense of the world. We see ourselves as the heroes of our own "life story" and we self write this narrative based on our upbringing, culture and religion.

You can show facts and data to people all you like but unless you tell a story it will not excite them. It will not engage them. Neuroscience has shown we release powerful chemicals which elicit physical responses when we are listening to stories. ITs as though we put ourselves within the story itself.

Stories help to:

  • Inspire people

  • Create momentum

  • Persuade people

  • Build resilience

  • Unite people

Brands, like leaders, exist to help bring positive change to the world. Therefore to help people make sense of us we need to tell stories and allow stories to be told about us.

It’s not simply good enough to articulate an end vision. To gain support you need your people to realise you understand their current realities and the challenges they may face in changing. However, you then need to inspire them to the new utopia once the change has occurred. You need to explain why this is better and what the positive impact will be.

Having clarity over your change story is therefore crucial and being able to articulate it is equally essential.

4 key steps to leadership storytelling

Taking the principles of brand storytelling (which is usually initially done as a group at leadership level) and then applying them to individual branding and specific change management situations I’d suggest there are 4 useful steps for discovering, telling and managing stories. These are by no means the only ones but I have found the below framework to be very helpful and powerful for leaders to think through.

  1. Develop your change statement - This is a clear statement which you can recite which summarises exactly what you are trying to achieve. It helps to give you clarity. For example, "Within the next two years, we will have moved to be a truly paperless business”. As a stretch exercise add a “because” statement”. E.g. “...Because we believe we have a responsibility to our planet”. Think about your changes ‘desired outcome’ vs the ‘undesirable outcome’ if change does not happen. What will the future look like once the change has occurred? Use these statements all the time to embed the change into the hearts and minds of those that you are privileged to lead.

  2. Know your audience - The next step is to really take some time to think about your audience. I like to adopt a marketing technique to do this and suggest creating audience personas - These are semi-fictional characters that represent segments of your audience. They help you humanise your thinking. Think about the coming change from their perspective. Why might they resist? What challenges will they face? What will be the ultimate benefit for them? If you don’t know then go and ask them. Discover their resistance areas. Empathise.

  3. Use a story structure - The next step is to spend time understanding story structures. These are communication short-cuts that our brains are hard-wired to follow. For example, Aristotle's archetypal “beginning, middle, end” and the scientific triad “hypothesis, antithesis, synthesis” are the most basic of frameworks where audiences are led through from status quo through change towards a resolution. Mapping on top of this you can also use Joseph Campbell's “Mono-myth” as described in his “hero’s journey”. The basic “arch” which all stories, across time and culture, appear to follow. Using these tools you can assemble your own story helping to establish in your own mind where we are today the tension of change and the success of resolution.

  4. Communicating your story - A few years ago I was blown away by Nancy Duarte’s Ted Talk “The secret structure of great talks”. In it she explains that every great and inspiring talk jumps back and forth, taking an audience from “what is” to “what could be” and finally ends with an inspiring “call to action”. Using this tool is super powerful, especially if you can weave in “authentic scenes” or mini-stories into the narrative to illustrate you personally understand the realities and problems with “what is”. For example: “I spent some time the other day with Jeniffer Smith. Jenifer has been one of our customers for thirteen years. She told me this was the first time someone from the company had contacted her other than for money or to sell her something. She said she hated this about us.” From this ‘reality’ you transition to what this will look like in your new reality after the change has happened, illustrating why it will be worth it. For example “After our customer experience review, I believe we will be able to build out programmes which ensure our customers feel listened to. Let’s build a relationship with our customers and stop treating them like cash cows. No-one deserves to be treated with disrespect like this”. Think of authentic scenes and mini-stories which you can use to illustrate that you understand all of your audience personas resistance areas and have a vision of what the new reality might look like once the change has happened. Switchback and forth from the reality to the new future you imagine. Always end on your call to action.

The benefit of the above process is that it is highly adaptable. You can use the tools to build a speech to large audiences or even use this technique one to one with members of your team you need to help adjust to a change. You can also use it as an overall “life story” structure (crucial for personal brand building) but also for specific change situations.

So - there you are. A quick overview of how to use the power of stories to lead.

Good luck in changing the world and in telling better stories to get people there.


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