It has become fashionable to exhort leaders to tell stories, but why? What’s really at stake? Is it just a matter of making yourself a slightly more interesting leader?
No. Stories have enormous power to change our perception of reality. Before Michael Lewis’s book Flash Boys , few people understood — and even fewer were outraged by — the anticipatory trading and shadow trading that the so-called Flash Boys were carrying out in the nanoseconds between a buy and a sell order on the highly automated stock exchanges in New York and around the world. That activity — essentially introducing a middleman between the buyers and sellers where none was needed – cost the market tiny amounts of money for each trade, and added up to billions. But nobody cared.
Because the whole process was so complex and computerized that it was essentially invisible to the world.
Once Flash Boys hit the bookstores, however, the world took notice. People were outraged, and government agencies suddenly started investigations.
Lewis replaced the invisible computers with three things: a hero, bad guys, and conflict between them — a conflict that will ultimately be resolved in some interesting way. Once those elements are in place, we have a story and we humans are hard-wired to care. We want to know how the conflict is resolved, and how the story will turn out.
Steve Jobs performed a similar feat when he started telling the story of Apple as a quest to bring us beautiful, elegant machines that would liberate us from Big Brother, conformism, and the tedium of modern life, circa 1984.
Lead with your words
When we tell stories, we engage the deep part of our brains, where emotions are involved, and we listen in a different way than when someone is telling us what to do. It’s the difference between hearing, “Once upon a time,” and hearing “There are five things I need you to do before the close of business today. . . .”
One enchants, the other overtaxes. Knowing how to tell good stories isn’t just interesting; it’s an essential leadership strategy. In fact, in an era of information overload, it’s an essential life strategy.
Here’s what’s going on. When a speaker begins to tell a story to a listener, their brains begin to match up. The better the story, and the better the listener understands the story, the closer the match.
So when we communicate with someone else effectively, we do something that has been described colloquially for a few generations: we get on the same wavelength. Literally. Our brain patterns match each other.
It’s a leadership Jedi mind trick.
We want to achieve this state. It’s a mistake to think that most humans prefer the solitary life that so much of modern life imposes on us. We are most comfortable when we’re sharing strong emotions and stories, led by a powerful, charismatic leader who is keeping us safe and together.
If you want to lead groups of people to achieve more than any individual can achieve alone, this is how you do it. You learn how to be a storyteller who taps into the deep stories of human history and mythology to bring your message into being.
Know your audience
How do you tell good stories? Hook into one of the five fundamental stories that make up our cultural heritage: the quest; stranger in a strange land; rags to riches; revenge, and love story.
These basic stories get told time and again with different details by Hollywood, by great writers, by political storytellers, and by brilliant businesspeople.
In order to get the attention your idea deserves, don’t recite facts; we can’t remember them. Don’t tell anecdotes, which is what most people do when they think they’re telling stories. Tell one of the five big stories.
Flash Boys is a revenge story — particularly appreciated in this angry age of ours. People love revenge stories because they help us maintain our belief in a just world. In Flash Boys , there’s a wrong being done — investors are getting cheated — and a hero points the way to justice by starting an alternate exchange where the wicked can no longer prosper.
Revenge stories, like the other genres mentioned, move us deeply. We want to believe that they are true, because they help us maintain our belief that the world is not completely random, that there is justice, and community, and the other values we adhere to.
Storytelling is one way that we reaffirm our humanity and our shared values. It’s an essential tool for successful leadership. If you don’t know what story you’re telling, you’re not ready to lead.
About Dr. Nick Morgan – One of America’s Top Communication Theorists and Coaches:
A passionate teacher, Dr. Nick Morgan is committed to helping people find clarity in their thinking and ideas—and then delivering them with panache. He has been commissioned by Fortune 50 companies to write for many CEOs and presidents. He has coached people to give Congressional testimony, to appear on the Today Show, and to take on the investment community. He has worked widely with political and educational leaders. And he has helped design conferences and prepare keynote speeches around the world.
Nick’s methods, which are well-known for challenging conventional thinking, have been published worldwide. His latest book is Trust Me: Four Steps to Authenticity and Charisma, published in December 2008 by Jossey-Bass. His acclaimed book on public speaking, Working the Room: How to Move People to Action through Audience-Centered Speaking was published by Harvard in 2003 and reprinted in paperback in 2005 as Give Your Speech, Change the World: How to Move Your Audience to Action.
Nick served as editor of the Harvard Management Communication Letter from 1998 — 2003. He has written hundreds of articles for local and national publications. Nick is a former Fellow at the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
After earning his Ph.D. in literature and rhetoric, Nick spent a number of years teaching Shakespeare and Public Speaking at the University of Virginia and Princeton University. He first started writing speeches for Virginia Governor Charles S. Robb and went on to found his own communications consulting organization, Public Words, in 1997.
Nick attributes his success to his honest and direct approach that challenges even the most confident orators to rethink how they communicate.