BlogBusiness WritingWhy All Leaders Must Be Great Storytellers

Why All Leaders Must Be Great Storytellers

A.J. Ogilvie
Professor of Business Communication at the University of Southern California
Published Dec 24, 2020

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For the next three months, A.J. Ogilvie, PhD, Professor of Business Communication, will host the Writing for Effective Leadership series. Join us to learn how great writing leads to effective leadership:

  • Jan 20: Effective Leadership and Communication
  • Feb 17: Effective Leadership and Storytelling
  • March 17: Effective Leadership and Persuasion

If you're a manager, team leader, or just looking to improve your leadership skills, these sessions are for you.


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Anyone who’s ever been a leader, manager, coach, or teacher can tell you that motivating people is one of the hardest things about leading people. You might have sales goals that you want your team to hit, or you want them to buy into a particular mission for the company—yet getting them to meet those sales goals, or embrace the mission, is both art and science.

That’s why storytelling, which is also a mix of art and science, is such a powerful tool in a leader’s communication toolkit. Leaders need to be great storytellers so that audiences can both remember, and retell, their key messages. Stories are memorable and retellable because they transform information into something meaningful, understandable, and actionable for people.

Contents:
  1. The Power of Storytelling
  2. The Three-Part Story
  3. Example: New Knowledge Platform at Aesthetix
  4. Recap

The Power of Storytelling

Most of us have sat through hundreds of PowerPoint presentations and have arguably little to show for it—we can’t remember really anything that the presenters in that meeting were communicating to us. But somehow we can remember stories from childhood, or a story that someone told us in college, or the story of how a particular company was founded.

We recall stories, in part, because of how they work in our brains. When we listen to a story, our brains produce oxytocin, a neurochemical that signals to us we can trust the person telling the story. That trust helps us create an emotional connection to the story and makes it more significant in our memories.

Additionally, stories work on us because they lighten our cognitive load. That is, a story creates a meaningful structure, or category, around an idea, and our brains don't have to work as hard because we, the audience, don’t have to categorize that idea. Instead, the storyteller has done the categorizing for us so we can pay attention to the subject matter of the story. In fact, research shows we are 12 times more likely to remember information when conveyed through a story.

The Three-Part Story

Clearly, stories are a critical tool in the leader’s communication toolbox. But a leader can’t just drag out an old personal story and then somehow try to link that story to their key message. Instead, a leader really needs to think about developing a story around the following three-part structure:

1) What is?
2) The solution
3) New bliss

Below I detail these three parts and then provide an example of how these parts work in an actual story.

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Part 1: What is?

In other words, where are you now? What is the current state of your business or product?

For someone to buy into a proposal, an idea, or a strategy, what must be very clear to the reader is how this new idea will change the status quo. Or in other words, a story must thoroughly answer the classic "So What?" question.

To do this, you have to first make sure your reader fully understands how things currently stand. So what you must answer at the beginning of your story are the following questions: Where are we at right now? What’s going on? What is the problem with the current situation? It is imperative that you get your audience to see the issue in the same way that you do, so you set up them up to fully understand part two and part three, the solution and new bliss.

Part 2: The solution

In part 1 you educate the reader on the issue so they understand, from your perspective, what’s going on and what the problem is.

In part 2, you clearly articulate a solution to those problems you set out in part 1, and then explain in detail how that solution actually solves the problem. This is key, because if the reader doesn’t understand how the solution works to solve the problem, they could abandon the entire story.

Part 3: New bliss

Many communicators often effectively navigate part 1 and part 2, but fail to complete part 3. But part 3 is critical because it gives the reader a vision of what life would look like if the solution was implemented.

Part 3 is what Nancy Duarte, one of the world’s pre-eminent business communication consultants, calls "new bliss." Here, you the storyteller present a picture of the future that is so good that readers won’t want to give up that vision, which means that they will buy into the solution you have articulated.

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Example: New Knowledge Platform at Aesthetix

Sandra is the CEO of a 50-person digital marketing firm called Aesthetix. She’s found that their current methods of communicating, sharing information, and working collaboratively aren’t working. To solve this, she is asking the entire firm to transition to a new knowledge management system called Shair.

It’s a big ask because many people are wedded to email and MS Office, and she knows not everyone is going to be okay with the transition. A likely ineffective way of achieving an effective transition would be to just tell people "Starting Monday we will be using a new system and we need everyone to use it." Instead, she could tell a powerful story in an email or presentation.

Let’s look at how Sandra can communicate her idea using storytelling.

Example Stage 1: What is?

First, I want to thank everyone for their tireless efforts. We are thriving as a company and have increased revenues over 50% from last year. And yet I know that we can achieve more.

Last month, I worked with our business development team on a pitch to a potentially amazing and long-term client in the health care industry. We worked all night to craft and polish the proposal, and we were all struck by one thing—how inefficient our information sharing processes were. We realized that key documents and data were scattered all over the place, and we weren’t sure at times who had the most up-to-date document. All of us agreed that these inefficiencies slowed us down, and while we think we crafted a great proposal, it’s clear we need to address this challenge.

Example Stage 2: The solution

The day after we pitched that proposal, I created a task force to study how we might improve our information management systems and create more fluid workstreams within and across teams. After some intensive research and benchmarking, the task force suggested we go with Shair, an information sharing platform used by hundreds of companies across an array of industries. We chose Shair not only for cost, but because we believe that they share our values, are committed to helping us learn how to use it, and will enable us to customize it.

Example Stage 3: New bliss

In three months, we imagine how we work will look dramatically different. If you’re working on a proposal, you’ll have frictionless access to all documents and resources associated with that proposal. No longer will you have to ask someone to send you an excel spreadsheet, or to email you minutes from a meeting. Instead, all of this information will be organized within Shair.

If someone is out of town, or on vacation, you won’t have to worry about whether you’ve made changes to the document or have uploaded it—you’ll be able to see that in Shair. More importantly, we believe that in changing how we communicate and collaborate that we’ll become better communicators and collaborators in the process.

Recap

Leaders are constantly communicating with a diverse set of stakeholders, so it’d be hard to try and apply this three-stage storifying process to every presentation, talk, or e-mail they produce. But for high-stakes communications, where creating understandable and actionable information is critical, leaders should try and become storytellers wherever and whenever they can.


New Series: Writing for Effective Leadership

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If you're a manager, team leader, or just looking to improve your leadership skills, these sessions are for you.

Join us to learn how great writing leads to effective leadership.

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A.J. Ogilvie
Professor of Business Communication at the University of Southern California

A.J. Ogilvie, PhD, is a professor of business communication at the University of Southern California. He has taught business communication, consulting, and writing courses for over ten years, and has published research on the theories of teaching, learning and communication.

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