By Andrew Patterson
Running a business successfully and communicating the message about that success are two very different functions that often sees CEOs very good at the former but much less skilled in the later.
But simply telling stories might be the easiest and most effective strategy they are ever likely to be given to improve the way they communicate their message.
Xero CEO Rod Drury and former Air NZ CEO Rob Fyfe both use the technique to great effect by letting the story deliver the message rather than allowing the message to be lost in translation.
Master story teller Wade Jackson, author of Stories at Work, says the approach is very powerful as we can all relate to having grown up with stories from a young age.
He says his background in improvised comedy has allowed him to practice and refine the technique over many years.
“Walking out on stage for the last 20 years not knowing what you're going to do or say next, you learn very quickly what makes an effective story, what keeps people wanting more and how to really connect with people. It's the actor's job to recreate the human experience and that's what I do on stage.”
“Originally I was doing corporate entertainment with my improv band and some people came up saying: we loved the show, but how do we get our people to work together and communicate and be creative at work like you guys?
“I began to realise there was a business opportunity there somewhere and started developing some experimental training programmes using improv. It's a wonderful vehicle for adults to learn through play and having fun. Eventually I teamed up with my business partner Steve Hill and we started doing storytelling inside organisations, and that business them morphed into another business 'Mind Warriors' where we run a programme called the Jolt Challenge.
“I've since picked up the storytelling aspect for myself because that’s where my expertise is; learning narrative and teaching narrative. I've taken it away from the stage and put it into a business context. So what I do is teach people the principals of organisational storytelling which I’ve developed.”
The art of communication and understanding how to communicate effectively seems to change with each generation but Jackson believes a strategy of incorporating the principles of storytelling into the message is particularly powerful.
“When I worked with Vodafone 10 years ago we couldn't call it storytelling. I think the term then was, "communicating with impact". It was all too airy fairy if you ask me. But what’s happened since is that advances in science and neuroscience, particularly understanding how the brain works, along with our continued evolution as a species and the evolution of business, people can see that storytelling makes sense – and that organisational storytelling in particular is has a very powerful way of connecting with people.
“What the neuroscience shows us is that there is no split between the way we think and the way we feel, and that we are actually more rationalising beings so we will make emotional decisions and then rationalise it after the fact rather than thinking that we are actually rational and logical beings.
“Translated it means that if you are looking to connect with people, you need to be talking to their emotions and storytelling does that. Facts and figures are great, you don't throw them out the window but you need to start wrapping them up in a story so it becomes more memorable. We remember things when they are part of a story rather than just a list of bullet points. We’ve all seen Powerpoint slides of facts and figures or whether it's a new vision or the values or a strategy - it quickly falls out of memory if it’s not connected in the form of a story.
But are story tellers born or can anyone be turned into an effective story teller?
“We've all grown up with stories. Everyone's been a child once, so they've all had stories read to them. It's really how our brain makes sense of the world through narrative. As human beings we don't do random very well. We have a part of our brain that is always looking for meaning and that's what storytelling conveys. It's a powerful way of just communicating your message in a way that allows people to process and comprehend your message.
“I use a very simple methodology that’s effective for people. It’s been tried and tested over 20 years. There’s a lot of theory around about storytelling but my interest is always around making it practical while also ensuring that someone or something undergoes change. That's pretty much the number one rule with storytelling.”
Storytelling also makes sense to people intuitively.
“We all have the ability to be a story teller but that doesn't mean natural talent is enough. Plenty of people run fast but they're not all running at the Olympics; you have to keep working at it. There is the crafting and the skill set to work on, but we can all do it and I help people move away from being a presenter of information to become a story teller. There’s a difference. So just the head space to be human is to be a story teller, and that you're going to get much more effective results if you become a story teller rather than just a presenter.”
While the theory might be simple enough, getting CEOs or senior managers to suddenly change their approach can often be easier said than done.
However, Jackson believes it’s about redefining the message.
“It's actually quite simple once you redefine what storytelling is about but also what it’s not about. Some people do think storytelling is once upon a time, fairy tales or the like and I show people that it's not about that or not just limited to that. As soon as you start talking to them in examples, as soon as you say: let me tell you an example, you're about to hear a story, it seems so obvious to them.
“There's a lot of science behind it and I usually find a lot of the HR people are amazed at how I can get engineers or very left-brain process people engaged in storytelling. That's simply because they quickly get why organisational storytelling in particular, is important in their day to day lives. It's not something that becomes another skill that leaders have to learn, it's actually the way they do everything that they do themselves naturally.
“To be human is to be a storyteller. Obviously people will vary in levels of engagement with it. The thing I've learned over the last decade doing this work is not to assume people who you think are going to be very resistant to it end will up that way. Often they end up being your biggest supporters and really run with it.
Jackson has worked with a wide range of organisations to help them improve their approach to communicating their message, including unlikely prospects such as Inland Revenue.
“They've been fantastic at embracing the role of storytelling and organisations around new vision and new values roll out dealing with change.
“Using the IRD as an example, if you are looking at what is the purpose of the organisation they go from a self-image of: we're the dreaded tax collector to thinking: we're responsible for the economic well-being of a nation. So it's a very different story. As I always point out to people, the most important story you tell is the one you tell yourself every day in your head. It's just getting people to re-frame and look through a different lens of the story that they're telling themselves about who they work for, what's the purpose of the organisation so that they feel engaged.”
Making it engaging is key to the learning approach which is why Jackson believes his improv skills have helped.
“The theory comes to life through the improv. It's a wonderful tool for self-creation, self-expression, self-discovery, and I guess one of the big things it creates is a sense of play, so the barriers between people drop. Using humour is the number one way to connect with people, so it’s a very powerful art form and creates that whole experiential learning experience for people.”
The approach Jackson teaches is based on a series of five principles.
“The principles of storytelling are relevant whether it’s one to one in a coaching situation as a leader or a manger, or one to many if you're about to roll out a new strategy it just makes people feel more comfortable when they think of it through the frame of storytelling, rather than all this information that they've got to get through. And that's the power of storytelling, it just cuts straight to the heart of the message that you want to communicate.
“However, it’s important to know what kind of story that you are telling. I talk about the five stories: the future stories which might be the vision of an organisation, or a strategy story, then you've got your identity story, your values - there's plenty of organisations who have values that live on a poster on the wall and so forth and aren't being lived and breathed in the organisation, and lastly there are the kind of stories that engage the hearts and minds as well.
“So the number one thing is to know what story, and what is your purpose for communicating to these people. Is it a team meeting, is it to inspire, is it to influence, is it to coach, is it to share some knowledge as well, so know what the point of your story is, and then - as I said before - there's always got to be someone or something that's going to undergo change otherwise why are you talking to them?”
“Usually, to be a storytelling organisation to make that shift, it's got to be lead from the top. If you're asking people mid-management or lower, what is the purpose of the organisation, they're always going to look up the food chain to see what the purpose is. So really you need to have the CEO or managing director very, very clear on what the purpose is and what is the story. And then ideally it would get personalised by the exec team, and then the senior leaders and so forth. Ideally they would personalise that story so it's relevant to their business.
So how does Jackson characterise the current state of communication generally across the landscape?
“The thing that I see that’s largely missing is that not enough leaders are telling people the purpose of the organisation. As a basic human need we want to live a long, full life and we want to look back and go: did my life have meaning, did it have purpose. Organisations can actually give that to people; they offer that opportunity.
“It's like the modern-day tribes; you get to belong to something bigger than yourself. And this is the point. If the leaders are telling that story you don't have to worry about bribing people with tickets to the rugby, or the opera or the cricket or whatever it may be, to get them to engage, because people will willingly give their time and energy if they feel that they are having their needs met and living a life of purpose.”
Traditionally the thinking has been that meaning and purpose is achieved outside of the work environment but increasingly the work space is being seen as an integral part of the whole equation.
Jackson believes that we need to have a more holistic approach to the way we think about this issue.
“One of the problems we have with western thought in that we like to deductive in our thinking, to break things everything down into boxes. Work is over here and life is over here, as if you could ever separate work from life. And even the term work life balance to me is a total misnomer. Balance suggests that there's a sense of evenness around these things and yet we all know there's no way that happens because most of us spend more time during the week at work than we do at home (sleeping time excluded).
“Also, I'm pretty sure I'm not the only person who takes some work home with them on the weekend; at least in our minds. I think if we connect to that purpose, again belonging to something bigger than ourselves, that is incredibly powerful, and not enough organisations have tapped into that.
“You don't have to be that kind of charismatic leader to be a good storyteller. I think a lot of the charisma comes from the things that these people have done and I worked with a managing director who was loved by his people but was a terrible public speaker. He would close himself right off and would look at his shoes, to the point where I put little smiley faces on his shoes with the words, 'look up', to remind him to raise his head. But he had a very high trust and integrity was a very core value and people loved him, they really did.”
So is it about being able to tell the story or the way you tell it?
“Of course it would be wonderful if everyone had the oratory skills of people like Barack Obama but the important thing is being authentic. You need to personalise your story so it comes from the heart because we're quite good at picking up when things are not authentic when you're looking at somebody speaking and we'll take their body language over what they're saying every time.
“I like to tell the story of the three bricklayers laying bricks. The first person comes up and asks: what are you doing? He replies I'm laying bricks while the second person responds: I'm building a wall. However, the third bricklayer says, I'm building a cathedral.
“I use that story to let leaders know that most of the time people who go to work are focusing on the day to day task of their job, and that's laying bricks. Very few of them are thinking about what they do in the wider scale of things.
“I remember working with Sealord on storytelling. And there were people within the organisation who stand at a conveyor belt cutting fish for eight hours a day, an incredibly monotonous job as far as that goes. But it turns out these people are highly engaged because they're connected to the fact that what they do for those eight hours is linked to the customer with the fish that's on their plate.”
Telling stories might not be just for the kids after all.