Of all the communications tools available to a leader, perhaps none is more powerful than storytelling. From Martin Luther King to Sheryl Sandberg, great leaders have always used stories to connect people to ideas, to each other and to a vision of the future they want to be a part of and make real.
But every great power has inherent risks and rewards in using it, and storytelling in leadership communications is no different. Tell the wrong story in the wrong situation and you run the risk of your audience staring blankly at you, wondering silently (or worse, out loud) what the point of your story was and how they get back the three minutes you just took from their lives in telling it. But share the right story in the right situation and the rewards can be great, specifically in your ability to connect with your audience at a more human level, and indirectly shape the way you want them to think and feel about whatever you’re gathered to present, review or discuss.
To reap the greatest rewards from storytelling in the workplace and steer clear of the risks, one must think strategically about the stories they tell, making sure they can first identify what they need a story to achieve so they can then find or develop the right story to achieve it. It also involves building great stories to be told. And while every story is different and unique, all great strategic stories are composed of five essential elements.
This is the context for your story, connecting the story you are about to tell to the workplace situation in which you’re telling it and the mindset of the audience who’s hearing it. Establishing the premise for your story is a way of setting it up, building common understanding with your audience and helping them better appreciate why they should listen to it.
An example. Let’s say you’re a manager that has gathered the troops to present a roll-out plan for a major initiative that will require your team to learn a new way of operating. You know that many on your team are quite anxious about this change. You also know that they’re not really going to listen to your roll-out plan unless you can deal with this white elephant of nervous energy sitting in the middle of the room blocking the screen. So you’ve got a great personal story to share with them about embracing change and learning new skills. But rather than just launch into that story, you first establish the premise for it by saying…
“You all know we’re about to implement a big change initiative across the company, and we’re here to present the roll-out plan and discuss your roles in it. I know that changes of this magnitude can be both exciting and unsettling. It can make people nervous, especially if they have to learn new skills. I’m sure you’re feeling it. Hell, I’m feeling it too. Change is hard. In fact, as I was getting ready for this meeting I was reminded of a big change I had to get through several years ago. So before we dive into the plans, let me just tell you a quick story.”
And then you tell your story, about a time when you (or someone you know, or someone well-known) had to face change head-on and embrace it before they could succeed. Your audience knows this story is going to be about getting through change because you’ve set up the Premise for it. And in setting up that Premise, you’ve acknowledged not only how they’re feeling, but also the main reason you’re meeting (i.e. to present the roll-out plans)…so they’ll excuse you while you take a couple of minutes at the start of that meeting to tell a story.
After you’ve established the Premise for your story, you then establish the starting point for it by establishing the time and place in which it begins. For example, “Once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away” is the platform for one of the most well-known stories of our time (Star Wars). When a storyteller sets the Platform, it’s his or her cue that a story is about the unfold. For example, for the story referenced above it might be…
“One day, when I was in the second year of my first job at Grey Advertising in New York City, word came down from up high that a major reorg was coming.”
These are the characters who find themselves in the time and place of the story’s Platform and about be a part of the Plot. Most stories have a main character whom the story is about, with supporting characters having an impact on him or her and/or journeying along with them. Quite often the main character is you, the storyteller, as you share a personal story about something that happened to you and what you took away from that experience (the Point). But sometimes you can tell a personal story where you are not the main character. Instead, your story is more about someone else and their experience, and you are more of a witness to it. If this is the case, make sure you make the story about that Person and not about you, even if it’s told from your perspective.
Plot is the driving force of any great story, entailing the series of events that have unfolded. Plot gives your story structure and flow, with a clear beginning, middle and, importantly, end. While there are many Plots a story can follow, the most typical involves a group of people (Person) in a current situation (Platform) who have a goal of achieving a new reality but experience obstacles and challenges in trying to reach that goal, and then somehow manage to overcome them. A story’s Plot becomes more engaging when there is tension built up around those challenges and obstacles, and that tension is relieved when the characters succeed by moving past them.
And of course, every great strategic story, especially those shared in a workplace situation, has a Point to it. There is a key message, learning or takeaway that the audience draws from the story you’ve just told: one that flows naturally from the Plot of your story and its impact on the Person(s) in it. Because having a strong Point is central to my story’s success, I typically don’t like to leave its communication to chance and will often conclude my story by driving the Point home — e.g. “The point of this story is…” or “What I learned from that situation was…” or “The reason I shared this story with you is…”
Paying attention to the middle three elements outlined above (Platform, Person and Plot) will ensure your story is engaging and captivating and something people will understand and want to listen to until the end. Taking the time to firmly establish the first (Premise) and fifth (Point) elements will ensure your story is strategic: that it’s relevant to the workplace situation in which you’re telling it, and that the audience is rewarded with something meaningful in hearing it.