How to Think Strategically about Leadership Storytelling

There is no denying that storytelling is on people’s minds these days, especially in terms of communication skills leaders need to effectively direct, influence and inspire others. And while this fervent focus on storytelling warms my heart, I worry that it is generating a lot of unfocused storytelling in the workplace, as leaders feel compelled to just tell a story, any story because some article or speaker or manager told them to.

To make the most of storytelling in leadership communications and derive the greatest impact from it, one must first think strategically about what their story needs to achieve. The type of social storytelling that we practice in our daily lives typically involves telling any ol’ story at any ol’ time because you think it will entertain and engage people. Strategic storytelling, however, is about picking the right story at the right time, specifically to convey an idea that will, in turn, shape the way your audience thinks and feels and motivate them towards the desired action.

When I think strategically about the stories I tell in my leadership communications, I don’t start with the story; I back into it. Said another way, I reverse engineer the story by first thinking strategically about the objectives I need a story to meet. And I do this by identifying the following:

FIRST: Desired Action of My Audience

I first consider my audience (whether its one person, ten, or one hundred) and what actions I want them to take. What do I need them to start doing, stop doing, do more or do less of? For example, we might be facing a major change initiative at work that’s going to require a big shift in how we operate, and I need my team to embrace this change instead of shying away from it.

SECOND: Thoughts and/or Feelings Needed in Order to Take that Action

Then I consider what my audience needs to think and/or feel in order to take the action I need them to take. These might be new thoughts and feelings I need to instill in them, or mental and emotional barriers or obstacles I need to help them get around. Continuing with the example referenced above, in order to embrace this impending change initiative, I might need my team to recognize (think) that while it will involve some short-term discomfort, longer term it’s going to make us all stronger in our capabilities. I might also need to help them get over feeling overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the change and instil greater confidence and faith in their ability to get through it.

THIRD: Key Message to Generate those Thoughts and Feelings

Next I think about what key idea or message I can share to help generate the needed thoughts and feelings to motivate the desired action. Again continuing with the example outlined above, I might want to convey the idea that the way we’re going to get through this big change initiative is by leaning on and encouraging each other as a team and collectively taking things one step at a time.

FOURTH: A Story that Can Foster and Facilitates All of the Above

After I’ve thought through these three objectives, then and only then do I consider if I have a story that can bring to life the message or idea I want to convey, and that can generate the thoughts and feelings I want to generate in order to inspire the action I need my audience to take.

So, in the privacy of my head or in my office (often I will take a couple of minutes to map this out on a whiteboard), I think about it in the order outlined above. But nine times out of ten, when I’m walking into a meeting or presentation I will deliver it in reverse. I will start with the story before diving into the main subject matter of the meeting or presentation. And by starting with a story that I have thought strategically about — a story that has a clear point; a story that is appropriate for the workplace situation we’re in; a story that is relevant to the mental and emotional state of my audience — I start to indirectly shape the way my audience is going to think and feel about the subject matter that is to follow, enabling them to more fully absorb and embrace it.

Given the objectives uncovered for the example above, I might determine that the story of running a marathon for the first time (or climbing Kilimanjaro or hiking the Pacific Trail or any other story about reaching a tough, intimidating goal) would be the perfect one to tell at the start of a team meeting in which we’re going to go through the implementation plan for this major change initiative. When telling this story, I would make certain it’s strategic by indirectly and artfully addressing the objectives I’ve identified, ensuring it’s reflecting the necessary thoughts and feelings and demonstrating the key idea I want to communicate. For example, the plot of my story would acknowledge that I never thought I could run a marathon (or climb Kilimanjaro or hike the Pacific Trail), but through the collaborative encouragement and guidance of others, training to build my strength and abilities, and taking things literally and figuratively one step at a time, I was able to do it.

Starting the meeting with this story would not only engage my audience at a more personal level, but also help them understand how, exactly, we are going to get through this change initiative together and why it’s important we do so. Most importantly, because my story is both strategic and human, appealing to the head and the heart, it will remove the mental and emotional barriers that might get in the way and smoothly pave the way to our collective success. And after that, we’re off to the races.

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