Do you remember watching the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing? It was compelling television – I found myself staying up later then I normally would to watch swimming, a sport that I typically wouldn’t have much interest in. NBC said that its broadcast, featuring Michael Phelps’s eighth gold medal win, was its most-viewed Saturday program in 18 years. From 11 to 11:30 p.m., when the Americans swam in their medal-winning medley relay, 39.9 million viewers were watching, according to Nielsen Media Research.
What keeps us engaged is the drama of the competition. A drama that is skillfully created by the media, through the use of stories that build a more personal connection to the athletes, and the athlete’s families. Beyond national pride, its the drama that make us care who wins and loses.
We don’t just watch Michael Phelps win gold medals, we see the emotion of his mother as she wills him on to victory. We hear about the hardships of being a single mother. His achievement is truly amazing but it is made more compelling and memorable by the stories that are told around the competition.
Why is this relevant to leadership?
Because skilled leaders also know how to use drama or stories to connect with people in the same way. If you want an employee or colleague to change a behavior you need to do more then just instruct them to act differently. Telling them just doesn’t work. Even logical persuasive arguments that clarify the benefits are often not enough.
Personal stories capture attention in a way that instructions, or logical arguments, do not. People relate to stories at an emotional level, lowering their resistance and connecting with the storyteller.
The top ten tips below will help you build storytelling into your leadership repertoire, to inspire others to action.
1. Engage your audience. To influence your audience you need to demonstrate that you understand their concerns and interests, while giving them reason to listen to you. One way of capturing their attention is to begin with a provocative question. Provocative, because the topic is of real interest to them and the answer is not obvious.
2. Use a story early. A story will have maximum impact at the beginning of your message. A good story builds connections with your audience at an emotional level, allowing you to engage their hearts as well as their minds.
3. Keep a log of stories. Your life experiences provide a rich tapestry of stories. Everyone has the right stories, but you need to capture them and use them. Keep a written log of experiences that created “aha” moments for you, either your own, or the experiences of others. Refer back to your notes when you are planning your next presentation.
4. Select a story for each audience. Pick a topic that your audience can identify with and is of interest to them. ie don’t use a baseball story with a group of European business women. The ideal story should capture a struggle or predicament that parallels the situation that your audience faces. Remember your goal is to get them thinking and collaborating with you.
5. Be specific but don’t ramble. Provide just enough detail to engage your listener. Details make a story interesting and allow a person to relate to what you are saying. Too much detail can cause a person to tune out.
6. Be authentic. You need to be believable. The real world is messy and unpredictable and people will learn as much from adversity and failure, potentially even more from failure then success. Don’t restrict yourself to stories with happy endings. The truth is better than a made up story that makes your point but sounds canned and artificial.
7. Deliver your message with emotion. Deliver your message with candor. Revealing your own emotion will help build connections with others. Emotion is conveyed through your words but also with gestures, expressions and in the pitch, volume, tone and speed of your words. Think about your presentation style as well as the content of your message.
8. Engage all the senses. People think and learn differently. Some people will benefit from you painting a picture with the words or diagrams. Others can learn by listening to someone talk or by reading. Some need to experience a practical demonstration of the concept.
9. Use visual aids with care. Often people rely on a slide deck of small font text to tell their story. While visual aids do focus attention, use them sparingly. Less is more when it comes to PowerPoint slides. Remember a picture is worth a thousand words.
10. Practice and test your stories. Storytelling is a skill that takes time to develop. Practice, practice, practice. Make sure you test your story on a friendly crowd before you take it out for prime-time coverage.