December 8, 2019 / Esther Choy

Don't overlook key leadership storytelling moments

Nobel laureate and economist Robert J. Schiller’s new book, Narrative Economics, argues that economic narratives– contagious stories that can alter people’s economic planning– are so influential they are worthy of serious academic study. Not only that, Shiller has explained exactly how to create a contagious economic narrative (more on that here). For leaders, the point is clear. Narratives are shaping the world in ways that academic fields and industries are just beginning to catch up with. As leaders, it is high time to proactively assert our stories, especially during key leadership storytelling moments, and give them every chance of going viral.

But for many leaders, there’s always a question of when to tell a story. I don’t mean the kind of story that comes up naturally in conversation–stories about what you did over the weekend or something charming your kids said. Telling that kind of story can be a reflex.

Rather, I mean the kinds of compelling stories that you proactively tell your team in hopes of influencing them for good. These are the key leadership storytelling moments that great leaders recognize and maximize. In fact, there can be harmful consequences if they do not present a coherent narrative to their teams during these moments.

When your team faces uncertainty, they need you to tell them what you think is going on. Are you about to go into a brand new market? Launching a new product? Reorganizing? Merging? Getting acquired by another company or private equity firm? Getting ready for an IPO? Or perhaps the country itself is going through a macroeconomic shift or is involved in a trade war? These are all times when your team craves your perspective. These are key leadership storytelling moments. Your team knows (or assumes) that you have access to more information than they do–so they expect you to share your take on the situation, whether or not you can disclose everything you know.

Missing the chance to do this can create a “story vacuum.” When times are uncertain and those in the know are not speaking up, others will rush to fill in the gaps with their own stories. This is fertile ground for rumors! People will be constructing a narrative no matter what. It’s up to you whether you intentionally contribute to that narrative or leave people to their own devices.

How To Shape The Story

After the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, President George W. Bush gave the United States a narrative intended not only to help them process their shock and grief but also–according to Shiller–to keep the economy from plummeting. It was “a script,” says Shiller, “for strong, courageous, inspired behavior.”

When Shiller quoted the speech Bush gave to airline workers, I saw a recognizable model. I call it the AIA model: Acknowledge, Inspire, Aspire.

Whenever leaders face a tough audience or a difficult situation (or both), they must acknowledge their audience’s point of view, inspire them to envision a different future, and encourage them to aspire to put that vision into practice. Here is how Bush did that.

Acknowledge: “Everybody here who showed up for work, at this important industry, is making a clear statement that terrorism will not stand, that evildoers will not be able to terrorize America and our work force and our people.”

Here, Bush centers the experiences of airline workers, acknowledging how difficult it was to show up for work after airplanes were hijacked and flown into the towers.

Inspire: “When they struck, they wanted to create an atmosphere of fear. And one of the great goals of this nation’s war is to restore public confidence in the airline industry.”

With these words, Bush lays out the plan for the future–restoring public confidence in the airline industry.

Aspire: “[One of the goals of the war was] to tell the traveling public: Get on board. Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”

Here, by developing vivid details, he encourages Americans and airline employees to participate in this future.Most leaders will not be required to give their teams a script at such dire moments, but every leader will face a situation where the team needs a script, not a story vacuum.

Related Articles

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If you’re facing a time of high stakes and uncertainty, schedule a complimentary working session with us to craft the right story. For more examples of the right stories to tell at the right time, sign up for our monthly guide. My book, Let the Story Do the Work (published by HarperCollins Leadership), is now available and serves as your business storytelling toolkit.

Esther Choy

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.
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"This is an amazing and insightful post! I hadn’t thought of that so you broadened my perspective. I always appreciate your insight!" - Dan B.

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