November 20, 2020 / Esther Choy

leadership storytelling matters

Leadership storytelling matters during the Covid era because of the benefits it provides.

How do you convince a healthcare customer that your product can cover everything they need in order to capture and calculate daily Covid screenings for their entire staff? And not only that… to be able to visualize this data for their leadership? And then, in the end, to be able to share meaningful data with government agencies so they can get funding?

Mike Maiorisi, customer success manager for a collaborative work management company Photo Credit: Mike Maiorisi

Mike Maiorisi, a customer success manager for a collaborative work management company, knew that to accomplish this, he would need to apply what he’s learned as a business storyteller.

In the Covid era, leadership storytelling matters. It makes a big impact.

Of course, this impact requires an investment. And investments of time and resources can be difficult during the pandemic. Many tout business storytelling as an easy solution to business communication–and it is. But there’s no way around the fact that developing this skill requires time, energy, and often money.

It’s wise to “know your why” before investing. Why do business leaders say leadership storytelling matters? What specific benefits does it deliver?

Benefit #1: Efficiency

To many, “story” may sound like a synonym for “tangent.” Not so, says Liz Gordon, Senior Director of Analytic Services at Barton Cotton, a firm that provides multi-channel fundraising and marketing for nonprofits.

She has used a technique that requires business storytellers to state their three main points in only 10 words each. For instance, these points could be something like:

  • “No matter the market, ease of use is key.” (9 words)
  • “We should expand into the target market immediately.” (8 words)
  • “We must collaborate in order to achieve this.” (8 words)
Liz Gordon shares why leadership storytelling matters to her.

Liz Gordon, Senior Director of Analytic Services at Barton Cotton Photo Credit: Kaitlyn Schmeiser

When Gordon first learned this technique in a Leadership Story Lab training, her group had 65 slides they had to boil down!

Everyone on her team struggled with the activity. Finally, they found a story to illustrate their point and to hold everything together. Deciding on just one story was difficult but necessary.

When presenting information, the first instinct is to tell your audience everything you know. “But really,” says Gordon, “you can just have the information in your back pocket,” ready when your audience asks.

For business storytellers, thoroughness shouldn’t be the primary concern. Rather, your first concerns should be whether the story is informative, entertaining, and lets the audience know what to do as a result of hearing it. You want to intrigue and delight your audience first.

If they want the data dump, rest assured they will ask for it!

True, detail is necessary in data analytics, says Gordon. “And it has to be right! But it’s also helpful to get the 50,000 foot view.”

Gordon also notes how relevant distilling information is right now, in the age of virtual meetings.

These days, she says, “everything is very scheduled.” Instead of bumping into each other and chatting, we have to schedule a Zoom meeting.

Remote meetings need to be efficient, says Gordon, yet people appreciate stories in that context. Why? Storytelling techniques make the best use of the time because they get to the heart of what’s needed. You can tell a story that quickly illustrates the main point you want to convey. Paring down the information lets meeting participants make good decisions and move forward.

Benefit #2: Retention

Do these numbers make any sense to you? 5:48, 6:06, 6:16, and 7:12.

No? Not to worry. They will make immediate sense once you get to know what happened to Karma Auden, a Financial Storyteller.

On the day of a big presentation, a fire alarm goes off at the crack of dawn. This fire alarm ends up illustrating exactly why her work matters.

Auden, Director of Finance and Business Services at University of Canberra, had traveled for a conference where she would present on “Storytelling for Accountants.” The night before her big presentation, she set her alarm for 6 a.m. to finish working on the presentation and get ready.

At 5:48 a.m., the hotel fire alarm went off. The hotel manager’s voice over the loudspeaker said to stay put.

At 6:06, she heard a siren… and then nothing.

At 6:16, an announcement instructed everyone to evacuate the building. Auden complied, but on her way downstairs, she met people coming back up! They were following the fire brigade’s instructions, they said.

So, Auden returned to her room and continued getting ready. For almost an hour, she heard nothing—waiting inside the building, as instructed, while the fire was being investigated.

Finally, at 7:12, the hotel manager announced that everything was fine. And it was.

Karma Auden, Director of Finance and Business Services at University of Canberra Photo Credit: Thorson Photography

Auden left for the conference. When there were technical difficulties during the first ten minutes of her session, she decided to share the story of the fire alarm.

How did it connect with “Storytelling for Accountants”? Because the audience could remember the numbers she shared. The data had meaning. For instance, 5:48 a.m. meant a rude awakening. And 6:16 to 7:12 meant waiting almost a full hour for news of danger or safety.

If Auden had simply asked them to remember the numbers 5:48, 6:06, 6:16 and so on, they would have found it much more difficult than hearing those numbers wrapped in a story.

The thing is, data always represents more than numbers. Liz Gordon has found this to be true as well. As she analyzes fundraising data, Gordon remembers that “every number is a decision.” Someone made the choice to donate—or not. There are stories and people behind every data set.

Benefit #3: Connection

Stories can help us get to know people better, says Gordon. Often, we know acquaintances as “the person who told that story.” For instance, she says, she still remembers the stories her team members shared during a storytelling workshop she attended with me back in February, eight months before the writing of this article.

Remembering each other better is especially important during Covid. People are looking for connections, notes Gordon.

Understanding each other better is also important during divided times. However, this understanding requires true awareness of our differences, says Adam Waytz, Professor of Management & Organizations at Kellogg School of Management. “I think we need to be comfortable to celebrate our differences,” he says, rather “than push for a full-on melting-pot style coexistence.”

Conflict resolution used to focus on unearthing what adversaries shared in common. However, Waytz says new research reveals that groups are most willing to reconcile when their respective needs are met. This means that to find connection and true unity, we must understand that the other person’s needs may be different from our own.

When you tell stories, you give listeners a window into your world. This world will have similarities to their world but will have important differences as well.

To build connections by finding the right stories for each situation, it’s essential to establish a system for capturing your stories. Financial storyteller Karma Auden takes time to capture one story of the day. Through this daily practice, she’s building what she calls a “story bank.” Currently, because she’s always thinking of multiple applications for each story, she has stories she can use in 75 different situations!

Benefit #4: Vision

So, what happened to Mike Maiorisi? Did he convince the healthcare customer that his company’s product could meet their needs?

To make the sale, Maiorisi knew that he would have to thoroughly understand the customer’s problem and pain points.

Once he understood their pain points, he could share the example of a much larger client who was in a very similar situation. This enabled them to envision “a future state in which they had this implemented,” says Maiorisi.

The result? “They trusted us,” he says.

The customer has now been using his product for five months, gathering metrics and generating reports.

“Being able to tell an effective story led to increased collaboration,” says Maiorisi, “and a more effective partnership because they trusted us and we built on a foundation of trust.”

During the era of Covid, trust is more important than ever, he adds. We can’t meet with people in person. “All we have right now is our word.”

“Do you want people to pay more attention to you?” asks Maiorisi. “Do you want a more engaged audience? Deeper conversations? Do you want to come across as an expert? Do you want to be a facilitator?”

Then, he says, tell business stories.

Business storytelling is an investment. But it pays dividends in trust, efficiency, retention, human connections and an inspiring vision. I’ve seen it time and time again. Many of the business storytelling techniques Maiorisi, Gordon and Auden have used are described in depth in my book, Let the Story Do the Work. Learning these leadership storytelling techniques has changed the course of people’s careers.

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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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