January 6, 2023 / Esther Choy

Long gone are the days of polymaths like Leonardo DiVinci with the skills of an artist, doctor, engineer, sculptor, architect, and so on. Today, in our increasingly complex world, we are more likely to be specialists, with deep knowledge in one particular discipline. Knowledge is often siloed as a result. This silo effect can even occur within a single business. So how to we explain our expertise and complex ideas to the audiences that need to hear them?

One of our healthcare technology clients has a marketing department with over 150 people working on 10+ distinct teams. Each team — brand, website, data analytics, enablement, and so on — has a specialty and internal goals. The marketing department needs to represent one cohesive whole to their internal stakeholders, such as sales, and operations and external stakeholders like customers and partners. Yet they have no process to share their work across teams. How much learning is lost because their expertise is not shared?

When team members do meet at cross-functional meetings, their expertise isn’t communicated effectively. For example, the analytic team gives the full download on data, getting into the weeds, using jargon and details their audiences don’t know how to sparse.

We are often so immersed in our subject that we forget what it’s like to be an outsider. We work to prove our value instead of persuading our audience to see the value for themselves.

The obstacles for communicating across sectors continue in our data-laden workplace. The pings of electronic devices interrupt. The challenge of data’s three V’s (volume, velocity, and variety) tends to be more frustrating than informative.  Attention must be earned when distractions and information abound. We must have our audience’s:

  1. Attention — Are they even tuning in?
  2. Understanding — Are they following and understanding?
  3. Care — Why should they care, and care enough to do something about it?

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A good story will grab your audience’s attention, but how do you make sure they understand and care in the shortest amount of time possible? If your audience doesn’t understand, they most likely won’t tell you. After all, who would like to publicly admit that they don’t get it or – don’t care?

This is the first blog in a series that will give you strategies to make complex ideas and topics easily understood. In this article, we tackle abstract concepts like “stakeholders,” “teamwork” or “direct communication,” which are not as obvious or as simple as they sound. Because we can take these kinds of common abstractions for granted, they often create stumbling blocks in effective communication.

It’s helpful to define your terms when you discuss everyday, complex ideas with a team (or even just one person). What do you mean when you say, “equity” or “corporate culture?” Often in these contexts a dictionary definition isn’t enough but business storytelling strategies can help.

At a recent professional development meeting for our Certified Story Facilitators, we tackled the challenge of describing one of these hard-to-nail down concepts in 200 words or less. The following examples provide different structures for you to try when you need to define an abstract idea with your audience.

#1 Tell a story… where the complex idea you want to discuss is missing.

Defining an abstract noun by making it absent in the story will help your audience feel the need for it. Here is a story about what happens when direct communication is missing, shared by Certified Story Facilitator Chuen Chuen Yeo.

Many years ago, my colleague and I were working on a project. I thought everything was going well. Then, one day, my boss called me into the office and, empathetically, said she knew how passionate I was, but I had to involve my colleague in decision-making.

I was annoyed because I had no clue my colleague was upset, but I kept my composure and nodded.

My colleague was waiting outside the boss’ office, and she started, “So, Chuen Chuen, I believe I need to be direct, so I went to our boss….” Later I learned, she wasn’t comfortable with a decision I thought we had made together, so she decided to speak to our boss.

What is direct communication? Speak directly about the issue with the person involved instead of beating around the bush.

Chuen Chuen uses this story when she is onboarding new hires to help them understand her leadership style and what is expected from them when it comes to communicating with other team members in their new role.

Tell the right story for any business situation - we'll give you the tools.

#2 Tell a story…where the key idea invokes an emotion

In the next example, my colleague Reena Kansal offers a story from an anthology of essays American Like Me, Reflections On Life Between Cultures edited by America Ferrera. In this story, Reshma Saujani demonstrates the complexity hidden within a simple idea:

When I order the grande chai tea latte at Starbucks, I almost always lie. It’s a white lie, as innocent and airy as the foam on top of the drink, and it’s been carefully constructed to make all our lives easier.

“Can I get your name, ma’am?”

“Maya,” I say efficiently, pulling out my credit card.

The barista is a teenager with lavender-streaked hair and eyeliner so exquisite and precise, I wish for a fleeting moment I had chosen a more mysterious name, one that might impress her, as exactly nothing seems to do. She scrawls Maya on the side of the cup with her Sharpie and I think about Maya. The real Maya whose name I stole for my Starbucks order.

She happens to be my niece. She’s a beautiful fifteen-year-old who has no idea I borrow her name regularly. But I do this because the baristas can spell and pronounce it correctly every single time.

We say and hear our name multiple times a day, often without even giving it much thought. However, it is linked to our identity, family and sense of belonging and has deeper roots than what may appear on the surface.

This story reveals many of the ideas entangled within the single, abstract noun “name” and makes the listener question their own relationship with names. Asking your team to share personal, but not private stories like this one can invoke emotion and build trust among team members, while creating meaningful in-roads to understanding a company’s value for diversity during a DEI training.

#3 Tell a story… by standing on the shoulder of giants

You don’t always have to come up with an original personal story to illustrate a complex ideas. Some topics have already been illustrated to help clarify their meaning. For this reason, start collecting quotations. When you hear someone explain something in a way that completely grabs your imagination, copy it into a document of useful quotes. You never know when you might need to use it. Here’s a scene from a recent experience.

The best way I’ve heard someone describe its power is by the New York Times bestselling author Harlan Coben. With his 33 murder mystery novels and 7 millions copies sold, he knows something about its power.

In an interview with Freakonomics podcast about Suspense and Surprise, Harlan Coben has this to say, “I often have missing people in my books and a missing component is really interesting. In the case of a missing person versus a murder: if a person’s dead, they’re dead. I’m just trying to solve the crime. But if a person is missing, you have hope. Hope can be the cruelest thing in the world. It can crush your heart like an eggshell, or it can make it soar. You raise the stakes by giving people hope and you raise the stakes by just leaving something out that maybe can complete you.”

When clients ask questions about the right emotion to invoke in leadership storytelling, the first part of the answer is…it depends. It depends on what you’re trying to achieve. You must match your goal with the right emotion. But no one likes an answer that begins with “it depends,” so the second part of the answer is more definitive. No matter what emotion you select to match your goal, your story should end with hope. Coben’s story about the power of hope helps listeners understand why. It illustrates the power of emotion.

What common but complex ideas do you need to define and discuss with your team? Which strategy will you use to help your team move the discussion forward with clarity?

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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