Storytelling For Leaders – Ten Steps to Inspire Action

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.

How Watching Borgen Can Make You A Better Leader

I am currently watching the first series of the Danish political drama, Borgen. It is an excellently scripted and acted show and my Danish vocabulary now covers two words – “Tak” (Thanks) and “Statsminister” (Prime Minister).

The series focuses on how a new “Statsminister” – Birgitte Nyborg – manages to turn her party’s minority status into a functioning government. Here in the UK, coalitions are a new, and not always welcome, feature of government, but in many European countries they are a way of life.

My big realisation was that coalition government is also an effective model for how many business leaders, particularly those that are in key positions outside of the CEO’s office, need to work to get things done.

You don’t often have ultimate power. Instead, you must engage, understand and persuade others to help you achieve your objectives. The episode I watched last night was called “The Art Of The Possible” and here are five techniques that Birgitte Nyborg used to get things done that can also work for you:

  1. Have a trusted, objective adviser. Birgitte Nyborg has a trusted lieutenant in her deputy, Bent Serjø. Coalitions are complex beasts and you often need a different, and sometimes brutally honest, perspective to work out the best way forward. Who is your trusted adviser, helping you to work out the best way to get things done?
  2. Create options – always. Bent is always challenging Nyborg to consider her options. This process prevents her from making ‘knee-jerk’ reactions and enables her to develop new ways round seemingly intractable issues. How often are you truly developing and reviewing a range of credible options to accelerate implementation of your priorities?
  3. Meet your stakeholders individually. Nyborg leads a centre-left party. In most of her meetings with more right wing parties she met with them as a group. But in last night’s episode she made more progress – in the development of her relationships and her ability to sign-off her first budget – when she met with the leader of one of the smaller right wing parties on a one-to-one basis. How often are you making time to meet with your fellow executives one-to-one, rather than as part of a group meeting?
  4. Understand your colleagues’ objectives. The key to getting her budget signed-off was for Nyborg to realise that some potential partners were merely playing games and had no intention of supporting her, whereas other players had certain objectives that she could meet within the financial constraints in which she was operating. How well do you understand the priorities of your executive and managerial colleagues, and to what extent have you considered how you could help them achieve their objectives alongside your own goals?
  5. Understand and use your own power. Bent tells Nyborg that she must realise that she is the one that is “Statsminister” and that she needs to realise the power and position she occupies. Similarly, your position of power is important to other people. Confidence and body language is critical to Nyborg’s discussions with both her allies and her adversaries. How well do you understand your own power, and how do you demonstrate this in the way you talk with colleagues and through your overall body language?

Borgen is TV fiction, but sometimes art can teach us important lessons about the human condition. Which of these five lessons from Borgen could help you become a better leader of your organisation?

© Stuart Cross 2013. All rights reserved.

Why Glasgow Is the Business Capital of Scotland

Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland, but it is not the business center for the country. Glasgow is the third largest metropolis in the United Kingdom and the largest city in Scotland. Glasgow and the outer lying suburbs are home to 2.3 million people, which is more than 40% of the entire population of the country.

Growth through History Influences Today’s Economy

Population alone is one reason why Glasgow is the business center for Scotland, but the reason so many people reside in the vicinity is because the industry and infrastructure were established a long time ago.

As early as the 15th century, Glasgow became noted for learning with the University of Glasgow’s arrival. By the 18th century, it became one of Britain’s primary ports for transatlantic trade with the West Indies and North America.

When the Industrial Revolution exploded, Glasgow became a world leader in the construction of heavy engineering equipment. Many of the famous ships in history were manufactured at Glasgow’s shipyards, which produced about half of Britain’s ships.

At the same time, more than 1/4 of all the locomotives in the world were built in Glasgow. During the Victorian era, Glasgow was second only to London in the British Empire as far as industry was concerned.

A Modern Day Leader

Glasgow continues today as a member of the top twenty financial centers in Europe. That has drawn many businesses to establish their headquarters in the general area. At the same time, the city has continued to be considered one of the most livable cities in the entire world.

A decline in the city took place following the Second World War, but Glasgow resurged in the 1980s and became known as the European center for finance and business services. Tourism increased and local people and businesses began to invest more in the city.

Urban redevelopment continued into the 1990s as well as diversification of the city’s economy. Affluent people moved into the downtown areas as they were upgraded through the years.

Another reason why businesses want to locate in Glasgow is because it is rated as one of the top 50 safest cities on the planet and because it is one of the top 10 tourist areas. During difficult economic times, the employment rate in Glasgow has maintained a higher number than Manchester, Birmingham, and Liverpool.

Location and planned development keep Glasgow as a business leader for not only Europe, but for the entire world.

The Team Doesn’t Perform, the Leader Gets Fired – And What You Can Do About It

I am watching the European Football Championship and the German team just won their first two matches. Congratulations.

There is something interesting about football and leadership: how many players do you know who ever got fired? And in contrast to that, how many coaches got sacked when the team didn’t perform? Far more!

The old saying “success has many fathers but failure is an orphan” obviously applies very well to professional football. When the team wins everyone wins: the players, the coach, a whole nation. When they lose there is actually no orphan; the coach is quickly identified as the father although the coach is the only one who cannot even score!

How does this relate to your business? It’s simple: your success as a business leader will be measured by how well your team performs. In football as well as in the corporate world. We can argue whether this is fair or not. What is true is that”the fish rots from the head.” Weak leaders produce weak performers. Great leaders produce A-teams.

Usually leaders have no difficulties in telling me what changes they want to see in their teams: the team needs to feel more in charge and accountable for their results. The team needs to demonstrate more initiative and be more creative. The team needs to collaborate more effectively as a team.

When you ask executives how they can contribute to achieving all this, it gets a lot more difficult. Similar to football, they tend to look for someone or something else to blame: somebody else hired the wrong people, the people just don’t get it, or it’s simply the current tough business circumstances.

Although we know that the fish rots from the head, our own protective system often prevents us from looking critically at the man (or woman) in the mirror. If we do so, we may see our worst enemy.

The critical look at ourselves may not be pleasant at first, but the process of increasing your self-awareness and stretching your comfort zone will be very rewarding. Your success as a leader will be measured by how well your team performs. To take the first step to boost your team’s performance ask yourself now:

What am I doing today that prevents my team from moving forward?

What is the one big thing that I need to do differently to help my team excel?

In order to avoid a single-sided view, get other people’s input: ask them for open and honest feedback. Or do a 360 degree feedback. Others often know more about you than you think. Once you have identified your “one big thing”, you may even be able to laugh about it. More importantly, you will hold the key to team success in your hand.

Enjoy the journey of self-discovery, enjoy success.