As part of my role, very often, I work on client proposals, and the output of it is usually in the form of PowerPoint presentations. What makes it fun is that this is a team effort and teams across engineering, pre-sales, sales, marketing, legal, finance, and HR work together in these proposals. I get to work with several such proposals in which my task is to make the presentation impactful with data storytelling.
Presentations come in several forms – the good, the bad, the ugly and the great ones. One thing that I had observed from the great ones is the intelligent use of colours with data, appropriate charts and the headlines that convey what the slide is all about.
Since this is a season of webinars and virtual presentations, I thought of sharing one method which is simple to use at the same time help you to make impactful data presentations.
Here is a brief background for this presentation slide.
Amidst COVID, Company A’s management team is looking at the spend of various departments and wants to prioritize, which spend needs to be optimized from a short-term saving perspective. They also want to look at department level spends to prioritize any long-term strategic initiatives. The management intends to target the top-15 spend items based on value.
A typical representation will be in the form of bar-chart like the one below, it is devoid of any data storytelling elements.
But, is there a way to make it even better to aid in decision making?
The following bar chart shows that just three vendors account for 40% of the spend, and they are highlighted with the use of colour variation, which helps in building your data narrative.
Remember to not use multiple colours as that will lead to confusion. It is better to use a variation of a base colour, as it serves the purpose of highlight and lowlight.
With this chart, anyone running this presentation will be able to articulate the story better. And the executives know where to focus their attention when it comes to spend optimization.
By using this approach, anyone new to the decision-making process will be able to make an informed decision with the amount of intelligence that is provided in the chart.
Have you tried data storytelling in your analytics proposals or meetings on financial projections?Trust me, you will see meetings becoming a lot more outcome-driven when you start practising storytelling.
This is the second post in the Basics of Business Storytelling, you can read the first post here.
The year was 2015, this company had the crème-de-la-crème board that included notable former US secretaries of state such as George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Secretaries of Defense James Mattis and William Perry, and ex-US Senators Bill Frist and Sam Nunn. It was touted as the “the Apple of Healthcare.”
The founder was a Stanford drop out with her venture funded by marquee investors. At its high point, valued at $ 9 billion with the founder’s net worth alone at $4.5 billion. It all came crashing by Oct 2015 when the WSJ opened the pandora’s box. The company I am talking about is Theranos, and the founder is Elizabeth Holmes.
The year is 2020, this company is a greenfield telecom startup which had managed to put established telecom operators out of business with its predatory pricing model. The promoter calls it a platform instead of a communication service provider.
With the potential to disrupt entertainment to e-commerce, investors believe this startup is all set to be the next big thing. Over the past five weeks, it has attracted investments from Facebook to PE players such as Silver Lake, General Atlantic, Vista Partners and KKR.
You might have guessed the company now – it is Jio part of the Reliance Group and the man behind it is Mukesh Ambani.
How did Elizabeth Holmes and Mukesh Ambani get their companies valued at a premium and attracted investments from the who’s who? The answer is in their narratives. They were able to tie their narrative to the numbers, i.e. their business story drove their valuation.
New York University’s Prof. Aswath Damodaran, an authority in corporate valuation says, “In a good valuation, the numbers are bound together by a coherent narrative and storytelling is kept grounded with numbers.”
When an entrepreneur is pitching for an investment, the narrative that goes behind the numbers is more important. That is what gave premium valuation and attracted investors to Theranos and Jio.
Founders of all the leading companies Amazon, Tesla or Apple, have a consistent story that aligns with their decisions.
“We first measure ourselves in terms of the metrics most indicative of our market leadership: customer and revenue growth, the degree to which our customers continue to purchase from us on a repeat basis, and the strength of our brand. We have invested and will continue to invest aggressively to expand and leverage our customer base, brand, and infrastructure as we move to establish an enduring franchise. Because of our emphasis on the long term, we may make decisions and weigh trade-offs differently than some companies.”
For the last 23 years, Amazon still retains this narrative. Jeff Bezos always talks about having a dominant market share in whichever segment they operate in, investing back into the business for long term growth and focussing on customer experience.
Whether you are a retail investor trying to value a company before investing in its shares or you are an investor evaluating a startup for potential investment, you must have an investment thesis behind your decision.
To make the valuation story better, Prof. Damodaran suggests a five-step process. It is about weaving numbers into narratives and having every narrative backed up by numbers.
Step 1 is about the story you say about the business.
What story you tell for the business will drive the valuation. In the above reference, I consider Amazon as a retailer and compare it against Walmart. You might have a different narrative for Amazon, which is fine. Your narrative will influence your valuation.
The founder’s narrative will play a key role, based on how persuasive, consistent, and credible their story is, both public and private investors will believe or not believe in them. It will influence investment decisions.
Step 2 is about how the narrative holds good against history, common sense, and reality.
Theranos story will fail against common sense and reality. There could be disruption in technology or business model which may be against historical cases, but it still needs to pass through common sense and reality filter. Common knowledge rides on principles of economics and mathematics. Prof. Damodaran asks investors to test if the narrative is possible, plausible and probable.
When Holmes said she could do 100+ tests with two droplets of blood all at a very competitive price, she was telling a runaway story. Everyone wants to believe this type of story. Unfortunately, no one questioned the numbers behind it or use common sense to understand how blood-testing works. That is what led to massive wealth erosion for the investors in Theranos.
Step 3 is about tying narratives to different levers that drive business.
You break down the big picture narrative into individual narratives. For example, how competitive advantage in the business story gives better margins, how scale gives pricing power, how the asset-light model results in lower Capex and easy scaling, etc. This step is more about narratives than numbers.
Step 4 is about connecting the different levers to come up with the valuation (the end goal).
This step is more about numbers than about narratives. Those of who familiar with valuation know the DCF (Discounted Cash Flow) model where you discount the future value of cash flow to the present value and arrive at the intrinsic value of the share. Based on the intrinsic value and the current market price, you either take a call to invest or not to invest.
Step 5 is more to fine-tune than the valuation process itself.
By keeping with times, one may want to relook at some of the narratives you had built-in for the business. You can do this by tweaking the narrative to the changing nature of the business and by being open to feedback from different market players.
This is where you say, Amazon is not just retail business but also cloud service provider which has a higher growth rate and you plug those numbers. By doing that, you can also open up a range of valuation starting from how a pure-play retail player is valued to how a company that encompasses streaming services to cloud services to e-book & audiobook readers to pay wallets to the smart assistant is valued. Different segments come with different risk, growth, and profit margins.
When I started my sales career in my early 20s, I was raw, and little did I know about using conversation starters that help in building a relationship. In company events or industry conferences, it usually went like this. I am Krishna, sales executive with HCL Infosystems, so what do you do? I did evolve from there and have built long-lasting relationships with narrative-based conversation starters.
I am sure, at various points in life, you must have met someone new in conferences, industry events, training programs etc. and to build rapport would have asked this standard question – “So what do you do? “
In the current context of COVID, where most of us are in some sort of lockdown, it is natural to check what the other person is doing during calls. You might as well have asked this question or ended up in the receiving end of the same question.
But do you think the question, SO WHAT DO YOU DO? made a meaningful difference to the other person?
Research suggests that it is not the best question to start a conversation if you intend to build rapport.
Mark Manson, the author of the New York Times bestselling book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, writes, “Sometimes I ask people, How do you choose to suffer? Pleasure is an easy question. And pretty much all of us have similar answers. The more interesting question is the pain. What is the pain that you want to sustain??”
Here are eight questions that can be great conversation starters which can help in finding commonalities that lead to building a lasting relationship. You can learn more about storytelling powered narratives in this piece.
The first four are specific to the current context, while the rest are generic.
What have you learned from the lockdown so far?
This is as open as it can be, it can range from people sharing about what new skills they picked up to things about their relationship in the family to workplace-related dynamics etc. Your response can be about your learnings which helps the other person to know about you.
What are you looking forward to after this lockdown?
This question allows the other person to share something forward-looking (which is positive in the current context) and can have a wide variety of responses. It could be as simple as having that water-cooler conversation which has always been fun to going back to the gym to the long drive. This question can unearth some of the mutual interests.
The one thing that you are not missing because of this lockdown?
Gets people to think hard, but also helps them realize what was considered important during normal times is no longer critical. The options are endless here, be it dining out on Fridays to conducting interviews face to face to driving to work itself! Depending upon the person on the other end, you may get a range of responses that are philosophical to funny retorts.
How has this lockdown changed any of your belief systems?
This question is a twist to the earlier one but has a deeper meaning. More likely, this question will elicit serious responses as it is about belief systems. Age-old beliefs/practices are questioned due to restricted movement – how many of us imagined flight-free world even at the start of 2020? Almost all enterprise sales leaders talk about walking the halls to be closer to the customer, how that is possible in the current scenario?
What is inspiring you right now?
This question is forward-looking and can get you current context-specific responses, but also useful in normal times. It is like what is your new year resolution type question. In general, one can expect more personal reactions to this question, thereby getting to know him/her at a personal level, but work-related responses are also not uncommon.
What is your passion project/side hustle?
We are passionate about our side hustles/passion projects. But not everyone will want to share in a common forum, based on situational context people will respond in detail or keep it short. This question will be able to open up the other person, and one can also get to understand their hidden talents. I have known people who have charted new careers based on response to this question.
What are you doing that is fun?
In a way, this question is a slight twist to the passion project question. Rest assured, this question will steer the conversation away from work-related topics. It could also help spot people who consider work is no different than what they would be doing for fun. Most entrepreneurs fall into this category—a great question to find mutual interests outside of work. Many life and business partnerships have born out of this way.
What book have you recommended the most?
A personal favourite, a different spin to what is generally asked – what book are you reading now? Helps to find what has impressed them so much that they are recommending it to others repetitively, this question also will help in knowing the other person’s interest areas. One more question to find common interest outside of work and nurture a life long relationship.
Did you find your favourite question among these? What surprising insight have you uncovered by asking conversation starter questions?
With all the above questions, the aim is to ask an open-ended question that elicits non-work responses. By doing that, you are creating more opportunities to find mutual interests that are not necessarily work-related. When you connect more with personal interests than work matters, there is a higher chance of converting a stranger into a friend.
I have been getting requests from the readers of my blog and from my network on how they can practice storytelling at work. The basics of business storytelling series will cover this aspect. This series will cover ideas from what I read, observed and learned from practice. This post is about a book that I read which is helping me in my practice.
Prof. Chip Heath and Dan Heath are the authors of the book, “Made to Stick”. In it, they explain why some ideas stick and others die. For an idea to stick, it must have certain elements which help in connecting people and to carry the message forward. The authors have studied several ideas from the field of advertising, leadership communication, social cause messaging, people & company stories before arriving at this framework.
From their studies, they propose six principles that make an idea stick.
Principle 1: Simplicity
There is a simple reason why proverbs have lasted generations across cultures. The Heaths state that, any idea needs to be stripped to its core to make it memorable and easy to pass it on. The Golden Rule is to have a one-sentence statement so profound that an individual could spend a lifetime learning to follow it.
Google’s mission statement, “Our mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” is powerful but also simple.
And a company that is built on that mission is generating revenues upwards of $ 120 billion.
Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s speech, “I have a dream” galvanized an entire community and nation towards freedom from slavery. Imagine a speech filled with jargons, complex information, and superfluous language. It wouldn’t have got this reach.
When you have many message or ideas, use the principle of exclusion to reduce all that into one.
Principle 2: Unexpectedness
“For an idea to endure, it must generate interest and curiosity,” says the Heath brothers. But it has to be done in a balanced manner. Master communicators will expose the gaps in the audience mind and then fill those gaps with their idea.
This approach allows you to hold the audience even though they have got gaps in knowledge. It is done by tapping into their existing knowledge, then exposing the gaps by curiosity and raising interest levels, and by filling that gap with your ideas.
George Loewenstein proposed this gap theory. He says that, as we gain information, we are more and more likely to focus on what we do not know. Someone who knows capitals of 50 countries would be proud of their knowledge, but someone who knows the capitals of 170 countries will more likely want to know the capitals of the rest 20+ countries.
Principle 3: Concreteness
Life is not abstract, but more often, the language we speak is abstract, and it gets worse as we move up the ladder. Terms such as liquidity, metacognitive skills, thematic learning are a put-off when it comes to spreading a message and when you want people to act.
“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” is a concrete message. Ideas need to be expressed in human action and sensory information, staying clear of business-speak.
John F Kennedy’s famous moon-shot speech of 1961 can also be expressed as, “Our mission is to become the international leader in the space industry through maximum team-centred innovation and strategically targeted aerospace initiatives”. Or it can be, “Put a man on the moon and return him safely by the end of the decade.”
JFK being a visionary leader, chose the latter. The message is simple and concrete. By speaking in concrete terms, one doesn’t allow a chance for anyone to interpret it differently, the above message means the same thing to everyone, be it the NASA scientists or the US Congress representatives or to the people of the US.
Principle 4: Credibility
Why should people believe in your ideas? Should be the question one needs to answer first. Not everyone has the same level of authority in all the subjects. We associate authority to individuals based on their past actions, their experience.
Some people build credibility by showing numbers, but even numbers do not have credibility when shared by a person who does not have authority in that field. For example, while we believe a physician’s take on health disorders, we do not give the same credibility, when he talks about the fiscal deficit of the economy.
Dan and Chip say, “Sticky ideas have to carry their own credentials. We need ways to help people test our ideas for themselves – a “try before you buy” philosophy for the world of ideas.”
One way of doing this is by adding vivid details that are truthful and meaningful to humans, which symbolize and support the core idea. Including statistics that are in the context of the idea also can help build credibility.
The other famous method is the Sinatra test. If an example passes the Sinatra test, then that one example alone is enough to establish credibility. It traces its origins to Frank Sinatra’s classic “New York New York”, about the life in New York and the chorus sings, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” For it to be successful, one needs to find the Sinatra test relative to the idea.
Principle 5: Emotions
Why should people care about your ideas? By making them feel something. Humans are wired to feel for people, and abstractions do not help in this regard.
Research shows that people are more likely to donate to a single needy individual than to an impoverished region. That is the reason why when funding agencies reach out; they say a specific story of an orphaned kid or someone with health problems in need of money for treatment.
Same emotions do not elicit similar responses across a different set of people. Teenagers may react to one set of emotions differently than adults, so the hard part is figuring out the right feeling to harness for a specific campaign and audience.
Principle 6: Stories
And finally, stories get people to act on ideas. Hearing stories preps us to respond more quickly and effectivity to a situation that is the reason, stories are powerful.
Companies are moving from being case study centric to client story-centric; it is not just a change of title. A story walks through the situation that persisted earlier, the pain points prompting the client to look for solutions, and when the solution provider sensing the business challenges, provides a solution that promises a new normal.
Often master storytellers like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk have used this technique to position their products that promise a new normal and relieves the consumers from unpleasant experiences.
To make an idea stick, it should be a Simple, Unexpected Concrete Credentialed Emotional Story! Now one can observe that it can also be remembered as SUCCESs.
For an idea to last, it should make the audience,
1. Pay attention
2. Understand and remember
5. Be able to act
Are you preparing your next leadership communication or brand message? Read more about the strategic narrative. Read the next post in the Basics of Business Storytelling here.
I am listening to, “Originals: How non-conformists move the world” by Wharton School professor Adam Grant in Audible. In that book, he analyses some of the leaders who made a significant contribution to the world that we live in today. He had picked up anecdotes from different periods which makes it even more exciting.
He analyses Martin Luther King Jr’s famous, “I have a dream” speech. It is one of the path-breaking moments in American history. It is referenced in several leadership communication sessions for how to communicate a vision that has a clear call to action and galvanizes people.
But, Dr.King didn’t utter the “dream” word for the better part of his speech, and it was his friend Mahalia Jackson who shouted from behind, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”. And the rest, as we know, is history.
This speech is an example of how compelling a strategic narrative can be when it is specific it motivates, engages and connects people to a higher purpose. Great leaders use narratives during crisis communication to deliver key message. In business, it is about communicating a company’s strategy or vision in a way that employees can connect their jobs to the overall vision of their company.
Often, companies spend millions in coming up with a strategy once in a few years, and they spend an insane amount of effort to craft customer communications. But how often, the same importance is given to communicate the strategy to their employees?
A typical organization might do an offsite for senior management, few workshops for their top managers across regions. But beyond that?
And, then some bland internal communications emails would be sent to all employees about what is the new vision, which goes something like this.
To be the most efficient service provider on the earth or World-class customer service or To be the preferred partner to world’s leading blah blah blah
To a frontline employee or a mid-level manager, what does To be the most efficient service provider on the earth mean?
How Good is Your Strategy?
According to management thinkers Chip Heath and Dan Heath, “A strategy is, at its core, a guide to behaviour. It comes to life through its ability to influence thousands of decisions, both big and small, made by employees throughout an organization.”
For employees of SouthWest airlines, it could mean deciding on what to be served to passengers on board – peanuts or a chicken salad. Their next question will be, will serving a chicken salad help us become the low-fare airline in this route? If not, then they are not serving that salad.
A good strategy delivers financial success and drives action that differentiates a company in that specific industry. But a bad strategy can result in less differentiation and drag the company down.
When sitting down to formulate a strategy, every leadership team aspires to come up with a great strategy that could deliver them differentiation in the market and inspire their employees to act. It doesn’t happen always.
Strategies may be powerful in a PowerPoint document or on the walls of the organization or in the leadership speeches. Still, if they do not manifest in action, they are inert and irrelevant.
What differentiates a vision statement from being just on the wall to something that inspires people to act is a compelling narrative. A narrative essentially inspires and moves people to act. It is more than off-the-cuff spontaneous storytelling, but a clear and consistent story in every discussion about vision and strategy be it with the leadership team or an employee town hall.
One of the main reason that strategies don’t stick with a broader audience is the way it is communicated, and the prime culprit for the same is leadership’s curse of knowledge.
Curse of Knowledge
Most of us might have experienced this at some point in time in our career. As people move up the ladder, the curse of knowledge afflicts leaders when they try to communicate a strategy to the rest of the organization. It leads executives to talk about strategy as though they were the audience.
When someone uses high-level and abstract matter, you can say that the curse of knowledge afflicts them. The bigger problem is that they are not even aware that they are speaking abstractly.
One can overcome the curse of knowledge by using stories, as it helps to demystify concrete language.
FedEx has an award called Purple Promise which honours employees for making sure FedEx’s delivery promise that packages will “absolutely and positively” arrive overnight.
When a delivery truck broke down in New York, and the replacement van was running late, the FedEx driver after having delivered few packages on foot realized that he might not deliver the other packages on time. But he managed to convince a driver from a competitor to take him on the last few deliveries.
Now this story can be used by a top sales executive to convey, “this is how FedEx employees take the delivery promise seriously”. A new delivery driver can use this story to guide her behaviour that it is not about working from 9 to 5, but it is about getting the packages delivered come what may. The same story could be used by a procurement person to negotiate better maintenance contracts such as the fastest possible maintenance/replacement vehicles for delivery trucks.
Communicating the Strategic Narrative
A strategic narrative is best represented by contrasting the current situation with the promised land. It is a structure that inspiring leaders have used in their speech to inspire, influence and act. This is what Martin Luther King Jr did in his speech as well as Steve Jobs used that in his iPhone launch in 2007.
It consists of four parts,
In the past…..
Then something happened….
So now….. and
In the future….
It addresses the, “Why.”
So, when a sales leader wants to pitch to VP-customer care on their solution, it could go like this.
With one of our clients, their prepaid telecom customers had to wait for 12 minutes before they could speak to the call centre executives, this resulted in bad customer experience, and customers started dropping off their network. Then the client implemented a customer agent intelligence solution that predicts the call volumes of a day and assigns call centre agents by which the customer’s waiting time is reduced to under 1 minute. Now customers are happy, which is resulting in more referral business.
Stories that speak to an organization’s strategy have two parts. The story itself and the moral of the story. It is nice to have both, but if one must choose between the two, choose the story. Because the moral is implicit in the story, but the story is not implied in the moral. And the story with its concrete language, specific protagonists and the real-world setting is more likely to guide behavior.
By using a clever mix of stories and concrete language, leaders can overcome the curse of knowledge and everyone in the organization stands to benefit from a shared understanding of the strategy.
“A hero can be anyone. Even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a young boy’s shoulders to let him know that the world hadn’t ended.”
While we are in no way near to the end of the world, but this is the closest that humankind is witnessing one in several decades.
Organisations big and small are facing a tricky choice of what is to be done during this COVID19 crisis. In my opinion, the most important of them all is, to communicate or to stay silent?
Since saying nothing also says something, the next big question is, what to share? I talked about how storytelling can be used for crisis communication earlier.
People are experiencing a collective crisis; in this situation, sharing their stories becomes more critical than ever. But it also means the story narration needs to be powerful, which connects people as well as creates a positive impact on the people the organisations care for.
Austin Kleon, the author of Show Your Work, a book on creative process writes: “The stories you tell about the work you do have a huge effect on how people feel and what they understand about your work.”
For a health care organisation or a telecom service provider, this is a time when their services are most needed, and people are looking for their best efforts to treat them and help them connected to work respectively.
But what about those people who are behind these organisations? They are in the midst of a life-threatening situation. Their health, personal lives, work conditions are no more the same.
Organisations have to adjust the way they have told their stories about how their work has been making an impact on the lives of people. It also calls for a change in the ways to find and share stories.
Here are three ways to find and share stories. An organisation can use it to communicate and create an impact on its employees and clients.
1. Invite Stories From Your Employees and Clients on Their Experiences
If your organisation doesn’t have a story culture, this is a perfect time to start one. Let the founder or the CEO launch this initiative with an invite to employees and clients to share their experiences. In parallel, it is best to have a team that consists of leaders from the HR, marketing and client teams. Check and filter these stories for sensitivity and relevance.
If done well, this initiative will help organisations to demonstrate their culture, which clients make a note of and directly helps in employer branding too. I have found several employees and organisations already sharing their experiences via different social media platforms and more prominently on Linkedin.
2. Show How Your Organisation’s Values Are Lived Through
I found this quote of Maya Angelou apt for a story that my friend shared, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
My friend got a call from his client, a Senior VP of IT for a large healthcare provider. “Adam, the way you guys responded to the situation by being proactive in your communication and being transparent with us during these times makes you and your organisation stand out. I didn’t expect anything less from you after having worked with you for the past couple of years. Do not lose this quality.”
Trust and customer commitment are two of the core values of the organisation to which Adam belongs too. Is there a better way to live by?
Some organisations’ values are nothing but that adorns a wall, while for some like Adam’s, you can see their values in action. This makes for a great story of how people are demonstrating and living the company’s core values.
Find and share stories of how your culture shines in times of adversity, people can connect with them, and it is a great way to engage even your detractors.
3. Collaborate with Clients and Competition to Share Stories that Make an Impact
This situation also provides an excellent opportunity to work with your clients beyond the usual business teams and engage with extended stakeholders such as their Marcom and HR.
In times of crisis, there is more to say, but there are fewer resources to do that. A better option is to join forces and create shared content between organisations that have common values. When going down this path, make sure stories are simple, credible and delivered with an emotional appeal.
Collaboration with clients and competition can happen in different forms. With clients, it could be about the joint impact your frontline staffs are making to keep the services normal in this unusual times (for ex. Telecom service providers and their partners) or how both the organisations are rising to the occasion by risking lives (for ex. Hospitals and their service providers).
With competition, it could be as an industry you are facing a life and death situation (ex. Airline industry) and this opportunity calls for collaboration to share stories of what you are going through.
Here is an example of how India’s Airline players had a coordinated humour exchange while going through the pain of staying grounded!
We are social animals, but when social distancing is the name of the game, there is only animal spirit left in us. To keep that spirit alive and kicking, we must connect and share the commonalities in our hopes and dreams.
Stories bind us together across cultures and centuries. It helps us to make sense of our world when our world doesn’t make sense.
How is your organisation communicating through this crisis? Have you explored storytelling yet? If not, it is time to start out!
I will remember the last few weeks as one of the longest, hardest and most turbulent of my career. Even though I had experienced the 2008 financial crisis when I was in my mid-20s, what as a world we are undergoing now is beyond comparison. But this situation also offers an unparalleled opportunity to showcase leadership capabilities, to put all their professional experience and training gained over the years to test. Every day, we have a choice – either hide and not be heard or be at the forefront and battle it out to live another day. Leaders belong to the second category.
Leadership Communication to Focus on the WHY
Viktor Frankl’s, “Man’s search for meaning” is a brilliant classic that talks about his struggle for survival in Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps during World War II. Throughout the book, he emphasizes on the most crucial attribute that offered him hope. It was about looking forward to the greater meaning and purpose of his life.
There is a reason why some organizations have survived 100 years and are leaders in their field. And the reason is simple. They were able to stay true to their purpose and communicate it over the years to their employees, customers and partners.
Leaders who can march their troops towards the greater meaning the organization stands for will emerge less scathed after this pandemic. One great way is to pick stories either from the organization’s past or the one that the leader has undergone herself. The founding story or the challenge plot could be best suited for this situation.
Choosing the Right Narrative
Remember the David and Goliath story, it is a challenge plot where the protagonist overcomes a formidable challenge and succeeds. This plot addresses the triumph of sheer willpower by overcoming adversity. The current context also provides an opportunity to redefine the purpose for a greater deed.
When the Iraq war started, Floyd Lee was a retired marine corps and army cook after a twenty-five-year career. He came out of retirement to serve the army one more time. He was in charge of the Pegasus Chow hall outside the Baghdad airport. The usual army food is just about what one would expect, bland, overcooked with less focus on quality and taste but massive on quantity.
But Lee wanted to make a difference to the soldiers’ world when they enter into the Pegasus hall. He made his mission and that of Pegasus team’s mission as, “I am not just in charge of food service; I am in charge of morale”. This vision manifested in hundreds of small actions taken by the staff of Pegasus hall on a daily basis.
Inspite of the same raw material that every army mess received, at Pegasus, the food was prepared with so much care. The prime rib was perfectly prepared; the fruit platter had a beautiful assortment of watermelon, kiwi and grapes, the desert serving included a strawberry cake. “The time you are in here, you forget you’re in Iraq”, said a soldier after a Sunday dinner.
By redefining the mission of the Pegasus mess hall, Floyd Lee inspired his team to create an oasis in the desert. This is a more opportune time to redefine the narrative within the organisation to look at the bigger picture, to share with the team how their work is making impact-it could mean sharing your client feedback or how competition is failing but your organisation is continuing to support and that is all making a huge difference.
As a leader or manager, pick up the right story, the one that includes a challenge plot, overcoming the monster/adversity type, wrap that in the current context and be sure to deliver it with emotion. Challenge plots are inspiring; they appeal to our perseverance and courage. They make us want to work harder, take on new challenges and overcome obstacles. Challenge plots inspire us to act.
Three Steps to Power Your Communication with Storytelling
Start collecting stories – Personal anecdotes, reading books, story listening
Stories need to be simple & credible
Practice and seek feedback
To be good at stories, one needs to start collecting them. Stories can be from your personal experience; books are another source where one can find a wealth of stories; the other way is by listening to business leaders talks and interviews or from peer groups. From all these sources, one can find a good collection of stories that would apply to different contexts. The next step is to organize by categorizing them for different situations and topics. It helps in picking the right story for a specific context and topic.
Keeping it Simple and Credible
In a business context, telling a fictional story may not work as it lacks credibility and for lack of context. And stories are to be kept simple as you don’t want ambiguity or people taking different connotations. For example, Southwest airlines core principle is “We are the low fare airline”. This simple message guides their staffs in making everyday decisions. By latching on to authorities in the subject or by using compelling details/statistics (without losing the simplicity aspect), one can establish credibility.
Practice and Feedback
Before communicating to a broader audience, it is always good to share the story with a test audience to observe their reactions and asking them what they remembered, what questions they have for you. If they ask the right questions and share the takeaways that you had intended, that’s a good sign that the message is working.
Leadership in hard times means focusing on the most critical problems we face; it is also about making sense of the big picture. By aligning purpose, performance and organizational principles, business leaders can lead their organizations through this crisis with less damage. This could be achieved by reminding us about the shared purpose, which is why inspiring leaders have always used to storytelling to inspire, influence and engage.
When we look back, throughout civilisation, stories and storytelling have existed as a form of communication. It was used as a primary channel to pass one’s experiences. Stories still play a vital role, but as we grow up, we start to believe that stories can only be in the form of fiction work. At the workplace, we call someone a story master for their use of stories to get creative excuses. But we often forget the fact that stories can be a powerful medium to set the context or to get people connected to a value or belief. Influential leaders have used storytelling to drive their message and inspire action. Business leaders are now looking up to storytelling to communicate their vision and to influence change.
The Science Behind Stories
When reading or listening to a great story, haven’t we all got transported to the specific scene in the story? The scene could be from a novel, a movie, or it could be your colleague talking about the sales pitch made for a client.
What if I said, there is science behind this experience? Based on research Princeton neuroscientist Uri Hasson says, “a story is the only way to activate parts in the brain so that a listener turns the story into their own idea and experience.” As a team member, a manager or as a sales lead, when you want to influence or inspire someone to act – use storytelling. Storytelling has science behind it.
Lani Peterson, in her Harvard Business Review article The science behind the art of storytelling says, “Scientists are discovering that chemicals like Cortisol, Dopamine and Oxytocin are released in the brain when we’re told a story. Why does that matter? If we are trying to make a point stick, cortisol assists with our formulating memories. Dopamine, which helps regulate our emotional responses, keeps us engaged. When it comes to creating deeper connections with others, oxytocin is associated with empathy, an important element in building, deepening or maintaining good relationships.” When you use storytelling principles, Oxytocin, Dopamine and Endorphin could be your friend. And, by controlling the trigger of Cortisol, you can use it to your advantage!
Stories Create Purpose and Drive Action
People get onto crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter, Milaap to share their purpose – the “WHY”. By sharing it, they believe the general public will be able to get connected with their mission which can influence them to become donors for their cause. The fundraisers usually use one or the other form of stories to communicate the purpose. Amanda Palmer, an independent musician from New Zealand used Kickstarter to generate funds for her music album. Watch out how she conveys “the WHY” in this video,
Stories Transfer Values and Beliefs on the Audience
The critical aspect of making people act is when your values and beliefs become theirs and a shared one. Stories have a long history of having played a vital role to create shared values & beliefs. The easiest way to do this is by showing them why you started believing in those values & beliefs. This element can be particularly powerful when a CEO wants to communicate the organisation’s values. A salesperson can use stories to convey what his product stands for – the values behind the product idea. That could be a differentiator, as there is a higher purpose for the buyer to relate.
In his HBR article, Peter Guber, a renowned American filmmaker & entrepreneur, shares how he managed to get the late Cuban President Fidel Castro’s permission to film in Havana’s harbour. It’s a known fact that Fidel Castro considered the US as his enemy. Peter achieved this by invoking the values and beliefs Castro had for Cuba’s heritage and history and how, as a filmmaker, Peter is trying to highlight some of those aspects without invading Cuba’s privacy. This approach got the Cuban President to allow the crew to film anywhere in Havana’s harbour more than what Peter had wanted for his shoot.
Stories Engage the Audience Beyond Facts
The general belief is that facts engage and drive decisions, but the truth is facts help us base our arguments, but when it comes to making decisions, it’s based on the story. As per a 3M note, humans can process images 60,000 times faster than texts. Influential leaders wrap their facts with an influencing narrative and deliver with emotion. While data appeals to only one part of the brain, when we read or listen to a story, along with the language parts getting fired up, other parts of the brain also fire up.
Smart brands use storytelling techniques in the way they present, advertise their products or services to their target audience for quite some time now. Nielsen, the leading market research firm notes, “Ninety-two per cent of consumers around the world say they trust earned media, such as word-of-mouth or recommendations from friends and family, above all other forms of advertising.”
People like to do business with people they know, trust and like. So how to get customers to know a brand and love it? With the proliferation of social media, user-generated content is one key element which brands are using it to connect with their audience through their existing customers and influencers. We look for validation of their decisions and look forward to getting identified with fellow cohorts. Airbnb uses customer-centric storytelling as one of the ways to connect with people and improve brand loyalty.
This advertisement from Coco-Cola creates an emotional connect and to drive their message. Who wouldn’t want to part of that story?
Stories Provide Relevance & Set the Context
Great business leaders and marketers create personas of their audience to help them to decide. Personas help businesses to stay relevant to the audience they are catering to. As we can see from the Kickstarter campaign of Amanda, she sets the context early in her video. Which makes sure that whoever watching it can relate to her struggle and the values she stands for. She then moves on to provide the context of her current campaign, which is about independent music and the art she believes in.
By using stories to set the context, inductions programs in organisations can be made more impactful. New joiners are eager to understand what their organisation aspires for and how they could contribute towards that. What better way to achieve that than take them through a story of why the organisation came into existence and the current stage of the journey?
Stories Increase Employee Efficiency and Engagement
The difference between a great company and a mediocre
company is about people. To be a successful organisation, it needs to have an
engaged workforce that is contributing to its fullest potential at work. But
surveys highlight that disengaged employees is on the rise. With the growth of
the millennial workforce, organisations are struggling to keep them engaged and
David MacLeod and Nita Clarke through their
research have found four enablers for successful employee engagement. The first
among that is Strategic Narrative. It is about
leaders using storytelling to connect, engage and inspire the workforce. In
essence, these stories could be founder stories, customer impact stories,
employee impact stories, leader specific stories to name a few.
Compelling narratives have an emotional context, and it helps in humanising dry employee communication. As a next step, employees should be encouraged to share their stories to get this into an organisation-wide initiative. Innovative organisations stand out for using these enablers to improve employee engagement.
Data is Not Memorable, but Stories Make Data Impactful
How often do we see presentations where some statistics
are referred, and we ask, “So what?”. Statistics are
often forgettable when they are presented as plain-vanilla numbers, but when
speakers used stories to present a data point, the retention rate increased to
a whopping 65-70%, says research by Stanford University.
Stanford Professor Jennifer Aaker says“When data and stories are used together they resonate with audiences both intellectually and emotionally, for a lasting effect you need to persuade the rational brain but also resonate with the emotional brain.” Data-rich presentations can be made impactful with the help of narratives and visuals.
Stories Support Decision Making & Business Decisions are Not Purely Logical
As they say, analytics inform while emotions compel.
That’s how humans, in general, and business leaders make decisions. A study by Fortune Knowledge group and Gyro conducted with
700+ business executives concludes that 65% (almost two-third) of the
executives consider subjective factors making an influence in deciding on
competing proposals. So what gives them that comfort to rely on the
unquantifiable factors? It is the stories that they have heard about the culture
and values of the organisations or individuals.
Stories connect, when data is delivered in an emotional context, we are better in making decisions.
Stories are Memorable and Sticky
Are you at ease to recollect Newton’s 2nd law vs the hare and the tortoise story? We would have read the hare and tortoise story during our primary school days, while Newton’s 2nd law is more recent, read in 8th to 10th grade. Majority of us would have remembered the tortoise story much faster than Newton’s 2nd law, even though we studied Newton’s 2nd law more recently. Need further proof for stories being sticky and memorable?
Professors Chip and Dan Heath in their insightful book, Made to stick: Why some ideas survive and other die, argue, “Business speakers seem to believe that once they have clicked through a PowerPoint presentation showcasing their conclusions, they have successfully communicated their ideas. What they have done is shared data. They are often surprised to find that nothing they said had an impact. They haven’t created ideas that are useful or lasting. Nothing stuck.”
before paper and computers came along, we were communicating, and our grandma
stories have travelled through generations. So when you decide to make your
next presentation, do remember to share a couple of anecdotes – science &
history proves that anecdotes might last longer than the data points you share.
Storytelling is a Competitive Advantage
Apple stood out even among the users of competition products for one big reason. That’s Steve Jobs -the master storyteller the tech world has ever seen. Apple product launches are as much about the stories as it is about the products itself. Jobs was a gifted storyteller; the accounts of struggle users were having with tech products connected with his customers so well. His narratives crafted Apple’s product benefits with how it makes life easier for the users. Steve Jobs is no more, but his stories and the influence he created with product launches will remain. That’s a competitive advantage any business leader wants for his/her product or service.
today realise the importance of storytelling, and it is difficult to find a
brand that is successful but doesn’t have a good story behind it. Stories come
naturally to humans as it provides meaning, creates context and evokes a sense
of purpose. As humans, we yearn for empathy, which is what stories offer, and
it helps us to relate, empathise and remember.
Do you practice storytelling in your organisation? If not, its time you start.