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April 15, 2012, Sunday

‘The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling’

In “The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling,” author Stephen Denning gives tips for mastering the use of narratives in the business field. There is no school of storytelling, so business people have no easy way to master the art.

However, stories are the most important communication tools, and it is difficult to become an effective manager or leader without being able to tell them. A good speech always motivates people and a good speech usually includes a powerful story.

Stories are very effective in conveying meaning. Stories can spark action: they can change people’s behavior, build a person’s identity or create a corporate culture for a company. If you want to get an organization to embrace a new technology, you might tell stories about individuals elsewhere who have successfully implemented it, without giving the specific details of implementation. In order to create trust, leaders tell their life stories: who they are, where they’ve come from, why they hold the views they do. Life stories need colorful details and context. The brands and reputations of companies are also built on the stories of the companies and their people. Companies grow on the positive stories that are in the minds of customers. Stories can be used to transmit company values like honesty, customer satisfaction and quality orientation. Honesty, customer satisfaction and quality orientation are abstract concepts and writing them on the walls of a company does not guarantee full comprehension. But stories draw life pictures of abstract concepts. When you tell a story about solving a customer complaint, the audience can understand in their hearts and minds. At the same time, stories can be shared to share specific knowledge. The stories told with a future perspective can prepare the minds of audiences for the challenges of the future.

Denning also tells us what doesn’t work in storytelling. Using a story with a negative tone will fail to spark action. Personal stories seem unlikely to spark action, either. Success stories motivate in general, but they give less detail about the problems on the way and possible solutions. Denial of a rumor can make it seem true; however, satire can ridicule an untrue rumor out of existence. Using detailed scenarios about the future sets people up to be disappointed because predicting the future in detail and succeeding in fulfilling this prediction 100% is almost impossible.

There are four key elements of storytelling performance: style, truth, preparation and delivery.

Among the many styles of storytelling, the one most suitable for modern organizations is a style that is plain, simple and direct. There are also other options. One of them is the romantic style, which uses emotions and analogies. Thus, at the start of the Macintosh era, Steve Jobs used stories based on the conflict of good and evil to invigorate his team, describing the world in terms similar to those used in the movie Star Wars: “If we do not succeed,” forecast Jobs, “IBM (the dark side) will be the master of the world.”

In storytelling the truth is the most important element, in my opinion. If you speak the truth, it is the strongest structure that you can lean on and that nobody can destroy. The truth liberates the mind and the story teller. The truth about the market, the truth about the company, the truth about people – all these might be hard to tell or hear, but without these stories we can not proceed.

Preparation is a must. Preparing the story, choosing the necessary parts and excluding unnecessary parts and details, and finding the right tone of voice, gestures and body language are all critical in the preparation process. The author underlines the importance of spontaneity, at the same time. He says: “Be rehearsed, but spontaneous.”

The last element is the delivery of the story. Using your body language, creating a good tone of voice, choosing the right place to stand and using objects and visual aids are important parts of delivery. The audience and their sensitivities are also important. The storyteller should not offend the audience.

Denning gives many examples of storytelling from IBM’s Lou Gerstner to Hewlett-Packard’s Carly Fiorina. Beyond its useful information, “The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling” is a fun read.

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