As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, it is an opportune time to look at how storytelling influences action. As leaders, our ability to tell a story and to relate that story to our listeners can move mountains.
It is important to have a vision. It is important to have a point-of-view. But if you are unable to communicate that vision or point-of-view or the need for change, then your impact is lost. Effective leaders turn to story telling – not as in “once upon a time” but rather by setting the stage with “this could be you”.
Metaphors, stories, similes, and fables – they all serve to communicate a point by creating a vision within one’s mind. Influential narratives tap into one or more of our human emotions. The more connected a story is with its audience, the more impact the story will have in communicating its message, moral, or lesson.
Stories that are aligned with our collective human experiences tend to hit their mark. Think about the stories that resonate with you. You can see yourself as a part of this story – either as the main character or a close observer. Stories that hit the mark include the listener in the “play”.
Ever read any of Patrick Lencioni’s books? His lessons are conveyed through fables. He brings the reader into the story by weaving behaviors with concepts. We know people like this. We work with people like this. We observe people like this. We identify with the story being told and the lessons being taught. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team is a great example of this technique.
As I introduce my clients to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI), I share an experience where a team member and I were not seeing “eye to eye” on a long-ago collaborative effort. (For those of you who may not have been exposed to this tool, the MBTI identifies one’s preferences on 4 different scales: how we gather data, organize information, make decisions, and the source from where we get our energy.)
She was looking at the project in one way – while I was seeing something different. The more we worked “together”, the greater our frustrations with each other grew. During this same time, we both attended a leadership workshop where we were introduced to the MBTI.
Based on our learnings, my colleague and I found that we were total opposites with regard to our types. No wonder we were having such difficulties working together! Once we realized this was our issue – and once we realized how each of us contributed to the project – we were then able to blend our different styles and produce a piece of work that exceeded our individual expectations.
Now, I could stand in front of the room and reel off a list of the benefits of the MBTI, but this story reaches into each audience member and reminds them of a time when they might have had conflict with a fellow team member. My story becomes their story as they replace the players and the situation with their own self and their conflict. As the door opens for shared emotion, the mind readies to receive the information one is communicating.
You can communicate facts and theories ad nauseum. But most minds will easily recall those facts and theories when they are part of a memorable story.
Tania Luna’s TED talk, “How a penny made me feel like a millionaire”, is a shining example of how story paints a picture for the listener. As she describes her challenging upbringing, she could have easily recounted the facts: a victim of Chernobyl, emigration to the United States, living in a homeless shelter, married to a husband who suffered an equally challenging upbringing. Instead, her story (in which she shared all of these facts) describes seeing the world as one of hope – with gratitude – where a homeless shelter is a hotel, a piece of Bazooka bubble gum transforms, and a shoebox can be home to a treasure trove of protectors. It is a memorable story indeed.
Nonthreatening by design
Stories serve as a comparative platform. Leaders wishing to influence behavior use stories to describe a similar circumstance and the consequence of desirable (or undesirable) outcomes. Can the telling of a story reward positive behavior and correct negative behavior?
Forbes contributor, Dan Schawbel, in his article, “How to Use Storytelling as a Leadership Tool” writes,
“You can’t … successfully order people to ‘follow the rules’ because nobody reads the rulebook. But people will read a good story about a guy who broke the rules and got fired, or a woman who followed the rules and got a raise. And that would be more effective than reading the rulebook anyway.”
I use the Simmons Personal Survey with many of my clients. As the client and I discuss his/her results, I often use a story designed to communicate a specific message in a nonthreatening manner. Case in point –
Some survey respondents have an extremely high self-esteem score. While there is no wrong score on the survey, symptoms of this high score in action might be that the individual deflects feedback. And as we know, accepting feedback is the primary pathway for prompting improvement.
In the past, I have experienced respondents who deflect feedback during my review of this very score. When I warn the individual that others with this high self-esteem score tend to deflect feedback, the response is most often “Yes, I know – but not me.” We then have a good chuckle when I point out that the individual has just then deflected the feedback.
As I share this story during my survey debriefs, both the respondent and I smile, but the point is made – in a nonthreatening way.
How good are you at storytelling? And how do you get better?
Some may think that storytellers are impromptu wordsmiths whose mental and verbal capabilities allow them to conjure these stories from thin air at a moment’s notice. However, a truly good story is one that is slaved over – word for word – and practiced – over and over – until it is spoken with ease. An artful communicator’s “spontaneity” is actually the result of hours of preparation. That is the first lesson in storytelling.
In The Story Factor: Inspiration, Influence, and Persuasion through the Art of Storytelling, Annette Simmons lists six types of stories one will need to influence others.
- Who I Am – This is the first place to begin gaining trust. Openness about your vulnerabillities bridges the gap between unknown to known and the unconnected to the connected.
- Why I Am Here – Remember Theodore Roosevelt’s words,
“Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.”
- The Vision – The opportunity is to communicate a vision so others may clearly see and connect to the intended outcome.
“I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
- Teaching – Effective teaching stories get to the how AND the why. Knowing the why provides the listener with a way to apply the new learning in a broader manner.
- Values-in-Action – What are the behaviors that exhibit the values? The values stories are compelling – clear illustration of right versus wrong.
- I Know What You Are Thinking – These stories acknowledge the “elephant in the room”. The storyteller’s opportunity is to address that elephant so the issue may “lumber out”, and the air is then cleared for absorbing what is to come.
As you craft these six, and other, stories, also think about the nonverbal portion of the delivery. It is more than just the stories’ words that hit their mark. Effective storytelling incorporates appropriate tone, inflection, gesturing, and timing.
“When you speak, words are less than 15 percent of what listeners ‘hear’.”
– Annette Simmons
We all benefit from storytelling. We are mesmerized when a great storyteller says, “I want to tell you a story.” Therefore, the purpose of this article is to spur your thought processes regarding this art. With preparation and practice, we can connect, inspire, influence and persuade as we draw a picture in our listeners’ minds.
What are your go-to stories? What is their reach? And where do you go to search for your content? I would enjoy hearing about your experiences.
“Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today.”
– Robert McKee
We read many articles today about the critical part that failure plays in an individual’s success. I am not saying that you are successful if you fail – what I am saying is that taking the risks and embracing the failures from those risks that maybe didn’t pan out will place you on the path toward success.
Take a look back on your career and ask yourself, “When have I failed?” If your answer is “Never”, you:
- Are incredibly lucky (which I don’t think anyone is all that lucky),
- Are not being honest with yourself (you see failure as a negative), or
- Have never “jumped out there” and taken a risk.
I am a fan of risk taking. Not the Evil Knievel jumping the Grand Canyon type of risk or the putting your company or country at risk for your own personal gain, but the educated, well thought out steps into the unknown that result in a change to the status quo. For you see, that is what risk taking does. Regardless of the venture’s success or failure, one becomes a bit different as each risk is taken.
So – what do you miss if you stay in the “safe zone”?
Every new endeavor comes with lessons. Think back to the adage, “What did you get when you didn’t get what you wanted?” Yes – all together now … “Experience.” And that experience equates to learning. What worked? What didn’t work? How will I improve next time? What will I NOT do again?
2. An Enhancement of Your Self Confidence
If you don’t try, you won’t know if you can do it or not. And if you try, you will either succeed (and therefore feel much better about yourself) or fail (and therefore learn from it [see #1 above]). It is truly a “win-win.”
Sometimes being forced is the best way to take a risk. Case in point:
A few years ago I participated in a team-building workshop with approximately 20 other colleagues. I had worked with these folks for several years and knew them all well – at least in an office/classroom environment. I was invited to join the group for an outdoor team-building event. I was feeling very confident since I had just completed a similar event (so I thought) and I quickly said yes (self-assured that “I already knew the answers.”)
Fast forward to the day of the workshop. First warning sign that “trouble” might be brewing: our start time was 5:30 am on a Saturday. (My philosophy: sleep is the ONLY activity that should be occurring at 5:30 am on a Saturday morning!) Second warning sign: each participant was asked by the company facilitating the event to sign a waiver. (Hmmmm.) Third warning sign: we hop on a bus and drive for a couple of hours to reach the event location – tucked in the mountains of central Puerto Rico. And then – it started to rain.
I will spare you the graphic details. But I will say that I experienced close to every human emotion that exists. This workshop was not the calm, subdued event I had just experienced. (You know, the one for which I had all the answers.) Instead, it was filled with team challenges – with each seeming to be more difficult than the previous. The backward trust fall, scaling a wall, being passed through a rope web, a team plank walk in the mud … and for the final challenges … a zip line and then rappelling down a 250-foot cliff. And all of this happened as it rained and rained and rained.
The team activities (up to the zip line challenge) buoyed my confidence in “the spirit of team.” However the zip line and rappelling were solo acts. No team member to share the load. I was committed now and there was no turning back (regardless of what my brain was telling me.) I had to take the first step into the “risk arena.” “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” I asked myself. Well, it’s best not to recall my answer.
So off I went on the zip line. Not the smoothest or fastest ride … but I did it! Not knowing what was next, I basked in my increased self-confidence. Then, turning the corner, I faced the rappelling activity. Again with a deep breath and an anxious look at my cheering colleagues 250 feet below, I angled out over the edge. As I focused on maintaining the proper position, I realized I was doing it. I was rappelling!
I will be the first to say that I never would have knowingly volunteered to do this. But I am so happy I completed the activities. The rush of adrenaline from overcoming my fear buoyed me for the rest of the day and beyond.
I wasn’t the best or the fastest that day, but I certainly did learn and my confidence grew. Taking a risk leads to increased self confidence which leads to taking another risk which leads to further increased self confidence, etc., etc., etc. It’s a perpetual cycle.
3. Opportunities for Personal and Professional Growth
To achieve your long-range plans – to meet your objectives – to fulfill your mission, you must take risks.
No Risk = Status Quo
If you want the future to look different than today, you must take the risks that will get you there. To earn a promotion, added responsibilities, an increase in salary, or an opportunity to lead a new project, risk taking is required. You must step outside of your comfort zone. You must prepare yourself to trust that first step and then to realize that propelling yourself forward will result in your fulfillment.
Holding yourself back IS holding you back.
Take a risk. Be open to feedback. Embrace failure if it didn’t work out as you expected it to and then try again – in a new and improved way.
For the risk averse, how do you start?
- Take small steps. Challenge yourself to complete one activity that you believe is risky. You may be successful – you may not be. But keep on going. Analyze the results of the first risky step – then move to the second – and then the third. Don’t bite off a huge piece of risk at the beginning. Small risks add up. Soon your comfort level increases to bigger risks.
- Volunteer to do something out of your comfort zone. Mentally prepare for this activity by doing a visioning exercise or rehearsing. Answer the question, “what’s the worst that could happen?” Running through those scenarios will help you realize that even failing will not be detrimental or “earth shattering.”
- Celebrate the act of risk taking. Acknowledge your progress. Look back at your growth. Take pride in your accomplishments.
Leaders take risks. Some might work – some might not. That’s ok. Leaders take risks.
As Theodore Roosevelt said during his April 1920 speech at the Sorbonne in Paris, France:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
– Excerpted from “Citizenship In A Republic”
Creativity counts. Organizational leaders who generate environments that encourage creative thought excel in today’s global marketplace. And it is our responsibility to bring creative thought into our projects and our teams.
In the August 12, 2012, Fast Company article, “If Miles Davis Taught Your Office to Improvise”, Frank J. Barrett wrote,
“Nurturing spontaneity, creativity, experimentation, and dynamic synchronization is no longer an optional approach to leadership. It’s the only approach.”
Some see creativity as a natural-born talent – an attribute of the few. But let’s expand our mindset and think of creativity as a skill we can build – regardless of our position or our occupation.
Creativity is in all of us – just expressed in different ways. We easily see creativity in famous artists of all dimensions – music, theater, dance, athletics, architecture, etc. But we often refuse to see the creativity in ourselves.
In addition, our self-talk often works against us. Have you ever said, “I’m just not that creative”?
Our job is to regain the confidence of your creative youth. David Kelley, founder and chair of IDEO (a legendary design firm known for many design innovations including the first mouse), spoke of building “creative confidence” at a Ted conference on design in March 2012.
“I really believe that when people gain … [creative] confidence … they actually start working on the things that are really important in their lives. We see people quit what they’re doing and go in new directions. We see them come up with more interesting, and just more, ideas so they can choose from better ideas. And they just make better decisions.”
So – how do you awaken the creativity within?
Censure your censor
“The fact is, almost all of the research in this field shows that anyone with normal intelligence is capable of doing some degree of creative work. Creativity depends on a number of things: experience, including knowledge and technical skills; talent; an ability to think in new ways; and the capacity to push through uncreative dry spells. Intrinsic motivation — people who are turned on by their work often work creatively — is especially critical.”
– “The 6 Myths of Creativity” (An interview with Teresa Amabile), Bill Breen. Fast Company. December 1, 2004
You know that little voice inside of you. The one that says, “I am not.” Well, stop it! Silence the doubter.
You do have creative juices running through you. You just might not have expressed them as of yet. Or maybe you have suppressed them.
Listen to your self-talk. And if you are telling yourself no … then turn that into yes.
Give yourself space
“Even the outline of a box can influence creativity. … Our team examined the originality of ideas among 104 students at Singapore Management University. First we showed students pictures of objects made of Lego blocks. Then we asked them to think of original uses for the objects, either while walking along a fixed rectangular path indicated by duct tape on the floor (marking out an area of about 48 square feet) or by walking freely as they wished. The differences were striking: students who walked freely were better at generating creative uses for the objects — coming up with over 25 percent more original ideas.”
– “When Truisms are True,” Suntae Kim, Evan Polman, and Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks. New York Times Sunday Review. February 25, 2012
One of the myths about creativity is that most creative thought occurs in a pressure cooker environment. To me, pressure constricts thought. So, if your thoughts are constricted, your creativity is nullified.
Set your mind free. Allow yourself the time to be creative. Walk away. Wander around with your mind. Follow your thoughts wherever they lead. Gain perspective by talking with others. Think “outside the box.”
Connect the dots
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.”
– “Steve Jobs: The Next Insanely Great Thing” (An interview with Steve Jobs). Wired. Issue 4.02. February 1996.
Stretch your mind by making connections – not just between common pairings (pen and paper, glass and water). Start making connections between uncommon pairings (a horse and a road sign, a tea bag and a shoe). Silly – you may think. But, when you force yourself to think about connecting two very dissimilar objects, you begin to unleash your creative mind.
Stick with this connection exercise. You will find that once you start, it becomes easier to make associations among dissimilar objects. You become more comfortable with your thoughts. They are no longer silly … they are the beginning of alternate views … the foundation for better quality decision-making.
As you consider creativity, allow Kelley’s words of wisdom to frame your new paradigm.
“It would be really great if you didn’t let people divide the world into the creatives and the non-creatives, like it’s some God-given thing, and to have people realize that they’re naturally creative. And those natural people should let their ideas fly. “
So – how are a horse and a road sign similar? I would love to hear your thoughts!
I had the spectacular opportunity to visit the Hoover Dam in early February 2012. While gazing down on the Colorado River on one side and Lake Mead on the other, I could not help but wonder about the minds and leadership skills of the people who determined that this dam would solve problems created by a raging river … and that construction of this structure could be accomplished regardless of water, mountains, and rock. Was the design and building of the Hoover Dam a result of the “leadership elements” of creativity, innovation, and vision?
An example of collaboration of state and federal governments and private enterprises, the construction of the Hoover Dam is a marvel of engineering embedded in the magnificence of a vast vista. (Photos do not do it justice!)
The structure is 726.4 feet high; 1,244 feet across at the top; 660 feet thick at the base; 45 feet thick at the top; weighs 6.6 million tons and contains 3.25 million cubic yards of concrete in the dam, itself – not counting the concrete in the other structures.
The dam was built to serve a four-fold purpose: flood control; regulation of irrigation flow; power generation; and silt storage.
With a $49,000,000 contract award to Six Companies Incorporated, work began on the construction of the dam in April 1931. President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the dam in September 1935. Operation of the first power generator began October 1936. Five years to create “one of the seven modern civil engineering wonders of the United States” – as named by the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1955. (By the way, the dam was completed ahead of schedule and under budget.)
So where did creativity and innovation come in to play? Some examples –
- The creation of Boulder City, Nevada – the company town where 80 percent of the company employees lived during the construction period; designed as a model company town with green space and recreational areas.
- The drilling of four huge tunnels through solid rock in order to divert the Colorado River around the dam site while excavation for the foundation was underway and until the massive concrete barrier was partially erected.
- Construction of 30 miles of railroad track (a private and federal government collaboration) for the transportation of materials and equipment.
- The use of a refrigeration plant to cool the poured concrete reducing the concrete cooling period from 125 years to 20 months and enabling the grout to be poured without threat of the dam cracking.
- The building and use of ten aerial cableways spanning the Black Canyon constructed to transport men, materials and machinery up and down canyon walls.
- The power plant construction process where the structure was erected with materials lowered from 600 feet above the ground instead of being raised from ground level.
Should you be thinking … “So what? This was just a construction project.” … remember the climate – remember the location – remember the times.
And who were the visionaries? I am sure many contributed. However, three stand out to me.
- Arthur P. Davis, Director of the U. S. Reclamation Service in 1918, proposed the concept of controlling the Colorado River through the building of a dam in Boulder or Black Canyons between the Arizona-Nevada borders. He envisioned the possibility of power as an aid to enterprise, and he proposed a dam of unprecedented height and a reservoir of unprecedented capability.
- Frank T. Crowe, general superintendent of Six Companies Incorporated, was responsible for carrying through the details of the contract. A veteran dam builder, this was Crowe’s biggest challenge.
- S. R. DeBoer, landscape architect from Denver, Colorado, was commissioned to design Boulder City. His original plan to have a “garden city” was looked upon with derision, but later implemented in 1932 by landscaper William Weed.
Visitors to the Hoover Dam view monuments on the Nevada side honoring the dam’s designers, builders, and workers. Etched onto the stone base of the American flag is the following dedication quote:
“It is fitting that the flag of our country should fly here in honor of those men who, inspired by a vision of lonely lands made fruitful, conceived this great work and of those others whose genius and labor made that vision a reality.”
I’d be interested to know if you agree with the Hoover Dam as an example of creativity, innovation and vision. And – what are your examples of these three “leadership elements” at work?
- The Story of the Hoover Dam. Booklets compiled from Compressed Air Magazine, 1931-1935. Las Vegas, Nevada: Nevada Publications.