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Mastering the three "I's" of storytelling

Allen Schoer
Allen Schoer is founder and CEO of The TAI Group, a boutique consulting firm pioneering new directions in executive leadership and organizational change.

This article continues the series begun last Thursday with "From CEO to chief story teller: Part one, the challenge."

You're on the road to becoming your company's Chief Story Teller. Let's begin with the good news: You're already better than you might think. Here, we'll explore three capabilities that will help you become a pro.

I'm so confident about your abilities for one reason: you tell stories every day. When you come home, how often do you start with something like: "You won't believe what happened today...?"

As you begin even a simple conversation with a spouse or a friend, you hook your listener's imagination with a colorful detail while monitoring his or her response. With every step, your body becomes more expressive. Instinctively telling your story and observing the reaction you're having, you search for maximum impact.

Remember the "Three R's" of your early education: reading, writing, and 'rithmetic? Now consider the "three I's" of storytelling: invitation, imagination, and impact. Here's how you can master them.

Invitation. Remember Steve Jobs' famous invitation to Pepsi's then-CEO John Sculley when he lured him to Apple with: "Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?" Engage your listeners by stimulating their curiosity and asking them to share in something exciting with you.

Imagination. Enlivening people's imaginations is easy. What happens before you visit the doctor? Or when you're waiting for the board's reaction to your latest strategic plan? Your imagination puts on quite a show. Who needs PowerPoint or technological wizardry?

In 1961, JFK recognized the need for a new U.S. narrative to galvanize the space race. Before a joint session of Congress, he boldly announced that by the end of the decade the country would be dedicated to "landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth." Despite widespread doubts, and the fact that NASA had not yet even sent a man into orbit around the Earth, he electrified the collective imagination of the country.

Imagination is the direct access point to our creativity. Simply ask "imagine this..." and people's creative juices start flowing. They're transported to a different and vivid new reality without leaving their seats.

Impact. We crave impact. We want to be seen and know that what we do has meaning. In baseball terms, it's called "looking the ball to the bat." As a storyteller, that means watching your audience closely to see how your content is affecting them.

In 1995, Nelson Mandela knew he had to shore up his government's tenuous hold on post-apartheid unity. Adopting the strategy of "Don't address their brains, address their hearts," Mandela convinced the Springboks rugby team, until then the country's symbol of white supremacy, to join him. At the commencement of rugby's World Cup final then being held in South Africa, Mandela and the team symbolically broke all barriers by singing Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika, the anthem of the black resistance movement, to a still-divided nation and a worldwide television audience. The Springboks won the World Cup and South Africa moved toward reconciliation.

Brilliant ideas without brilliant human connection usually die fast. That connection builds trust and cultivates relationships. When you see how you move others and are moved by them, you grow in stature and authority.

Now, keep this in mind: What you're saying isn't for you. It's for your team.

Practice Time

Now, grab that pencil and paper again. Write down the impact you're hungry for. Who are you trying to reach? With what message?

Try these techniques at your next team meeting and note what happens:

• Be an "investigator" - not a content dumper. Ask, don't tell.
• Watch carefully for the impact of what you're saying on your team.
• Don't rush on to the next point until you see them absorb the previous one. Don't assume everyone's with you. Ask questions like "Are you with me?" "How do you relate to this?"

At your next client meeting:

• Slow down. Don't race your narrative simply to get to the end. If you are a racer, considering practicing on someone first and ask them to tell you when you're speeding through your story.
• Create images to get the client engaged in your story: "Imagine this...", "Picture that..."
• Stop occasionally and observe your effect on everyone in the room, moment by moment. You'll be happily surprised.

Remember, your team and your clients are your creative partners -- so use them. Katherine Hepburn said: "If you give audiences half a chance, they'll do half your acting for you."

In next Thursday's post, I'll show you how to structure powerful stories for maximum impact.

By Allen Schoer  |  December 10, 2009; 5:55 AM ET  | Category:  Leadership skills Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: From CEO to Chief Story Teller: Part one, the challenge | Next: Five leadership lessons from 'Invictus'


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Fernando Flores says, "Your problem is not that you have to work harder. Value is not produced by hard work. Value is produced by a story. Value lies in creating a new possibility."

Great suggestions on how to get such a story across. Looking forward to putting them to work.

Posted by: MichaelWeitz | December 15, 2009 10:43 AM

This is so helpful. I deal with the “head in Blackberry crowd” during meetings. I sometimes wonder if I had a gavel AND an “incredible” story I could get most of them to look up. What I found is by going slower and using pauses I would see them looking up to check if something was wrong. Now I just need a good story!

Posted by: abhabb | December 14, 2009 11:23 AM

This is the best segment yet. I like how practical it is. Thus far, I seem to be a failure at storytelling. I have some core points of view that no matter how I try, I can't seem to even get my team to acknowledge my perspective. I'll try the three I's.

Posted by: simplicity38 | December 13, 2009 2:32 PM

Again - I appreciate this continuation on the topic by Mr. Schoer. Taking a "bird's eye view" of storytelling is an interesting approach. Storytelling as pure storytelling apart from context however can be problematic I think. Do all situations merit stories? I am not sure.
I will be interested to see where he goes with this on the blog moving forward.

Posted by: GreenCity | December 12, 2009 2:21 PM

all good ideas - I use some of it to improve my story telling. But how do you apply it in a remote setting, not a face to face meeting - like over the phone, in a virtual town hall. How do you engage your audience without a visual? Allen - any advise?

Posted by: nimm-mich | December 12, 2009 2:01 PM

how do you find the stories that are worth telling? either from your own experience or stories you've heard? i'm not a good storyteller and if i don't take the time to reflect on the stories i may have, i probably won't get any better. does mr schoer have a way to excavate for those stories that will stick to your listeners like velcro

Posted by: jeorourke69 | December 11, 2009 9:26 PM

i struggle with knowing what stories i have to tell and feeling too egocentric when i tell stories that are from my experience. i want to know from mr schoer how to compile your stories.. what are ways i can excavate my own stories, or stories i relate to and find the gold that will stick with people like velcro?

Posted by: jeorourke69 | December 11, 2009 9:22 PM

The "3 i`s " are highly pragmatic and widely applicable to any situation, context. I`ve actually used your thinking in a conversation today, and it worked! Thanks.

Posted by: tornadotobias | December 11, 2009 2:24 PM

I have a meeting of my volunteer organization next week and will try your suggestions. Thanks for the directions.

Posted by: jweitz1 | December 10, 2009 10:20 PM

It is hard for me to imagine a world of business where human connection is valued, although I appreciate the irony of that standpoint. After all, business is based on relationship; we are all of us cogs in the wheel of progress. What Mr. Schoer proposes here, however, is groundbreaking, both for its humanity and its simplicity. Perhaps implementing these steps might make my day-to-day better, and improve the work environment of my team. Perhaps the benefits of following Mr. Schoer's suggestions could be infectious, and spread to my clients and business partners. Either way, I am struck by the simplicity of the request to reexamine my preconceived notions, and to be open to the possibility of positive change. The one benefit of the economic climate of late 2008 and 2009 is the impetus to try new things. I am energized by this post and look forward to sharing my experiences with Mr. Schoer, as well as other Washington Post readers. Marvelous stuff for this second offering. I eagerly anticipate the next in this series.

Posted by: Swimfan98 | December 10, 2009 5:24 PM

Our CEO has been trying to boost "engagement" by doing a road tour with "stories". It's clear he only wants to hear himself speak, and cares nothing about getting feedback from "us". It seems that no amount of technique can cover for someone who just doesn't get it.

Posted by: telavivnyc087 | December 10, 2009 5:04 PM

In my experience, the most important of Schoer's three Is is imagination. When you start telling a story that relates to your own experience and values, then you move from the conceptual to the real. That's when your experience becomes the shared experience of the listener - that creates a deep connection. I saw this happen in a meeting today. The trick for us is to trust ourselves enough to take the risk.

Posted by: grmhorwood1 | December 10, 2009 5:03 PM

These ideas sound basic, but they are easier said than done. Schoer offers some good reminders - especially to those of us who may like to "lead from the back," rather than step into the spotlight.

Posted by: vp382 | December 10, 2009 4:54 PM

This is all very well but I have to inform my company that I have lay off 10% of my employees.
It's hard to find a story to tell that will get them through a lousy Christmas and New Year.

Posted by: Hoochum | December 10, 2009 4:47 PM

I too worry about multi-tasking while on conference calls, especially ones that I am leading. I hope that this will get addressed in the future. I feel that if they can't see me, my message will not carry as much impact.

Posted by: lorwatt123 | December 10, 2009 3:14 PM

I love the concepts but it is so challenging to encourage their usage when corporate culture seems to frown on it. The wonderful moments and connections that can occur are never realized out of fear of not being pc. Sometimes it takes a deep swallow and a firm resolution. It's not easy knowing some people won't like what you do, but so many valuable ideas seem to spring from that kind of daring.

Posted by: emontops | December 10, 2009 2:34 PM

How does this apply when on a teleconference or webex meeting. They can hear me, but I know they are multi-tasking, just waiting for the "news" that applies to them or the data they need. Will they actually pay attention to a story and not feel as if I'm dumbing down by going to story instead of the facts? I am not Steve Jobs.

Posted by: egs53 | December 10, 2009 1:59 PM

This article should be sent to every CEO they have to look at alternate ways in which to communicate during these turbulent times.

Posted by: mfilan | December 10, 2009 1:21 PM


We have basically posted the same question simultaneously...Hopefully blogger Schoer and others can provide some guidance here?

I too- have a difficult year end message to deliver!

Posted by: andtototoo | December 10, 2009 12:11 PM

Applying these techniques within my company - which is fast paced and fact driven - would create an enormous culture shift. Not necessarily a bad thing, but there would definitely be resistance to "slowing down" in any way during this economic climate.

Posted by: juniorprosp | December 10, 2009 12:10 PM

I like these tips on how to get your "audience" on board--asking questions to get them involved, really seeing your impact on the group as you speak, and using related stories. What I am wondering is- how does this work when you have a really difficult message to deliver and you know the group is going to want to check out, check their pda's, or pick up their checked coats and get out of there?

Posted by: andtototoo | December 10, 2009 12:04 PM

Before the end of the year, we are having an important "where we are" meeting. I'm laying out hard facts about how things look and where we need to be. I'm going to try some of the suggestions of noting where my employees and colleagues are as I'm speaking, but I'm not sure I can weave an inspirational story into a pretty bleak outlook. Ideas?

Posted by: jnyc | December 10, 2009 11:41 AM

I like Schoer's ideas but sad to say the only story my company's CEO is intereseted in is on the spread sheet.

Posted by: marsdenthomas | December 10, 2009 10:11 AM

this was a very interesting article on how to basically change a small idea into a vision for the future by connecting not only to the intellect but to the innermost being of an individual using persuasive speech to make their argument for progress.

Posted by: collier_doris36 | December 10, 2009 10:06 AM

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