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Crafting the irresistible narrative

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 is the third in a series on becoming a "Chief Story Teller": Previous columns were "Part one, the challenge", and "Mastering the three 'I's' of story-telling."

"Marley was dead: to begin with."

Dickens' dramatic opening to A Christmas Carol immediately grabs our attention. We must read on.

In creating your own story for employees and clients, you have to grab interest in a similarly dramatic way. I started this series saying now's the time for beleaguered CEOs to reframe how they're seen and what they want -- and powerful storytelling is one of the most effective ways of accomplishing this. Here are the essentials to riveting your audience.

Excite instant attention. For maximum impact, your story has to immediately galvanize your listeners.

First, consider this powerful opener:

Yesterday, December 7, 1941 -- a date which will live in infamy -- the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

If, like Roosevelt, you can be bold and dramatic from the start your audience will feel the urgency of the moment. They'll feel your sense of mission to fix something that's out of balance. Don't leave this thinking to your advisors. Own your message and say what you stand for.

As part of a plan to lift company-wide performance, I recently encouraged a client to take control of the speeches he made to his worldwide leadership team. As a former division head, he knew his people better than anyone else. And when he spoke about his own values, he immediately grew in stature and authority. "My speechwriters could never have come up with anything this meaningful," he later told me.

Engage their emotions. When you pose a strong challenge at the outset, you have to stimulate everyone's emotions in a way that inspires them to action. Intellectual concepts aren't enough.

In Elie Wiesel's "Perils of Indifference" speech, he boldly evoked the senses to raise the consciousness of the world against Genocide: "Over there, behind the black gates of Auschwitz, the most tragic of all prisoners were... wrapped in their torn blankets, they would sit or lie on the ground, staring vacantly into space, unaware of who or where they were, strangers to their surroundings. They no longer felt pain, hunger, thirst. They feared nothing. They felt nothing."

These harrowing images and excruciating details immediately add real and evocative texture.

Whatever your message, evocative details create a visceral experience for your listeners -- even though they haven't moved from their seats.

Make it personal. To achieve buy in, articulate what the message really means to you.

"Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing," legendary football coach Vince Lombardi famously said. We knew exactly where he came from. Don't offer vague, generic concepts. What's your personal stake in the mission? How does it connect to your values?

By truly personalizing what you have to say, the audience feels your demand to them to feel personally about the issue as well. It challenges them to confront their own hopes and fears -- and honestly consider their individual investment in their role.

If you are serious about getting buy-in, ownership, collaboration, enhanced innovation and productivity, then you have to show up as fully engaged yourself.

Dare to inspire. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz titled his book: Pour Your Heart into It. Good advice.

That means stepping back from the grind of cash flow and targets. It's your essential principles and ethics that give work inspiration and meaning. That's what others need to know about. How do your personal qualities carry over into work?

When you're disciplined about this self-reflection, you'll find out what drives you towards greater achievement. And when you start telling stories that illustrate these "essential drivers," others start to understand who you really are. This motivates them to explore the meaning of their own contributions -- and to find their own inspiration.

Practice time. These are the core ingredients of your irresistible story. Get that pencil out again. Before your next team meeting:

• Turn the core of your message into an opening statement of a sentence or two.
• Frame it so that it compels others to follow.
• Practice ahead of time with someone you trust to find out if it's working. What's the impact? Are they intrigued?

When you've got the opening down, consider the mission: What's the challenge and how exactly do you want to inspire the audience? Tell everyone directly why what you're saying is important.

Finally, in telling your story, remember your role as Chief Investigator. Ask people how they relate to it and what they're going to do now.

When we return after the holidays, I'll tell you how to help people create their own stories and bring them all into alignment.

By Allen Schoer  |  December 17, 2009; 6:14 AM ET  | Category:  Communication skills Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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This blog and some of the comments, have prompted me to revisit the importance of the "narrative" in a broader sense. It seems to me that every business, every political party and every social issue is shaped and guided by the "narrative" that dominates it. The questions in each and every case are what are the forces that influence the shaping of a particular narrative, and how can competing narratives be heard? Schoer touched on this in an earlier blog when he talked about employees making up there own stories if you don't articulate your own. In this day and age the dominant "narratives" sadly stifle, rather than stimulate, most debate - whether the issue is health care, war in Afghanistan, or climate change.

Posted by: grmhorwood1 | December 21, 2009 9:50 AM

Mr. Schoer provides examples of famous speeches delivered during critical moments. I would like to see examples from speeches like the client he guided to speak his own values. Finding stories for less than glamorous industries facing the day-to-day realities of running a business seems to require lots of imagination!

Posted by: scarey2 | December 18, 2009 10:27 PM

Thank you for the reminder that we can find practical, daily lessons in literature and great speeches. We need this reminder in an era of glibness.

"Turn the core of your message into an opening statement of a sentence or two." -- this first piece of advice regarding practicing strikes me as really important. So often you end up with many brainstormed ideas that need focus and shaping - and giving yourself a limit of one or two sentences to work within sounds like an excellent way to begin to distill the essence of your message. It might be useful to also create two or three 'opening statements' in an effort to see which captures best what you have to say.

Posted by: atny06 | December 18, 2009 3:55 PM

Storytelling is a skill in demand in so many settings. Very mindful to discuss this in our business lives as it is so frequently neglected.

@Tenten1 -- as uncomfortable as it feels at first, rehearsing internally and externally is necessary to develop the muscles of storytelling. Your wife, colleagues, even Fido can make great audiences; even using a painting or piece of furniture can work. You've identified a very real concern with developing these skills -- it feels really awkward at first!

Posted by: atny06 | December 18, 2009 3:35 PM

I know there's a lot of skepticism about this idea of story-telling. It's obviously not a cure-all for the failings of the corporate world. And sure, it can sound contrived, especially from one not practiced in doing this. We even have a connotation for the word "story" that is negative, as in "what kind of story is that?" or "Sure, tell me another story."

I don't think this is what is being suggested here at all, that this idea of story-telling be used in disingenuous ways. Rather the opposite, that crafting and delivering a memorable narrative can serve to reveal deeper motivations that inspire and hook us. Especially these days, with the massive amount of raw information coming at us 24/7, we need all the help we can get to guide us through the morass. A good story might be exactly what we need.

Posted by: MattStern | December 18, 2009 3:00 PM

In some contexts, efforts to apply this storytelling advice had best be leavened with a bit of humor lest it come across as contrived and pompous. Most listeners can intuitively sense when someone is trying to manipulate them rather than communicate with them, though they may not be able to articulate the reason for their discomfort.

Posted by: douglaslbarber | December 17, 2009 8:04 PM

Storytelling seems to be the flavor of the moment. How can you help people connect with the power of storytelling without having it seem simply trendy? And how can you teach people how and when stories can be used? It seems to me the most vital value is in knowing how to use these new ideas well. That really takes practice.

Posted by: emontops | December 17, 2009 7:27 PM

I continue to find this series an intriguing
exploration of leader as storyteller - modern day chief, shaman if you will - it conjures up some wonderful images.
The tips in this installment seem quite practical and doable. Thanks for this!

Posted by: sheilabw1 | December 17, 2009 5:36 PM

A light bulb just went off! I am giving my CEO a book of well written speeches by famous politicians for the Holidays. I am positive he would never buy something like this for himself. The only speech writing he has had is a tutorial on PowerPoint. Can anyone suggest a book or a collection of good speeches?

Posted by: marsdenthomas | December 17, 2009 5:20 PM

Does it have to be a narrative? Meaning, in response to the comment about playing opposite your natural 'dry' style, it is intimidating to me to tell a narrative, but if I can think of opening in a different way, using a quotation or an image, it is easier to feel I could acheive 'storyteller' status in my own way.

Posted by: jeorourke69 | December 17, 2009 3:01 PM

I agree wholeheartedly about using emotions, speaking from a personal point of view and making one's opening memorable. When leaders influence me, this is what they do. Of course, my staff deserves the same. The part that concerns me is that all the above require risk taking. I know what risks to take and what risks not to take for my business. But trying a more bold communication style takes a big risk, especially in a conservative firm. Has anyone cracked the code on how to assess when such risks will have a payback?

Posted by: simplicity38 | December 17, 2009 1:50 PM

I enjoyed the article and find this advice very helpful. My one concern relates to the last piece of advice. Practicing. Who should I practice with? Internally, I don't feel comfortable actually "rehearsing" my "piece" And externally...who? My wife? A friend?
Also - I am the kind of leader who is frank but was told I am kind of dry. So how can I suddenly show up as this powerful person with a strong opening and a story?

Posted by: tenten1 | December 17, 2009 1:24 PM

Intriguing article. I am curious how, and if, effective storytelling can dispel a corporate cultural myth or less than desirable legacy.

Posted by: FTAssociates | December 17, 2009 12:43 PM

I kept coming back to this article as I was intrigued with the idea of engaging an audience in a more dynamic way. After sitting through some of the most incredibly boring PowerPoint presentations it struck me that I usually leave these presentations retaining nothing. I can imagine that dry, detailed information wrapped in a narrative would allow the listener a way into this data and allow more retention of this information. There is a challenge here in how presentations and speeches are developed. The comment above about speeches being written by committee is a sad fact of corporate America right now. How thrilling would it be if these committees made speeches from the place of engaging and energizing the audience rather than simply doing due diligence.

Posted by: jamjam333 | December 17, 2009 12:26 PM

This seems well and good when you work for a Starbucks or Apple or Microsoft or even smaller firms producing interesting products or services. What about the majority of executives like myself who work in companies without "stories"? I'm an executive for a large manufacturing company. I don't have inspirational messages to deliver.

Posted by: thomswitley | December 17, 2009 11:20 AM

Easier, I think, for entrepreneurs, like Schultz at Starbucks, who chart their own courses. More difficult to personalize remarks at large multi-nationals where one has to navigate the legal and political terrain more carefully and speeches are written by committee...

Posted by: vp382 | December 17, 2009 10:29 AM

This reminds me of a client who just took over as a new CEO. In planning his first address to his team, he had all the right ideas, but in the wrong order. Schoer's comments about openings seem particularly important. How do you hook them, and how do you make sure to carry your story line through? An important consideration in any CEO's addresses, it seems to me.

Posted by: lidavarus | December 17, 2009 9:58 AM

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