One of the most effective leadership communication tools you’ll ever have is a powerful story. Join David and his guest, Paul Smith – an expert in leadership and business storytelling – for a powerful discussion of how to tell a good story, the stories great leaders tell, and where to find your stories. Paul reveals how you can use story to build a better connection with your team and translate your leadership philosophy and values in a way people will not forget. And yes, there are some fantastic stories!
Today, we’re excited to bring you a guest post by Paul Smith, one of the leading experts in business storytelling.
As an experienced leader, no doubt you already tell a few stories. But how do you know you’re telling the right stories? What’s the most important story you should be telling?
That’s a question I’ve thought a lot about. And after interviewing over 300 CEOs, leaders, and executives in 25 countries around the world about their use of storytelling in business, I finally have an answer. My shortlist of the most important stories leaders need to tell include stories about where we came from (a founding story), where we’re going (a vision story), and how we’re going to get there (a strategy story), among several others.
But for this article, I wanted to focus on the one I call a “Why we can’t stay here” story – in other words, a case-for-change story.
Here’s an example:
In February 2015, National Public Radio aired a story about Joey, a ten-year-old boy in Gainesville, Florida, suffering from a rare form of kidney cancer. When Joey was diagnosed in March 2013, the cancer had already spread to his abdomen, chest, and neck. He went through two surgeries and five rounds of oral and intravenous chemotherapy, none of which worked for more than a month or two. Eventually, he’d exhausted all the available treatments.
So, his mother, Kathy Liu, tried to get treatments that weren’t available. She heard several new immunotherapy treatments were in clinical trials, but none of the trials were accepting children.
Then in September, the FDA approved Keytruda, the first in the new class of immunotherapy drugs called PD-1 inhibitors, created by Merck. Despite being approved for use, his doctors were hesitant to try the new drug on Joey because it wasn’t clinically tested on children.
Kathy found a doctor in Cincinnati willing to try. So, her whole family packed their things in Florida and moved to Ohio.
Joey got the first injection of Keytruda on October 14, over a year and a half after being diagnosed. The tumors in his neck shrank significantly. And the ones in the rest of his body stabilized. But Joey was already weak when the treatment started, and the cancer had an eighteen-month head start.
Joey died the day before Thanksgiving.
Kathy told the NPR reporter, “If Joey could [have gotten] this drug last year, even just a couple of months earlier, maybe it [would have been] a different story.”
Kathy lost Joey that day. But she hasn’t given up her fight. Today, she runs a foundation called Joey’s Wings that raises awareness and money specifically for pediatric cancer research.
When that story aired on NPR, one of the people who heard it worked at a company that had just retained me as a storytelling coach. The industry they worked in produced lifesaving products but took a notoriously long time to get them to market—sometimes a decade or more.
So, like most of their competitors, one of the things they were working on was how to get products to market faster. But changing a complex, decade-long process is hard work. The motivation to earn profits faster didn’t seem sufficient to move the organization to make the radical changes necessary. My job was to help them develop a case -for-change story.
When one of the participants in my workshop shared NPR’s story of Kathy and Joey, it immediately became the basis for our story—our case for change.
Think about that. Keytruda wasn’t their product. And Joey wasn’t their customer. But it did become their story—or at least a fictionalized version of it. Because they knew the same thing was surely happening with the lifesaving products they were working on. And having a human reason to do all this hard work was a more effective motivator than higher profits and a growing stock price.
Tips to help you craft your own case-for-change story
Start by asking yourself: “Who stands to benefit from this change?” Surely, it’s good for someone or something your audience cares about, or it wouldn’t be a priority for the company.
Once you know who that is, talk to them and ask these kinds of questions:
What’s their life or work like today (prior to making this change)?
What problems or frustrations do they experience?
How would their life or work be different once we implement this change?
What are the tangible ways you’ll know the change is working for them?
Sure, not everyone will have a story as compelling as Kathy Liu because not everyone’s job is curing cancer. But whatever it is that you and your company are trying to do with this change will surely benefit someone. The point is, a story about the human impact of the change, whether that’s a benefit to the employees who have to go through the change or to your customers or to the community, it will likely be more compelling than just telling people how much money it’ll save.
Craft your own Kathy Liu story. That will be your personal case for change.
Over the years, I have used strategic storytelling workshops to help drive key messages, build teams, and enhance communication skills. Today, I share the story of how my interest in that began, and why I frequently use it in my leadership today.
The Strategic Story Behind Strategic Storytelling
The Dramatic Beginning
Many years ago back in my HR days, I spent the better part of a year working on an intensive front-line leadership development program. We had interviewed everyone, built the competency models, created the curriculum and worked with vendors to import expertise on specific topics. Then, the whole thing came to a screeching halt.
A big merger was announced, and the program was put “on hold.” Everything was changing leadership, organizational structures, priorities, funding views about certain competencies. It just wasn’t “the biggest rock” at that point. This stuff happens. I understood the dynamics, but I was devastated. All that work and there were still frontline leaders that needed development now. The work wasn’t changing at that level, and we had identified a need. The organization was full of young, inexperienced leaders. And we were young HR leaders, with passion and a cause.
I sat in the conference room with my co-worker with whom I had collaborated on this project. We just looked at one another. What should we do now? After we got over feeling sorry for ourselves, we got to work.
The Story Continues: Storytelling Workshops to Transfer Leadership Mindset
We decided that what we wanted to do most of all was to find a way to “transfer leadership mindset.” The best leaders we saw at the front lines were the ones who had some scar-tissue from experience, combined with other leadership competencies. If only we could help to accelerate the learnings of that experience to others. How could we do that? For free?
Our answer storytelling.
Without announcing our intentions (just a causal whisper to our bosses), we created a series of strategic storytelling workshops designed for various levels of the business.
In these workshops, we would ask each leader to reflect on their own values, priorities, and history and identify a personal story that reflected their approach to leadership. The stories would then be shared with the team, and each leader would offer feedback on their story and delivery. The themes from each story would be discussed and leveraged to create norms for the team (or organization). The participants would work to identify opportunities to incorporate strategic storytelling into their communication plans.
Once we had our strategic storytelling plan, we made appointments to meet with the friendliest senior leaders we knew to sell in our concept. We told our story of delayed funding, and our storytelling solution. We were met with what I can best describe as a “what the heck” response and an invitation to try it in various contexts and levels across the company. The best response was from the exec who had “used strategic storytelling for years.” He then pulled out a pencil-on-graph-paper strategic communication plan matrix with his 3 main messages for the year, and the various stories he would tell in different contexts and levels to reinforce it. Game on!
We held everything from large scale meetings of frontline leaders with storytelling circles to intimate executive teambuilding sessions. The best stories were the ones where the leaders allowed themselves to be vulnerable, which was particularly cathartic and important at this time of changing scenery. (We later captured this technique, key learnings, and a summary of the themes gathered from this key time in an ASTD Storytelling InfoLine (the link I include here mostly for nostalgia, not selling).
So now I ask you
What key messages did you take away from this story?
In the years that followed, I have used the storytelling workshop concepts in my own leadership and have facilitated sessions with my own team. Yesterday, I shared a post on Lead Change Group on this and other “Do It Yourself” leadership techniques. I hope you will enjoy. DIY Leadership: Easy Leadership Programs You Can Run Yourself.