So the AFR runs an article about how leaders use storytelling to get their message across. And I imagine it’s a really good match for its readership; there’s an ongoing interest in what business people are doing to succeed. Who has the secret to success and what is they do? Is it mindfulness? Is it design thinking? Do they work four hours a day? Do they work shoeless? (I can’t remember if the working shoeless thing was something I actually read somewhere or a spoof article I threatened to write one day.)
We can add storytelling to that list. And there are a variety of people wanting to help. This article lists three consultancies designed to help business people tell their stories. There’s a market in helping smart, successful people tell stories.
We seem to want leaders who are polymaths. It’s not enough that you’ve excelled in your field or you employ a lot of people, we now expect you to also be able to tell stories which excite and inspire. I can imagine this could be challenging, if there’s been no exposure to storytelling in your training or work experience.
In a marketing sense, this article and the consultants featured in it, are positioning storytelling as an element of success. But they are also manufacturing a problem to solve. If one of the ingredients for success is communication, and you’re rubbish at it, then you should fix that. Immediately! Right after jogging 20km before breakfast, hitting your revenue target for the month and distributing home made muffins around the office.
Storytelling as a corporate must-have.
As a consultant, you get used to having a go-to set of examples for a range of different situations. Got an HR problem? Here’s one another client had and how they overcame it. Customers won’t pay? How about trying this which has worked for me. Need to change your organisation’s culture? It’ll be slow and gradual, like turning a big ship around.
Reading this article, about seven types of stories leaders should tell, made me consider this grab bag of examples again. I hadn’t considered them as “stories”. Though, of course, they are. Interestingly, mine mostly fall into the categories outlined in this article.
They are targetted stories. They are designed to illustrate a problem, illuminate a solution, establish credentials, build rapport and yes, sell services.
Perhaps storytelling, at a business level, is intrinsically about selling. Selling a product, or an internal change, or an idea. Even the act of convincing itself is sometimes expressed in terms of selling and storytelling. When a government’s policy agenda is unpopular, you’ll hear commentators say, “they’ve been unable to sell their narrative” or “they couldn’t sell that idea to the public”.
So types of stories, yes. But how they’re deployed – to convince, cajole, entice, reassure. Is it all just selling in the end?
Here’s an interesting find. Kim Goodwin, a PhD candidate at UTS, is looking at “the concepts of leadership, development and identity within Australian creative industries”.
A key part of the methodology employed is a narrative analysis of the interviews of creative leaders, and how the subjects “impose order and construct their meaning of leadership”.
This is clearly a work in progress, and one which is changing as it goes along. This observation caught my attention:
The complex relationship subjects have to leadership prompted the inclusion of identity within this study. Of the three emerging leaders interviewed to date, two rejected the title of leader.
It will be interesting to read if any conclusions are drawn about why these interviewees didn’t self-identify as leaders. This paper also notes that leadership training and self-confidence are emerging as key themes, suggesting that the final piece of work is going to have a focus on personal or professional development ‘gaps’ amongst the interview cohort.
Watching this space.
“Facts,” I recall Jane Caro once saying on an episode of The Gruen Transfer, “never convinced anyone of anything.” She was pointing out that emotions are much more likely to guide people’s decision making, and in particular decisions about purchasing.
Stories generate emotions. Or at least good stories do. This article from HBR starts out with the example of a Superbowl ad which had no attention grabbing celebrities or special effects, but had farmyard animals and an engaging story which helped sell large quantities of beer. The article attributes the ad’s success to its adoption of the five act structure (Freytag’s Pyramid) and the ability of a story to evoke a strong neurological response.
It’s not just about the manipulation of emotions to sell stuff. There’s also the ability to guide an organisation’s operations through use of storytelling. That is, storytelling as a strategy. This example, for instance, about changing behaviours.
“Penn State College of Medicine researchers found that medical students ‘ attitudes about dementia patients, who are perceived as difficult to treat, improved substantially after students participated in storytelling exercises that made them more sympathetic to their patients’ conditions.”
Behind these examples are, I suppose, leaders who understand when and how to deploy storytelling as a strategy. Leaders in organisations and leaders of the creative teams who put the campaigns/studies together. Is there a struggle of approaches, I wonder? How hard did someone behind the Budweiser ad have to argue to go with a story based approach, than just putting David Beckham on screen drinking Budweiser in front of some explosions?
This study from CreativeSkillSet (a skills and training organisation) is about leadership and management skills gaps among workers in the UK’s creative industries. It also talks about development needs and learning preferences among creative workers.
It’s got some interesting if not particularly ground breaking observations in it, and its sample group is dominated by participants in the TV industry.
I notice a couple of unstated underlying assumptions. Both are included in this sentence:”It was widely reported that the transition from a creative role to a leadership position [assumption 1: the two are mutually exclusive, which is something I’ve written about here] involved the development of new skills and the management of creative professionals presents different challenges to managing in other sectors [assumption 2: creatives are a special and tricky breed].”
These seem to be to be stereotypes of a creative professional. In story terms, the character’s traits. It’s a narrative structure about leadership within creative industries which starts from the point of view that it’s a problem; almost antithetical to the sort of person you find working in a creative business.
Still, I liked this bit, from a focus group participant:
“You wouldn’t say to a finance person or to a legal person, ‘actually, now, you’ve just got to go off and write a script and be creative,’ because it would be an absolute nightmare. They would all sit there for about a day, write two lines, and then throw it in the bin. But you do it the other way around. People make assumptions that because people have got this title, that somewhere along the lines someone has sat down and shown them a P&L account and explained it to them.”
Sounds a bit like what I do!