Straight Talk

30 March 2009 David J Dempsey

With the downturn claiming scalps throughout the business world, it is time for CEOs to step up and offer visible, inspirational leadership. As David J Dempsey of Neon Zebra explains, the right story is sometimes all that is needed.

Today's business headlines, replete with news of layoffs, missed profit projections, and gloomy predictions, can make even the most optimistic business leaders a tad despondent. But leaders cannot afford to let their spirits sink. Leaders need to inspire their teams and set the tone for the future. At every opportunity, they must positively communicate their own vision for their companies with a passion that others can hear, see, and most importantly, feel.

What can we learn from the leaders who have guided their companies to success in good times and bad? Fortune magazine has followed these leaders from year to year. In 2006, they reported the results of a survey conducted by Right Management Consultants that found the main skill companies seek in leaders is "the ability to motivate and engage others". Ranking a close second is ability to communicate.

In 2009, Fortune interviewed several prominent CEOs on management strategies during a recession. Coca-Cola CEO Muthar Kent said: "Crises offer you the best opportunity to communicate with consumers because airwaves are cleaner, there’s much less congestion there." Johnson & Johnson’s Bill Weldon shared similar views: "When you read the newspaper, listen to TV or radio, you hear these purveyors of doom telling us how bad everything is. Leaders need to instill confidence."

How do you communicate in a way that gives your company the competitive advantage needed to weather an economic downturn? Invariably the best communicators are the best storytellers. Leaders who tell their listeners a story—or even so much as merely mention the word story—will grab their attention. A story packed with vivid images and told with passion will infuse life into any speech and make your message reverberate with your listeners. You need to look at each story not merely as a vehicle to clarify your points, but as a means to connect with your listeners intellectually and emotionally

Six keys to powerful storytelling

What are the secrets of the master story-tellers? Here are several techniques used by the best.

Constantly gather stories

Always search for ideas you can weave into a story. These can be ideas and articles that inspire you; or infuriate you. Capture these stories immediately, however, because those fickle thoughts will disappear in a flash if you do not. Record them in a file titled or keep them in a folder designated for speeches.

Strive for universal appeal

Search for stories that have universal appeal, such as personal recollections of perseverance and determination. Everyone has real-life experiences that can become the vehicle for a universal message that will move and teach any audience.

Choose relevant stories

Select stories that clarify your purpose. Do this by first identifying what you want your listeners to know, think, feel, or believe after you’ve spoken. Then look for stories that support that purpose. Interesting but irrelevant stories will only confuse your audience and dilute your message. Ask yourself if your story clarifies your message. If it doesn’t, discard it.

Describe people, not concepts

People are fascinated by human-interest stories. People magazine, Entertainment Tonight, and The Oprah Winfrey Show are popular because they involve people. For example, tell your audience about the commitment demonstrated by your grandparents renewing their wedding vows after being married for seventy years, or the teacher who sacrificed lucrative business opportunities because of his love for teaching. Your audience will not relate to abstract concepts, such as ‘steadfastness’ and ‘dedication’. They care about people and real events.

Provide colourful descriptions

Provide precise, meaty descriptions. If you rely on bland, common-place words rather than fresh, colourful ideas, you will dull the senses of your listeners. For example, if you merely mention a dog and leave it at that, some listeners will picture a pampered French poodle; others, a scruffy mutt; still others, a muscular bulldog. But if you instead describe a "silky-haired collie who could be Lassie’s twin", you will conjure up an exact image.

Display emotions

You need to share your story in a way that is congruent with the message. If you tell a tale indifferently, then indifference is exactly the response you will get from your audience. The best stories crackle with feelings: the powerful emotions of love passion, fear, antipathy, and anger. To really engage your audience in your stories, create drama.

Listeners seldom forget a story that moves, surprises, or engages them. Do you want your messages to be remembered? Dare to inspire, to motivate, to call your listeners to action with colourful stories. Mundane corporate speak won’t accomplish that. Tell a compelling, powerful story, and you will win the hearts of your audience—a critical role for every leader in these turbulent times.