Leadership Storytelling Core Competency #1: Character

Leadership Storytelling Core Competency #1: Character

If you want to launch something ambitious on the scale of Steve Jobs, you need to get amazing (not adequate) at communicating why people—investors, consumers, prospective hires—should care about whatever it is you’re trying to build. — Steve Vassallo, Foundation Capital

Why You Should Become a Better Leadership Storyteller

If you were to leave your smartphone voice recorder on for a full day in the office and then listen to yourself later, you would be amazed at the volume and frequency of the stories you tell. Storytelling is like air: pervasive, invisible and essential for human life.

But in the same way that most people never consciously practice breathing, most leaders never take the time to consider how they communicate and whether they can do it any better. There’s a reason for that. Because storytelling deals with our inner, psychological and emotional world, each of us will tell our stories a little bit differently. There’s no simplified, killer app process that will transform you to become the next Steve Jobs. There’s just the steady process of practice and failure that comes with learning any new skill.

Most people don’t start down this journey because they simply don’t think it’s worth the effort.

But those who do start down this journey find that they develop a unique and authentic manner of connecting the abstract and theoretical aspects of business into language that people understand. They find that they can motivate and support others without resorting to manipulation. And they find that they can create a sense of urgency that galvanizes people to take meaningful action, and to integrate that action into the way that people think of themselves and their lives.

Steve Jobs is one example of a masterful leadership storyteller. If you’re interested in developing your own leadership storytelling skill, read on.

The “one more thing” teaser that Jobs used to drive journalists and Apple enthusiasts wild with at big keynotes wasn’t a function of his charm—it was an old narrative trick called a cliffhanger. Great storytelling can be your most powerful tool for disseminating and scaling your vision. — Steve Vassallo, Foundation Capital

Leadership Storytelling Core Competency #1: Character

Character is the low-hanging fruit of leadership storytelling. If you were to make one tiny adjustment to your communication style that would reap the biggest reward, it would be integrating a better use of characters in your story.

By characters, I mean clear, relatable people who your audience can visualize as they’re listening to your story.

For example, let’s say you’re in a sales meeting, and your prospect asks you to talk about a previous client you’ve helped. Most likely, you already have a library of case study stories at the ready. (If you don’t, bring me in to do a Storytelling for Sales Training to help you create them.) You’d probably tell your story using the Problem – Action – Result model. Something like this:

We had this client in the education industry. They were having some significant problems hiring the right kind of talent. So we came in and helped them implement our solution. And since then, they’ve increased the efficiency of their hiring process 17%.

That’s a good story. Your company provided real, quantifiable value to their client, and in a few sentences you told me how and why. You told me what you sell, who it’s appropriate for and what the results were. That’s great. But it’s also a missed opportunity. In listening to the story, I understood everything you told me, and within a few hours or a day or two, I’ll have already forgotten everything. You had an opportunity to create an emotional connection with me and tell me more about why you do what you do, and you let it slip past.

Now, think about how you’d tell the same story by integrating the concept of character. How could you move the story from being about a thing — i.e. the “client” — to being about a person? This subtle change can make a world of difference. A few descriptive details, a personality and a name go a long way to helping people create better engagement with your story.

For example:

I was working with this client in the education industry in Texas. Sandy: this lovely woman with a big laugh who loved football. Anyway, Sandy was really stressed, because she was spending a lot of time trying to find the right people to work for her company. They were growing quickly, which was great, but they couldn’t find good talent anywhere. Sandy was scouring job boards and spending late nights on LinkedIn, and she was getting frustrated and fed up. After we met at a conference, I flew out to Texas and spent some time with Sandy understanding her problems and seeing if the product I sold was right for her. We took some time to implement the product just the way she liked and she was really happy with how things turned out. Actually, she just called me last week on the way to the football game and told me that she’d just run the numbers, and it turns out she’s spending 17% less time on LinkedIn each week, and getting even better quality applicants. I could hear the relief in her laugh.

It’s more or less the same story. The difference is that we have a main character who is guiding the story from start to finish. By introducing that character, the story instantly becomes more interesting and relatable.

For some of your prospects, the character will make a big difference. For other prospects, the difference will be less significant. But there will always be a positive difference.

But there’s one more thing… We didn’t just add one character. We added two. Who’s the other character? You.

The Secret of Character: It Reveals Character

All stories are animated by the way that we tell them. And when we listen to stories, we always toggle between listening to the plot as it unfolds and analyzing why the storyteller is telling it in a particular way.

Most of us do this so quickly that we hardly ever notice it.

What makes great films and Netflix shows so compelling is the story behind the story — the way the director is telling the story to make it spin around in your mind.

In the same way, as leaders, when we tell our stories, what we’re really doing is revealing who we are. For example, take a second look at the Sandy story I wrote above. What do you think about the way I acted in the story? How do you feel about the way I portrayed her? Your answers to these two questions will affect the way that you think about me. The deeper, strategic reason for improving your leadership storytelling is to give your audiences a way to connect with who you are as a leader on a deeper level: the values that reside at your core.

Ultimately, it is these values that we respond to in leaders.

Your 5-Minute Leadership Storytelling Homework

Take one professional story you tell frequently and write it out the way you usually tell it. Writing it with a pen and paper is best.

Next, go through the story and circle all the terms you use that refer to people. For example, “customers”, “consumers”, “users”, “prospects”, “leads”, “clients”, “donors”, etc. For each one, see if you can replace the term with the first name of a real person.

Then, tell the story again out loud, with the adjustments you’ve made, in order to hear yourself speaking it.

It seems really simple. And it is. As soon as you bring a character into your story, you’ll find that you do what you always do when you tell stories. You’ll make it more engaging. You’ll describe an aspect of that person’s mannerism, like the way they hold themselves or speak. You’ll mention something they like or the way they work. You’ll do this because you already do this all the time. Your story will immediately take on more life because of it.

Finally, ask a colleague, a manager or a trusted friend if you can practice your new story in front of them. You can do it behind closed doors, when it’s just the two of you, or out in the open, if you prefer.

Make sure you don’t skip this step. Each time we change how we tell our story, it will feel strange — like there’s someone else speaking, or like you’re speaking a foreign language. You’re going to screw up the first 5 or 10 times you do it. By getting it out of your head and practicing out loud, you’ll find that you’ll naturally make the adjustment that will bring your story to life.

Jordan Bower is a Business Storytelling Consultant and the Founder of Transformational Storytelling. He leads Leadership Storytelling Trainings,Storytelling for Sales Training, and consults on many other forms of strategic communication.