Tag : leadership communications

Storytelling needs a narrative

I’m kind of sick of everyone in business talking about storytelling.  It’s become a buzzword that people don’t truly understand or know how to use.

If you’re in marketing or corporate communications you’ve been in that strategy meeting where someone inevitably says, “We need to do more  storytelling.”

But most leaders, marketers and communicators don’t really know what to say when they’re told to “tell a story.”

“About what? To what end?,” many wonder. Others push back, “Oh, I don’t like telling stories about myself.”

Here’s my take.  Before telling useful stories,  organizations need a narrative, the reason for being.  The uber purpose.  The big picture context.  Then it becomes much easier for people to share anecdotes and stories that support  that narrative. More importantly, it helps the people –  citizens, employees, customers  — understand what’s important and  how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together.

A narrative is like a clothesline,  and you hang your policies from it, says David Gergen, communications adviser to four U.S. presidents. Similarly, companies hang its products and services from the clothesline.

Narratives are simple explanations.  You shouldn’t need training for people in the organization to “get it.” (A communications executive of a global company told me that his company has a narrative, but I’d have to read the PowerPoint deck to really understand it.  Sounds like there’s more work to do.)

Here are a few examples:

  • The narrative of the United States has been about exploring.  For Israel it’s protecting and defending.
  • For Nike it’s about serving and honoring the inner athlete.  Patagonia is about doing no harm to the environment.
  • Southwest Airlines’ makes it simple and fun to fly. FedEx absolutely, positively delivers the best customer experience.
  • My company’s narrative is about creating clarity from complexity.  The Rebels at Work movement is helping corporate rebels inside large organizations be more successful in creating positive change. An executive coach friend is about helping strong leaders become better people.

These narratives can be like North Stars — a fixed point in the sky that can be used to guide decisions, serve as a organizing prompt for telling relevant stories, open up thinking about new products or ways to work.

Narratives can also be a quest.  I like John Hagel’s view in this Forbes article:

Story chronicles the path and progress of a limited set of protagonists – from the beginning, through the middle, to the end of a story arc.  Narratives, in contrast, are designed for a growing number of protagonists — many of whom are yet to be defined — who share a common quest or journey that is yet to be fully resolved or completed.

How do we find our narrative?

To help companies find their narrative, I invite people to think of their organization as a cause or movement and speed write a rallying cry, starting with a verb.  Or  quickly write many responses to the “I believe that ….” prompt about their organization or company. No over-thinking, self-editing or  corporate speak.  Just ideas, beliefs and aspiration, from the gut.

I’ve also been suggesting to marketing and corporate communications executives that they NOT make this a formal process.  Take some narrative possibilities and insert them into casual business conversations. Then into some presentations as a way of setting context to your ideas.  See how people react. Ask them, “Does this help you better understand our strategy?  Do you see how this new product line fits with our overall business?  Can you imagine how this policy falls outside of our focus?  Is this something you’d like to be part of?”

See how well the narrative serves you. If it works,  quietly seed it so it can grow and serve others without bringing in committees, copywriters, lawyers or naysayers.  Insert it into the CEO’s talking points.  Use it to frame the next acquisition or product launch.  If it helps, then make it better known and  part of the company’s leadership strategy.

And if it doesn’t resonate? Keep experimenting.

Finding a narrative gives your organization meaning.

And meaning changes everything.


Additional reading:

“Still Waiting for the Narrator in Chief: Why the president lost his ability to tell a story,” by Matt Bai, New York Times Sunday Magazine, 11/4/2012.

“The Pull Narrative: In Search of Persistent Context” by John Hagel









Will Obama fairness message stick?

Note: Every four years I start following political communications strategies they way some people follow sports.  Like sports, political strategies can be focused, executed with creativity and discipline, and inspire the fans. Similarly they can be a train wreck. 

I think President Obama is onto a potentially powerful message strategy in his campaign speeches. Now, he needs to support that platform  with emotional stories, and convey the three essential messages more clearly and consistently.

The platform is essentially about fairness.

In America we’ve always been greater together than on our own. We succeed when we’re all rising. This  big, inclusive, generous, bold, ambitious vision of America is what’s at stake, is what we’re fighting for.

  1. Every American gets a fair shot if they’re willing to work hard to get ahead.
  2. Every American needs to do their fair share.
  3. Every American plays by the same set of rules.

Our brains react to five threats or rewards: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness. Choosing fairness is both an American value and connects with the 99 percent who are outraged at the inequities of the one percenters, which both Romney and Gingrich are.

Scientists have also found that fairness can be linked to achievement.  “Fairness between strangers at the individual level is what allows social organisms to thrive, and to out-compete more selfish societies, ” according to a Fast Co. article last year about a study done by evolutionary scientist Joe Henrich at the University of British Columbia.

While I think most voters want the “certainty” brain circuits lit in this election — more jobs, stable housing prices, assurances about no new taxes, withdrawal from Middle East — those are things that no politician should promise as he or she has so little control over those outcomes.

But fairness? Fairness provides an opportunity for all boats to rise. And who doesn’t want a better country for themselves AND their family, friends, neighbors and countrymen?

If I were running the Obama campaign I would support the platform by:

  • Share stories of Americans — famous and everyday — who have gotten a fair shot, succeeded, and give back.  Make the message real, emotional and aspirational through individuals’ stories.  Even the President’s own.
  • Highlight people who are doing their fair share — and then some. Social entrepreneurs. Small business owners committed to their employees and their communities. Community college teachers. Hospice nurses.  Tireless community volunteers.  Generous individual donors to vital non-profits. You can whine about how unfair life is, or you can do. Celebrate the doers.
  • Give concrete examples of distorted rules that need to be changed to level the playing field. Specifics make a message real.

During his first term President Obama has not emotionally connected as well as he could with Americans, and what he most believes in seems kind of vague to the average Joe and Jane. People don’t want wonk-ish  explanations. They want to be inspired.

While I am comforted to know that a leader has the intellectual chops to lead amid complexity, most people want a president who “gets them” — feels their pain, their hopes — and has the conviction to make things happen to address those pains and hopes.

Conviction is emotional, passionate, fierce and focused.

Obama potentially can deliver on this. Romney, not so much. Gingrich, potentially.

Let the election communications strategies begin in earnest!

Open a can of worms

“How do you think the elephant got in the room?” my friend Maria DeCarvalho asked as we were talking about a messy corporate situation.  “Someone lets them in when they’re small.  Most of us see them but don’t have the courage to recognize a potential problem and get rid of it before it grows into an elephant.”

A  frank and generous executive coach, Maria believes that knowing how to have difficult conversations is an essential leadership skill — and one that few of us have ever been taught.

Rather than ignore signs of disagreement, negativity or skepticism, she encourages people to learn how to open  a can of worms. “You find that once the worms are out of the can and on the table they don’t hang around very long.”

Here’s Maria’s recent blog post explaining how to open up a can of worms. More of her sage advice can be found on her blog.

People are always communicating. Always.

I’m sure you’ve been in plenty of conversations or meetings in which you’ve noticed others roll their eyes, cross their arms, raise their eyebrows, press their lips together, pull out their smartphones, look down or away, exchange quick glances across a table, or just sit there and not say anything.

These messages are as clear and real as if they had been put into words.  In fact, they can be the most important part of the conversation because people are telegraphing how they actually feel.

The trouble, of course, is that it can be awkward and uncomfortable to acknowledge these signals because they seem negative and a little slippery.  They are often subtle, and sometimes they go by quickly.  Who wants to open up a can of worms?

You do.  You’re going to find that once the worms are out of the can and on the table they don’t hang around very long at all.

So, grab your can opener and use these two simple steps to increase the honesty and comfort of conversations in which these behaviors are occurring:

1.  Stop thinking about signals like arm-crossing and long silence as criticism or rudeness and start calling them information. The people who are giving you these signals are letting you know how they feel.

2. Do a quick, friendly check in, just as you do when you are using your listening skills:

  • Bob, you look a little skeptical. What are you thinking?
  • Ted and Sarah?  Is there something you’re worried about that it would help us to know?
  • Garry, I’m sensing there’s something about this that you don’t like.  Where are you on this idea?
  • Anna, I’m sitting here wondering if you’ve sort of checked out of the conversation.  Is there something that’s not working for you?

Notice that each one of my suggestions ends with a  NOW WHAT? request for something back from the person.  That reduces awkwardness and helps move the conversation along.

CEO Barbara DeBuono: Leading with questions

Executives can lay out a goal and what they think needs to be done to achieve that goal.  People then (hopefully) follow orders and business moves ahead.

This traditional leadership approach cultivates a follower culture. Yet, follower cultures don’t cultivate creativity, innovation, transparency or engagement.

Barbara DeBuono, CEO of Orbis International, takes a different approach, one that more and more highly-effective leaders are adopting: she poses important, provocative questions and then facilitates and guides meaningful conversations. Conversations where people figure out together the ways they believe the organization can best achieve the goal.

She explained the approach to The New York times’ Adam Bryant in the “Corner Office” column:

I asked a group of people at Orbis, “Do you think we’re a high performing organization?” and then I shut my mouth. I wanted them to give me the answer.

I also asked them, “What do you think a high performing organization would look like?”

The next question I ask: “Do you want to be one? And if so, what is a high performing organization? Let’s discuss what it is.

Barbara explains that taking this kind of honest, open conversational approach gets people to drop their defenses, opens up honest conversations about difficult issues, and creates a new energy level among people. “I definitely see a spring in people’s step,” she remarked.

I’m noticing that those who lead effectively:

  • Ask important questions
  • Make it safe for people to have real conversations about the issues
  • Listen intently
  • Trust that the group will discover how to move things forward

The end of employee communications as we know it

Will companies need employee communications departments three or five years from now? I think not.

Just as Twitter is changing how news and information is gathered and shared. So will social communication change business communication, eliminating the need for a centralized employee communications function.

In an interview this week NYU journalism professor and media critic Jay Rosen said, “Because of Twitter, the news system is tending toward a state where every user is a node in the news gathering network. And a distributor. That’s a very different system.”

Employee communications will quickly evolve into a very different system as well. With every employee a node in the company information network. Whether it’s Twitter, a private company social network or some other social form of communications, people will want to find out what’s going on in the company — not just from executives and department heads but from one another.

A Fortune 100 company called this morning to talk about new skills and competencies for corporate communications professionals. There are many, which I’ll try to address in another post.  But this got me to thinking that perhaps we need to elevate the conversation to what communications skills and competencies executives need in this evolving world.

Soon — or maybe it’s already here — executives will need to be direct communicators, like all team members. How they participate will determine the effectiveness of workplace communications and how well they attract talent.   Not the Intranet, the employee newsletter, the beautiful posters or the occasional and well-scripted town hall meeting.

While this transition like all transitions will be full of uncertainty, I hope it is not full of fear. Leaders with a clear sense of purpose and passion for their employees, customers and community  have all they need to be superb communicators. Just be yourself. And help people see the way forward.