You narrate stories. It’s one of the ways you link up with your families, trade partners and friends. It’s how you impress prospective employers when you apply for jobs or make deals with potential clients. It’s what you do on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram, and even how you go about the business of dating and finding a love life. Leaders tell stories, too. They do so to draw in, amaze, manage and generate the loyalty of their constituents. Leaders need to acquire many different skills, including the ability to enlighten people through engaging narratives. Without such power, leaders would be lacking in followers.
The book Lessons From The Top by Gavin Esler — a BBC news presenter for many years — is about the power of such stories, based largely on the experiences of leaders he met. It also gives a “fascinating insider’s view of modern leadership.” It shares narratives on how great leaders have always understood the influence of compelling stories. Through their chronicles, they educate, inform, entertain, persuade and cause change. And with their examples you are given background knowledge on how they attain great leadership. If you need to attain a strong emotional connection with your followers — current or potential — then effective storytelling is not a “nice-to-have.” It’s a must.
Esler’s immensely insightful ideas present many fundamental principles of storytelling that have stood the test of time — how to appear and how much of your realty you want, or are willing to share. He scrutinizes the opportunities and pressures shaped by modern-day occurrences such as the 24-hour news cycle, and what they reveal to us on how to reach the top, how to stay on top, and how to critique those who are already there. The book lines up a number of workable tips for all hopeful leaders and speechmakers, and the following are most striking and practical:
Engage your listeners. It does not matter how you do it, so long as you do it. Every leader tells a leadership story in three parts: “Who am I?” “Who are we?” and “What is our common purpose?” You must learn to answer the “Who am I?” question adequately, or the other two questions do not matter. You may have numerous traits, but if you are incapable of telling stories then you cannot communicate with your constituents and consequently, your leadership will fall. The 21st century has seen great changes in the way you communicate and hence in the stories you tell. People understand character better than policies. That’s why a trivial story well told is always better than a profound story badly told.
Tell stories you hope will stick like an “earwig.” The part of the story that squirms inside your ear, such that the message sticks, is called an “earwig.” It is very much like the way in which a particular chorus line or a refrain in the catchiest songs leeches into your mind — good or bad. Think of it as the headline you would like to see appended to your name, or the epitaph that would fit on your tombstone.
Be cautious in your use of words. Take extra care in applying positive vocabulary about you, and at times negative language directed at your rivals and competitors. On television, pictures can be even more important. Telling a leadership narrative is like the board game “Snakes and Ladders.” Making a speech in a controlled environment is a “Ladder” — something likely to enhance your reputation as a leader. But giving an interview, especially on a confrontational radio program or to a newspaper journalist, is potentially a “Snake,” since it is very intricate for you to have power over.
Give your audience the “STAR” moment.“STAR” is short for “Something They Always Remember.” Think of Bill Gates opening a jar filled with mosquitoes while talking about malaria to a room filled with potential donors.
Tell your story, tell it, and tell it again. In other words, repeat yourself. Drill the “earwig” and the “STAR” moment into the brains of your listeners. By all means tell people how your thinking has developed, but be careful to explain any changes with respect to the past, including your own.
Strive for five. Remember the actor’s method for improving his craft. People want you to look at them as equals — just like us — and not talk down to them from the height of a “10,” or even talk up to them from a lonely “one.”
Recognize that you have to adapt the way you tell your leadership stories to compete in the new media market. Today’s information age has seen a transformation in the way you receive news, and also in the kind of news you read, see and hear. Gossip has become globalized. Even obscure people can suddenly become famous. Privacy is dead. Celebrity culture has changed what you expect to see and hear about those in the news. A new intrusiveness in the lives of leaders is here — heralding a return to much older traditions of 18th- and 19th-century communicators.
Use shared experiences of your childhood to identify with a nation or people. It is a universal phenomenon. You have a fund of stories from your early days. You remember family pets, the discipline of your elders, the crazy things you did, the hard lessons of successes and failures, and the rebellion of your teenage years. You also know that such stories connect with your common humanity. The naughtiness and misfortunes of your youth cleverly remind you of the common humanity you share with other future leaders.
Aspire for authenticity in your story, even if authenticity can be faked. And sometimes it should be faked. Authenticity is more important than truth. Stories that the audience suspects may not entirely be true can serve the leader’s purpose as long as they sound “genuine.” Honesty is still the best policy, because if you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything, and a story that sounds real is one that will be believed even if — as with the biographies of many leaders — some of the details have been massaged, spun or fabricated.
Employ humor in your storytelling.It is humanizing. To make an effective leadership story you need to engage your audience by violating their expectations, and surprising them in some way. You can do this by being self-deprecating, hilarious, and humble, or by out-of-this-world conjectures.
Change your own leadership stories and bring people with you. To illustrate the point, the author cited the story of former US president Bill Clinton, who was described as a leader that’s “deeply flawed but a political genius.” He altered his personal story, he altered his own party, and he altered his country. Policies got altered, too, but they were part of Clinton’s strategy to hold on to power. Clinton’s approach makes you understand that you are also rooted in tradition. You can adopt the same patterns for your business, profession or other areas of your lives. To be effectively new, you must destroy the past and start again, since the past has to be built on, not destroyed.
Manage temperament more than intelligence in a scandalous situation. A scandal is the worst kind of counter-story imaginable. Your objective is survival. The strategy and tactics in facing disgraceful and shameful circumstances vary with different leaders, but the key is to engage the audience with the leader’s character and personality, and to make the scandal seem either out of character or, if clearly in character, irrelevant to the overall performance of the leader.
Learn from your mistakes, and admit they were possible. Do not compound them by giving your opponent the worst examples of negative counter-stories. And, more importantly, defend yourself. Nobody will do it for you. If you cannot explain your “Who am I?” answers, others will characterize you according to their convenience, not yours. Build “learning from mistakes” elements into your story. Rewrite the script for new times, and apologize for the past where necessary. Telling a compelling story is one of the most important things you can do. It demands a degree of self-criticism, though not necessarily of public humiliation. If you admit mistakes, you might find that you are looked at as a trusted individual.
Apply the triumvirate in storytelling: objective, strategy, and tactics. If you order your priorities it will help you think through the message of the stories you are trying to tell.
Live your story; don’t just tell it. Nothing annoys people more than discovering that the stories that you tell do not match up to your actions. In theater this is called “dramatic irony.” In real life it is called hypocrisy.
Author Salman Rushdie declared, “Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives — the power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change — truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.” You are a storyteller. You exist amid a web of stories. You develop a stronger connection. Behind a great leader is a great story. You establish a stronger and more meaningful connection between you and other people by your power to tell stories.