Of all the communications tools available to a leader, perhaps none is more powerful than storytelling. From Martin Luther King to Sheryl Sandberg, great leaders have always used stories to connect people to ideas, to each other and to a vision of the future they want to make real.
But every great power has inherent risks and rewards in using it, and storytelling in leadership communications is no different. Tell the wrong story in the wrong situation and you run the risk of your audience staring blankly at you, wondering silently (or worse, out loud) what the point of that story was and how they go about getting a refund on the three minutes you just took from their lives in telling it. But share the right story in the right situation and the rewards can be great, specifically in your ability to connect with your audience at a more meaningful and human level, indirectly yet effectively shaping the way they think and feel, and motivating them towards a desired action.
To reap the greatest rewards from storytelling in the workplace and steer clear of the risks, one must think strategically about the stories they tell, making sure they can first identify what they need a story to achieve so they can then find or develop the right story to achieve it. It also involves building great stories to be told. And while every story is different and unique, all great strategic stories are composed of five essential elements.
Premise – This is the context for your story, connecting the story you are about to tell to the workplace situation in which you’re telling it and/or the mindset of the audience who’s hearing it. Establishing the premise for your story is a way of setting it up, building common understanding with your audience and helping them appreciate why they should listen to it.
An example. Let’s say you’re a manager that has gathered the troops to present a rollout plan for a major new initiative that will require your team to learn a new way of operating. You know that many on your team are anxious about this change. You also know that they’re not really going to listen to your rollout plan unless you can deal with this white elephant of nervous energy sitting in the middle of the room blocking the screen. So you’ve got a great personal story to share with them about embracing change and learning new skills. But rather than just launch into that story, you first establish the premise for it by saying something like…
“As everyone knows, we’re about to implement a big change initiative across the company. We’re here for the next hour to present the rollout plan for this implementation and discuss your roles in it. There’s no denying that changes of this magnitude can be both exciting and unsettling. It can make people nervous, especially if they have to learn new skills. I’m sure you’re feeling it; I’m feeling it too. Change is hard. In fact, as I was getting ready for this meeting, I was reminded of a story about change that I want to quickly share with you.”
And then you tell your story, in this case one about the fulfillment and success that comes from facing change head-on, embracing it and learning new skills. Your audience knows this story is going to be about getting through change because you’ve set up the premise for it, and in doing so you’ve connected your story not only to how they’re feeling, but also to the reason you’re all gathered together — i.e. to present the rollout plans for this change initiative.
Platform – After you’ve established the Premise for your story, you then start to shape it by establishing the time and place for your narrative, helping your audience understand when and where it begins. For example, “Once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away” is the platform for one of the most well-known stories of our time (Star Wars). For the story referenced above it might be, “When I was 23 years old and in the second year of my first job, working as Account Executive at Grey Advertising in New York City, we were told a major reorg was coming…”
Person – This is the character or characters who find themselves in the time and place of the story’s Platform. Most stories have a main character whom the story is about, with supporting characters having an impact on that main character and/or journeying along with them. Quite often the main character is you, the storyteller, as you share a personal narrative in which you are central to its Plot, and the Point of the story revolves around what has happened to you. But keep in mind that even when a story is from your own experience, it doesn’t mean you have to be the main character in it. Instead, you might be more of a witness to a story that has unfolded for someone else. If this is the case, make sure you make the story about that Person and not about you, even if it’s told from your experience and perspective.
Plot – Plot is the driving force of any great story, entailing the series of events that have unfolded. Plot gives your story structure and flow, with a clear beginning, middle and, importantly, end. While there are many Plots a story can follow, the most typical involves a group of people (Person) in a current situation (Platform) who have a goal of achieving a new reality but experience obstacles and challenges in trying to reach that goal, and then somehow manage to overcome them. A story’s Plot becomes more engaging when there is tension built up around those challenges and obstacles, and that tension is relieved when the characters succeed by moving past them.
Point – And of course, every great strategic story, especially those shared in a workplace situation, has a Point to it. There is a key message, learning or takeaway that the audience draws from the story you’ve just told: one that flows naturally from the Plot of your story and its impact on the Person(s) in it. Because having a strong Point is central to my story’s success, I typically don’t like to leave its communication to chance and will often conclude my story by driving the Point home — e.g. “The point of this story is…” or “What I learned from that situation was…” or “The reason I shared this story with you is…”
Paying attention to the middle three element outlined above (Platform, Person and Plot) will ensure your story is engaging and captivating and something people will understand and want to listen to until the end. Paying attention to the first (Premise) and fifth (Point) elements will ensure your story is strategic: that it’s relevant to the workplace situation in which you’re telling it and that the audience is rewarded with something meaningful in hearing it.