What is the story you tell yourself? What is the story you tell others? Can these stories change, be fluid, as your leadership (and life) experiences change too?
“My story is pretty straightforward… I went to a pretty ordinary school…. I always planned to work outdoors…. I met my wife we fell in love… I was drawn to work with organisations with a purpose… community is massive to me…”
I’m eavesdropping. Sitting in a yurt in the Berkshire countryside with the March sun streaming in and surrounded by leaders from the 2018 Wavelength Connect program who are huddled in pairs, intently sharing their life stories despite having been strangers minutes before. It’s day one of On Your Marks – the launch event for Wavelength Connect – and we’re exploring the craft of storytelling. Leading the session is Richard Addy a former chief advisor at the BBC, expert on audience strategy, and Co-Founder of the consultancy AKAS who knows a thing or two about stories not least because he’s had to get to grips with his own.
Earlier Richard shared two stories to a room of over 100 leaders. These stories were about two people brought up in the same area around the same time but whose lives took two very different directions – one living a life defined by achievement and success, the other by feelings of inadequacy and failure. After admitting we found the second story more compelling because it contained adversity (what Richard refers to as “jeopardy”), he revealed that both stories were his story, highlighting how we can choose the stories we tell.
At Wavelength the leaders we admire tell stories and tell them well. They tell stories to inspire, to spread ideas, to connect and they often encourage a culture of storytelling in their organisations viewing stories as valuable cultural currency. Among the speakers at On Your Marks this year were many accomplished storytellers, storytellers who know how to move from the concrete to the conceptual on what S.I. Hayakawa called the ‘ladder of abstraction’. These included Ray Davis, former CEO of Umpqua Bank. Ray described in humorous detail picking up a phone call from a curious customer who had seen it was possible to call the CEO direct from their local branch. He linked this effortlessly to the ethos of Umpqua, an organisation that sees customer experience as is its biggest differentiator. It also included Ken Banks, entrepreneur and author of The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator, who used photos of specific moments from his life to tell a bigger story about shared humanity and individual responsibility.
But what makes for a great story and how can we improve our storytelling?
At Sheepdrove Richard introduced us to a simple five-step narrative development tool, designed to help add structure, emotion and drama to our storytelling.
Step One: Audience Focus Clarify who the narrative is for – is it for your team, another department in your organisation, opinion formers, stakeholders, the public, the media?
Step Two: Perspectives Understand your audience’s point of view on you, your team, your organisation, the world because this is the filter through which your story will be received and interpreted.
Step Three: Central & Supporting Characters Experiment with whom to place centre stage and who to position in the wings as changing these dramatically changes the impact of a story on a listener.
Step Four: Elements You need to decide what content to include (Building Blocks) and the reaction you want to evoke (Emotional Power). So is it a story about your organisation’s mission designed to leave listeners awestruck? A customer experience story you want to evoke a warm fuzzy feeling? Or perhaps a story about the quarterly results designed to strike fear into the listener’s heart!
Step Five: Narrative Structure This is about taking the central character and thus the listener on a journey. Whether the structure involves overcoming a challenge (good news, bad news, better future) or going from ‘rags to riches’ (bad news, good news, even better news) or another narrative structure, what’s important is that there is both progress and some form of resolution.
So how can you tell when a story hits the mark?
Richard commented that whenever he tells his personal story others seek him out to tell him theirs, with individuals often sharing highly personal stories for the first time. This idea of the resonance of a story triggering other stories was echoed by Anu Banerjee, formerly Vice President, Barclays Wealth and now Interior Designer, Anouska Hempel Design, who was on the very first Wavelength Connect program back in 2010, “I find it works well [to tell stories] when you’re a leader as you want to promote discussion. And people tend to respond with their own stories. It changes the mode and tone of the discussion. It tends to be much more friendly and discursive.”
Finally it’s worth remembering that we tell ourselves stories too and we should consider their impact on our sense of self. 2015 Wavelength Connect alumni Richard Guest, formerly Commercial Director at Centrica now a Consultant at Babylon Health, told us recently how his leadership story has changed over time shifting how he thinks about his leadership and the type of roles he’s interested in, “I’ve gone from thinking I’m a person who does these things within very specific parameters – I do whatever the role is, in my organisation – to now where I think much more broadly. I’m there to pioneer disruptive innovation that delivers commercial and consumer benefit irrespective of sector boundaries.”
But this impact can be negative too. Richard Addy told us how holding back parts of his personal story had made him feel disconnected from himself, an imposter, but equally warned never to feel pressured to tell stories you’re not ready to share – they’re yours, it’s your choice.
Written by Helen Trevaskis. Alongside helping Wavelength design Wavelength Connect, Helen is a social innovation and behaviour change consultant. She is currently training to be an Illustrator at Falmouth University.
About Wavelength Wavelength is a world-class leadership company. We aim to make the world better through business by enabling ambitious leaders to develop their connectivity, knowledge and resilience. We understand the key issues facing companies today: employee engagement, service excellence, social innovation, digital disruption, leadership resilience and change management. Our unique programmes and insider access to progressive and inspiring organisations offer a radically different model for learning and tangible return on investment.
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