Note: the following article recently appeared in Catalyst, the official publication of IABC.
By: Nancy Duarte
When shelter-in-place orders came through, seemingly overnight, the world as I’d known it — my team had known it — was in lockdown. The following Monday would be our first all-company meeting since the mandatory shut down.
My team was facing our fiercest monster together. Sure, during our 34 years in business, we’ve endured other significant challenges, which tested our resolve. During that Monday meeting, we did what we’ve always done in crisis: We told stories.
After we told stories of overcoming previous crises, it became clear that my team had no intention of shrinking in fear. They would not be deterred. Rather, they rallied. With agility and innovation, our team transformed all of Duarte’s in-person workshops and all our clients’ massive live industry events to virtual experiences. It was no small feat. We did things during COVID we never thought possible.
Similarly, over the years, I have watched firsthand how our clients — who are leaders at the world’s highest-performing brands — use the power of story broaden their influence. Why? Because stories engage us and make us feel affection for an organization’s culture and products.
Our executive clients understand story is a powerful communication device. I’m not talking about fairy tales, fiction, falsehoods or spin. I’m talking about framing your point of view in a logical, story-based structure. Stories can move people to embrace big ideas and accomplish great things. Most of all, stories help us transform information into meaning and move us to act. Ultimately, that is why stories have the power to build influence.
Today, almost every role within an organization requires you to influence others in some way. Whether you manage a team, work alongside them or even communicate up … leveraging the power of story can help increase your influence.
1) Identity Stories: Illustrate Who We Are
First, stories provide insight into where we came from and what we stand for — as individuals and as organizations. The stories we share reveal to others why we show up the way we do and how our life experiences shaped and transformed us. This enables others to find moments of connection with us. We become more relatable characters, which helps foster trust and, in turn, build influence. Stories have the power to make ideas stick in our brains like glue, especially when we wrap them in a memorable and emotional story package. Every leader should have a handful of stories ready to share, so they can help others get unstuck.
These stories can be told from three perspectives:
A) I Stories: Told from the first person, an “I story” is one you personally experienced and learned a lesson from. These are the most powerful stories to tell because you can tell of your transformation from a place of personal conviction. As leaders, it’s essential to tell stories that tell of the messy middle and illustrate both triumph and failure. I’ll follow a leader who’s tried and failed and talks about it before I’ll follow one who pretends life isn’t hard.
B) We Stories: Similarly, “we stories” are stories experienced by a group of people you were part of who learned a lesson together. A “we story” could be about your family, your team, your company or community. These stories are about how you overcame obstacles with others, like the origin stories of co-founders or entire departments achieving a big goal. The stories can also be told with deep conviction from your perspective because you lived through it.
C) They Stories: Third-person stories, or “they stories,” are told about other people or historical events, but you personally played no part in it. You’re simply relaying the outcome of the lesson someone else learned. These stories are great to tell, but if you do tell one, immerse yourself in thelesson of the story and tell it in a way that transports people to feel like they were there.
Each of these story perspectives, when used in the right moment, can transform how others relate to you and your organization.
2) Insight Stories: Lend Meaning to Data
The power of story not only comes in the lessons learned but also in how people find meaning in the insights that lead to action. This is particularly true when discerning stories to tell from data to convey critical information or influence decision making.
Illustrating clear insights and making clear recommendations from data moves people from a place of “let me think about it…” to “let’s do something about it.” That’s why communicating data using story principles speeds up the decision-making process.
Many analytical roles spend time deeply exploring the data, and they can swizzle it and plot great charts. Some data geeks at this stage feel more comfortable flicking charts to those in a higher pay grade to figure out what data is telling you to do. Yet, one of two things happens when exploring data: You find either a problem or an opportunity in the data. But, once a problem or opportunity has been identified in data, you have a communication challenge to solve.
In order to advance in your career, the threshold for you to cross becomes learning how to explain the action others are to take based on data — and using story structures to do so. The ability to identify the action and communicate it well moves you from an individual contributor to a strategic advisor. And, as you build this muscle, you become more trusted and broaden your influence.
3) Idea Stories: Create New Futures
Finally, stories give traction to your ideas by moving an audience away from the status quo and creating longing for an alternate future.
A great story has a cathartic release, where there’s a building of tension and releasing it. The beginning of a great talk should establish “what is.” This is the shared current reality and mindsets of the audience, organization and industry.
Then, you contrast the current state of “what is” with the future state by sharing “what could be.” The audience begins to see the ideal picture of their world with your idea adopted. The gap between “what is” and “what could be” is similar to the inciting incident in story. This gap between “what is” and “what could be” throws the hero’s world off balance and causes them to grapple whether they’ll leave what feels safe to them or choose your proposed future.
Stating the gaps clearly and repeatedly in your presentation helps the audience separate from the status quo and makes your future state more alluring. However, like with any story, the audience knows that the path to “what could be” might not be an easy one. Like a young hobbit at the start of a book, your audience needs to be shaken out of complacency.
How you end a talk is very important. The principle of recency states that people will remember the last thing you said more than the beginning or middle, so make your final point powerful. End by stating what I call the “new bliss.” Make it clear how their world and life will flourish if they choose to adopt your idea in their future.
Great Stories Start With You
Through the power of story, we have been able to keep our teams focused and engaged during COVID. But it has required me, and really each one of us, to keep facing this unknown future by admitting our fears amidst the challenges which, when shared authentically, builds greater trust as we work toward our vision.
Communicating through story creates longing and makes others more willing to travel into the future with you. That’s why I encourage you to keep finding ways to infuse story into your communications. Whether you’re battling a monster like COVID or rolling out a new initiative in a challenging market, telling your story is the first step in changing the world.