Guest post by Chip Bell
Great leaders are storytellers. Stories are more than just tall tales or campfire yarns. They include discussions of the enterprise in the future tense. They are visions of what can be, not just what is. They are dreams, not just plans. In a complex, unpredictable and volatile competitive work world, stories of promise instill conviction and bolster confidence. They can inspire, instruct and invite.
Most leaders can learn to tell stories well, but some may find storytelling so challenging they prefer to use other approaches to leader communications. If you decide to incorporate a story into your leadership practice, you may find it helpful to structure your storytelling around three phases: context, challenge, and climax.
The Context: Painting the background
The story’s context establishes the setting or scene. It’s the “once upon a time” part that invites associates into your story. In a sense, the context allows the associate to become witnesses to the visions of the storyteller. Context is the anticipatory set for learning.
A good story should start with a transition that uses words or cues—such as a long pause—to signify the story’s beginning. Stories should always be purposeful. Associates should never wonder why you are telling them what they are hearing. After the transition, create a realistic backdrop. Often a story takes more time to relate than it took to happen so allow enough time to set the scene. When creating the context of your story, ask yourself the following questions:
- What do I want my associates to feel?
- How can I nurture a sense of adventure, mystery, suspense, joy or invitation?
- Will my associates be able to visualize the scene I have in my mind?
The Challenge: Creating the proper tension
A good story should contain a challenge, which can also be described as “dissonance.” To communicate dissonance, create a dilemma with which associates can identify. Once you’ve created a dilemma, describe in your story plan the challenge for each of the key characters, using one sentence. For example, “John’s challenge is such-and-such. Sue’s challenge is such and such.” It could be a collective challenge. “We suddenly realized we were at a crossroads…” This helps you keep things straight or “manage” the story. Tension creates in the listener a kind of leaning forward for the resolution. The following questions can help you create dissonance:
- How can I build a sense of concern, conflict, or suspense?
- Will my associates be able to visualize the challenge the same way I do?
- Will the dilemma create enough dissonance associates will desire a resolution?
The Climax: Insight through resolution
The story’s climax is more than just an ending; it is a resolution used as a tool for insight. The climax must clearly fit the challenge and carry the associates to new and unexpected directions. If a story were mapped out, the climax would reside on the other side of the gaps created by the challenge. It the listener leaps over the gap, thus eliminating dissonance, he or she experiences insight and inspiration. Make the climax inviting, realistic, and relevant. Avoid it being too routine or too far-fetched. The associate must be able to relate to and identify with how the story ends. When creating the climax, ask yourself the following questions:
- Will the ending surprise, amuse, inspire, challenge, or amaze my associates?
- Will associates view the ending as relevant and important?
- Will associates gain new attitudes, understandings, or skills from the resolution?
Putting the right spin on the tale
Even a well-crafted story can fail to achieve its objectives if it isn’t told well. Don’t be afraid to ham it up a bit. Remember: you’re painting a picture. Use a lot of details in the beginning of the story and then faze them out. Timing is key to good storytelling. Practice by recording your story and listening for places pauses might add punch. Use different gestures, varied facial expressions, and dramatic body movements. Stay focused and stick to the story line. Mental side trips make stories belabored.
Stories can reach resistant associates in ways well-crafted advice may not. Stories have a way of circumventing the mind’s logic to capture the imagination. As such, they are great gifts when delivered with care, content and caution. Leaders are great storytellers. Add storytelling to your leadership repertoire and let the corporate campfires begin.
A note from Jesse: I am delighted to host another guest post by friend Chip Bell, one of the best storytellers I know. You can learn more about how to craft great stories in his excellent new book Book Mark: How to Be an Author. Chip’s guest posts have been quite popular and if you’re interested in reading more of them, check out Trust Me, You’ll Be Fine, which he wrote when he first published his bestseller Kaleidoscope and Fear of Learning, which he wrote when he first published his bestseller Managers as Mentors.
Chip R. Bell is a renowned keynote speaker and the author of several national best-selling books on customer loyalty. His newest book is Book Mark: How to Be an Author. A soup-to-nuts book on how to turn your writing into a best-selling book, this book covers thorny book-writing topics like: finding the inspiration to write a book; unblocking writer’s block; landing a great publishing contract; promoting your new book; and navigating the legal side of book-writing. The book Includes seven special chapters on major book genres—fiction, non-fiction, short stories, poetry, inspirational books, business books, cookbooks, etc.—written by eight award-winning and/or best-selling authors. Chip can be reach at www.chipbell.com. To find his new book on Amazon, click here -> Book Mark.