But the use of the story not only to delight but to instruct and lead has long been a part of human culture.
We can trace it back thousands of years to the days of the shaman around the tribal fire. It was he who recorded the oral history of the tribe, encoding its beliefs, values, and rules in the tales of its great heroes, of its triumphs and tragedies. Storytelling plays a similar role today.
For the leader, storytelling is action oriented—a force for turning dreams into goals and then into results. Second, many people assume that storytelling is somehow in conflict with authenticity. The great storyteller, in this view, is a spinner of yarns that amuse without being rooted in truth.
But great storytelling does not conflict with truth. In the business world and elsewhere, it is always built on the integrity of the story and its teller.
Sailing the beautiful Lesser Sunda chain of Indonesian islands, Indonesia
Hence the emphasis on truth as its touchstone in our dinner symposium. Authenticity, as noted above, is a crucial quality of the storyteller. He must be congruent with his story—his tongue, feet, and wallet must move in the same direction.
The consummate modern shaman knows his own deepest values and reveals them in his story with honesty and candor. Costco could have stuck to the original price and dropped seven extra dollars a pair straight into its own pocket. The same is true of every leader, in business or any other field. Take Barack Obama.
His story is all about who he is. And everything about him is part of it, down to his physical presence: the eye contact, the hand on the shoulder, the sound of his voice. Being true to yourself also involves showing and sharing emotion. Because it often requires being vulnerable—a challenge for many leaders, managers, salespeople, and entrepreneurs. By willingly exposing anxieties, fears, and shortcomings, the storyteller allows the audience to identify with her and therefore brings listeners to a place of understanding and catharsis, and ultimately spurs action.
Here is the challenge for the business storyteller: He must enter the hearts of his listeners, where their emotions live, even as the information he seeks to convey rents space in their brains. Our minds are relatively open, but we guard our hearts with zeal, knowing their power to move us. To reach it, the visionary manager crafting his story must first display his own open heart.
Listeners give the storyteller their time, with the understanding that he will spend it wisely for them. To meet the terms of this contract—and ideally even over deliver on it—the great storyteller takes time to understand what his listeners know about, care about, and want to hear. Then he crafts the essential elements of the story so that they elegantly resonate with those needs, starting where the listeners are and bringing them along on a satisfying emotional journey. This journey, resulting in an altered psychological state on the part of the listener, is the essence of storytelling.
I study their reactions and then, even more important, study my reaction to them. What I must follow is my own deepest instinct, and this is best revealed to me as I see how I respond to the feelings and thoughts of other people. Business leaders too need to be in touch with their listeners—not slavish or patronizing, but receptive—in order to know how to lead them. Getting your story right for your listeners means working past a series of culs-de-sac and speed bumps to find the best path. Every storyteller is in the expectations-management business and must take responsibility for leading listeners effectively through the story experience, incorporating both surprise and fulfillment.
This requires a willingness to surrender ownership of the story. Business leaders need to tap into this drive by using storytelling to place their listeners at the center of the action. She often tells her life story in a way that anyone can identify with, recalling how she felt like an outcast at her all-girls school as a teenager—with glasses, braces, and corrective shoes—and how that prepared her for the rigors of her professional life.
When you hear Krawcheck describe her journey in these terms, you know exactly how she feels. Perhaps of equal import, business leaders must recognize that how the audience physically responds to the storyteller is an integral part of the story and its telling. Communal emotional response—hoots of laughter, shrieks of fear, gasps of dismay, cries of anger—is a binding force that the storyteller must learn how to orchestrate through appeals to the senses and the emotions. Getting the audience to cheer, rise, and vocalize in response to a dramatic, rousing conclusion creates positive emotional contagion, produces a strong emotional takeaway, and fuels the call to action by the business leader.
The ending of a great narrative is the first thing the audience remembers. The litmus test for a good story is not whether listeners walk away happy or sad. Orchestrate emotional responses effectively, and you actually transfer proprietorship of the story to the listener, making him an advocate who will power the viral marketing of your message. A great storyteller never tells a story the same way twice.
Instead, she sees what is unique in each storytelling experience and responds fully to what is demanded. A story involving your company should sound different each time. Whether you tell it to 2, customers at a convention, salespeople at a marketing meeting, ten stock analysts in a conference call, or three CEOs over drinks, you should tailor it to the situation.
The context of the telling is always a part of the story. And it did, though the information had been gathered in advance. There is a paradox here. Great storytellers prepare obsessively. They think about, rethink, work, and rework their stories. When we help companies sell themselves to Wall Street, we often see the CEO and his team present their story 10, 20, 30 times.
And usually each telling is better and more compelling than the one before. At the same time, the great storyteller is flexible enough to drop the script and improvise when the situation calls for it. Actually, intensive preparation and improvising are two sides of the same coin. If you know your story well, you can riff on it without losing the thread or the focus.
At the storytelling dinner, scientist and science fiction writer Gentry Lee told us about appearing on a public panel about alien abductions. As you might expect, the two abductees had colorful, vivid, fascinating stories to tell.
The Storyteller's Hut
The listeners were literally standing on their feet, clapping and cheering. But he could see that the frenzied audience was in no mood to absorb his lengthy presentation. All he said was this:. And yet, despite all these hundreds of supposed abductions, not a single souvenir has ever been brought back—not a single tool or document or drinking glass or so much as a thimble! Given the total absence of any physical evidence, can we really believe these extraordinary claims? This simple, unadorned statement—improvised on the spot to startle the audience into a fresh way of thinking—completely transformed the situation.
Most of the throng changed from true believers to thoughtful skeptics in just a few moments. A great storyteller is devoted to a cause beyond self. That mission is embodied in his stories, which capture and express values that he believes in and wants others to adopt as their own. Thus, the story itself must offer a value proposition that is worthy of its audience. The mission may be on a national or even global scale: To land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth.
This hut had wooden walls with sod piled up to the canvas roof on the outside. Kusugak and Autut were longtime friends. They named him Arvaarluk after an old man in Chesterfield Inlet. The manager of The Bay had an old house. There was a store where people went to trade their furs for flour, sugar, tea, bullets and other stuff they needed. There was a warehouse and various other small outbuildings. There was a wind generator and a flagpole. The flag only went up the pole when there was an airplane coming.
People lived in igloos in the winter and tents in the summer. It took Michael and some of his friends south to Chesterfield Inlet. And so began another kind of nomadic life, this time not in pursuit of seals, walruses, whales, caribou or fish but education.