If you’re a leader, then you’re a storyteller 

All great stories start with change.

Whether it’s the inquisitive mouse setting off on a journey through the forest in Julia Donaldson’s  classic – and my son’s favourite book – The Gruffalo, or Sal Paradise heading west across America in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, a story that inspired a generation of beatniks (and one angsty teen from Runcorn), there’s a common theme in the stories that define us.

Think of the books you love. The songs that make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. The newspaper articles that boil your blood, or academic papers that make you pause for thought.

The catalyst for all of them? They all start with a moment of change!*

Over the last few months we have had to reinvent our businesses, our society and how we see the world as individuals.

We are standing on extremely fertile storytelling ground.

A plot twist

Right now, whether we recognise it or not, we are all writing a new chapter in the stories of our ourselves, our communities and our organisations.

In the face of monumental change, how we respond will reshape how the world sees us. It’s a plot twist. A chance to take the story in a new direction.

Or, for those who don’t like the story so far, an opportunity to start afresh.

How we go about this will impact our businesses and careers for years.

Organisations who get it right – the local shop that delivers to its vulnerable customers, the pub that cooks for the homeless – will earn trust and be repaid with loyalty.

For those who get it wrong – the organisations which put profit before people or abuse the trust of the public – huge investment will be needed to repair the reputational damage. Some will never recover.

Storytelling takes time 

The stories of our organisations – and the people who lead them – take time to tell and need to be crafted so they fit with our values and aspirations. They need a narrative arc. They need a strategy.

‘Quick win’ newspaper articles are not storytelling – nor is spamming key messages out on Twitter.

Like a conductor standing in front of an orchestra, leaders must set the direction for thousands of individual actions choreographed to create a symphony that an audience (be it our colleagues, customers or stakeholders) can understand, believe in and celebrate.

Those promising otherwise are selling snake oil.

It’s a noisy world

The world is a noisy place – as Sarah Harvey wrote about in her last blog.

An overwhelming 6,000 tweets go out every second and this blog is one of nearly four million being posted as I write.

We hear communicators talk about achieving the fabled ‘cut through.’ But cut through only gets you so far. It needs to be backed up by trust. And an understanding that a brand or person belongs to the same tribe as you.

Stretch your hand out in front of you and give a thumbs up (don’t worry, you’re probably WFH so no one is watching).

The area of your thumbnail – that’s what you see in HD. It’s about 2° of our field of vision. The rest is more blurred. A bit fuzzy. It’s there. But it’s never quite as sharp. The more we move to the periphery of our vision, the less we can focus.

Our eyes are constantly scanning the horizon for things we should focus on. For signs of change.

We digest information in a similar way. There is plenty of it out there. But a tiny fraction of it commands our undivided attention each day.

Often these are the things that are relevant to our own lives right now – conversations with friends, family and work colleagues and information from causes that we already know align to our belief systems.

If we want people’s attention, then we have to earn it.

Fancy sports cars

One off campaigns that blast into public consciousness for a moment are like a fancy sports car zooming past us on the motorway.

We hold them in our gaze for a second – we may even stop to admire them – but we rarely dwell on them for long.

By telling our story clearly and consistently over time, by being authentic and sticking to our values, and by being brave enough to allow people and organisations to show character and vulnerability we will register more regularly in people’s vision.

This is how we tell our stories. This is how we build trust. And this is how – when we do get opportunities to cut through, and we do hold people’s gaze – our message not only lands but sticks.

We all have the chance to write our own story. Now is the time to consider whether you are happy with yours.

* Will Storr’s book The Science of Storytelling is excellent on this topic.

Bobbie Hough