The Importance of Storytelling

Not only is Storytelling a skill it is in fact one of the greatest skills we should possess as leaders.

Think about any great leader; and for the definition of “great” let me leave that up to you for once. You’ll find that many of them were brilliant thinkers, astute strategists, highly analytical and charismatic.

And you’ll definitely find that they could captivate an audience. They could tell a great story.

But storytelling is not just for leaders. Everybody in an organization should work on this ability. And there is a simple reason for that: communication is at the heart of all organizations.

Otherwise how would we get anything done?

I’m not going to go on a tirade against email and the other media or channels that we use to distribute messages. These aren’t forms of communication but conduits of messages. A message and a story are different things.

A message informs you of something but a story tells you about it.

In organizations today, we have accountants talking to sales people, financial analysts speaking to marketing folks. We have engineers talking to designers. And the list goes on and on.

And you know what? We might speak the same national language but we really don’t all speak the same language.

I’ve witnessed time and time again members of my finance team trying to explain a P&L to the creative team they support and what should be a simple exercise turns into both sides understanding different things or not understanding at all. That creates inefficiency and frustration in the organization as misunderstanding can lead to bad decisions being made which then need to be un-raveled.

What do I try do about it? And how can one limit this issue?

Work on telling stories.

Have your finance employee remember that he or she needs to tell the creative team member the P&L in a way that anyone can understand. In a way that someone with no knowledge of financial jargon or understanding of numbers can understand. Easier said than done, I hear you mutter under your breath. Well no, not really.

We all grew up (well probably most of us) being read stories. These stories we were read weren’t just to amuse us but were also meant to teach us values and acclimatize us to ways of doing things in our own culture. The messages were always indirect and that was from where they drew their staying power. Simple literal things rarely impress on us for long enough. That’s just how our brain works.

Let me explain this by an example.

Recently I hired in a new person for a newly created role reporting directly to me and overseeing a team that was in place and was already reporting to me. Also none of the incumbents were chosen for various reasons. Difficult, yes I know, but it depends on how you tell the story rather than just getting across the information.

Version 1

“Bob so-and-so (not his real name) is joining the team reporting to me. You’ll all now be reporting to Bob.”

Version 2

“We started a journey 18 months ago to reassess our organization. One of the recommendations that came out of that study was that I have too many direct reports which limit my interaction with all of you. You’ve all been asking me for more interaction and more counsel to help you grow into more senior roles across the company. While you have all made good progress, I see that you need more time with a seasoned senior leader who can better help you grow into those more senior roles. It is for that reason that I’ve found just the right leader with the right experience to help you and help this organization become better. Bob so-and-so comes with 20 years’ experience in similar organizations and is a great developer of talent. While he will be reporting directly to me, that doesn’t mean our interaction will diminish. Your areas of responsibility are of too much importance for me to completely detach from them.”

So maybe Version 2 is a little longer, I’ll give you that. But version 2 tells a story. (I never said telling a story was going to be easy.)

A story gives us background or history. Even if you assume the people you are talking to should know this, they might not link the background to the situation at hand. It doesn’t hurt to help them make that link.

A story makes it personal. Put the message in a way that your listener can identify with it. We identify with things that are meaningful to us.

A story says what is in it for the listener. Let you listener know what they’ll get out of what you are telling them about. It could be better revenues or better margin which could ultimately lead to outperforming their budget and potentially a better bonus or pay-rise for example.

A story allays fears head on. Know your listener and what might scare them and ensure you encapsulate this into what you’re saying. You don’t want them to panic unnecessarily and go off in the wrong direction creating a big fine mess that you then need to spend time fixing.

Telling a story requires thinking about how you’re going to tell the story. It is not like passing a message which usually breaks down into repeating what someone else has told you or what you read.

So take your time, as you’re trying to avoid frustration, inefficiency and having to spend more time on something than you really should.

It may feel like a lot but believe me it will always be worth your while.

The CFO

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