As the world continues to adapt to disruptions caused by the pandemic, effective storytelling can be a powerful tool for leaders who want to future-proof their organizations. Such storytelling will reinforce their rapport with key stakeholders.
Leaders need to consistently strengthen ties with the people who can make or break their business’ success. To do so, it’s important that you accurately identify your key stakeholders, learn the truth about them, and make them feel understood.
Once you have assured your stakeholders that you care about their best interests, you need to keep the rapport rolling. You have to make them feel that you are on the same page, especially when it comes to key issues. To demonstrate this, you need to learn about and use specific social intelligence skills for effective leadership storytelling.
Help Your Stakeholders Feel Understood Using Effective Storytelling Techniques
To facilitate a better exchange of thoughts and ideas, you can employ specific, tried-and-tested methods informed by social intelligence whenever you engage with your key influencers. Social intelligence refers to the strategic capacity to evaluate and influence other people’s emotions and relationships.
Social intelligence-based methods will allow you to break the ice as well as strengthen the trust between your organization and your stakeholders.
A few months ago, I met with Ryan, my coaching client who recently joined a mid-sized tech company as the new CEO. Ryan told me he was having problems getting the buy-in of the other senior executives to shift the organization to a hybrid remote work schedule.
This is not an unusual situation. Indeed, so many leaders are forcing their employees back to the office despite in-depth surveys showing a strong preference for substantial remote work of at least half of the time for most workers.
Ryan was able to get the C-suite to warm up to him initially during his first month after he used stakeholder engagement techniques such as empathetic listening, as well as echoing and mirroring. Yet they became aloof again when he brought up the matter of a hybrid remote work schedule for staff, since most of the other leaders preferred their old office-centric schedule and processes.
Ryan approached me for advice because his meetings weren’t going well. While he tried to be accommodating and reasonable, his attempts to discuss the shift weren’t received openly and instead were met with outright opposition.
He suspected that many in the current C-suite felt that he was shaking things up too soon while they just wanted to maintain the status quo. The COO in particular was very opposed to the shift and was quite combative. He considered himself to be the “defender” of the group and also seemed to have a huge influence over the rest of the executives.
Frustrated, Ryan told me he was considering just quickly pushing through with the shift despite the opposition. And if the COO and others opposed him, he was considering letting them go.
Mental Blindspots Undermines Effective Storytelling
Why are these old-school leaders resistant to the seemingly-obvious solution: a hybrid model for most, with full-time permanent remote work for those who both want it and show high effectiveness and productivity? Unfortunately, we’re all vulnerable to dangerous judgment errors that behavioral economists and cognitive neuroscientists call cognitive biases.
These mental blindspots, which stem from our evolutionary background and the structure of our neural pathways, lead to poor strategic decision-making and planning. They affect all areas of our life, from health to politics and even shopping.
Many people feel a desire to go back to the world before the pandemic. They fall for the status quo bias, a desire to maintain or get back what they see as the appropriate situation and way of doing things. Their minds flinch away from accepting the major disruption stemming from the pandemic.
Unfortunately for them, with so many people having successfully worked from home for so long, the genie is out of the bottle. They’re used to it: to them, working from home is the status quo. Surveys show the vast majority adapted to it well and want to continue doing so for at least half the work week and a large minority permanently after the pandemic. The disruption happened.
Yet many leaders have spent this time gnashing their teeth and seeing work from home as a “purely negative” situation, in the words of Netflix CEO Reed Hastings. To them, telework represents a deviation from the pre-pandemic status quo, to which they want to return. They’re closing their eyes to reality and ignoring what’s in front of them.
A major factor in leaders wanting everyone to return to the office stems from problematic transition to work-from-home as part of the March 2020 lockdowns. Perceiving this shift as a very brief emergency, leaders focused, naturally and appropriately, on accomplishing the necessary tasks of the organization. However, they ignored the social and emotional glue that truly holds companies together in an organizational culture, motivates employees, and protects against burnout.
That’s fine for an emergency, a week or two. Yet COVID lasted for over a year. So they adapted their existing ways of interacting in “office culture” to remote work. They did not make the effort to figure out what kind of culture and collaboration and communication methods would work best for telework, and failed to address strategically issues like deteriorating organizational culture, sense of connection to others staff, and burnout.
That speaks to a cognitive bias called functional fixedness. When we have a certain perception of how systems should function, how an object should be used, or how people should behave, we ignore other possible functions, uses, and behaviors. We do this even if these new functions, uses and behaviors offer a much better fit for a changed situation, and would address our problems much better.
Effective Storytelling Principles: Engagement Over Skepticism
I convinced Ryan not to jump to conclusions and to keep an open mind about the COO and other senior executives. After all, pushing through the shift would likely cause significant efforts to sabotage it from the top. First, he needed to maintain the initial engagement he was able to establish previously so that he could proceed with reinforcing the connection.
To do so, I advised him to use storytelling techniques to strengthen his rapport with the executives.
I pointed out that arguments and facts speak to logic and reason and inspire skepticism and analysis. When hearing these, people intuitively become skeptical and start preparing to argue and criticize.
On the other hand, stories speak to emotions. They inspire engagement and openness and are much more memorable than facts and arguments.
When telling stories to strengthen rapport, leaders should keep in mind these key principles:
1. Show Emotions
You have to build emotional rapport when strengthening connections with your key stakeholders. This means showing vulnerability and sharing personal stories that show how your values and goals match theirs.
Use humor in your stories because it’s simple and you can pre-plan it easily. You can also get feedback from others on how well your humor works.
Stories should always both entertain and educate, although entertainment comes first and education second. Entertainment comes from a combination of drama and humor. Your goal is to engage people and get them to open up, which happens when you entertain them. Especially the first story you tell in a stakeholder interaction should be more entertaining.
For entertainment value, make the story vivid – what’s called “well told”. Make sure to put some emotion into your voice. Your story should have rich, sensory details that are specific and concrete. The story should appeal to universal human experiences.
2. Stories Go Straight to Our Emotions
People enter a more open mental state when you tell them a story. This is because stories aren’t something with which you argue. Your stakeholders, then, will prepare to be entertained and educated, as that’s what stories do.
3. Show Strong and Mostly Positive Emotions When Telling Stories
Tell mostly positive stories infused with excitement, enthusiasm, and hope. Occasionally, when needed, you can also include the negative emotion of anger. You can also show despair if you are telling a story of redemption. Avoid showing sadness as it doesn’t motivate action and instead makes people passive.
4. Avoid Telling Tall Tales
Despite the creativity afforded to the storytelling, you should never give false information. However, your stories shouldn’t be a report of all the information. Think of a story as a magnifying glass and highlight that you can use to highlight ideas and concepts that would otherwise be overlooked by your stakeholders. You can also use attentional bias – our tendency to pay attention to information that we find most emotionally engaging – for your benefit.
Social Intelligence Skills: Effective Storytelling Structure
When Ryan learned about how he can effectively engage the other senior leaders through storytelling, he was eager to give it a go. He had previously identified that the opposition to his plan to work from home came from the company’s several failed telework initiatives at the start of the pandemic due to functional fixedness.
The failed initiatives was one of the factors that led to the previous CEO’s resignation. It also caused a great deal of friction within the C-suite, most especially between the COO and the former CEO. Ryan learned that the COO was particularly averse to a shift to a hybrid remote work schedule since he believed that workplaces globally would soon be going back to the old normal.
Ryan said learning about the power of storytelling gave him some initial ideas of how to tell a story to hook the other leaders to seeing his side. To introduce him to a more targeted approach, we dove into more detail on how he can tell the story. I told him that for storytelling to be effective, it has to follow a particular structure and contain certain elements.
1. Storytelling Elements
a) Protagonist – the hero, usually a person or animal
b) Protagonist’s ally – a sidekick, usually an animal or person. Can also be a romantic interest.
c) Antagonist – the villain, usually a person or animal
d) Mentor – someone who helps the hero, usually a person or animal
e) Drama or conflict – protagonists versus antagonist
f) Hero will usually prevail, but not always
2. Common Narrative: Hero’s Journey
- Protagonist is in state of satisfaction
- Protagonist’s state is disturbed by antagonist
- Protagonist goes on a quest to address disturbance
- Protagonist meets ally, who joins the protagonist
- Protagonist faces obstacles arranged by antagonist, overcomes some and can’t overcome others
- Protagonist meets mentor
- Mentor teaches protagonist how to improve in such a way as to overcome obstacles
- Protagonist overcomes obstacles
- Protagonist meets and overcomes antagonist
- Protagonist returns to state of satisfaction, having grown and learned
You don’t have to always use this common narrative, but it’s a good default story. If you are trying to illustrate how many complex things contributed to the outcome of the story, you can instead use the “moment in time” narrative.
Start with the moment in time. For example, say “the plastic bottle enters the ocean.” Then, work back to all the causes that led it to happen.
3. Types of Stories
You can relate all of these to the issue on which you’re working, although you can also mix and match stories as needed. All types except for the first two should be based on actual situations or events.
a.) Origin story for yourself: this builds trust and cultivates relationships with all your stakeholders. You are the hero, telling your own story as it relates to shared values and goals with stakeholders. Make sure to toot your own horn and be vulnerable and tug at your listeners’ heartstrings. Be as relatable as possible to broad human values and show yourself in a good light. This story should be told especially well, with vivid details.
b.) Origin story for your project: communicates what your project is about and builds trust toward the project. Focus on sharing the story of your project as it relates to shared values and goals with stakeholders. This story should also be told especially well, with vivid details.
c.) Springboard story: should convey how change was implemented effectively. It should have a protagonist with whom stakeholders can identify, with a happy ending that inspires future action.
d.) Parable that transmits values: has a protagonist with whom stakeholders can identify. It should convey the dangers of violating values and usually has a sad ending of a problem from violating those values.
e.) Knowledge-sharing anecdote: describes a challenge and how it got resolved. It should have a clear description of the problem, the setting, the solution, and the explanation. This is a rare type of story that may have no clear protagonist.
f.) Case study: illustrates a point you are making through tangible and concrete examples. Should have a protagonist with whom stakeholders can identify.
Circling back to Ryan, he decided to tell the other senior leaders the story of how he led his previous organization – a mid-sized fintech company – from a near-catastrophic disruption at the start of the pandemic to relative stability a few months after. In fact, that’s what inspired the Board of Directors to hire him for his new role.
He particularly emphasized how initial difficulty with telework caused his previous company to buckle under pressure and led to rifts within the C-suite. He narrated how it caused tension between him and his previous organization’s CFO. The CFO believed that any spending related to telework should be avoided as the company “waits out” the pandemic, which the CFO believes would be very soon.
Facing an increasingly hostile C-suite, Ryan decided to consult a mentor from outside the organization, who was able to give him an idea of how other companies were navigating COVID’s uncharted waters. With the mentor’s guidance, he was able to put together a solid plan of how to effectively shift his previous company to telework.
The change was a massive success, making it easy for Ryan to coax the whole C-suite – including the formerly antagonistic CFO – into agreeing to a hybrid remote work schedule as they started making post-pandemic plans.
A Tale of Success in Effective Storytelling
Ryan told me that after telling the story to the current C-suite members with whom he was working, he observed a quick rise in engagement. The senior leaders – including the COO – became more open to shifting to a hybrid remote work schedule.
He confided how cracking a joke about his first failed telework project and including the details of what he had to overcome in his story helped the other executives become more receptive to his message.
After that meeting, a couple of the senior leaders chatted with him to tell him how they could relate with the issues he encountered with his previous organization. They also said that knowing he had already faced the same set of challenges previously – and prevailed – helped reassure them that he could competently lead them into the future of work.
When I last spoke with Ryan, he told me that the organization was successfully shifting to the new schedule. This achievement not only strengthened his rapport with the entire C-suite but also boosted employee morale and productivity.
The company also conducted an internal poll, the results of which showed that an overwhelming majority of the company’s workers were satisfied with their jobs and had no intention of leaving. With even more disruptions and uncertainty brought about by the Great Resignation, the senior leaders found this evidence of job satisfaction in their workplace an immense relief.
The best way to maintain your connection with your stakeholders is to consistently reassure them that you are on the same page. You can achieve this by using storytelling techniques that strengthen your emotional rapport by entertaining and educating your stakeholders. By doing so, you will be able to inspire and deeply engage with them, reinforcing your bond.
Questions to Consider (please share your answers below)
How did you previously overcome opposition from others in your company?
What techniques from the article might help you strengthen your emotional rapport with your stakeholders?
Which next steps will you take based on reading this article?
Image credit: Studioroman
Bio: Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is a world-renowned thought leader in future-proofing, decision making, and cognitive bias risk management in the future of work. He serves as the CEO of the boutique future-proofing consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts, which specializes in helping forward-looking leaders avoid dangerous threats and missed opportunities. A best-selling author, he wrote Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters (Career Press, 2019), The Blindspots Between Us: How to Overcome Unconscious Cognitive Bias and Build Better Relationships (New Harbinger, 2020), and Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage (Intentional Insights, 2021). His writing was translated into Chinese, Korean, German, Russian, Polish, French, and other languages. He was featured in over 550 articles and 450 interviews in prominent venues. These include Harvard Business Review, Fortune, USA Today, Inc. Magazine, CBS News, Business Insider, Government Executive, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Time, Fast Company, and elsewhere. His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting, coaching, and speaking and training for mid-size and large organizations ranging from Aflac to Xerox. It also comes from his research background as a behavioral scientist. After spending 8 years getting a PhD and lecturing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he served for 7 years as a professor at the Ohio State University’s Decision Sciences Collaborative and History Department. Contact him at Gleb[at]DisasterAvoidanceExperts[dot]com, LinkedIn, Twitter @gleb_tsipursky, Instagram @dr_gleb_tsipursky, Medium @dr_gleb_tsipursky, and gain free access to his “Assessment on Dangerous Judgment Errors in the Workplace” and his “Wise Decision Maker Course” with 8 video-based modules at https://disasteravoidanceexperts.com/subscribe/.