The Leader Who Withheld Their Story
by Robert “Bob” Kienzle
Our communication training firm was hired to conduct a storytelling workshop for a major client. I quickly realized a major problem: the leader refused to tell a story in the storytelling workshop. We brought the water to the horse and the horse wouldn’t drink. At first. We’ll call the client “Soda Pop” for confidentially. Soda Pop’s different regions had different needs, different management teams, and different rates of success. Think about visiting different restaurant branches in different cities; the management and employees of each branch can create vastly different experiences despite sharing the same name or logo. Soda Pop’s regional offices were like that.
The regional headquarters in Asia contacted our firm and said they had had an immediate need for business storytelling for their 12-person marketing team.
Soda Pop, as a company, had a lot of history which meant their employees had a lot of stories to share. Many stories were from the company’s history on the global market and other stories were employee’s personal experiences. Storytelling was key to the brand’s rich history and useful when the marketers were meeting with local distributors.
One of Soda Pops’ leaders told me, “When we flew over to visit a new distribution center, we wore our company shirts. At lunch, we walked through the local markets to have local food. The restaurant owners and street vendors smiled at us. They waved hello. They knew we created jobs in their city and our presence represented economic growth. Kids approached us recognizing the logo and held our products up in the air happy to meet the people who brought their country delicious drinks.”
Soda Pop wanted the marketing team to build these types of stories into their presentations, meetings, and pitches. Their presentations were often full of data, numbers, and slides but not narratives, which was a problem because having no story equals no vision in the listeners’ minds. The marketing team were subject matter experts, but their presentations were boring and people outside of their team had a hard time conceptualizing their ideas.
Soda Pop hired me to run a one-and-a-half-day storytelling workshop. The real goal, however, was to pull a key leader into the realm of business storytelling: the director of marketing. We’ll call him Gerald for confidentially. Gerald was wise and charismatic on paper but dull and drab in person. The rest of the marketing team was there too both learn from the storytelling workshop and to mask the fact the workshop was really for Gerald. “Hi, Gerald, you need one-on-one help with storytelling” isn’t always the best approach and doesn’t motivate people to learn new skills. Plus, learning in groups is much more fun and productive. Groups feed off each others’ stories, stage presence, and camaraderie.
After day one ice breakers and introductions, we hop right into telling personal stories. I love conducting storytelling workshops because everyone has stories. In workshops before we get into story structure, elements, and details, just sharing personal success stories from our lives is a great social lubricant. It opens up everyone to the fact they are a natural storyteller. The conversations they have at dinner are usually stories; people just don’t realize how effective their experiences can be in business conversations.
When I explained we would each give a business presentation that uses a personal business story. Gerald spoke up in front of the group, “My presentations don’t need stories. My clients don’t want their time wasted with stories. I don’t need to be in this workshop.”
These public statements used to bother me because I feared these statements could infect the group. I feared confronting high-power leaders. Now, I welcome these statements and situations. First, I’m confident in the communication research I bring into the program. Storytelling is a great example. From TED Talks to direct sales meetings, stories make people more personable, more memorable, and ultimately more persuasive. Second, responding to these statements in workshops gives me a chance to address what others might be thinking but not stating. I don’t just refocus one individual; I refocus a group. I often say, “I don’t know your clients, and if your clients tell you ‘no stories!’ by all means, no stories. For today’s workshop, take an opportunity to try it on in case storytelling is needed with a new client or even just for your own social gatherings. And also, here’s a boatload of research showing how effective this is around the world.” Finally, and this is secretly my favorite reason, I get to see storytelling in action and see people like Gerald transform their view. I tell people (in this case, Gerald), “If you don’t need storytelling anytime in your business meetings, we will let you give your presentation first after lunch to set the standard.” And that’s exactly what happened.
After lunch, Gerald stood in front of the room and gave his “storytelling” speech (the one without a story). He simply ignored all the content we worked on in the morning and used his usual presentation structure and style. After each speech, I ask the audience for feedback. The advantage to crowdsourcing feedback first is that, collectively, the participants relay 90% of what I want to say. It makes the workshop more interactive and let’s me focus my energy on the remaining 10% and clarifying key points.
Gerald’s fellow participants hit him with a barrage of feedback:
“This wasn’t a story!”
“You DO need storytelling.”
“This was boring.”
“I don’t understand where you were going with this speech.”
“You could’ve added a little storytelling to your facts and graphs.”
Now it was time for me to chime in to help him build a story into his speech.
“Gerald, let’s look at the project and marketing statistics you used in your speech. When did those occur?”
“Which companies were involved in that 2017 project?”
“Soda Pop, obviously, and XYZ distributor.”
“Excellent. What did XYZ say at the end of that successful venture?”
“They said they loved our marketing campaign and their employees gave good feedback.”
“Nice. Finally, Gerald, how did that make you and Soda Pop feel?”
“I felt accomplished and happy and my boss told me to keep doing was I was doing because it got great results.”
Finally, I replied, “Gerald, you just told me many wonderful elements of a business story. In a few short sentences, you gave a narrative. Would you feel comfortable putting those sentences together somewhere in your presentation?”
Suddenly, it clicked for Gerald and he promised to adapt this short story into his speech on day two of the workshop. Gerald witnessed eleven of his fellow marketers tell their stories on stage and create a much more entertaining environment. They illustrated that business presentations work best when there is a narrative that everyone can understand coupled with research and statistics to reinforce the narrative.
The next day, Gerald offered to go first. He delivered his business speech again with his short narrative as well as an additional closing story. His colleagues erupted in applause. I realized at that moment, it wasn’t just Soda Pop that wanted Gerald to be more charismatic and descriptive on stage; it was everyone Gerald worked with. The company wanted him to seal more deals with clients, and the employees wanted him to be more human and personable in the office. You can see the smile and the widening of eyes when communication success clicks for someone. We call that an “ah ha!” moment, and that’s one of more rewarding moments of being a communication consultant.
A week after the workshop, Soda Pop said the employees were telling personal stories over lunch just for practice, which meant they were likely going to use their new story skills in future presentations. As for Gerald, he was putting placeholders in his presentation slides for stories. Soda Pop wanted the same exact program in another country’s office. There were other Geralds in the company as there are story-resisters in all our clients’ offices. I always look forward to their “ah ha” expressions. And as stories often end, everyone lived happily ever after.