I am a professional storyteller and have been trained in Social Learning Leadership by Etienne Wenger and Bev Wenger Trainer. Storytelling is the art of engaging and inspiring people and it is the skill that has most impacted on my work – being able to talk seems crucial for creating momentum for change.
When I was training in storytelling 10 years ago I attended a workshop facilitated by Mats Rehnman, a Swedish storyteller. One of the concepts that he taught on the course was the difference between the story and the commentary on the story. For example, a commentary would be to say that the “the boy was sad” as opposed to “the boy stared at the floor as a single tear rolled down his cheek”. In the first example there is no picture, while in the second the listener sees the boy and infers the sadness.
How is this relevant to leadership? The most common mistake that I hear people making in presentations or elevator pitches is to talk in generalities rather than specifics, that is to say to use commentary rather than stories. A colleague asked me this week to listen to her powerpoint presentation and made this exact mistake. After 10 minutes there had been little content to enjoy or move me emotionally. Talking in generalities like this would sound like:
Stakeholder: How is the project going?
Project Leader: Well, 6 in 10 patients showed improved wellbeing scores, attendance was up, and the staff culture survey showed the job satisfaction has improved.
As in the above example of a commentary, we can see that there is nothing in the way of imagery and nothing emotional left for the audience to infer. On hearing my colleagues presentation, my advice was to bring use more specific stories and anecdotes. Tell a story of one patient rather than talking about ‘patients’. Give us some feedback from an actual nurse rather than talking about the ‘staff’. The result might sound something like this.
Stakeholder: How is the project going?
Project Leader: I visited the ward last Wednesday to evaluate the work and one of the patients beamed when he saw me and said that this work is what keeps him going. At handover I chatted with one of the male nurses and he told me that he had observed that one of the patients had actually relaxed and joined in during the session that took place the previous week. The nurse said that, even though leading session isn’t his cup of tea, he tried running the activity himself and with some degree of success (albeit without the guitar). He and the patient now have a new way to be together and the nurse said this has helped his day to day work because this particular patient was often aggressive. I also interviewed the ward manager and he simply lit up when he told me that the work had brought out the best in the patients and the staff.
The first example is simply a string of facts and this is unlikely to ignite the emotions of the teller or inspire the audience. The second example however tells a story and as the listener we can see the image of the patient beaming, the male nurse relating his experience and the ward manager being excited. In contrast to the telling of dry facts, the teller will be moved because the story has emotional content and imagery. If the teller is emotionally moved then the audience will reciprocate this and will engage more with the teller and the tellling.
In social learning leadership these ‘value stories’ are very important to communicate the value of an intervention or project. The power of the story comes from the casual link from a specific event to what someone got out of it, how they applied this and finally what the result was. The dry data and indicators are then used to support this value story rather than being the main focus of the presentation. With these specifics in mind and it is much easier for a leader to tell a powerful and moving story. In storytelling this is called letting the story tell itself. Even a very skilled storyteller will find it difficult to inspire an audience without a good story.
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