In difficult times, it's important to keep your team apprised of the facts. But the most effective leaders don't rely on facts alone. They use a time-tested tactic to keep people engaged, informed, and inspired: storytelling.
While there are several types of stories that leaders tell, these three are especially effective in a crisis when the goal is to reassure, motivate, and inspire people to take action.
1. Personal stories
Personal stories have the most impact because they come from the heart.
Bobby Herrera, co-founder of HR-services firm Populus Group, sends weekly video messages to hundreds of employees and partners who are quarantined across the country. He tells intentional stories meant to reinforce the company's core value that "everyone deserves an opportunity to succeed."
In one deeply personal and moving story, Herrera recalls growing up in a poor farmworking family. One day, in high school, he was on a team bus returning from a basketball game. They stopped for dinner and the other kids got off. Bobby and his brother stayed behind, embarrassed that they didn't have enough money for a meal. A few moments later, one of the parents walked back on the bus. He told the boys he'd pay for their dinner, with one condition.
"All you have to do to thank me is to do the same thing for another great kid just like you," the dad said.
Herrera knew that someday, somehow, he would find a way to pay it forward.
Your team members are more likely to take action on your ideas if they trust you. Trust is built by showing people who you really are, through stories from your own experience.
2. People stories
People stories are just as the name implies--stories of real people. When you're delivering data, it's important to put a face to the numbers. If the numbers are tragic, people stories are even more critical.
New Jersey governor Phil Murphy has offered one of the most compelling examples of people stories during the coronavirus pandemic. Murphy begins each public update with the raw numbers of people who have been hospitalized with Covid-19 and who have died. "Now let's remember a few of them," Murphy says.
And with that transition sentence, Murphy advances from slides with charts to photos of real people who lost their lives. Murphy calls the deceased's family members ahead of time and adds details to the stories he shares.
Like Herrera's personal story, Murphy's stories are intentional. He tells stories to move people to take action. On April 16, Murphy told the heartbreaking story of a Covid victim who, 75 years earlier, had been liberated from a Nazi concentration camp.
"All of a sudden, social distancing doesn't seem so much of an inconvenience. It remains the key to flattening the curve and reopening our state," Murphy concluded.
People are more likely to follow your lead if they understand the stakes.
3. Symbol stories
Great leaders who rally people to a better future often find symbol stories to communicate their big ideas.
For example, on April 15, New York governor Andrew Cuomo reported that that state's new hospital admissions for Covid cases had stabilized and it would soon be time to start talking about a gradual reopening. However, he said, until effective therapies can be introduced, many things will have to change.
Cuomo chose a symbol story to inspire his listeners to rise to the daunting challenge.
"There was a bridge across the Hudson River called the Tappan Zee Bridge. It had been in very bad shape for 20 years," Cuomo began. "For 20 years, everybody talked about how we're going to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge. Nobody did."
Cuomo said that when he became governor, like his predecessors, he committed to replacing the bridge. A "raft of bureaucrats" tried to talk him out of it. It would be too expensive and difficult, they told Cuomo. Undaunted, Cuomo said he challenged people to come up with a solution and they did it.
"It is a beautiful symbol for me," Cuomo said. "Don't tell me that we can't do it. We are bridge builders. That's what we do. We build bridges."
Yes, true leaders deliver facts. But facts alone are not enough to inspire people to be their best selves. Facts and stories are the key to lifting spirits and motivating people to be their best selves.