Every leader needs to have strong storytelling skills to convey the vision of their organization and inspire their teams. Storytelling is a leadership skill that can be learned and improved on. It is the art and science of conveying context, challenges, opportunities, and results. In his book The Leader's Guide to Storytelling, Stephen Denning says, "Storytelling is more than an essential set of tools to get things done: It's a way for leaders -- wherever they may sit -- to embody the change they seek."
There are many elements to storytelling as a skill. In his masterclass, renowned writer, director, producer, and professor Spike Lee shares several storytelling lessons. Here are the three that resonated with me the most: Do the research, craft the story, do the work.
Do the research
Lee is a meticulous researcher. Before creating a movie, he spends a lot of time immersing himself in the context of his topic: He reads related books and articles; listens to the music from that era or context he is studying; and reviews related work including movies and documentaries others may have done on the topic. "Without research, your story will likely be one-sided," says Lee.
He takes detailed notes on 5x7 index cards. He places the index cards in a box, and when the box is full, he is ready to start writing the story. This paper-based approach allows Lee to shuffle the index cards in a different order as much as needed to convey his vision of the story in the movie script. Lee contends that doing the research makes your story relatable and enables you to weave your message more effectively.
In a business context, to tell a meaningful story, a leader must answer the question: "What business problem are we trying to solve?" You need to do the research to understand the context of the problem you are trying to solve and identify the key challenges and the major opportunities. You will need to review literature internal to your organization including previous strategic plans, performance reports, customer and employee surveys, and reports of similar or related projects. Additionally, you will need to review related literature external to the organization: books, journal articles, Gartner reports and magic quadrants, thought leader interviews and videos, to understand how others in industry are addressing similar issues. Once the research is complete, you are ready for the next step of creating the context of the story.
Craft the story
Storytelling is about creating an emotional connection with the audience. Lee says that he crafts a story without being formulaic or building three-act scripts. In the business world, we typically have to report on data, business performance, or organizational change. Scott Berinato, senior editor at Harvard Business Review, says that storytelling with data is not about PowerPoint slides and numbers but about setup, conflict, and resolution. As an example, he uses the following basic storyline to explain these three terms: 1) Setup is the current situation: Charlie Brown runs to the ball. 2) Conflict is an unexpected development: Lucy takes the ball at the last minute. 3) Resolution is the outcome: Charlie Brown is upset. Therefore, setup is the present situation or context. Conflict is the challenge we are faced with, and resolution is how we react to the conflict situation. There are many ways to craft a story in order to create an emotional engagement with your audience.
In a business context, once the research is complete, the hard work of compiling the data and weaving the story begins. A practical application of elements from Lee's structure is the way I train first-time TEDx speakers. First, I ask them to distill their big idea; next, to identify three key elements and the data to explain and support those elements; and, finally, to end the story with a call to action, all in 18 minutes or less. Your big idea will need to address a business priority, usually centering on one of these questions: "What business problem are we trying to solve?" "What is the value to the customer?" or "What is the impact on performance?" You may find that at times your story may be controversial, because it highlights a challenge or a business problem such as lower-than-expected performance, rising costs, or higher-than-anticipated risks.
Do the work
"There is no sidestepping and no backsliding: You have to do the work," says Lee. In his case, this means writing the script, which is about 120 pages. Lee breaks down the daunting task to a less-intimidating deliverable of two to three pages per day. Creating something from nothing requires work--focus, organization, and putting in the hours to write.
In a business context, there are no shortcuts. You have to put in the work to craft a story that is relevant and make an emotional connection with your audience, whether it is your team, your leadership, your stakeholders, or, of course, your customers. Work to define the big idea and then assemble the supporting data to craft the story.