Lou Gerstner, the IBM CEO who led Big Blue out of the wilderness, said, “I tell Wall Street stories about IBM’s future because facts about the future do not exist.” What sets competitors apart today are not the scientific skills of dueling algorithms, but the aesthetic talents of storytelling: imagination, insight and creativity. With enough data, any executive can read a cross-section of the now; only a few, like Lou Gerstner, can author the future.
Story is more than a communications tool, more than a sales tool; it is a decision-making tool. I mentor my clients in all three uses of story-in-business: to bond, to persuade, to envision. Each of the three has three dimensions.
TO BOND: Use story to:
1) Speak in a human voice that creates empathy between employer and employee, building engagement in the work.
2) Inspire teamwork within and across corporate divisions.
3) Enhance the flow of communication up, down and across the corporation’s pyramid of power.
TO PERSUADE: Use story to:
1) Create positive brand awareness in the public’s mind.
2) Forge new markets within that public.
3) Sell. The modern business wraps its identity in the meaningful emotional web of story to capture the customer’s awareness and persuade sales. Compare the engaged storytelling of Siemens’ highly effective branding campaign, Answers, with the syrupy, eye-fatiguing montages of Cisco’s failed and abandoned campaign, The Human Network.
TO ENVISION: Shape knowledge and feeling into the form of story to:
1) Broaden and deepen an executive’s wisdom,
2) So he or she can make effective decisions based on both hard and soft data, and
3) Lead implementation of this strategy the way a great author guides the reader through a novel. Executive genius is a kind of literary genius.
The story a leader tells becomes corporate strategy, a map to the future others can follow to a success-filled climax.
The higher up the pyramid of power an executive ascends, the broader and deeper her vision. The more distant her horizon, the more all-inclusive her wisdom. The more complete her story, the more impactful her decisions.
Reliance on data, coupled with an inability to express oneself in story leads to disengaged employees, bland marketing, failed deal making and, most critically, bad decisions. In 2013, Siemens fired its CEO Peter Loescher because, as the German press put it, “He had no story.” Imagining corporate life like an author actually makes decisions all the more logical, all the more insightful.
A leader sees possible futures; his decisions create the future. When you use your imagination to envision the world in story form, you can sense how your corporation’s desire will rub against the world’s antagonisms before this friction sets events on fire. Story gives you foresight to see the consequences of future events long before they happen. A leader prepares for change no matter how illogical its cause. In fact, sensitivity to irrational change is quintessentially rational … if you wish to lead.
Until recently we’ve only been able to speculate about persuasive effects of storytelling. But throughout the last decades, neuroscience has researched the relationship between story and the human mind, and results repeatedly show that our attitudes, hopes and values are story driven. Fiction changes beliefs far faster than logical argument. Lawyers understand this.
Evidence has its place, but a trial tells two stories—one of which the jury believes.
Therefore, this caveat: Although we tend to watch PowerPoint presentations with skepticism, when a story absorbs us, we drop our intellectual guard. The mind-molding power of story may blind us in ways only facts can prevent. Therefore, a business leader has an ethical obligation to only use story in service of what he deeply believes to be a positive, human value.
A powerfully told tale always seems like a gift. But a story is actually a delivery system for the teller’s theme and purpose. A story sneaks a message into the fortified citadel of the human mind and can be an instrument for good or ill. Like fire, it can warm a civilization or burn it down.
Story is morally neutral. It can express profound truth or propaganda. The two greatest political storytellers of the 20th Century were Winston Churchill and Adolph Hitler. Because storytelling is a form of persuasive jujitsu, and because the world is full of black- belt storytellers, the corporate leader has to train both his offensive and defensive moves. Like a magician’s sleight of hand, storytellers use empathy and curiosity to distract critical thinking.
So while you work to master storytelling for the corporate good, it’s equally important that you learn to see the pitch coming so you steel yourself against the power of “Once upon a time …”
Want to find out more about why story works in business?
• Read Robert McKee’s FREE white paper on how to incorporate story into your business. Click here to access the full white paper.
• Join Robert McKee for his STORY-IN-BUSINESS seminar on September 26 in New York City. This exclusive, one-day event shows businesspeople how to create and use stories to persuade, inspire and engage employees and customers. As a PresentationXpert reader, save $50 when you use promo code SIB50Off to register!
About the Author:
Robert McKee is “the world’s best-known and most respected screenwriting lecturer,” according to the Harvard Business Review. He has been helping writers tell powerful stories for more than 25 years through his legendary STORY Seminar and his award-winning book, STORY: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting. More than 100,000 students have completed his courses, including numerous Academy Award, Emmy Award, Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winners. Now Robert McKee is helping business leaders from companies like Microsoft, HP, Siemens, Mercedes-Benz, Time Warner, The Boldt Company and others use story to more effectively persuade and engage their various stakeholders. Find out more about Robert McKee, his STORY seminars and additional resources to support writers by visiting McKeeStory.com.