Storytelling and authentic leadership
‘Analysis might excite the mind, but it hardly offers a route to the heart – and that’s where we must go to motivate people’ Catherine McGregor
In the latest event RPC’s Female Insurance Group series of Boardroom Ready webinars, management consultant and author Dr Catherine McGregor demonstrated how storytelling influences people in ways mere facts and statistics cannot.
Once upon a time…
… there was a little girl who wanted to be ballet dancer. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem like this was going to happen, so the little girl set her sights on becoming an actor instead.
As the little girl (by now a young lady) immersed herself in finding out what being an actor was all about, she started to realise that the studying itself was what she really loved.
So instead of acting, our heroine took a PhD in drama and became a teacher in the subject at a university in America. Later, she returned to the UK to work for a media law company.
There was lots of travelling, career progression and involvement in the big decisions at this company. Even an approach from a head-hunter.
To the outside world, she had it all. But things were changing. Now a mother herself, the little girl who had now grown up started to find the international travel a drag and the career prospects not so great.
So, she looked at what she’d learned, what she did best and what she wanted to do next.
Catherine McGregor started her own business.
… definitely not The End
When people tell stories, we subconsciously hear in them themes that reflect the way we see ourselves and the world. Some delegates on the webinar saw Catherine’s story as one of bravery. Others were engaged by themes of opportunity, adaptability and change.
Storytelling: as old as the hills
Storytelling is one of our oldest instincts. We’re captivated by them.
Many of us still connect to stories we first heard as children. Which is unsurprising as powerful stories:
- Are universal – anyone anywhere can relate to a great tale;
- Act as moral and civic guidelines – they show (rather than tell us) a way forward; and
- Offer the possibility of change – typically from unhappiness to happiness.
Similarly, how we tell our own stories can define us. As the psychologist Dan McAdams says: our identity is ‘the internalised and evolving story that results from the selective appropriation of past, present and future.’
Whether we realise it or not, the stories we tell reflect our selective world view.
Storytelling as a leadership skill
Research shows that messages delivered as stories are up to 22 times more effective than those presented as raw data or statistics.
This is partly down to a decrease in institutional trust and the way data are manipulated to forward an agenda. But it’s also because stories are more compelling.
Studies into attitudes to immigration, for example, showed people were more affected by harrowing tales of a mother’s hardship as she carried her children across Europe than a series of graphs, numbers and percentage signs. While the former speaks to humanity, the latter are emotionally neutral.
Stories put people in learning mode. They show respect because we’re allowing our listeners to draw their own conclusions. When we realise this, we can use our stories to:
- Spark action and positive behaviours;
- Foster collaboration
- Share knowledge, values and lessons learned;
- Show vulnerability;
- Challenge unconscious bias; and
- Support change management and lead people into the future
Starting your narrative
To help you formulate your personal story, Catherine suggests following these steps:
- Think of an event in your career you’re proud of.
- Refine this into key ideas – what themes does your story talk about?
- Tell the story as you see it and in your own words.
- Now refine your story down to three sentences.
- Next, refine your three sentences down to three adjectives.
- Are your adjectives inspiring? If not, repeat the process from stage 4.
Changing your narrative
As your career progresses, you may need to refocus your narrative. Beware the trap of authenticity, here. Authenticity is highly valued in business, but there could come a time when it binds you to an outdated version of yourself.
Experiment with yourself. Catherine’s top tips for changing your narrative are to:
- Find a role model and determine what you admire most about them;
- Learn all you can about them, including who their influences are;
- Start a collage – incorporate what you like about your role model into what you do;
- Within three months, do something professionally that makes you uncomfortable – this could be public speaking or giving negative feedback; and
- See if your role model’s persona has helped you redefine your story.
It’s natural not to feel completely at ease with your new narrative at first. But stick with it – it’s part of becoming a leader.
And manage the shift gradually. Look for opportunities to tell stories that show qualities you’ve not displayed before. For example, if you’re naturally introverted, relate experiences where you demonstrated your extrovert side. Over time, what at first may seem uncharacteristic will become the new you.
Join us on 19 May for our next FIG event when we’ll be joined by Alison Temperley, author of Inside Knowledge: How Women Can Thrive in Professional Service Firms. Alison will discuss the secrets of career development and how you can realise your full potential.
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