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Why CXO's Are Abysmal Story Tellers And What They Can Do About It!

We are all story tellers, some of us are good, some bad and some transformative. We do it when we rally a team around a task, when we sell to a prospective client, when we craft an email, a blog etc. Anytime we seek to say something to the world, we are telling a story!

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"I am not a great story teller and this is affecting my leadership brand". This is how a CEO client reached out to me with a lot of angst. He continued "I am great with some interactions, but when there is a crowd in front of me or when I have to play at a higher level with peers, I am not at my best and this is a part of my job that I secretly dread. I want to get better at this and what's more, I think its integral for my next global role. I want to become a better story teller"!
Since there are quite a few global business heads reaching out to me in the areas of storytelling, personal brand reinvention and Executive presence, I felt it was important to dive deep into various aspects and I hope you enjoy reading about the same.

We are all story tellers, some of us are good, some bad and some transformative. We do it when we rally a team around a task, when we sell to a prospective client, when we craft an email, a blog etc. Anytime we seek to say something to the world, we are telling a story!

Anthropologists consider the discovery of fire as one the greatest evolutionary tipping points, it helped in cooking of food which resulted in bigger brains, apart from giving our ancestors the ability to ward off predators in the night. But, the biggest impact was on social connections as it extended hours in the day that could be spent together after hunting and gathering. This time was spent - telling stories about the day's events that doubled up as rich repositories of knowledge.

There is a huge need to be able to capture minds and set hearts on fire by inspirational storytelling. The entire environment is abuzz with possibilities, be it the start-up euphoria- India claims the 3rd spot after the US and UK in the number of start-ups (4200 on last count) or the time to take charge in a tumultuous business environment. Excellent Story telling helps in arresting speculation and limiting damage to corporate reputations, like in the much-discussed case of the Tata's. As the recently awarded laureate who is yet to claim his Nobel sang "the times, they are a changin"!

Across the Indian corporate landscape, you would be hard-pressed to name more than 10 CEOs who are outstanding story tellers! Does this mean this skill is over rated and that CEO's have been well received by all their stakeholders despite being average story tellers? What possibilities could unfold if they mastered the art? How can they be ambassadors and thought leaders with legacies that transcend their corporate success without being passionate story tellers?

Everyone loves a good story! A story is what we tell, to give voices to the emotions that drive us, our hopes and fears, dreams and desires. Stories are cognitive shortcuts adopted by the Brain to help us understand ourselves better and others to understand us. Ideas, effectively packaged and delivered can change the world! Story telling bridges the head and the heart in a manner that is emotional, novel and memorable. How can a CEO or any Leader for that matter move beyond the same dehydrated language and command a crowd like a Rock star!

Stories Are Just Data With A Soul!
In today's knowledge worker environment, cracking the big idea is only part of the holy mix. The other parts of the troika are the narrative/story and skill in telling a story. The ability to "sell" an idea consistently across stakeholders and make it "stick" is as important as the idea itself.

How can we craft a sticky idea and tell an excellent story?
What makes some ideas thrive and some ideas flounder? In the year 1893, more than 400 different versions of Cinderella were found around the world. Proverbs like "One bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" is like proverbs across lands and civilizations. In Sweden, the saying is "Rather one bird in the hand than ten in the woods". In Spain, it is "A bird in the hand is better than a hundred flying birds". In Russia, "Better a titmouse in a hand than a crane in the sky". This astonishingly sticky proverb has survived more than 2500 years.

One of the reasons why these ideas have thrived could be because of their anchoring on the Jungian archetypes that are in turn based on the collective unconscious. Characters like the hero, Villain, Mentor, Child, evil mother (step mother) etc. Archetypal images are characters that represent deeply fundamental human needs and desires. We seem to belabour under the notion that story telling can be trusted only to people in creative businesses like movie making and advertising.

Allow me to burst your bubble and convince you that there is a process of "systematic creativity" however oxymoronic it may sound! you are capable of crafting great stories by using existing templates!

The 6 templates of award winning ads.

89 per cent of award winning ads could be classified in just 6 templates:

An experiment conducted by an Israeli research team in 1999 shows that even in a complex thinking process, certain patterns of creativity emerge (Golden berg, J. Mazursky. D, Solomon S-The Fundamental templates of Quality Ads)

The team assembled a group of 200 award winning highly regarded ads and decided that 89% could be classified by 6 templates after studying them. The research team also tried to use their six templates to classify 200 other ads that had not received awards, the researchers would only classify two percent of these successful ads recalling Tolstoy's line "every happy family is happy in similar ways and every unhappy family is miserable in their own way. Most great ads are similar, the bad ones were bad in their own way!

The researchers then asked three test groups of ordinary people to create ads and then tested them with consumers. Ads created by test group trained for two hours in using these templates were rated 50% more creative than creative ads created by other test groups and consumers in the experiment were 55% more positive about the products and services featured in the template driven ads.

The 6 creative templates are as follows:

" Pictorial analogy -Where pictorial aspects of the product are shown to replace use of an unrelated product or to craft an extreme version of one attribute.
o Replacement version
o Extreme analogy version

" Extreme Situation - where an aspect of the product usage is shown in an extremely exaggerated manner.
o The absurd alternative Version
o The extreme attribute version
o The extreme worth version

" The Consequences: Indicates the implications of either executing or failing to execute the recommendation advocated in the ad. This template has two versions:
o The Extreme Consequences Version: Points out unexpected consequences of a product attribute.
o The Inverted Consequences Version: Warns against the implications of not executing the recommendation of the ad.

" Competition: A product is shown winning in competition with another product or event. The selection of the other product or event is guided by its expected superiority over the advertised product, and hence the other product is from a different class/category.

o The attribute in competition version: This relates to whether the competition challenges an attribute of the product.
o The worth in competition version: This relates to whether the competition challenges the worth of the product.
o The uncommon use version: The idea is to emphasize a product attribute by applying it to solve a problem in a context totally different from its intended use. The typical elements that appear in this version are: a problematic scenario or issue, and ambiguity as to the product being the subject of the ad when the problem or dilemma is presented.

" Interactive Experiment: Consumers can interact directly with the product.
o Activation version: By engaging in an experiment.
o Imaginary version: By just imagining the performance of such an experiment.

" Dimensionality Alteration-The result of using or not using a product is dramatized by a leap in time that shows the long-term consequences.
o The New Parameter Connection Version: Unrelated parameters become dependent. Example: The speed of a new aircraft is demonstrated by reducing the size of the ocean.
o The Multiplication Version: Multiply the product and compare the duplicates.
o The Division Version: Divide the product into its components and create some form of relationship between them.
o The Time Leap Version: A time leap that shows the long-run implications of a decision.
Moving on to the Story telling format of a studio that is worth 90 billion $ in market cap - PIXAR. This is a 7-step story telling method that has helped it churn out blockbusters like Toy Story, Wall -e, The Incredibles etc.

" Once there was a ….
" Every day he would ….
" Until one day ….
" Because of that….
" Because of that….
" Until finally ….
" Ever since then……

These are some secrets from the movie makers and mad men, that you as the CEO can use to make your idea more powerful and sticky! Watch this space for more!!

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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Jay Kumar Hariharan

The author is an Executive Coach, Speaker and Deep Sea Diver. He is a graduate from International Coach Academy, Sydney. He provides coaching interventions to create transformational Leadership practices. For more read about the author visit www.coachjaykumar.com

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