Strategic Storytelling for Leaders

By Lain Ehmann

Storytelling and selling go hand-in-hand, but to make the best use of your gift of gab on the job the stories you tell should be more than entertaining; they should be strategic tools.

When used effectively stories help generate buy-in by capturing people’s attention, influencing their emotions and programming people’s memories, says Mark S. Walton, chairman of the Center for Leadership Communication and author of Generating Buy-In: Mastering the Language of Leadership (AMACOM, 2004). How? Good leaders, says Walton, “strategically design, target and deliver a story that projects a positive future.”

As a sales manager you have several key goals you’re striving for, both long-term and short-term. The key to generating support among your various constituencies – team members, upper-level execs, even customers – is to develop a strategic story for each of these audiences that links the ideas, concepts or even products you’re selling with what they want for their future, says Walton.

The biggest mistake leaders make is to focus too much on their desires and not enough on those of their audience. “Most execs think that communicating a vision is about talking about their vision. But the only vision that can be sold to anyone is their own vision, a positive future for themselves,” he explains.

The best communicators are able to align their objective with their audience’s own agenda. Jack Welch of General Electric, Ronald Reagan and Winston Churchill, for example, knew how to create a story that painted a picture in which their audiences wanted to take part. As a result, their audiences were ready to do what was needed to make that future a reality, whether it was working harder, voting for the Gipper or supporting the war effort.

Before you address a group, it’s imperative to get to know your audience, stresses Walton. You need to know to whom you are talking, what’s important to audience members and their agenda for the future before you step in front of them. “You will never change somebody’s mind,” he says. Instead, you can hope to connect the dots between what you want and what they want and create a future together.

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