“Even the people who wrote the Bible were smart enough to know, ‘tell them a story.’ The issue was evil in the world, the story was Noah…. Now the Bible knew that and for some reason or another I latched on to that.”
That was Don Hewitt, creator and executive producer of one of the longest running show in U.S. television history, 60 Minutes, explaining the “secret” of his success. According to Steve Croft, a 60 Minutes correspondent, Hewitt did not concern himself with issues per se; he focused on stories shaped by those issues, be it war, consumer fraud, health investigations, or celebrity profiles.
Hewitt, who died this month at the age of 86, was fond of saying that every child realizes the importance of “tell me a story” — but when we reach adulthood, we forget. Yet Hewitt’s absolute commitment to story is something leaders, particularly those with big initiatives to push, should remember. Story is a form of person-to-person connection that leaders, as fellow HarvardBusiness.org contributor Stew Friedman writes, can use to connect with their followers.
There are three reasons why a good story can be a useful leadership tool:
To inform. We all want the facts, but if a leader wants the facts to matter he needs to add a little seasoning. Stories can take raw data and give it life. For example, why not use a spreadsheet to tell a story about rising sales, or declining quality? Use the data to make your points. Then, flesh out that explanation with stories about the effect on individuals, teams and the company as a whole.
To involve. If you need to get people on your side, you need to involve them in the process. You need to engage their interest. For example, if an executive needs to persuade people to support an initiative, she can describe how the initiative will benefit the customer but also emphasize how it will improve the lot of employees, too. (More customers, more sales, more revenues, more jobs, more opportunities for promotion, etc.)
To inspire. Employees become jaded; there is only so much “importance” they can absorb, even when their jobs are at stake. So it falls to leaders to find ways to inspire their teams. Stories are the ideal vehicle for inspiring people because successful ones can dramatize the human condition. A story about a customer service representative who drove to the house of a customer to rectify an error, or a sales person who drove through a raging blizzard to close a sale, can quickly become the stuff of corporate legend. These stories give sustenance in times of travail, and say to an employee faced with long odds, “If he can do it, so can I.”
There is another advantage to using stories, and that’s something that Hewitt alluded to with his reference to the Bible. Use stories to make your points rather than relying on platitudes. In fiction writing workshops, they call this “Show, don’t tell.” For executives, this means you have to avoid corporate speak; instead, tell stories about how your initiatives will improve the lives of customers and employees.
Not every issue need be reduced to a story. There are times when a leader needs to be direct and to the point, to lay out the issue and the challenges in clear and precise language. For example, if a company is losing market share to a competitor, the sales manager might want to quantify the decline in sales by percentage and by lost revenue. Yet even in such circumstances, that same executive could drive the message home by naming the lost customers and describing the effect of their loss on the company.
A leader picks the right story at the right time to drive her point home, leaving no doubt about the importance of an initiative and its impact on the organization. It’s up to a leader to use stories to dramatize urgency and humanize events — so that listeners become followers.
First posted on HBR.org 8/24/2009