How can leaders inspire through words?
Storytelling is a great marketing skill and also a good leadership skill. It should be learnt by any entrepreneur who is looking to follow his/her vision because this will enable him/her to more easily inspire team members, to attract investors, to communicate with clients and to overcome hurdles.
To understand why stories are so powerful one has to understand the different mechanisms of the conscious and unconscious mind. The conscious is where we run our logical reasoning, where we make judgement calls by taking into account what we consider relevant etc. It is sequential and logical.
The unconscious on the other hand is the thinking we do without being aware. It influences our decisions even if we do not realise it. You know when you are consciously deciding to do something and then you don't understand why you didn't? Whenever you don't understand yourself, you are actually confused because you don't know your unconscious behaviour drivers. And this leads me to an important aspect: the unconscious is more powerful than the conscious. The latter is recognised by all psychologists as just the tip of the iceberg.
And now the intrigue. Our unconscious is also the story lover as it feeds on symbols, ambiguity and images. When, for example, you find yourself crying whilst watching a movie you are consciously aware that what you are seeing is not real; however you've unconsciously allowed yourself to temporarily step out of this reality. This is actually a light trance and the same happens whilst you are reading a fiction book. You are not only consciously thinking about what you are reading/thinking, you are also sending images/messages to your unconscious. Indeed, for the unconscious everything you see is real (which explains your emotional reactions too).
So, the reason stories are so successful in getting a message across is really because they appeal to our unconscious. Parents might have seen the effect that some stories have on children, especially when it comes to overcoming fears, anxieties and installing values. You might have also heard about therapeutic stories for all ages. Make no mistake though. In a business context, a story is a general term. One can use analogies or metaphors or "simply" choose the words well when delivering a presentation. Remember that the conscious is logical and analytical so anything that is not clearly stated will lower its guard. Some practical examples:
1. Whenever you are presupposing something in your statements you are short circuiting the analytical thinking eg "before you decide to invest", "you know that this market has a great potential", “you will see it for yourself after you have signed the agreement”, “you’ve heard that…”, “I know that by end of the meeting you will begin to understand how.
These are known in NLP as mind-reading patterns because the wording used implies that you know what your interlocutor is thinking. Because of its logical nature, the conscious of the person that you are speaking with will perceive a mild form of confusion and will be forced to think about what you’ve just said (eg by asking yourself “How do you know that?”). This contemplation can happen so fast that the person might not be aware of it, but in the meantime the unconscious mind has taken in the message.
2. Whenever you are making value judgements you are leaving out some information on who and when decided that and this will send one's conscious trying to retrieve the lost details. Examples of such structures are: “It’s great to …”, “It’s a good thing to learn how to use language consciously” , “The most innovative companies use…”, “Many people put great value on…”etc In each case it is not clear on what basis has that been decided; whilst the conscious is seeking to fill in the lost piece of information the unconscious has taken in the rest of the message.
3. Statements that are violations of well-formed meaning as understood by native speakers will be confusing structures for the conscious "corporates think", "the most successful shop", “money talks” etc
4. Universal generalisations such as “everyone”, “everything”, “always”, “never” etc can also be easily integrated in communication and will add to the conscious’ overload.
5. Phonological ambiguity such as "by now", “I eye”.
As you can appreciate after having read these examples, we use such structures in our daily lives…we just do not do it purposefully. It is good to learn to use them consciously and purposefully to make sure you are avoiding unintended effects and choosing the words that help you get your message across. The examples that I’ve included are part of what is known as Milton Model; by learning to use this model, you become capable of being “artfully vague" so that your listener can create a meaning that is appropriate for them. Note, the last few words: “appropriate for them”. A well said story, presentation, analogy will help you get the message across but one would ultimately decide based on their values, beliefs and needs. In other words, even if you are cueing the listener so that the (s)he doesn't critically evaluate the information (s)he is receiving and to respond you’re your suggestion, this in turn has to be acceptable to (s)he on some level.
There are of course additional patterns that help one in enhancing the power of their messages. Another example that it’s used increasingly in the business world is for leaders to ask their team what will they hear, see and feel when they have achieved their objective. This is another way of feeding the unconscious mind. In a similar way one can integrate sensory words in a presentation in which case it becomes more likely that the audience will tune in to their message. World’s greatest leaders use this intuitively or purposefully (many have had training in NLP).
Sometimes it also helps to deliberately create a “confusion” state by unexpectedly interrupting a certain state. At that point there is a “window of opportunity” when your audience is open to suggestion. You will notice that many marketing campaigns include an attention grabber that works precisely because it is confusing…something apparently unrelated to the brand, something ridiculous or something so confusing you just find yourself listening to it till the end. I must confess that before learning about the power of language I often found myself saying “what a silly ad” whereas now I recognize when that absurdity is intentional. Pattern interruption can also help to break unwanted states; if your audience is daydreaming, if discussion is stuck on a certain issue, if your team is overwhelmed in a meeting etc you can use confusion to break this pattern and shift discussion towards where you want. Humour is a very effective and easy to use tool for this purpose; drop a joke when people are least expecting it and their conscious will be hijacked.
Finally, whenever using stories or metaphors to appeal to your audience make sure the wording used is appropriate given the purpose, the context, the values and the profile of your listeners. Lynnee Cooper givens an example of a client that was using a Formula 1 race track as a metaphor for its vision of a changed organisation; a few months down the line the programme wasn’t yielding results and the reason was that most of the people within the organisation valued safety and reliability whereas the change management team was using language such as fast, very different, exciting etc.
Accordingly, the presentations and materials were rewritten and the results improved.
The wonderful thing about language is that it is endlessly versatile and many agree that one of the skills that leaders have is that of knowing how to use words to empower teams which enables them to move closer to their vision. Growth-driven individuals should always seek to build such skills sooner or later to learn how to communicate effectively and make team members and investors experience their vision.