Master storyteller Doug Keeley was a featured speaker at a large national sales meeting some years ago when he noticed how miserable everyone was feeling. “Morale was horrible,” he recalls. “There was a new leader taking over, and her opening keynote had bombed. Everyone thought this CEO was cold and lacking empathy.”
The only way to turn it around, Keeley was convinced, was to get the CEO back on stage for a more personal conversation. So, he asked her to talk about a time when she had dealt with a difficult challenge.
“Her story was maybe five minutes long,” says the author of The Mark of a Leader. “But she was able to be vulnerable in front of her people. It made everyone realize that she understood what they were feeling, too. That short story completely changed the mood in the room.”
The founder of Stories Rule!, based near Toronto, Keeley has worked with scores of Fortune 500 companies and CXOs, teaching them how to turn storytelling into a strategic business communication tool. “There are three ways that human beings communicate—with assertions, with facts, and with stories,” he says. “Assertions are statements or opinions. Facts are the numbers, the data. Stories are the telling of an event or a series of events. They connect with people emotionally.”
Senior executives in some industries—technology, finance, and pharmaceuticals—are most comfortable making assertions and sharing facts, Keeley notes. “Those businesses are very numbers- and science-based, so the communication tends to be left-brained. What’s often missing is any emotional connection.”
After watching Keeley’s formidable storytelling talent in action at a recent tech leadership conference, I caught up with him to learn more about the enduring power of storytelling, how CIOs can sharpen those skills, and the four types of stories all IT executives should be ready to tell.
Maryfran Johnson: What has changed most about business storytelling in recent years?
Doug Keeley: When I started my speaking business in 2004, the dominant subject was leadership, and I used stories as a way to talk about that at conferences. Back then, business people thought storytelling was ‘woo woo’ stuff. Their general attitude was ‘We’ve got numbers to hit! There’s no time for woo woo!’ That’s changed significantly today, not just from the impact of Covid but from the challenge of attracting and retaining great talent. The leadership challenges around empowering people and communicating effectively have become much more extreme. Storytelling is really about communicating. If you’re a manager or anyone in a leadership position, a crucial part of your job is getting the best out of your people. One of the most powerful skills in doing that is communication.
How can CIOs make their stories more memorable or likely to have an impact?
The most important thing to understand is that all stories are about people. They have emotional resonance because they establish a connection to others. So, you make any story about the impact it’s having on people, not on the technology, the data, or the change. ‘Change’ is just an abstract noun. What’s going on with the people the change is happening to? That’s where you focus. That could be another IT person you’d identify with, or an end customer who’s going crazy trying to solve a technical issue. I’m talking about short, 2- to 3-minute verbal stories here. Not the ‘hero’s journey’ or big OMG stories.
What kind of stories should IT and business leaders be able to tell?
The four main story types that leaders need to tell are personal stories, customer success stories, employee-values-in-action stories, and perspective stories.
- With personal stories, like the example of the CEO going through a difficult time herself, you’re connecting by showing people what you have in common with them.
- Customer success stories should be about the people your solution has helped and how it has made things better for them. The big flaw with case studies is that they’re all about companies, and nobody cares. And by the way, the customer has to be the hero. You are Yoda, not Luke.
- Company values are just abstract concepts without stories attached to them. For CIOs, what do your people do to show those values in action? Give examples.
- Perspective stories are typically from outside your organization and you use them to change how people see things. Illustrate what you’re trying to get across so people can visualize it. In any situation where you want to engage, connect, or give a new vision using data, don’t just ‘show up and throw up’ a bunch of numbers. Include a story about the impact of the numbers on people.
How do you build and track a mental library of all these types of stories?
We all have stories to tell, but you have to consciously think about them. What happened? How did it change or influence who you are today? Get a capture or save tool, like Evernote or OneNote or the free MemLife app. Write the story details down in bullet form: where/when/who/what happened? Add details that help you see and feel it. Use strong adjectives and adverbs. Work backwards from the point—every story needs a point!—then edit and rehearse how you’ll tell it. Your goal is to make the listener feel what it’s like to be there.
What other storytelling resources do you recommend?
There’s a storytelling community at network.storiesrule.ca. You’ll find tons of tips, stories, and videos there. I’m also licensed as one of about 60 storytellers worldwide to deliver workshops and training programs from Anecdote.com, which also shares a lot of great free resources.
This article originally appeared in CIO’s Career Strategist newsletter. Subscribe today!
Careers, IT Leadership