How to be an effective leader in a team by using stories

Effective leaders know the importance of a strong and cohesive team

Effective leaders know the importance of a strong and cohesive team. There’s no one-size-fits-all for leaders but a good starting place is to know yourself first – what excites and what motivates you. Reflection helps here. Colleagues you can trust. A good mentor. The ability to stand back and have work-life balance. From there you can build up your own approach – both in leadership and in how you and connect with your team.

The tried-and-trusted way to deepen your connection to your team is through regular group meetings and one-to-one catch ups. More and more leaders are having an ‘open door policy’ to show they’re accessible. Or, an ‘ask-anything-you-want’ lunch once a month.

But whether you do these in person or remotely via web conferencing there’s an all-too-common scenario that plays out.

Before a meeting starts, there’s ease among the group. The atmosphere is relaxed. Everyone is chatting and shooting the breeze. But, when the leader takes centre stage, the natural flow is interrupted. People become stiff or silent. The ‘feedback loop’ between the leader and the group can stop. 

How to shift this? Start each meeting with a story.

Not long. Ideally you want the point of your story to reinforce the point of the meeting – or at least be linked.

Stories place everyone in the room. They move minds. They express emotions. They motivate. They inspire.

5 ways to use a story to kick-start a meeting

  1. Ensure your story makes a point about the broader business topic.A relevance statement is a great place to start. You can then expand to show exactly what you mean. In stories, chronology helps locate people. Use words like ‘before we were doing this’… ‘or then something happens’. 
  2. The devil’s in the details, so be specific.Use data points to back-up your story.
  3. Be concise.Remember that your story is just an introduction to a discussion, so max 3 minutes.
  4. Use a personal story – where appropriate.People tend to relate to a story that has a human touch. However, keep it professional and within the context of your workplace.
  5. Help people visualise your narrative with ‘word-pictures’. The human mind naturally creates images when visual details are presented. This improves comprehension. 

By sharing a story at the start of a meeting you can change the course of the discussion that follows. Thoughts?

We have more ways than ever to communicate, so why are we losing the art?

Good communication is about getting the right information across in the right order.

I was sitting in an Uber a few weeks ago when the driver raised the topic of communication. ‘Young people just don’t know how  to keep a conversation going,’ he said. ‘They’re losing the art.’ I wondered aloud if it’s because they’re distracted, on their phones. ‘No, it’s more than that. It’s like how people communicate is actually changing.’ 
Now, you don’t just notice this with young people. It’s becoming an epidemic in businesses. I find it ironic that in an age where we have more channels than ever to communicate, people and brands struggle to do it well. Often in business, soft skills are viewed one-dimensionally — as just about the words you say. The art of smart communication requires a lot more. 
Conversations make the world go round. It’s how we share knowledge and experiences. How great ideas are spread. How we engage and motivate teams. 

20 ways to improve communication at work and build emotional connection

Content: think about what you want to say.

1. Good communication is about getting the right information across in the right order.Sounds obvious, but if you speak before you think, you’ll probably come across as vague and waffly. The natural order of things is to think first before you speak. Unfortunately, few politicians have heard of this advice.

2. Think about your audience.If you’re talking to a peer about a project you’re both steeped in, it’s okay to use acronyms or shorthand. But if you’re speaking to an external stakeholder, you’ll need more explanation. Don’t assume the other person has the same level of knowledge as you.

3. Business jargon is a no, no.Some of the best communicators of our generation, like Tony Fadell, father of the iPod, breaks down his crazy, amazing, and highly specialised wisdom into bite-sized pieces that we can all understand.

4. If it’s an important conversation, take time to map it out — on paper or in your head.Practise with a trusted colleague or coach. Visualise yourself having the conversation before you actually do so.
Hour-glass communication 

5. The more specialised you are in a subject, the more you’re likely to communicate poorly to people who don’t share that specialisation.This extends point 3 above. One way around this is to always think of your context first, the scene setting, before you dip into the detail. Then choose 2/3 salient examples to illustrate your points, before then going broad again at the end. This way of communicating looks like an hour-glass — you start wide and broad, explain the bigger picture, then go specific — before widening out at the end.

Harness the power of stories

6. Stories can be an excellent way to explain a topic that is difficult to understand, or that requires ‘bringing to life.’ Finance legend, Kathy Murphy, President, Fidelity Personal Investing, is a pro at this. She’s  known for sharing her own stories and experiences to educate people about investments and personal finances. This makes her relatable. Richard Branson does so, too.

7. Our brain loves facts but they can be overwhelming. Facts and figures engage a small area of the brain but stories and metaphors have a way of engaging multiple brain regions that not only stimulate logic but elicit emotional responses. Facts provide a hook for the brain but our colourful word choice is what maintains attention.

8. Structure your stories in such a way so they trigger multi-sensory cortices: motor, visual, olfactory, auditory, etc.Engage the senses by describing how the ‘strong aroma of coffee lifts the spirits’ or how the ‘cool rain on my skin brings back teenage memories.’

9. The best communicators know this template by heart: the template of human drama and the triumph of the indomitable spirit:It starts with facing challenges, overcoming adversity and immortalising the lesson. Make your stories memorable by using this template. Award-winning Kenyan-Mexican actress, Lupita Nyong’o, uses intentional transitions to reveal her own hopes and emotions in order to inspire people.


Better delivery: ensure your message cuts through the noise 

10. Good communication requires a whole-brain approach.Great communication requires the heart as well as the head.

11. It’s important to realise that what people don’t say is as important as what they do say.Be aware of the silences, not just the words.

12. According to communication expert, Judy Apps, author of the lyrical, thought-provoking The Art of Communication,our brains have a huge impact on how well we communicate.While the left-brain focuses on words and arguments, and is directed towards an outcome, most elements of communication are right-brain related: meaning, inference, intention, context, tone, facial expression, gesture, humour, irony and metaphor. You need to be aware of both elements.

13. When you communicate succinctly, think about the how — not only the what.Consider body language, gestures, eye contact and facial connection. Avoid negative body language like crossing your arms, keeping your head down, or averting your eyes.

14. Watch for a mismatch between what you’re saying and your body language, people pick up on that. There’s a non-verbal aspect of communicating called subtle non-verbal responses: this is being aware of what else is going on.

15. If you nod ‘yes’ while saying ‘no’ people will think you’re not completely telling the truth. An example of this is the aptly termed ‘duping delight’. It’s when a liar says he didn’t do it but smiles at an inappropriate moment.

16. Dr John Lund, author ofHow to Hug a Porcupine: Dealing With Toxic and Difficult to Love Personalities(now that’s a mouthful!) says people take more cues from what you’re NOT saying versus what you are saying. He goes on:

  • 92 per cent of communication is non-verbal
  • 55 per cent  is based on your facial expressions and your body language
  • 37 per cent  is based on the tone of your voice
  • only 8 per cent is based on the words you say.

17. Think about the place you hold an important conversation.Avoid being somewhere noisy or at the coffee machine. This lets your listener/s know that he/she is important enough to have your undivided attention.

18. Be assertive.This is not about being hostile or contentious. But expressing your feelings confidently, honestly, and openly while being respectful of others. Effective communication isn’t about forcing your opinion on others but trying to understand the other person.

19. Keep stress in check.Speak calmly and strategically, with pauses to collect your thoughts.

20. Your breathing is also part of the way  you communicate. Breathe at a steady pace.

So wherever you are, in an Uber, in a lift, practise some of these skills. Hopefully, you’ll become more equipped to be a better communicator — a skill we’ll all need as we navigate new channels, and move rapidly into voice-first technology. Bring back the art of better conversation. Everyone has a story to tell.

So, will you tell it?

How stories improve employee engagement

Welcome to the relaunch of Wordstruck! This is where you can find stories that can help you change how you engage at work. Stories that inspire, persuade and make a difference.

It’s well known that employee engagement is down. I mean really down. A recent Gallup poll put 76% — that’s  8.74M Australian workers — who are not engaged in their job. One solution: use stories in your workplace to communicate what you’re telling your team.

In August I ran a workshop for an IT group in a resource company. Beforehand I was told that the participants were more likely to be introverted and would find telling stories a challenge. Actually, the group couldn’t wait to get started. It reminded me that it’s easy for all of us to have assumptions and to always question those before you meet someone.

During the workshop I asked people to think about a Connection story.This is what you use when you’re first meeting someone or to introduce a presentation. It’s a way to establish rapport and trust quickly. It’s much more effective than just saying who you are and what you do. In the workplace, you make sure that it has a business or relevance point. This keeps it focused and relevant.

One of the participants in the group said that he preferred using numbers and stats rather than using stories. ‘That’s my style and it works for me.’ So, when I asked people to think about a connection story, I was surprised when he raised his hand.

He went on to tell the group how important it is to set goals. ‘I like to play and coach cricket. I was playing against a team a couple of years ago. It was really hot and I could hardly run the length of the pitch. Back then I weighed 150 kilos. I decided I had to change and hired a personal trainer. Together we set goals and eight months later I’d lost 40 kilos and then I went to lose some more. I know that if you are accountable to someone it really works and it’s helped me turn things around.’

The rest of the group went quiet as he talked. At the end, his manager said, ‘I never knew that about you.’ Someone else said, ‘That was brave to tell us that.’

That one story shifted the whole group. It gave other people permission to speak up and it created a deeper sense of connection between everyone in the room.

Now, that’s how you get better engagement.

How details bring stories to life

To bring your stories to life, people need to visualise what you are saying. Back in 2006, my first book, Last Seen in Lhasa, was published. I’d never done any radio interviews before and my publicist sent me a scary publicity schedule. When I went to the ABC offices to give my first interview, my stomach was churning.

I remember fidgeting as I sat in the hot booth waiting for the one-hour live-to-air interview to start. On the line came the gravelly voice of Richard Fidler. He asked if I was ready. Then he said, ‘Remember to answer my questions with word-pictures’.

I’d never heard that phrase before but that piece of advice not only helped me get through the interview, it has stayed with me ever since. Instead of talking with facts, I said things like, ‘As I froze in my gumboots, the Chinese army came swarming over the mountain top.’ The hour flew by and I got great feedback from listeners.

This is just one of several techniques you can use to make your stories more compelling — both in the written format and orally. In a business setting, you don’t need too much ‘colour’, but just a few telling details make all the difference.

5 details to include to make people listen to your stories

1. The name of the person you are referring to. Names are important as we connect with individuals not faceless case studies.

2. Emotions. How did you feel at the moment when your colleague praised you for the report you’d done? How did you feel as you walked out of the lift for your first meeting with your boss? Here, we don’t need a blow-by-blow of every emotion you experienced, but the strongest feeling.

3. Concrete facts. When did the conference take place? Where? Facts help anchor a story. They make it real and tangible. Was it snowing or balmy? Was it on the edge of the city or in the heart of the CBD?

4. The senses. Touch, taste, sound, smell, sight — these connect us to the world, to other people, to experiences. When you evoke one of the senses, it allows the person listening or reading your story to experience it themselves. Again, you don’t need too much, just a sprinkle in the story. Focus on one sense.

5. Chronology. If you are describing a complex series of events a couple of key dates help give the story a timeline. This makes it easier for the listener to make sense of how the events unfolded. It is another way of anchoring us to the crucial moments in your story.

If you want to know other ways to punch up your writing, I’ve done an interview with corporate writer and business book mentor, Steven Lewis from Taleist (below). Like me, Steven has a journalist background, and is an expert in using stories to get his message across.

In the interview I talk more about word pictures. So when you’re thinking of describing someone, perhaps, don’t just have, ‘He walked into the room’ instead have ‘he strode in the room.’ This immediately gives a sense of purpose.

I also discuss how important verbs are to make your stories stronger and how it’s okay to write more than one draft.

So, how do you make your stories more compelling?