What’s Your Story?
WHAT GREAT LEADERS have in common is their ability to communicate and create meaning from their words. Much of that ability speaks to the ability to listen and read between the lines to develop an understanding with those you lead. Great stories begin with great listening. From there you can learn how to connect your perspective to theirs.
This is especially important today when ironically our ability to communicate in a meaningful way is deteriorating. The structures we used to have to develop that skill are diminished. Bursts of thought do not help to create the empathy we need to function effectively as a civilization. We don’t connect in bursts of thought but in shared stories. A good story can set the tone for a deeper connection and empathy for another’s perspective.
In a September 2018 interview with Fast Company magazine, Doris Kearns Goodwin talks about her book, Leadership: In Turbulent Times, and the ability of the four presidents she delved into to communicate through stories. Each of the presidents she portrays could help their audience see themselves in the future they were describing. A well-crafted story has the power to give the audience ownership of the idea that is woven into the story.
Goodwin is asked, “What’s the most important lesson that business leaders can take from these presidents?”
If I were to pick one, it would be the ability to speak to audiences with stories. [Take] Abraham Lincoln: While we celebrate his beautiful language, his speeches really worked because they were filled with stories and illustration. He believed people remembered anecdotes better than facts and figures. When he was young, he would listen as his father and the people who would come by his little log cabin told stories. He’d go to bed at night and try to translate those stories into [his] words, so he could then go out on the field the next day, stand on a tree stump—he’s like eight, nine years old—and entertain his friends.
Each of these leaders was fortunate to live in a time when his particular kind of storytelling fit the age. Lincoln’s speeches were printed in full in newspapers; they could be read aloud all over the country. Teddy Roosevelt had this punchy way of speaking—“square deal,” “speak softly and carry a big stick”—that was perfect for the new newspaper age. FDR had the ideal voice for the radio age and a conversational, intimate style. People felt they were listening to him one-on-one. After he died, they felt they had lost a friend. Clarity, simplicity, humor—these people were experts.
Goodwin adds this about Theodore Roosevelt’s ability to relate—even today:
What really interests me is thinking about which of these [presidents] would give a speech that would be relevant today. It would probably be Teddy Roosevelt. Think about where we were at the turn of the 20th century: The industrial revolution had shaken up the economy, immigrants were pouring in, cities were replacing towns. A gap was developing between the rich and the poor, and the social landscape was changing because of all these new inventions: the automobile, the telegraph, and the telephone. You had populist movements that called for restrictions on immigration, and the establishment worried about [giving] power to ordinary people.
Teddy was able to channel those emotions into positive, moderate reforms. Even his slogan would work today: “A square deal for the rich and the poor.” He was a fighter, but he understood that democracy would founder if people began to see each other as the other. He’d also be great at Twitter, with all his phrases: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” He’d be perfect at that.
Ryan Matthews and Watts Wacker begin their book, What’s Your Story? with this observation: “Long before the first formal business was established, before the first deal, the six most powerful words in any language were Let me tell you a story.
What’s your story?
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