1: We have a tall task.  

Our goal is to persuade our audience to change behaviors and set out on a new course.

We begin by getting their attention. To do so, we go negative.

“Negative stories, questions, or challenges wake us up. They activate the reptilian brain, suggesting fight or flight,” writes Stephen Denning in The Secret Language of Leadership: How Leaders Inspire Action Through Narrative

What negative stories don’t do? They do not stimulate passionate action.

“They start us thinking, but they also generate worry, anxiety, and caution,” Stephen notes.

Time to move on to step two of our “leadership communication triad:” Get attention >> Stimulate desire >> Reinforce with reasons.

“Failing to distinguish between getting attention and stimulating desire can have disastrous results,” he writes. “That’s because what gets people’s attention typically doesn’t stimulate a desire to act. Whereas getting attention is generally done more effectively by negative content, getting people to want to do something different needs to accentuate the positive.”

What also doesn’t stimulate action?  

“The traditional practice of using a comprehensive set of analyses of the reasons for change,” Stephen suggests. “For one thing, it’s too slow. By the time the traditional presenter is approaching the conclusion, the audience has already made up its mind—largely on emotional grounds.”

Because facts and analysis target the wrong part of the body.

“To gain enthusiastic buy-in, leaders need to appeal to the heart as well as the mind,” he notes.  

“The audience has to want to change. To be effective, a leader needs to establish an emotional connection and stimulate desire for a different future. Without the emotional connection, nothing happens.”

2: Stephen believes this middle step—stimulating desire for change—is the most important of the three steps: ” Without a desire for change, people will have no energy or enthusiasm. So if transformational leaders do only one thing, they should make sure they stimulate desire for change.”

As leaders, our job is not to impose our will on our audience. Which is impossible, anyway.

“It’s not about moving the audience to a predetermined position that the leader has foreseen. It’s about enabling the people in the audience to see possibilities that they have hitherto missed,” he notes. “It involves pointing a way forward for people who find themselves—for whatever reason—cornered by the current story they are living.”

So how do we do this?  

We tell stories.  

“The idea that storytelling might be important is not particularly extraordinary,” Stephen writes. “Great leaders have always used stories to spark change.”

What’s required, however, is a specific type of story. And likely not what we expect.  

“Some of the most effective stories are not big, flamboyant theatrical epics,” he notes. “Generally, it’s a positive story about the past where the change, or an analogous change, has already happened, and it is told in a simple, minimalist manner.”

Stories like these seem “unassuming, but they can be astoundingly powerful,” Stephen writes. “They operate by sparking a new story in the mind of the listener. It’s this new story that the listeners generate for themselves that connects at an emotional level and leads to action.”

Sparking the desire for a better future is foundational to being a great leader.  

“And it’s the trickiest facet of leadership, because it involves inducing people to want to do something different,” he observes. “The key insight is that if the listeners are to own the change idea, they have to discover it for themselves in the form of a new story.”

When done correctly, a new narrative emerges. “It is born in the listeners’ minds as a more compelling version of their ongoing life stories. The listeners themselves create the story. Since it’s their own story, they tend to embrace it,” Stephen writes. “What the leaders says is a mere scaffolding, a catalyst to a creative process going on inside the listeners.”

3: The final piece of the puzzle is step three: Reinforce with reasons.

“Stimulating desire for change is important, but it’s not enough, Stephen writes in The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling. “The desire for change may wane unless it is supported and reinforced by compelling reasons why the change makes sense.”

Where the reasons are placed in our presentation is critical. Reasoning is still essential, Stephen tells us. It just has to be done in the right place.  

“If reasons are given before the emotional connection is established, they are likely to be heard as so much noise,” he writes. “Worse, if the audience is skeptical, cynical, or hostile, the reasons tend to flip and become ammunition for the opposite point of view.”

If the reasons come after creating an emotional connection, they reinforce the overall message.  

What is the most effective way to present reasons that will resonate with our audience?

Once again, we tell a story. These stories are best shared with a neutral rather than a positive or negative tone.

For example: “The story of what the change is, often seen through the eyes of some typical characters who will be affected by the change,” Stephen writes.

And “the story of how the change will be implemented, showing in simple steps how we will get from here to there.”

Finally: “The story of why the change will work, showing the underlying causal mechanism that make the change virtually inevitable.” 

By telling stories, we pack an emotional punch that facts, figures, and arguments lack: “Stories appeal to the heart as well as the mind and make the reasons memorable,” Stephen notes.

More tomorrow!


Action: Experiment with Stephen’s three-part leadership communication triad: 1: Get attention. 2: Stimulate desire. 3: Reinforce with reasons.

Reflection: Pay attention to how my audience responds. Ask myself: What did I learn? How can I get better next time?

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