Tell Your Own Story

Don’t ask other people to prepare your own story. If you want it to matter – do it yourself.

I’m following an interesting discussion on LinkedIn (yes – there are still a few of them happening amid the slew of self promotional spam) about presentations. It’s full of hints, tips and ideas. Stuff about keep it visual, tell stories, Prezi gets a mention as ‘an aid on the rapid journey to the vomitorium’ and a particularly smart bloke (thanks Alan Whitford) even suggests taking your guitar along and putting part of your story to music. And though it wasn’t me who suggested that, I accept that in replaying the idea I am guilty of the self promotion tactic I just derided. Ha!

I’d like to share a small part of the conversation that took place between Matthew Hudson and me. Matthew asks:

One thing that I am constantly struggling with is writing decks of slides for someone else, who I haven’t met, to present. Pass it up the line…..”he/she needs 5 slides that covers 2.1minutes on what the organisation aspires to over the next 20 years!!” 

You know the stuff!! Any tips?

To which I replied:

Hi Matthew – how about something like….do it yourself dude/dudess? I hate that crap too, just as I dislike writing stuff for other people. When I feel I have no option I quite like doing it in a style that is so obviously not theirs. If they are lazy enough to use it – then the lack of congruence often shines through. That person may be too arrogant to notice – but others are not.

In response, Matthew offers:

Thanks Doug. I’ll tell that to the minister as I leave! 🙂

And I added:

I guess it all depends on how badly the minister wants to tell a compelling story versus puke up a bunch of vague, disconnected hairballs of soulless crappy data.

Tell your own story.

photo credit 

10 thoughts on “Tell Your Own Story”

  1. Doug

    As ever an enjoyable read but on this I MUST challenge you.

    Firstly you’ve just made a lot of communications people unemployed (which I am less worried about) but also you’ve made the ability to story tell and write a core competency of being a leader. Whilst both are admirable qualities they wouldn’t make my top 10.

    I do believe that leaders should be authentic and I do believe that they should say what they think rather than what the machine thinks they should say HOWEVER they are frequently very time poor, input high individuals and expecting them to find the time to deliver that perfectly written narrative I don’t think is sustainable.

    I am fortunate to work with some leaders who embrace authenticity and see ‘getting out there’ as a key function of their role. That said they often benefit from sitting and talking out what they want to say and bouncing their messages off someone and then (in the spirit of it’s easy to edit than create) want something written they can work with to make their own rather than sitting with a blank piece of paper.

    This is where I believe the comms types can add masses of value and allow the leader to be the best version of themselves whilst acknowledging the demands placed on them.

    It’s interesting reading blogs and even more so tweets that often there appear these ‘You shouldn’t’ or ‘You should’ statements and my reaction is often to stop and reflect on the nobility of the proclamation but the reality of the context.

    1. Hi Rob – thanks for taking the time to comment, I am sure it is all your own work 😉

      I appreciate what you have written and, grrrr dammit, you make a good point. I like the way you have mixed up some getting out there with conversations and bouncing ideas around, and I can see this working. I’d love to believe it was happening more often.

      Perhaps my judgement is clouded having seen too many people at all levels, deliver messages that leave me thinking stuff like ‘you don’t believe a word of what you just said’ and/or ‘you don’t give a shit about what you just said’. I can clearly recall being in the BT auditorium as part of some high performer day and one of the bigwigs popped up to address us. He sneaked in a side door, possibly in an attempt to avoid any dialogue before his talk, who knows? He spoke briefly and blandly and made almost no effort to make eye contact with anyone. As soon as he’d said his piece (which included the immortal line about how important we were and the program we were on), he disappeared again, just like that. All the talk at the coffee break was along the lines of ‘Important…You sure?’

      I hear what you say about ‘You shouldn’t’ and ‘You should’ stuff, and I still find myself coming back to – how important is the story to the teller? If it matters, I’d like to feel that it does, and I think that necessitates at least a high level of involvement/commitment from the person delivering.

      Cheers – Doug

  2. Here I go.
    First – a boast. It’s my group Doug’s talking about!!……but I can’t take the credit for the content. Shame.
    Secondly – comms people. i struggle. Most of the comms people I have met have been amongst the worst communicators and the worst listeners. So not needed.
    Thirdly – communication is an essential leadership skill. Written and verbal.
    Fourthly – heart is a key competency of a leader (add it to communication skills and you are getting somewhere)
    Fifthly – if it is important enough then the leader should take responsibility for the slide deck, or at the very least coach the supplier… has to be important to have taken the leader’s time already. Use your supplier as a partner, not a dogsbody.
    Sixthly – god all bloody mighty. I could do a fantastic time and motion study and free up 75% of each leader/manager’s day. Easily. Another key leadership skill is how to really focus on the important. Avoid the bollocky waste of time stuff (after all you are senior enough to choose surely?) and then you can focus on the core stuff.

    If someone asked me to do a slide deck for them I would say no – but I would ask to present at the important meeting. Just as, if ever I have been asked to respond to an RFI etc I have ignored them. It means I don’t have a relationship. And therefore I don’t have a real client.

  3. Wonderful comment, Julia.
    I met two senior managers from two different large businesses at a networking event in London about a year ago. When I asked them what they spent most of their time doing, they both admitted that they spent ‘around 70%’ of their time justifying their own existences by putting together slides demonstrating the value they added to the business through their activities. I kid you not!

    1. I recently overheard a colleague in my office say: “I spend more time in PowerPoint than I do in my own house!” While it brought an obvious smile to my face the realization of how much time is spent on ‘presentations’ in the corporate world (anyone have any stats on that?) is depressingly mind-numbing–as is the experience when it is consuming more of your time than the end result justifies!

      One of the best bosses I ever worked for would nearly always start up a conversation by asking me: “What’s the story?” His question usually translated into: “What’s going on with your project, Ian?” What he wanted from me was a narrative about what was happening, where we were making progress, and if not, why not. As Aristotle once observed, a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It has a distinct form that takes you forward on a journey to arrive at a specific outcome–just like a project. And when you arrive at the end, it may not be the outcome you expected (or planned for) but you know you have arrived!

      This ability to take facts and information and turn them into a narrative is an important differentiating leadership skill. It’s not a necessary one but it will make you a far more effective leader if you have it than if you don’t. Stories are memorable–unlike a list of bullet points on a slide. They impart understanding. They have a point–and not simply a bullet point but an outcome. But most importantly for a leader, these characteristics combine to create a basis for meaningful action. You can judge if your company recognizes the importance of storytelling by looking at the job titles in your Marketing Communications department. Do you see the job title: “Chief Storyteller”? (Yes, we have such a designated role in my company.)

      So where do you go to learn effective story-telling skills? There’s a lot of advice, guidance and workshops out on the web that will help you do that (and like everything else out there, there’s probably too much of it). Picking up on one of the threads here–about the authenticity of the story being delivered–hearing the speaker’s own voice in a narrative nearly always confers authenticity or veracity on the tale being told. Many of the short stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer do this by being both conversational and anecdotal. The narrator often tells a story as he heard it directly from someone else. Sometimes the voice of that someone else, as he told the story to the narrator, carries the narrative. This way of telling stories renders quite ordinary events extraordinary (and vice versa). While I am not advocating that Singer’s short stories become a template for corporate communications (thought that would make for some very interesting presentations!) you can learn a lot about turning ordinary conversations into memorable narratives from them.

      1. A great story thanks Ian. It is sad to read how much time energy and effort gets poured into (mostly) bland, bloated presentations that should probably be written as a document, our desire to want everything in bullet point form is depressing.

        I love that the boss you reference opens with a question, don’t hear enough of that methinks…

        I’m curious, how much of the Chief Story Teller’s role is devoted to teaching his or her craft to others? I confess to being a little concerned that putting someone in that position to some extent abdicates others from the responsibility of narrative. A bit like a head of employee engagement? I guess what you’ve told us means the company does at least see value in stories – and I’m all for that.

        1. The Chief Story Teller role is not as didactic as it sounds, unfortunately–because we can all use some professional help with shaping and telling our stories. It’s actually an internal Marketing Communications role.

          The Chief Story Teller’s job (judging by their output) appears to be to write-up and post corporate announcements by presenting them in a more compelling narrative format than the originator of the content might be capable of doing. It also means that related stories can be tied together or linked in such a way that common themes emerge, and this linking is a way of articulating corporate objectives so you get a joined-up picture of activities in different parts of the company.

          The metaphor of being ‘on a journey (together)’ is very hackneyed in the world of corporate-speak. But a good story-teller will take you on that journey without telling you explicitly: “We’re on a journey”. The telling of the story becomes that journey, and I guess that is what the Chief Story Teller is trying to achieve.

          1. Thanks for the additional input Ian. Sounds interesting and as always I guess, something to play with. Hats off to TR for giving the idea a go

    2. Hi Graham – sadly all too many organisations have reduced the role of management to precisely what you describe, an exercise in self justification. What a waste!

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