Focus your team with stories

2008

If you're leading or building a team, Annette Simmons has a question for you: "What's your story?" Not your personal background or what you've been doing in your team building efforts. Not fishing stories, hunting, or war stories.

She wants to know what story you're using to focus your team and draw it together into a cohesive unit.

Simmons, whom I first met in 2003, is author of several books, including Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins. She says we can study just about any inspiring leader and we'll find someone who can tell a story that drives home a point – all the way down to a person's core.

Think about it. We can sit through seminars, sermons, and speeches of all types, and what we remember most are the stories.

Why do stories work? Let's consider the words of TV / screenplay writer James Bonnet, who was twice elected to the board of directors of the Writer's Guild of America. Writing on his website, Bonnet says a good story "stimulates our imaginations to the point we can see real possibilities in the real world."

We sit through seminars, sermons, and speeches of all types, and what we remember most are the stories

He says a good story also provides us with a road map, outlining the actions needed to meet the goals before us – including how to overcome the obstacles we will inevitably face.

It's not a perspective one usually considers, so if you're a leader, manager, or supervisor, think about how stories act as road maps for people and give guidance for overcoming obstacles.

Example: A few years back I read about a young child who pulled his injured mother from a burning car wreck as he repeated "I think I can, I think I can" – a line from his favorite storybook, The Little Engine That Could.

Perhaps not many know, but it was a story about the Amazon River that stirred a young printer named Samuel Clemens to leave the printing business for adventures on the Mississippi - and become the great Mark Twain.

Stories about Christopher Columbus and the new world inspired such people as John Cabot, Sebastian Cabot, Jacques Cartier, and many others to become explorers.

Consider the impact of Jesus, who taught using parables – simple stories that were easy for people to remember.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was a dynamic storyteller, as was Winston Churchill. Reagan told stories. Gandhi told stories. Throughout history, inspiring leaders have used stories to drive their messages home, and their stories have rallied nations.

Another book by Simmons, The Story Factor, outlines and explains why leaders should create six types of stories. They are:

"Who Am I" Stories
"Why I Am Here" Stories
"The Vision" Story
"Teaching" Stories
"Values-in-Action" Stories
"I Know What You Are Thinking" Stories

A few months back while reading BusinessWeek I came across a great "Why I Am Here" story. The writer had been working with a large organic food producer. Reams of data were presented to the writer as to why organic food was better than conventionally grown food. He wrote that most of the data evaporated from his mind, but a story he heard had grown very deep roots.

A farmer said that when he worked for a conventional grower, his kids couldn't hug him at the end of the day. He had to change clothes first so his farming clothes could be disinfected. But now that he's working for an organic grower, his kids can hug him as soon as he gets off the field.

The deep emotion that accompanies that story is recalled every time the writer sees an organic food display. It's a simple, yet powerful story that builds commitment.

Regardless of what types of stories we use, one benefit stands out: By sharing a story, we create a common connection with others who hear it. That connection serves as a focal point – a unifying denominator. Everyone knows the point of the story, and it draws them together on an emotional level.

Interestingly, once the point of a story is known, it can be triggered rather easily. For the BusinessWeek writer, all it takes is seeing a display of organic food.

Sometimes the trigger is a slogan. "Remember the Alamo" united many people to stand up and fight in the face of overwhelming odds. The phrase wasn't magical; it just focused people on the point of a story.

Leaders at blue chip giant IBM communicate that their value over the years has not been their assets or their size, but rather the way they think. Accordingly, the single word "Think" triggers success stories for IBM employees, and reminds them to stay focused on what they do best.

So what kind of stories are you telling at your workplace? What phrases or slogans draw your team together? In other words, what's your story?

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About The Author

Dan Bobinski
Dan Bobinski

Dan Bobinski is a training specialist, author, and an accomplished keynote speaker. He's been providing management and leadership training to Fortune 500 companies as well as smaller, regional concerns for more than 20 years.