Today's business leaders face considerable challenges. With email, smartphones, Twitter feeds and the like, attention spans during meetings or speeches can be extremely limited.
And for many executives, this information overload might threaten to overturn traditional organizational structures and power dynamics. For one, people today are less willing to endure a series of mind-numbing PowerPoint slides than they used to be.
“Because of the saturation of information, people are looking for something different,” says Janie Van Hool, who teaches a workshop at Ashridge Business School called “Engage Your Audience: Personal Impact and Storytelling.”
“It's not the kind of hierarchy anymore like it was 50 years ago, where people were followed because they had positional power,” says Van Hool. “It's definitely an emotional economy, and people need to understand how to operate within that.”
While for some, 'storytelling' might conjure up late-night campfire yarns, some managers are turning to executive programs that focus on building storytelling skills to help them overcome a variety of leadership challenges. For instance, a main issue today is that many managers have a lot of valuable information they need to deliver, but might not necessarily know how to deliver it in an engaging fashion.
“Even very intelligent, credible, and laudable business executives who know a lot and have been through a lot,” says Alexander Mackenzie, “can be actually quite poor in processing information verbally, and quite poor at engaging an audience motivationally.”
Mackenzie teaches a one-day executive education course at Cranfield School of Management called “Winning Hearts and Minds” which helps managers engage and motive listeners through storytelling. Some leaders, it seems, are catching onto the idea that this age-old practice can help them in today's world of dwindling attention spans.
At their core, executive courses in storytelling can help participants work on the softer side of leadership. And for some executives, even minor insights here can be extremely valuable.
“I'm amazed how little sense and awareness leaders have about timing,” says Ashridge's Janie Van Hool, who has developed the course with insight from her background in acting and voice psychology. Her approach to the course is very practical.
“We tend to break it down into physical presence, vocal presence, and then work on some structured tools around how they engage with a story.”
The course also covers storytelling frameworks, which can help leaders develop a structured narrative process for telling and delivering a story, and bringing their stories' characters to life.
Courses like these leverage insights from research in the field of “emotional intelligence,” which posits that qualities like empathy and self-awareness can be just as important for leaders as the harder skills like intelligence and vision.
But beyond motivating people with snazzier PowerPoint presentations and parables, storytelling skills can also help managers more positively frame challenging organizational shifts, such as changes in strategy or downsizing. Storytelling skills can also be helpful in external communications, especially in today's age of social media, where people are expecting an increasing degree of genuine engagement and transparency.
Can engineers become storytellers?
Storytelling courses can help a wide variety of leaders, but the ones who often find them most valuable come from fields like engineering, where leaders may have not had a chance to develop robust communication skills on their way up the corporate ladder.
A typical participant in Cranfield's “Winning Hearts and Minds” program is someone in a senior position, possibly with an engineering or scientific background; someone who, according to Alexander Mackenzie, “is very well aware of the information that he or she needs to deliver, but isn't always very good at doing that.”
MacKenzie also notes that the course also draws people from fields like marketing, who already have a good command of communication skills, but may just want to “polish up.”
In the Cranfield course, participants bring something to the course that they will eventually have to deliver to an audience, and go through the process of turning it into a story. Mackenzie says that “my hope would be that whatever they've brought along , whatever small presentation that they've got to deliver, that traveling it through this process of storyfication is in itself a big help.”
In the end, simply running through these practical exercises and putting storytelling into a framework can help participants bring an increased sense of self-assurance back to the workplace.
“The tools give them confidence,” says Janie Van Hool.“They have to have the confidence to take a step outside of their normal communication.”