It was 9am on Monday, 23rd March 2020. In the grip of a pandemic, a rallying cry was broadcast to homes across the globe:
“Get up everyone. You can do it literally in your pants if you want…”
At that moment, Joe Wicks kickstarted the first of his online Physical Education lessons during the UK lockdown. Hundreds of thousands of people tuned in each day to join in with his 30-minute live stream workouts over the following 18 weeks.
His success was about way more than fitness sessions for kids. After all, there are plenty of free exercise videos to choose from online. Whether he realised it at the time or not, it was an act of extraordinary leadership at a time of crisis. It tapped into a primal need for connection while there was deep uncertainty. When everything else was closing down, Joe’s living room opened up at 9am every weekday, providing familiarity, cheerful optimism and comforting routine for kids, parents and countless others.
As businesses look to bounce back from the pandemic, Joe’s story is a powerful reminder of the need to rebuild human connection and a sense of belonging if we’re to deal with the profound impacts of COVID-19.
From our standpoint, alongside operational challenges, leaders are having to grapple with a ‘crisis of connection’:
- the disconnection of individuals and teams working remotely
- a lost sense of direction, with businesses operating in ‘survival mode’
- the remoteness of the corporate narrative and culture from the reality of people’s lives
- shifts in customer loyalty, trust and perspectives
- a drop in team motivation and a sense of fatigue
- uncertainty and fear of dealing with the pace and scale of change
- the loss of opportunities for impromptu, informal communication and the innovation and collaboration that result
We need a way to reunite and re-energise teams, and build bridges of connection with customers and stakeholders so companies can forge a path through recovery and beyond.
The role of storytelling
In times of crisis, we look to leaders to make sense out of chaos. Not with complex plans or by having all the answers, but by being human, empathetic, even vulnerable. And the common language that connects us and gives meaning to the incomprehensible, is the language of stories. As we say in our storytelling training, “storytelling is meaning making”.
“Neuroscientists, social psychologists, and PTSD therapists all support the importance of narratives in making traumatic events comprehensible. When the future is uncertain, stories told well by trusted leaders convey emotions in a way that unites us, creates room for reason — and bolsters hope.”
Harry Hutson and Martha Johnson, Harvard Business Review
We’re at a point in history where the stakes are incredibly high but where we have the opportunity to think and work differently as well. Much like the Apollo 13 mission where engineers had to improvise ways to get the crew home safely following an explosion on board the spacecraft, we’re seeing incredible stories of innovation and collaboration which need to be shared.
As leaders, we need to take people with us on the road to recovery and there’s a hunger for a more honest, authentic dialogue.
So where does storytelling fit in with day-to-day business? Let’s look at three key areas to get us started…
1. The corporate narrative
No matter how your company has fared during the pandemic, it’s very unlikely to be the same as it was. Your teams, your customers and your environment will have shifted and so perhaps you need to completely reset your direction in light of a vastly different landscape.
We did exactly that at Ginger. Mid-pandemic we moved all our training online and had to shift the stories we were telling, from “it’s all about the connection of in-person training” to “virtual training can be just as connective and a whole load more efficient.”
The corporate narrative is the mother of all stories. It’s the ‘why’ behind the business. It paints a picture of the present and contrasts it with where you want to get to. It has the potential to unite teams behind a common purpose and connect the company with its customers and stakeholders.
- Do you have a clear and compelling corporate story?
…that’s up to date in the current context?
…that’s easily articulated in a way that moves people and galvanises them to take action?
- Do your people understand their role in that story?
2. Team connection
Technically speaking, teams have managed to stay connected throughout the pandemic through online meetings and collaboration tools which have been vital to keep businesses running.
But we’re missing real-life human interaction, the subtle cues of body language that get missed on screen, and stories that aren’t necessarily getting heard. Behind the scenes, people are dealing with enormous challenges and many are feeling isolated from work and colleagues.
Storytelling is the glue that holds a team together. The story of my weekend, the story of a client failure, the story of a difficult conversation – we miss these moments of bonding when we can’t walk together to the next meeting, but are thrown into another virtual meeting room with a set agenda.
Regrouping and bolstering team communication faced with the likelihood of permanent shifts to virtual and hybrid working, has to be a major priority.
Where might stories be missing?…
- Do your teams have opportunities to share their personal experiences?
- Are they able to visualise and articulate how they ‘fit’ within the organisation?
- Can they engage other team members, customers and stakeholders in meetings, pitches and presentations?
- Do they communicate with impact and show leadership to others?
- Are you noticing the impact of fewer informal opportunities to de-brief, let off steam, celebrate and download?
3. Turning data into stories
One of the biggest challenges for companies, is standing out among the general noise. Fantastic opportunities, ideas and innovation get missed because teams struggle to convey the impact of their work.
This is a particular challenge for subject matter experts. Often, they present information and data in great detail but the reality is, people need an emotional connection for a message to really stick.
Do any of these sound familiar?
- Relying on delivering technical information to sound ‘more credible’?
- Trying to bring data alive through infographics and charts rather than stories?
- Struggling to convey a sense of urgency – why does it matter now?
- Delivering a presentation that’s quickly forgotten?
It’s said that stories are at least 22 times more memorable than facts, which is why we help experts to bring out the underlying ‘human’ impact of what they’re trying to achieve to make it resonate with the audience. And then, we teach them how to deliver that message with charisma and personality.
Nicole, one immunotherapy expert we worked with, swapped PowerPoint slides for a story about a conversation with her best friend who was worried about her husband’s cancer. In Nicole’s very personal talk, she answered her friend’s questions about a pioneering blood cancer treatment and the impact it had on the husband’s recovery. She drew in the audience from the very first words, keeping everyone captivated throughout while bringing crucial data to life.
After the training, Nicole said: “It was the most valuable time I have spent on self-development in communicating with others.”
The next chapter
If we’re to lead business recovery effectively, leaders need to become ‘meaning makers’ and reconnect people to each other, to the company and the wider world. The great news is, storytelling is a teachable skill that delivers tangible business benefits, some of which go way beyond the expected.
“Clients often tell us how they’ve gained more than the ability to inspire and influence an audience through our training. They talk about how the very act of working together to find, explore and articulate their stories has had a profound and unifying impact on their team. Teams gain self-awareness, insight, intrigue and common ground that perhaps they’ve never experienced before. Like a lifetime of team building and water-cooler moments condensed into a few hours’ training.”
CEO and Founder of Ginger Sarah Lloyd-Hughes
Like Joe’s call to “get up” and do it “in your pants”, you don’t have to wait for in-person meetings and events to resume (although we’d advise getting dressed from the waist up). We have a whole training programme which unlocks the power of storytelling in a business context, whether that’s communicating in person or on screen. Drop us a line if you want to know more about it.
As you can probably tell, storytelling is one of our all-time-favourite subjects! Over the coming weeks, we’ll be sharing a series of articles about the role storytelling can play in recovery and growth. Keep your eyes peeled.