By: Stephen Denning, author of The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art & Discipline of Business Narrative
Quick. Complex. Interconnected. Confusing. The world today is such an unpredictable kaleidoscope of shifting information, activities, people, places, stories, and goals, all vying for a place in people’s minds, it severely tests the ability to concentrate on anything in particular. Is it any wonder, then, that attention has become a scarce resource? Or that today’s audiences usually aren’t listening when leaders start to speak?
Your employees may be sitting there looking at you, but they are often thinking about what they did at the party last night, or thinking about drafting an email, or even physically texting someone on their iPhone. They are physically present, but mentally, they are somewhere else. They are not even registering what you are saying, let alone remembering it. Until you get their attention, you are wasting your breath.
Your primary task, then, is to engage employees with your public speaking skills.
Engaging Employees with the Right Story
Before any meaningful communication can occur, you need to clear the way and create an open space for the audience so that their minds can consider something different. The most important function of getting attention isn’t taking information in, but preparing listeners’ minds for something new.
Storytelling can be a great way to get the audience’s attention, but only if you tell the right kind of story. Research shows that human beings tend to pay attention to things that have three main characteristics:
First, we pay attention to things which are relevant to us. Stories that get attention tend to be about things that we already care about. That means knowing what the audience is really interested in and telling a story about that. Rather than talking about something that is important to you or to the organization, tell a story about what they care about. Don’t make the mistake that many managers make of starting off by talking about why you have called the meeting or what’s going on in the organization. Tell a story about something that’s already on your employees’ minds.
Second, we pay more attention to things that are unexpected. If your story is about something that the audience already knows, it is unlikely to get their attention. Their attention will have wandered even before you have finished telling it. Your story will need to contain something surprising that can generate a response, such as “I didn’t know that!”
Third, we pay more attention to things that are negative in tone. Positive stories are great for inspiring people to move into action, but negative stories are more effective in getting attention. That’s because human beings have survived as a species because we are continually on the lookout for things that might harm us. Hence a story that is negative in tone will activate this phenomenon and induce listeners to set aside their daydreaming and check out what you are talking about.
Match the Message to the Audience
Thus, one of the easiest and most effective ways to get your employees’ attention is to begin by telling a story about the audience’s problems. You start talking about the issues that are already keeping them awake nights; in the story, you describe those problems more starkly than they have ever heard before. You are talking about something that is relevant to the listener. It is unexpectedly stark. And it is negative in tone. And so it catches their attention.
Suddenly, they’re not just interested in what you have to say: they’re riveted. Now you can press ahead with what you want to talk about, with a good chance that they will register it, remember it and execute on it.
This method can be equally useful in other situations, where you are new to the audience, or where the audience is wondering who you are, or questioning what right you have to be talking to them at all. In such scenarios, get the audience’s attention with a story that tells how you personally dealt with adversity.
By revealing a modest degree of vulnerability you can show yourself to be, not just a manager, but a human being with feelings just like the audience. Such a story will help humanize your message so that the audience starts thinking, “Maybe I should listen to what this person is saying.” On the other hand, if the audience already knows who you are, telling such a story may be unnecessary and even counterproductive, particularly if it is boring to the audience.
Whatever story you choose to tell, remember that authenticity is central. The story should not only be true in all its details but also fully representative of what happened, so that if your listeners check the story out, which they will often do, they will find that that the story is an authentically true account of what actually happened. Authenticity is what generates trust, and trust is the currency of effective leadership.
A second edition of Stephen Denning’s award winning book, The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art & Discipline of Business Narrative, has been published by Jossey-Bass. His most recent book, The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management, (Jossey-Bass, 2010) describes management principles and practices needed to promote continuous innovation. He is also the author of The Secret Language of Leadership (2007). He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and www.stevedenning.com. Read his Forbes blog, Rethink. He can found on Twitter at @stevedenning.