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Become the Chief Storyteller

Right down the street from our San Francisco office there’s an international consulting firm that helps clients “develop radically better businesses.” Called Wolff Olins, they have one of the most interesting types of C-level executives in the city: a Chief Storytelling Officer.

They got Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid, author of the acclaimed novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, to fill it.

They need him because when they surveyed CEOs worldwide, they made a fascinating discovery: companies have a really hard time telling their own story to their own people.

Storytelling for the People

They can tell the outside world about themselves, their product, their history, their goals – everything you might read on their website or in a press release.

But when corporate leaders get in front of their own people, they’re tongue-tied.

Even when they don’t know it.

McKinsey found that 77% of corporate leaders believe they are inspirational. But only 61% of front line employees agree.

Stage Presence

Storytelling can change that – if you know how. (You already know “when.” Most executives and team leaders tell their stories during meetings.)

But the “how” starts long before then.

First step: take an honest look at your own behavior. Sometimes just your presence can have an impact you many not intend. In fact, 88% of executives think they demonstrate the change they want from their employees, but only 53% of employees agree.

That means nearly half of employees think they are expected to live up to standards that their leaders can ignore.

A lot of that comes from misunderstandings. Shift workers have to show up on time, for example, while it looks like you just show up whenever you what.

Executives commonly make the mistake to assume that their employees understand the difference between shift workers’ schedules and those of managers.

But they might not – and if they don’t, you’re probably part of the reason why.

Researchers call it the “curse of knowledge.” We find it difficult to imagine that others don’t know what we know.

Just because it’s obvious to you that your schedule varies (and probably never ends), that does not mean your people know it.

Keep that in mind, along with similar “curses” of your knowledge, when you set about telling your story.


Second step: Like a boy scout, you have to be prepared. Your people will be far more likely to embrace your story and your leadership if there is a clear communications loop in place.

People – especially in today’s wired world – expect to have their say. There are several solutions possible, from something as unformed as Slack® or as business-optimized as RESULTS.com.

But you need to have something. McKinsey found that “a feedback loop to sense how the story is being received” helps everyone involved – including you.

Know Your Audience

Third step: keep this fundamental insight into human psychology front-and-center when you think about engaging your employees in your story:

“It takes surprisingly little to put someone’s brain into defensive mode,” McKinsey writes, “anything threatening a person’s self-worth, even the smallest social slight...can create vicious circles in the workplace.”

To make sure you don’t make that mistake, the easiest method is to focus on getting everyone into “discovery mode.”

“Discovery mode” is the opposite of “defensive mode.”

And it’s where the magic of storytelling begins.

In discovery mode, people anticipate the “thrill of learning new things.” When they’re in it together, they have “a feeling of belonging” that puts them in “top form.”

So you must need an acclaimed novelist to pull that off right?

No, not at all. In fact, this is one of those wonderful instances where accomplishing something truly positive is truly easy.

“Before getting into the tough stuff,” McKinsey concluded, “leaders can help people stay in high-performance discovery mode” by focusing on something positive.

“Discussing the ideal outcome everyone’s shooting for” is often enough to put your people into discovery mode. You’re all in the same business. All on the same team. All using the same communications platform.

Now, at your next meeting, tell them the story where they discover what’s going to happen next. 

As always, your words are only part of it. Your presence is far more important. When you tell your story, the fact that you believe what you’re saying will transport your team. The fact that you want it for yourself, for your company, and for them, will make it a story they'll remember.

Mohsin Hamid said it's all about "finding echoes of another person in yourself.”