Leading With Story

To lead people well, give them what their brains are wired for
By Scott Mann, Rooftop Leadership Training
December 25, 2018 Updated: December 25, 2018

The bombs were hurling to the target.

Everything was going just as planned. We were in the tactical operations center watching and monitoring the impending impact of these bombs. Seconds from impact, my commander turns to me and says, “Scott, what are we doing about information operations here? What’s the narrative we’re putting out to locals around the strike?”

Seconds from impact and that’s when we ask ourselves about the story?!

Well, the reality is we had a canned response to put out there and it didn’t work very well. More often than not, that question—”what’s our story?”—was asked far too late during the war. It’s still done that way today.

The narrative is an afterthought and the violent extremists use that absence of story to exploit it for their own ends. Our enemy may illuminate that there was collateral damage on the target, or that innocent civilians were killed, even when they weren’t. They will hijack the operation and put out their own narrative, which they’ve prepared quite well and doesn’t need a 48-hour approval process like ours does. The enemy puts that story out quick on social media. It’s out there and their narrative wins—even when it isn’t true.

Remember that—in war and in business, whoever puts the most compelling narrative out first often gains a competitive edge in influence.

I’m not just talking about the fight against ISIS or Al-Qaeda, I’m also talking about everyday life. I’m talking about you and me, here in America, creating movements, running small businesses, operating non-profits, going to work every day in the trenches, and leading people to action. If you want folks in your life and business to take action, you’ve got to lead with the story.

A story is the oldest, most powerful form of communication in the world. The brain is wired for story. We find meaning and memory in a story. Humans are the most meaning-seeking creatures on the planet. We act on meaning. We buy things on meaning. We follow our bosses based on meaning. Stories are vehicles to move through your audience’s brain and convey the meaning that they seek in order to take action. Stories plant memories in our brain that thread the needle of short-term working memory into long-term memory.

It’s not enough to just have a vision. You should tell a story that will help your people, your clients, and your kids see that vision as well as how they can get from point A to point B. Further, help them see what point B will mean to their personal life, even before they take the first step. That’s the power of story in your business.

I call it narrative competence. I teach it to Fortune 100 CEOs, FBI agents, and Green Berets. Let’s take a look at what makes narrative competence or business storytelling so powerful.

Now, the most important thing about the story, whether we’re fighting ISIS or trying to grow our sales rate, is that the story has to land on people’s chest cavity. It has to have emotion. The best way to connect to that inner well-spring of authentic emotion is to become familiar with your own backstory—your “hero’s journey.”

Think of a moment in your life, an origin story if you will, when something happened that was a major shift for you. It was a catalyst moment, a pivotal moment in your life that shifted you in another direction. Maybe it was the day your parents divorced, maybe you changed schools, maybe you lost your job, and everything you knew about the world changed. For me it was when a Green Beret walked into the soda shop when I was 14 years old.

And then I want you to talk about the struggle that ensued, the journey, the hero’s journey that you went on to overcome that. Some call it “the belly of the whale” moment. Talk about the struggle and what it was like. That’s when we find you relatable. Talk about how you overcame that struggle and what it felt like because that’s when we find you inspirational.

Then talk about the resolution. What did you learn? How did you change? What did it show you about the world? Do that, and you give us a sense of who you are and who WE ARE. Then we will trust you. The story closes gaps like trust, ethnicity, gender, and religion.

Another component of narrative competence is listening. The most powerful stories in the world are often not the ones you tell, but the ones you ask to hear. And almost no one listens these days.

Try this: Ask open-ended questions to your clients that let them tell you their backstory. “What brought you into this business?” “What keeps you up at night when you think about spending money on this product?”

Then, take key points from their story and weave them into the stories you tell back to them. That’s narrative competence. It’s also huge validation for your client at a visceral, primal level, and it connects you more deeply to the people who matter in your life.

Until next time keep changing the game by leading with the story, and I’ll see you on the Rooftop.

Scott Mann is a former Green Beret who specialized in unconventional, high-impact missions and relationship building. He is the founder of Rooftop Leadership and appears frequently on TV and many syndicated radio programs. For more information, visit RooftopLeadership.com