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The Key to Good Presentations and Thought Leadership

Photo by Cherie Culleny, US Dept. of Defense / BY CC

Photo by Cherie Culleny, US Dept. of Defense / BY CC

This post was originally published on LinkedIn.

The One Question Good Leaders Always Answer

Some leaders seem to stand out from the rest by their ability to captivate an audience. Their presentations make you nod your head and when they finish, you are left desiring more. These thought leaders provide exactly what you wanted to hear and sometimes they share what you didn’t know you needed.

You can be this type of presenter who is also seen as a leader.

If you learn to prepare your remarks in a way that answers the audiences’ unstated questions, then you will start to establish yourself as an expert. There’s a trick to this.

I’ve been working with Melanie on her interpersonal communication and meeting presentation skills to increase her influence and effectiveness at work. She is a CxO and rising star in her company who is simultaneously securing a thought leadership position in her field and elevating her executive presence among her colleagues. Shepherding her progress has prompted me again to contemplate the subtle differences in communication styles that lead to profoundly divergent results.

This question was on my mind during a recent trip to Boston where I observed Melanie deliver a high-profile and high-stakes speech. At the conclusion of her presentation, Melanie received the blessing of conference organizers to extend her Q&A session by a few minutes to address the audience members queuing at microphones. When Melanie left the stage, she was immediately surrounded by audience members eager for the chance to speak with her in depth. It took more than an hour for the group that assembled around her to disperse.

Melanie is not famous (yet), but reactions like this to her presentations are becoming commonplace and the buzz around her work continues to grow.

Most of the other speakers I saw before and after Melanie on that day in Boston did not receive this type of audience response. Witnessing the lackluster performances of the other presenters sandwiched around her, it was clear that the presentations we encounter in the workplace can be divided into three categories.

Three types of presentations:

WHAT Presentation: The book report of business presentations; they explain what was done, what was accomplished and what worked. These talks are narrowly focused on the experiences of the person giving the presentation and the company or team she represents.

HOW Presentation: Technical in nature, these talks require the audience to have a firm grasp of the subject matter so that they can learn an advanced technique, new skill or alternative methodology. These talks are substantive and detailed.

WHY Presentation: Thought leaders use every opportunity in front of an audience to create context and make creditable predictions about the future. They explain strategy, forecast trends, and reveal provocative opinions.

Thought Leadership Starts with Answering WHY

Putting style and semantics aside, novel and interesting content that is wrapped in context matters most to your audience. Ultimately, the fundamental point of demarcation between boring and brilliant is substance.Stage presence, nerves-control, and visual production are merely skills to master so that your message doesn’t get lost; they are a means to an end. The real point of being a speaker – whether in a meeting room or on a stage – is to spread your ideas.

A good communicator recognizes the audience’s hunger to gain nuggets of insight, find a take-away they can use later, hear an original idea that opens their minds to new possibilities, or experience a spark that lights the fire of creativity. It’s the speaker’s job to deliver. If you don’t sprinkle these gems into your presentation, then it is a guaranteed dud no matter how articulate you are or how beautifully designed your slides appear.

Disappointingly, more than 80 percent of the speeches I heard in Boston were WHAT presentations. It was like watching a parade of primary school science fair projects that didn’t include any helpful clues about how to replicate their results, any context about bigger picture ideas their experiences might foretell, any surprising outcomes, nor any deep insights. The only people who might have felt good after the talks were the presenters themselves who were too blinded by their own egos to notice the glazed expressions of boredom on the faces in the crowd.

Your audience craves substance, so give it to them by answering the WHY and HOW questions that are on their minds.

I know these are the exact questions for which they seek answers because following the boring WHAT presentations, the Q&A sessions were mostly met with silence or with the occasional HOW questions like “How did you get buy-in from the executive leadership?” and “How have you structured your team?”. These questions felt like desperate attempts by audience members to uncover a bit of useful information from the throw-away presentations delivered by forgettable speakers.

On the other hand, the WHY presenters were confronted with WHY follow-up questions. Having established themselves as a fountain of knowledge, audience members flocked to the WHY presenters like Melanie for more information and insights.

If you’re not sure what kind of talk you just gave, notice the type of follow-up questions you receive from your boss, colleagues, or the audience members. If they want to hear more WHY answers from you, then you are on the path to successfully establishing yourself as an expert.


Amanda Marko is president and chief connection officer of Connected Strategy Group, which helps leaders communicate their business strategy and engage stakeholders during times of change.

She also teaches leaders how to use storytelling techniques to engage, inspire, and influence others.

Subscribe to The Dotted Line for resources on change communications, employee engagement, leadership, and business storytelling.


Business Storytelling Training to Lead Change

engaging leader podcast

Podcast: Business Storytelling Training

I returned to Jesse Lahey’s show Engaging Leader, to continue our discussion about strategic storytelling. In our first discussion, we talked about how leaders can harness the power of storytelling to improve their ability to influence, inspire and engage.

In this training, we get more into the nuts and bolts of business storytelling.  During the 25-minute podcast interview, I share with listeners how four storytelling frameworks will improve your ability to lead change. We get into the specifics of the story types and their role in change.


Change the Way You Lead Change

The podcast content is designed to provide practical and actionable information. Anyone who needs to be persuasive in the workplace will find tips that they can use right away.

You can listen from the website, download the podcast to your computer, or download it in iTunes. All the options are on the Engaging Leader website.


The Havoc and Destruction of a Fear-Based Culture

This article was originally published on LinkedIn.


Hashtag culture of fear…. Hashtag culture of fear

I must have repeated that phrase a dozen times while perched on a bar stool during happy hour as my childhood friend, Lindsay, shared her workplace woes. There were many. She’d stuck with the firm despite the challenging office environment in anticipation of a leadership transition. When the changeover finally occurred last spring, she was relieved to hear the new managing director promise in front of the entire company that the old ways would no longer be tolerated.

Sadly, for Lindsay and her co-workers, habits are hard to break and the MD’s speech did nothing to eradicate the despicable behavior patterns. Lindsay and her co-worked took to venting.

Their outrageous tales from the past were followed in quick succession by more recent, but equally disturbing, accounts of management’s bad behavior. After each story, I said “hashtag culture of fear” and shook my head. After each story, Lindsay took a sip of her gin and tonic with cucumber and then launched into the next example that somehow managed to be more alarming than the last one.

The culture seemed permanently stuck in fear-mode, despite good people like Lindsay who wanted to break free from the terror.

Toxic Workplaces Harm Employees

Cultures with pervasive fear are of the most toxic variety. That’s because very few in management need to be infected for the resulting negativity to spread to everyone it touches. Employees soon find themselves reacting to unreasonable demands, cowering from the fall-out of problems, and enduring endless abuses and indignities.

The toxicity has detrimental consequences for everyone. Previously healthy, thriving individuals might find themselves experiencing dramatic weight loss or weight gain, ulcers, heart conditions, and mystery stress-induced ailments.

As a result, employees develop survival tactic including:

  • Responding to unimportant calls and messages outside business hours
  • Inviting everyone to every meeting every time
  • Copying everyone on every email message
  • Overusing “reply to all”
  • Kicking up decisions to the next level of management
  • Refusing to provide constructive push-back on management decisions

Each of these habits contributes to the problem. Added to the never-ending series of emergencies, the threats of retribution, and the anxiety over trivial details, the result is a very distressing workplace.

Toxic Workplaces Harm Businesses

It is not just individuals who suffer. The business as a whole is hurt because creative problem-solving, advancements, and productivity are replaced by this survival mode. Of course disengagement is also an issue, but it is perhaps the least of the business’ difficulties.

When “cover your a*#” strategies take precedence over doing the right thing, the culture has disintegrated to one of fear. Sadly, once fear takes hold, there is no room for anything else.

A culture of innovation is impossible because invention requires a healthy tolerance for risk, which is not at all compatible with a culture of fear.

A culture of customer care is impossible because employees must be truly empowered to do right by their customers without interference by a fearful and bureaucratic chain of command.

A purpose-driven organization is impossible because initiative should be fueled by deep-seeded personal motivations, not a desire to comply with the whims of management.

A values-driven organization is impossible because the collective higher ideals are mismatched with the leaders’ fear-driven objectives.

A culture of excellence is impossible because quality comes from a place of pride and commitment, both of which suffer under this tyrannical management style.

Safety is a foundation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In a culture where yelling, cursing, and disrespect flow from the top, every worker finds himself in harm’s way. Without a sense of security, aspirational cultures like innovation and excellence are unattainable.

I saw it in Lindsay; she was tired and defeated. The negative culture is forcing her to exchange job satisfaction for job survival. Her work and well-being are suffering. At some point, she has to make a decision: let the culture get the best of her or cut her losses. Any organization that treats good employees like Lindsay as disposable stands to lose the most.

No one should be in a soul-sucking job with an oppressive culture, but it’s all too common. What other bad behaviors are indicative of a culture of fear? Share them in the comments or tweet them to @connectedstrat with #cultureoffear.

Why Meeting Texts are Killing Your Culture

Toxic Side Conversations

It used to be that “offline” conversations are what happened after a meeting dispersed and you followed your boss or colleague to her office to continue the discussion and gain additional insights.

Now, those offline asides are taking place online. And they are happening during the meeting. In offices everywhere, text messages related to the topics under discussion are popping up on the screens of many of the meeting or conference call participants. Raw conversations like:

>why wasn’t the reorg project included on your list?

>>It’s been nixed.


>>No tolerance by mgt to deal with the loud complaints and non-stop whining of a certain exec.

>news to me…i’m in shock

>>Hey, I’m the just messenger.
>>But you’re not the only one who feels that way.



Concurrent electronic communications circumvent the need to raise a point or initiate a conversation with the group. When covert messages are permitted to fly between participants, the active dialog occurs only as subtext and group silence seemingly indicates agreement.

If the purpose of holding a meeting is to share information, gain consensus, and make decisions, then texting during meetings gives everyone cover to avoid all three.

public service announcement - don't text and meet

Texts Reveal Your Culture

Leaders should realize that electronic asides provide a subtext for the meeting. If they are happening, then they are the only place that the truth is being spoken. In reality, the timid are choosing to raise valid questions and criticisms in a non-confrontational and non-productive way.

In this environment, meetings serve to make everyone feel like they are participating in an important and exclusive activity, when in fact no real dialogue occurs and everyone’s time is wasted. Worse, minor contentions, simmering hostilities, and valid differences of opinion are never raised.

Without a doubt, electronic side conversations are a poison to teamwork and they are indicative of a culture of fear.

How different would meetings be at your workplace if texting was banned?


Amanda Marko is president and chief connection officer of Connected Strategy Group, which helps leaders communicate their business strategy and engage stakeholders during times of change.

This article was first published on LinkedIn.

Business Storytelling Essentials for Leading Change

Engaging Leadership Podcast about Storytelling for Business Leaders Who Lead Change

Jesse Lahey hosted me on his Engaging Leader podcast to discuss why storytelling works in business when change is afoot.



During this 30-minute exchange we cover business storytelling essentials for leading change, including:

  • the impact of change fatigue on change initiatives
  • the art and science of business storytelling
  • how to convince skeptical business leaders that storytelling is effective
  • how facts change minds versus how stories change minds
  • the role of facts in business storytelling
  • how to construct a business story
  • the power of story to transfer idea ownership
  • the role of empathy in changing minds


The episode is available for free and immediate download here and on iTunes.


What Leaders Can Learn from Howard Stern

Howard Stern

Photo by B Norton / BY CC

I first published this article on LinkedIn

Media star Howard Stern is known for putting his guests in the hot seat and for conducting the most interesting and entertaining interviews on the air. His style isn’t adversarial, yet it’s provocative enough to elicit never-before-told stories from the most guarded people: celebrities.

Your employees are also on-guard. They’re protecting their emotions, career prospects, and reputation, as well as their livelihood and their family who depends on their income. As a result, they are reluctant to share the truth with management because they fear what you will do with the information.

Yet, uncovering your employees’ stories is a worthwhile endeavor because their anecdotes will help you discover truths about your corporate culture, your team’s engagement level, and opportunities for improvement. Just keep in mind that gathering their revelations and failing to act on them is equally as bad as betraying their trust; good leaders do neither.

Guests on Howard Stern’s SiriusXM show are not dissimilar to your employees. First-time guests on his show move through a series of three predictable stages:

  1. Apprehension: Howard’s guests invariably admit during the interview that they were “so afraid about coming here”.

    Take-away: Regardless of your open-door policy, many employees are threatened by your authority, worry about jeopardizing their future, or are fearful of embarrassing themselves.

  2. Disclosure: Howard is entertaining because the information divulged on his show is unlike what you will hear on any other talk show. He is able to coax people into sharing stories about themselves that they’ve never before told.

    Take-away: Encouraging your employees to tell you stories about their experiences will make you a better manager because you will obtain a deeper understanding of how your team actually operates and what motivates your people.

  3. Elation: At the end of the interview, usually as the guest is being dragged from the studio by a handler who has already allowed the interview to exceed its scheduled time by 20 or 30 minutes, the guest gushes about how much fun the interview was and asks to return. The guest and Howard have formed an unexpected bond.

    Take-away: Your employees will also feel closer to you after sharing their stories, which will increase their loyalty, job satisfaction, engagement, and performance.

During the intermediate step – disclosure – something magical happens. It’s where trust is built, stories are told, and the relationship deepens. Just like Howard does with his A-list celebrity guests, making your employees comfortable enough to share sensitive information is a hallmark of an exceptional leader, one who strives to improve the team’s – and perhaps the the entire company’s – effectiveness.

As a manager, it’s in everyone’s best interest if you know what is really happening in your organization. One way to discover these truths is to gain the trust of the skeptics. You too can learn from The King of All Media’s methods for putting guests at ease and transforming apprehension to elation. In business, that’s like turning disengagement to engagement.

Leaders can learn more from Howard Stern. In the second part of this series, I will share Howard’s techniques for building trust. In the third part, I’ll reveal his formula for asking questions that evoke stories.


Amanda Marko is president and chief connection officer of Connected Strategy Group, which helps leaders communicate their business strategy and engage stakeholders during times of change.

Storytelling is an effective change management tool that can be taught to leaders. The next public workshop is in Washington, DC; in-house training for teams or one-on-one executive coaching in leadership communications techniques are also available.

For more storytelling resources, download the free 30-minute audio training, Making the Business Case for Storytelling.

No One’s Favorite: Flavor of the Month Leadership

photo by keane dasalla / BY CC

Understand the Source of Resistance

Good leaders aren’t hired to maintain the status quo. They are brought on to improve, expand, and advance their organization.

In reality, those are all different ways to say: lead change.

With change comes resistance. Leaders in-tune with their stakeholders will invariably be familiar with the objection that whatever new program, strategy, or plan you are rolling out is “just the next flavor the month.” The leaders might acknowledge that this sentiment will surface, but too often they proceed with the roll out and hope the employees will come around.

Don’t discount this criticism; try understanding it.

Ignoring the flavor-of-the-month complaints will delay your ability to successfully implement your plans and realize their benefits. When employees complain about flavor of the month leadership or initiatives, what they’re really crying out for is consistency and certainty.

Ice Cream: Delicious

When I go to my favorite ice cream shop, Graeter’s, I know they’re scooping up the best French Pot frozen treats in the world. If one day they were serving hamburgers and the next day they were selling screw drivers, I would not only leave with an aching sweet tooth, I would also be very unsettled because all I know that is true and just about the world would be shattered. (Yes, that’s an extreme reaction, but this is really good ice cream.)

With consistency comes a level of certainty that provides a framework for our worldview. Just like an ice cream parlor that puts screw drivers on the menu, inconsistent priorities, messages, and signals in the workplace make it disorganized, confusing, and frustrating for workers and management alike.

It shouldn’t be surprising that consistency has been identified by renowned psychologists as a primary driving force of human behavior.

In a series of experiments, individuals were observed going to great lengths to avoid inconsistencies in their words and actions, even being compelled to do something extraordinary and outside their own best interest just to appear and feel consistent. In these experiments, strangers who witnessed a theft on a public beach were unlikely to confront the thief; however, upon agreeing to watch someone’s belongings for a few minutes, the strangers became vigilantes who chased the perpetrator down the beach.

The need for consistency is a strong motivator indeed.

Flavor of the Month: Disgusting

Our desire for consistency motivates our workplace behaviors as well. Discrepancies between a leader’s words and deeds will cause significant confusion. Make no mistake: the actions will be held in higher regard and the misaligned messages will be ignored.

The real peril comes from the increased disdain for the leader who disrupts our overwhelming desire for reliability. Leaders “whose beliefs, words, and deeds don’t match may be seen as indecisive, confused, two-faced, or even mentally ill. On the other side, a high degree of consistency is normally associated with personal and intellectual strength,” explained Robert Cialdini in Influence: The Power of Persuasion .

That’s why we prefer the Bill Clintons to the Tiger Woods; better to be the same in public and private than to profess one standard and live by another.

Root Causes of the Criticism

To understand the flavor-of-the-month complaint, leaders need to take a hard look at their organization and determine the source of the discord. They will likely find one of five situations:

1. Misaligned actions
Calling someone a hypocrite is an extremely harsh judgment, but sometimes it’s warranted. The executive who asks employees to make sacrifices and accept a pay freeze to save a struggling company, yet doesn’t show restraint when it comes to black car service and private planes is an extreme example. More often, misaligned leadership actions come in the form of failing to follow through on promises.

Announcing a change initiative is akin to making a promise. The bargaining chip for the discomfort of the transition is that in the end, something will be better. Failure to properly and thoroughly execute the new program will undermine your promises and disengage your employees.

2. Misaligned culture
When the culture itself is counter to the initiative being undertaken, your people will cry foul, so fix the culture first. I worked with a global company that was aware of its tendency to make simple things complex. The company was full of engineers; therefore, they commonly created over-engineered solutions. Trying to introduce simplified tools to the employees and customers would have failed if the leadership hadn’t first addressed the complexity issue. As the culture transitioned, the entire organization became more nimble and receptive to change.

3. Misaligned communications
When leading change, everyone must be in lockstep in word and action.The key to aligning the change communications is to put in place a framework in the form of a Clarity Story.

It looks like this:
In past….
Then something happened….
That’s why we’re going to….
So all these good things can happen….

Once the organization’s communications framework for change is determined, leaders should personalize the message by inserting their own moments, examples, and facts to strengthen the case for change. Delivering the same message in different ways is not just acceptable, it’s preferred because then it’s authentic.

4. Failure to link change initiatives to the strategy
Strategy should provide the backbone for all change communications. In fact, it’s built into the Clarity Story framework described above. “That’s why we’re going to” is the place to reiterate your strategy.

During the most recent recession and ensuing recovery I worked for a multinational company where we consciously linked every announcement – whether it was a force reduction, an acquisition, or a policy change – to the strategy. This had the universal effect of reassuring employees and other stakeholders that those in charge had a plan and they are deliberately executing it. A sense of optimism, focus, and resolve was reinforced by this communications strategy and as a result, the words of the leaders motivated the actions of the employees, who were responsible for the company’s turnaround.

5. No strategy
A strategy grounds your change efforts, so it makes sense that an organization without a strategy is adrift and its leaders appear to be making it up as they go. In this case, the flavor-of-the-month criticism is wholly justified and leadership must first determine their strategy before attempting to introduce a new initiative.

Put Change on the Menu

Ending flavor-of-the-month leadership doesn’t mean freezing your change initiatives; it means acknowledging that a baseline of consistency and certainty will boost morale and comfort your stakeholders that there is a method to your madness.

When have you found yourself referring to an initiative at work as the latest “flavor of the month”?


Storytelling is an effective change management tool that can be taught to leaders. Fall workshops are being held in New York and DC; in-house training for teams or one-on-one executive coaching in leadership communications techniques are also available.

For more storytelling resources, download the free 30-minute audio training, Making the Business Case for Storytelling.

How to Uncover the Secrets Your Employees Hold

photo by Simon James/ CC BY

photo by Simon James/ CC BY

Open Your Ears and Mind

Your employees are keeping something from you. They voice it to each other at the lunch table, they articulate it in the form of inside jokes, and they express it over beers with friends and family.

In all of these instances, employees are sharing stories about your culture, leadership, and operating practices, and you’re not hearing them. And even when you hear them, sometimes you’re not listening.

When a couple of finance managers from a small-town water treatment company traded stories about the difficulties they had working with their bureaucratic IT department, they thought they were speaking to each other in confidence. However, the next booth contained three members of the IT support staff who were so appalled at what they heard that they immediately reported the complaints to their managers. Instead of investigating the legitimacy of the claims contained in the stories, the IT department head chose a response that was defensive in nature and punitive in action. For months, the finance department was essentially persona non grata to IT.

Managers who want an engaged workforce, effective leadership, and optimized processes should start at the source. It’s likely that the answers you seek are in front of you if you’d only open your ears and your mind to stories.

Stories Hold the Truth

Human beings have always revealed their greatest fears and biggest triumphs through stories. Cautionary tales kept our ancestors from death-by-wooly-mammoth, while the modern day equivalent is urban legends that prevent death-by-tanning-bed. Meanwhile, parables and fables taught us values and morals during childhood, forming our character and sticking with us through adulthood.

We all love a good story, but somewhere along the way we grew up and dismissed them as child’s play, embellished versions of reality, or oversimplifications of the truth. As adults, we find it acceptable to look for the secrets hidden in our data; and, in the process, we let data drown out the stories.

As serious professionals, we stopped looking for the truths in stories, but this goes against our nature. Stories have divulged the truth of every civilization or culture for all ages and through all times. They can do the same within your business culture.

For a moment, forget the surveys, engagement studies, and other forms of data. If you want to know what’s really happening within your company, pay attention to the stories being told.

It’s a Fact: The Public Likes Stories

Do you know who likes stories? The public. The public revels in stories. Their appetite is insatiable for gory, private, and embarrassing details. They love a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the lives of powerful people and organizations.

In the worst case, a leader who dismisses the stories being told within her organization could find herself on the front page of the newspaper, like in these recent headline-grabbing instances:

  • A culture of indifference and ineptitude was revealed when a former Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officer wrote a book that disclosed incidents of theft, passenger harassment, and irregular attention to security details.
  • The tweets by an ex-employee of GitHub about the company’s alpha-male culture resulted in the CEO’s resignation.
  • The legacy of CYA (cover your a#*) at General Motors caused dozens of deaths and injuries before finally being exposed during Congressional hearings.

There’s a reason stories like these capture the public’s attention: they are vivid examples of the good or bad aspects of the situation.

The emotional impact of statistics is fleeting – if present at all – while stories contain enough specificity and imagery to produce a lasting emotional response that reappears every time the story is retold. And because stories are easier to remember than numbers, they are also repeated more often.

Stories Trump Facts

Smart leaders don’t favor facts over stories. They listen to both. Yet the common first response in business is to start with the facts.

The truth is, neither facts nor stories are perfect. Data can be manipulated. Statistics can be skewed. Stories can be exaggerated.

Where stories come out ahead is their ability to evoke emotions, which in turn motivates a response and prompts action. Meanwhile, dry, boring, stand-alone data struggles to change minds.

When an Australian Air Force general sought to revolutionize his command, he implemented Lean Six Sigma methodology. The desired cost savings and efficiency achievements were followed by a noticeable decline in personnel retention rates.

To understand the reason for the sudden increase in military retirements in this division, the command conducted employee focus groups and surveys. The results of both provided the statistical proof that service members were being driven out of service by the burdens and stress of the aggressive new operating philosophy.

Despite the facts, the general remained steadfastly committed to his pet project, instead blaming the mid-level officers for incompletely communicating the program. But where the facts failed to be persuasive, two stories changed his mind.

The first was from a chief warrant officer with 30 years of service who said she would “kill her grandchild first” before allowing him to join the Air Force. Then there was the mid-career officer who complained of having to dig ditches on a new base to use as latrines because paperwork had delayed the delivery of bathroom facilities.

It was these two pieces of empirical data that finally gave the general pause to reconsider – and slow down – the aggressive implementation of his extreme efficiency measures.

Listen Up

If you’re ready to acquire a better understanding of your culture and believe that employees’ secrets are revealed by stories, you need to learn the skill of story-listening.

Set the right tone
Employees have kept their stories from you for a reason. Start by establishing a zone of trust. You could do this by promising confidentiality, protection, anonymity, or acceptance. Those are good thoughts, but they are all abstractions that take on different meanings for each individual. Instead, you should demonstrate those promises by sharing your own story. Because stories beget other stories, starting with one yourself will automatically set the tone and will help others recall their own stories to share.

Select the right time
Perhaps the story sharing takes place at a designated time weekly or monthly, or it could be daily. Employees of Apple start each shift with a team huddle. An associate who demonstrated exceptional customer service in their last shift is asked to explain what happened. Starting each shift this way is inspirational for the team members and it serves to carry them through the next shift.

Choose the right place
It’s proven that our memories are improved when we return to the scene of the occurrence. Walk into your aunt’s house for the first time in years and a flood of long-forgotten childhood memories undoubtedly will return.

photo by Tim Pierce / CC BY

Use this trick of the mind to your advantage. Your field representatives who rarely come into the office might have a difficult time recalling their stories inside a bland conference room. A colleague of mine was working with production line workers and found their stories were blocked until he conducted the interviews on the shop floor rather than in the manager’s meeting room.

Ask the right questions
Story-eliciting questions help your employees move from opinions to facts and from generalities to specific examples. If you ask, “Are you providing the best customer service possible?” the response you are likely to get is something like, “Yes, most of the time.”

However, if you say, “Tell me about a recent encounter with another department where you could have done a better job,” a story will follow. If it doesn’t, then ask follow-up questions that help take the person to a specific moment. Follow-up questions could include: “When was a time this week someone expressed dissatisfaction with the recruiting department?” or “What policy or action often precipitates complaints?” or “What type of situation is most likely to be difficult?” The more specific you are in your line of questioning, the sooner you will jar a specific memory that prompts a story.

Practice, Practice

Story-listening is a new skill, so allow time to practice. The good news is that sharing stories is as informative as it is fun.

The stories your organization tells are available to any leader who wants to listen. What have you learned by listening to stories?



Story-listening, along with storytelling and story triggering are effective change management tools that can be taught to leaders. Learn more.

Make the Case for Storytelling

tumblr_n0hq0nxdQd1st5lhmo1_1280 You don’t need to tell a communicator: storytelling works. The best communicators know that true emotional connection can only be made through stories.

But try persuading a stubborn executive, a reluctant leader, a timid manager, an overwhelmed salesperson, or an analytical accountant, and you will have a hard time making them budge.

In this free 30-minute audio training, learn to make the business case for storytelling to even the most skeptical audiences.

When communications becomes a responsibility shared by the communications department and executives alike, you’ll find that change is smoother, employees are more engaged, strategy is understood, and the pace is quickened.

This audio training will help you create an organization full of story-vangelists.




Strategy Dies in the Forgotten Middle Layer of Management


photo by Kumar Appaiah / CC BY

Middle management is where well-intentioned business strategy goes to die.

Harvard Business Review took a thoughtful look at the strong connection between communicating management intent and achieving business success. It seems the why often gets lost in communications. It makes no sense, until you consider that mid-level managers play an important (yet under-appreciated role) translating corporate strategy, goals, and policies into specific tasks for their teams.

Remember that these people weren’t in the board room when the decisions were made and the strategy was set, but they are ultimately responsible for making or breaking a corporate initiative. They will either take the big idea and make it reality, or the grand plans will wither and die a slow death at their hands.

Their power lies in their position as the translator of concrete ideas to actionable tasks. Dictating from above doesn’t work because employees respond to and have a deeper connection with the person to whom they directly report.

When I was with SAP in Europe, Middle East and Africa, we asked a sample of the 11,000 employees how they received most of their information. They said: their manager. We asked how they preferred to get corporate information. They said: their manager. We asked how they wanted to receive information in the future. They said: their manager.

The direct manager of every employee is the preferred communications method. Fancy intranets, newsletters, or bulletin boards will never replace this human interaction with the single person who holds the key to determining an employee’s level of job satisfaction, performance and accomplishment, and level of compensation and career advancement.

Managers are wise to acknowledge this and determine how to leverage their influence. Too many managers remove emotion from their interactions with employees, which dulls their ability to be influential. Instead of thinking of business strategy as a fact-driven directive, managers have the power to bring it to life by creating an emotional connection to the future state the strategy will reveal.

Only robots perform tasks without comprehending why they’re necessary, what came before, and what will come next in the process. Employees are not robots and they are unable to operationalize a strategy unless they are armed with a fundamental understanding of their role in its execution.

Good managers know exactly what speaks louder than words. Observed actions are not only modeled by the team, but they also trigger stories that move rapidly through the organization. Whether the story is a retelling of bad or good behavior, the decision-making and actions of  employees will be influenced.

Stories are sort of like implanting a programmable chip in employees’ minds. Annette Simmons noted, “Story is like mental software that [managers] supply so that [employees] can run it later using new input specific to the situation…..Once installed, a good story replays itself and continues to process new experience through a filter, channeling future experiences toward the perceptions and choices you desire.” Stories turn employees into independent thinkers and eliminate the need to micromanage.

Managers who step up to their role in strategy execution will likely find themselves elevated to a position where they are in the room next time big decisions are made. So forget implanting a microchip in employees’ heads or replacing them with robots. Instead, tell a story or do something remarkable that triggers a story and watch an abstract strategy come to life before your eyes.


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