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Ideas & Debate

Marking a milestone by gleaning lessons from art of storytelling

Storytelling
Storytelling is receiving new focus as a powerful but much neglected element of leadership. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

In my last column I wrote about a storytelling event I co-hosted, and today I hold on to that theme in this my 300th Business Daily article. For as I looked back over the 11 years my column has been running, it occurred to me that what I have actually been doing each fortnight is telling a story.

However old storytelling may be, it is receiving new focus as a powerful but much neglected element of leadership. For instance, in the “Voice of Leadership” programme I conducted with Martin Oduor for the Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communication (in partnership with the Harvard Kennedy School) we included a half-day on the subject, and it was also the theme of one of our webinars.

During that webinar I talked about the President’s Round Table with the Kenya Private Sector Alliance (Kepsa) I attended in May. The President, Cabinet Secretaries, PSs and other senior government officials were in the room, plus 40 private sector leaders, and it lasted from noon till after six in the evening with no break.

I described how the various speakers told their stories: from the private sector, they advocated for government initiatives that would create a more enabling environment for business, and in return they committed to creating more jobs, exports and the like; and from the government side they explained what was and was not possible.

Guided for much of the day by the President, consensus was then built around agreed actions and outcomes.

My questions to those tuned in to the webinar were “How would you have performed?” and “How would you have prepared in advance?” But they were not there. So how, I asked, will they prepare and perform at the next high level meeting at which they will be presenting, responding or chairing?

Will they, like some did at State House, talk too fast? Be reading their script so they will hardly make eye contact with those they are addressing? Will they hold the microphone too near to or too far from their mouths, or will they allow their voices to project clearly? Will they go on for too long, with too much detail and making too many points, some off target?

Will they make too many requests, insufficiently accompanied by persuasive offers? Or will what they seek be reasonable, and balanced by powerful, credible offers, thus ensuring win-win business cases? Will they show emotional intelligence in how they engage? Or come across as whiners and moaners, as defensive and bureaucratic, crumbling when challenged to strengthen their case?

Will their visual aids strengthen their case, or act as visual distractions? Will their story align with those of their colleagues, as part of an integrated team offering practical proposals and solutions? If the need arises will they protect a subordinate, support a superior? And if they are chairing a session, will they drive the priority agenda, building consensus, summarising succinctly and managing time?

In my State House story, I praised the man whose great leadership inspired and motivated us all: the President. He raised us to a higher level, around a common national vision and healthy values; he allocated work to his own people and to us in the private sector; he called a spade a spade, stimulating the needed difficult conversations and building consensus around agreed stretch targets; and by differentiating between technical and non-technical issues he guided the conversations appropriately.

Many, on both sides, learned important lessons that day, and next time all will be better prepared. They will, I hope, rehearse and role play, so making the best use of the precious time available.

As part of my preparation for helping others to be powerful storytellers – and hence influential leaders – I read The Storyteller’s Secret by Carmine Gallo, author of Talk Like TED. If you are a leader at any level, do yourself a favour and read it too. Also watch Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu present with impact. You may not agree with everything he says, but he certainly tells his stories with supreme mastery.

Meanwhile, I look forward to telling more of my stories in this column, and I wish you well as you tell yours.

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