The Stories We Tell
by Gary Burnison
Next slide…. Next slide…. Next slide….
Eyes glued to the screen, back to the audience, the presenter flipped through 27 carefully crafted PowerPoints. Click by click by click. But, unfortunately, the audience wasn’t listening.
It’s a lesson I had to learn myself, many years ago. When I was a CFO, I lived and breathed the facts and figures. But when I became the CEO, people began to read my mood like tea leaves. Then, it dawned on me. What mattered wasn’t just what I said. It was how I said it—my tone, energy, and attitude.
And it’s true for all of us. We are the message.
But people’s attention must be earned, not merely taken for granted. The best way to do that is by telling a story—and everyone has one.
Connective and cathartic, our stories tell of our joy and suffering, triumph and tragedy—defining who we are, how far we’ve come, and just how capable we’ve become. That’s the power of stories—and storytellers are everywhere.
From my first step into that office, all I saw were floor-to-ceiling shelves holding a collection of Oscars, Golden Globes, and Grammys—plus books, bobbleheads, and baseballs. Before one word of conversation was spoken, these objects told a thousand stories.
Sitting in that room was Peter Guber, CEO of Mandalay Entertainment and an Academy Award-winning producer, who gave us such iconic films as Rain Man, The Color Purple, Gorillas in the Mist, and Batman.
“Storytelling is as old as human beings,” he told me, his mind and words going a mile a minute. “About 40,000 years ago, if we hadn’t worked together and used language, we wouldn’t have survived.”
Of course, not everyone can give a spontaneous TED Talk or hold an audience spellbound. Nor do they have to. We just need to A.C.T.—be Authentic, make a Connection, and give others a Taste of our emotions and who we are.
“To be a leader today is to be a leader of the heart. They need to be willing to share something that’s unique to them and their story,” Katharine Stowe, a member of our Consulting team who coaches executives in storytelling, told me this week. “It’s all about having the courage to reveal who they are.”
Indeed, the more we reveal about ourselves, the more others will share of themselves. I’ll never forget the day about a year ago, when a colleague reached out with a message that was humbling in its honesty and vulnerability. “I wanted to share my story, which I have never shared with anyone in the corporate world before….”
Since that time, there’s been an outpouring of personal stories—raw and filled with emotion. The colleague who lost her husband and walked through an honor guard of doctors and nurses as she left the hospital. The person who called first thing one morning and confided that they just didn’t think they could go through another day. The missed funerals, weddings, and graduations. Clients who with tears shared that for years they had felt unsafe in the world, and now healing has begun as they’re finally seen and heard. The people who, for the first time, feel that only now are they free to be who they truly are. Shared stories of hardship and humble beginnings—now told with pride, not shame.
Never about the polish and the presentation, these storytellers bared their souls to punctuate the reality they lived. After all, the best stories unify us through common experiences, while also celebrating the differences that broaden our thinking. Here are some thoughts:
· Our stairway to storytelling. The first time I heard Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” it captured me with its mysterious, even mystical, lyrics. “And the forests will echo with laughter… There walks a lady we all know, who shines white light and wants to show how everything still turns to gold…. And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.” It really speaks to me of one’s futile quest for the material. To this day, I can find new meaning almost every time I hear this song. Just the other day, I thought about those forests echoing with laughter—and how we yearn to be part of something bigger than ourselves. When I hear Jimmy Page strum that electric 12-string guitar and hear Robert Plant’s plaintive voice, it gives me hope when I need to be elevated and it brings me comfort when I want to reflect. So, is a song or a story about the person who sings it or tells it—or the one who hears it? Clearly, it’s both. To find out more, I reached out this week to Ann Kowal Smith, executive director of Reflection Point, a nonprofit that uses stories to help colleagues unlock their own experiences to deepen the quality of their relationships. “When people really listen, they can find themselves in any story,” Ann told me. “When people connect over what they see and hear in a story, a bond is created.” Those are the stories that leave a mark—they stay with us.
· Know our audience. Storytelling is about delivering the exact message that matches the time, the place, and the people. It’s not scattershot. The first step is always knowing and understanding our audience. Who are they? What have they been going through? What do they need and want to hear? What experience should they be having? What will make it relevant and meaningful for them? Do they need to be informed or inspired, elevated or celebrated—or all of it and more? The answers are the difference between making and breaking a connection—and the audience will take only a few seconds to decide whether to tune in or tune out. But we’re not just reciting information—we’re inviting participation.
· The power of emotion. It’s not only about what people need to know—it’s also about what they need to feel. We all experienced this in the early days of the pandemic when we searched for shared meaning everywhere. I can remember going out for a walk with my dog and coming across a message scrawled on the sidewalk in childish handwriting: “Everything will be OK.” Suddenly, I was 10 years old again and watching as our furniture was repossessed and carried out the front door. My dad came up beside me and, with tears in his eyes, told me, “Son, it will be OK.” Then and now, both messages gave me comfort and hope. Everyone has these kinds of stories—experiences that make us stronger. And these are the stories we need to be sharing with others.
· And please … lose the PowerPoints. A PowerPoint presentation—if ever there was a misnomer, it’s that one. The PowerPoint doesn’t present—we do! And a PowerPoint never won anybody’s heart. But too often, people spend countless hours poring over images for their PowerPoint slides, thinking that’s 90 percent of the presentation. In fact, that’s only 10 percent. It’s the same when people are looking for a job and assume that 90 percent of it is just updating their resume. What’s missing in both cases is a story—authentic and emotional. And, that’s what makes a connection that reverberates long after the words have been spoken.
As it was for the shamans of old, who passed down lore and wisdom, so it is for us today. There is a storyteller in all of us. We just need to find it and have the courage to offer it.
So, what’s your story?
Unfortunately, more often than not these days the stories are tragic. As I was finalizing this message, I learned of another loss of a colleague in India from Covid-19. Our hearts continue to be with all of those who have suffered and continue to experience loss around the globe. We are mindful of the moment we are in—dire images juxtaposed with the images of loved ones in many countries reuniting for the first time in over a year. May the lives that have left us always be remembered and honored.
Originally published on May 16, 2021 on Kornferry.com. Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of Leadership U: Accelerating Through the Crisis Curve.