How to illuminate the future and inspire others to follow

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Written by

Patti Sanchez

To thrive in the long-term, organizations must continually reinvent themselves to avoid decay and decline. To envision the future is one thing; getting others to go there with you is another. By harnessing the power of persuasive communication, you, too, can turn your idea into a movement.

Steve Jobs wasn’t just a founder and driver of Apple; he catalyzed a movement. Whenever Jobs took to the stage to talk about new Apple products, the whole world seemed to stop and listen. That’s because he was offering a vision of the future. He wanted each person to realize what the world could become and trust him to lead the way to this new world.

Great leaders create a feeling of hope that inspires people to contribute extra energy to the transformation until they arrive at the goal. To move travelers to jump in and stay the course throughout a potentially long and arduous journey, leaders must communicate in a way that overcomes resistance and reinforces commitment.

A Q&A with Nancy Duarte and Patti Sanchez

Here are some tips to help business leaders illuminate the way, move people to embrace their bold visions, and carry them forward.

Is it important for leaders to use personal stories to convey their vision?

Nancy: There’s a need for corporate stories to be told, and every organization needs to have a folklorist. But, you also need to have your own collection of stories that are more personal ones because a personal story told from a place of conviction is the most persuasive device there is. More so than anything else, a really transformative story told with personal conviction and passion from a leader actually transforms more greatly than anything.

Patti: I think a relevant example from one of the CEOs Nancy and I both have a crush on: Howard Schultz of Starbucks. He regularly tells the stories of his life. For instance, growing up and seeing his father suffer an injury and not get healthcare covered by his employer. That became a galvanizing experience for Schultz and shaped his value system. What Starbucks chooses to invest in now for its employees is directly from his personal experience growing up. He communicates that all the time to help people understand its values.

Are there exercises to improve storytelling skills?

Nancy: We’re developing a story workshop now because there’s real magic in telling a good story. Our new story-making tool has been tested internally, and we think it’s going to work great. If it works on me, it’s going to work on the world, but we have a method. The power is actually in using a story at the right time and the right place because some people will feel like you’re telling a story to manipulate. That’s the last thing you want. You want it to feel like it’s fueling the communication at the time.

Patti: In our book, Illuminate, there are many examples of stories you can tell in different stages of a journey. It’s important to remember that the audience you’re talking to should be the hero, not you. Don’t choose something that’s going to glorify you. Instead, it’s much better to choose something that will help them.

What are some examples of ceremonies?

Patti: We have our own at Duarte. One is this little ritual of recognition with a giraffe. It’s been our symbol for many years after an employee gave one to somebody who was working really hard. It’s now a ritual to stand up at our staff meeting, call someone to the front of room, hand them a little giraffe statue and recognize them for their effort. It’s our own small kind of award ceremony.

Pledging commitments are another good example. People can pledge commitment to a project just by signing a document like how Apple’s Mac team signed the inside of the first Macintosh. There are also mourning ceremonies. One example is about Steve Jobs holding a mock funeral for the Mac OS 9 product when he wanted to convince developers it was really dead and time to move on to next platform. During a big launch event, Jobs had a large coffin on the stage behind him with an over-sized box of the Mac OS 9 in it. He gave a eulogy for the old product. While it was theatrical, it was a really a powerful way to communicate that an ending had come. Ceremonies are about beginnings and endings.

How do you translate financial metrics of interest to C-Suite into a storyline?

Nancy: For financial information, you can create a story arc at the beginning with the data’s meaning and narrative, and then support it with some sort of an appendix. Typically, you’re given only 30 minutes with a senior executive, and it’s a struggle to get everything out because they’re going to interrupt you. You need to build a case that’s interrupt-driven. Moving back and forth rapidly between what is and what could be is very important. In reality, we suggest that you flip the form. It’s the only instance where you flip the form. You state the new bliss, they see most of everything and you tell them: “This is what I need to make it reality,” then you move back and forth between what is and what could be so rapidly with data to back it up – in between the interruptions.

Patti: Another tip: once you drop everybody’s shoulders down by answering the financial and data-driven questions of most interest, you’ll often earn the right to go a little bit longer and tell your actual story. We helped one global retailer’s HR organization make the case to the board about significant, big investments they were asking for, which was a difficult ask because HR is not a profit center. We helped them tell a story about how these investments would change the daily lives of employees by using an actual employee as an example. It was hugely powerful and effective because they could see tangible evidence of what this strategy and required money was going to buy them.

Do you share good examples of how to onboard new team members in your book, Illuminate?

Nancy: A bunch of content we wrote for Illuminate hit the cutting-room floor. There was a great example I loved from Aileen Lee, a famous venture capitalist at Cowboy Ventures. When one of her startups gets funding, she sends them a disco ball. That’s part of the ceremony. It’s like saying: “Dance your butts off, because you’re going to be working hard.” At Duarte, our new employees get a standing ovation when they leave the office on their first day. It’s not a ceremony that management came up with, it grew organically from our people. It wasn’t like I stood up and started clapping. Instead, it was just this natural gift of affection for new people. That’s the thing about ceremonies.

Patti: I think that’s a really important point. The most powerful ceremonies that have the most meaning for people are most typically created organically from a company’s staff. If you’re trying to imagine what your symbol or ceremony might be, it’s a great idea to study how your people behave with each other already. Find those nuggets that are already in your culture. Pluck out the thing employees are energized by and amplify it.


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