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Here is a frequent conundrum: you have an important message to communicate. It may be a big change; or a need for action; or fostering collaboration between old enemies. Most of us will use a mix of logic and statistics, perhaps outside expert reports. We rapidly categorise the apparent needs of our audience and play to those – finance people want numbers, for example. Having shown our hard evidence, we then present our audience with a rosy future. And hardly anybody will believe us or feel genuinely engaged. Why is this? In telling a rational, ‘left-brain’ story we typically commit three mistakes:  

  • We assume that pure facts will engage others
  • We put ourselves outside of the story
  • We show a perfect world without any of the fears and doubts of real life

  A good illustration comes from our work in investment road shows: investors receive perfect presentation after perfect presentation and are totally bored with yet another ‘hockey stick’ financial projection. The first thing they buy is people: therefore trust, therefore humanity. This is far removed from discounted cash flows. Take Cambridge Cognition  – a pioneer in the field of memory loss assessment, for example. When we started working together, their presentation was very precise: it gave huge credibility to the quality of their clinical research (over 1,000 peer-reviewed papers), yet failed to introduce the story of dementia and its terrible impact on individuals and families until slide no.20, by which time any interest had truly been extinguished. Yet the company had developed a 10-minute test, run from an iPad, that can diagnose dementia 18 months ahead of anything else on the market. In their effort to impress the City, the presentation buried the human story under layers of market size assessments and clinical tests. Today the company defines itself as a profitable ‘brain health’ pioneer, and their Cantab product is on course to become the equivalent of the ‘blood pressure test for the mind’. They have also just successfully floated the company in London.   Aristotle was the first to codify story telling in Poetics, defining notions of plot and character. He was also the first to outline the need for a change of fortune, but not necessarily a happy ending. Aristotle was also a teacher of Alexander the Great, not only a model military strategist but also a charismatic leader. Today’s leaders can learn not only from Aristotle but also from playwrights, novelists and film-makers. Narrative techniques are plentiful but an absence of fluency in using them can sometimes become an excuse to avoid addressing the bigger question of the psychology of the storyteller. The classic situation/ complication/ solution mantra needs a human element and it is the leader’s job to find an angle relevant to the specific audience. In order to do this, the leader needs to take a personal risk, which is why we often prefer to hide under the blanket of facts and figures in PowerPoint or Excel. For us, storytelling is probably less about narrative techniques and more about displaying courage and confidence by putting a very personal view forward. This is a fascinating subject – we are deeply interested in collecting as many stories as possible, in order to understand how different leaders approach storytelling and perhaps address any personal anxiety in doing so. We are running a special breakfast seminar in September to share this research and celebrate the best stories. Please get in touch if you would like to volunteer stories yourself or refer another leader you know. We can treat any story in full confidence or make you the star of the show! Just drop Gus a note at: gmoffat@whitewatergroup.eu   Averil, François & all at White Water Group PS: we are proud to sponsor the 2013 M&A Awards where we will celebrate the year’s best stories of companies articulating a compelling vision for their strategies, no doubt partly through great storytelling.   Image: Aristotle & Alexander The Great in debate at Mieza, 343 BC

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