As I wrote in the last post, it was my coaching of others that caused me to discover how powerful the interaction between story, teller, and listeners can be. Of course, I had done doctoral study and written a dissertation, focusing specifically on the link between storytelling and leadership. Nonetheless, it was using the concepts from my research in my client coaching that truly brought home to me how much this dynamic of interaction—between leader, narrative and followers—can be a vehicle for inspiration of groups, and for stimulating change.
When individuals speak from the heart about issues that truly matter to them, they tend to make deep connections with their audiences. Then, when they sense that their stories are resonating with the listeners, their confidence and conviction swell. As such, they begin to grow their stories, aided by interaction with their listeners, and then they themselves grow into the larger narratives they have learned to tell.
When I speak in public, people often ask me the classic “how to begin” question about personal storytelling, or about learning to speak from the heart about their beliefs and convictions. For me, this is the critical issue. As with any new endeavor, the most important step is the first. In this case, it is a particularly difficult step, as most people are simply not used to communicating this way.
And, it is certainly a process worth beginning. Indeed, it is the ability to speak from the inside out—to tell the personal stories of identity that express one’s character, values and passion—that distinguishes the most effective leaders. It is also what allows any human being to become a true person of influence in his or her world.
Influence is about finding your voice and using who you are to inspire others, and this is something anyone can learn. On a basic level, for anyone who wants to begin, my advice is simple: Launch yourself into the exercise of self-knowledge and self-expression. Make it a journey, and devote the necessary time to it.
At the risk of being overly simplistic about an approach that relatively few people truly master, I would contend nonetheless that its underlying concepts are straightforward. First, do the deep thinking that leads you to the authentic, relevant and credible themes that truly matter to you. Then, begin to speak out around these themes, in other words, to articulate your stories of identity. Talk about who you are and what is important to you, your values and beliefs; why you do things the way you do; where you would like to go in the future. As you find your voice, you are creating your leadership story, and the story will simultaneously be creating you.
When people ask about the type of audience to start with, or when they are reticent to address their colleagues with this new type of discourse, I encourage them to start small. You might want to test your personal stories of identity on people you trust—a partner or good friend, any person of confidence who you can “corner” and ask to listen. Get their feedback about the effectiveness of your speaking and the appropriateness of your personal stories.
As we mentioned last time, another of the “discoveries” of my early years as a coach was the importance of speaking out before an audience. When I refer to an audience, I mean any group, or at times even individual listeners. Telling the story over and over allows it to evolve and grow. Speaking from the heart about the things we believe—and the things that matter to us—strengthens our conviction. Doing it in front of an audience, and taking stock of peoples’ response, can amplify the process.
When you become more confident, begin to deviate from your script, and experiment with your discourse. One of the fascinating elements of developing and using one’s personal stories of identity is how they can grow in moments of spontaneity. In this vein, the example of Martin Luther King is once again enlightening. Next time, we will delve into a bit more of Dr King’s remarkable development as a speaker, how his style and discourse evolved through a combination of preparation, spontaneity and happenstance.