Crafting your story using personal narrative

Written by
Changeboard Team

18 Sep 2014

18 Sep 2014 • by Changeboard Team

Purpose & contribution

How do you create impact, get your message across with conviction, and imbue purpose into the daily lives of your employees so they follow you with pride?

“A powerful narrative can help you to get an idea off the ground, motivate and inspire people to take action and create culture change. It can even change the world,” declares Colin Hatfield, a communication specialist and partner of The Leadership Agency.

In an experiment a few years ago, two similar people were asked to fill as many bags of sand as possible in a day. One person was not given a reason why; the other was told that the bags were needed to shore up the levees after the New Orleans flooding. The result? The first person filled 300 bags in a day, the latter managed to fill over 1000 – a staggering difference of 700 bags.

This story in itself provides a key message for leaders. People need reminding why it is they come to work every morning. It’s important to give employees a clear purpose so they understand the contribution they are making to the business. The Olympic volunteers had clarity of purpose, and that came through in the experience they helped to create – but in an organisation, sustaining that clarity over time is a massive challenge.

“We follow people before we follow a plan,” states Hatfield. “If you're going to take your people on a challenging journey, they want to know who is leading them. You can’t be a faceless leader. Some leaders may be technically excellent, have great strategies and ideas but can’t articulate them – that’s almost a crime. If your communication can’t inspire people, this can hold you back your entire career and stop you from realising your dream or full potential.

“When telling a story, you have to be creative in your armoury, credible, and believe in what you’re saying. If you’re not authentic, you'll be found out pretty quickly.” Hatfield suggests using rational statements to make a strong business case, but then stake it with an emotional claim.

Communicating your vision

What immediately comes to mind when I ask: ‘what’s the most famous speech you can think of that has touched and moved people around the world on a deeply fundamental level?’

Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech delivered 8 August 1963, is regarded as one of the most memorable speeches of our time. He uses poetry of words to evoke emotion, conjure up images and set out his vision for the future. This was part of his profound call to the American people to stamp out racism:

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character…

…This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day…

Hatfield explains that what Luther-King does so brilliantly in this speech is describe a future-state and make it a place we want to live. With that belief in mind, he then sets out what it’s going to take to get there. Leaders can learn a lot from this approach, but perhaps the key is about drawing an appealing picture of the future that your audience can easily relate to.

Values what do you stand for?

Whatever your values, your people want to know what makes you tick. “Employees are the people central to your business, but people are emotional animals,” comments Hatfield. “Successful leaders who understand this and connect at an emotional level reap the benefits of their employees by holding onto talent, tapping into discretionary effort and having a much more agile organisation, with the benefit of greater financial returns and gains.”

He explains there’s mountains of research to demonstrate employees spend an awful amount of time managing their bosses, second guessing their priorities and what it is they value most. Often subconsciously, employees will often want to understand why you make the decisions you do, what frustrates you, where your own drive comes from and your personal connection to the organisation. Your employees’ values may or may not be the same as yours, but opening up that window will gain you respect, and help them feel they have a shared agenda, shared calls and a shared connection with you.

“When communicating, talk personally,” says Hatfield. “You don’t have to reveal your personal crown jewels but bring your insights to bear; draw from your own observations, experiences, feelings and beliefs. Don’t simply list a set of values about yourself, make your content personal. That way, it’s much easier for someone to ‘get’ you. For example, if you think you're funny, tell a joke, don't just tell me you’re funny. If integrity really matters to you, tell me a story about when yours was tested, then I might believe you really mean it.”

Manage your own grapevine

He continues: “Talking personally is not going to make you look horribly egotistical, it’s actually about altruism – it can help people refocus on the value they create. Some of the best leaders are intensely human and talk about their frailties as well as strengths; their feelings as well as thoughts. People will want to share your story if it’s memorable. Your employees will do your bidding for you if your stories go viral and are told on the grapevine.” 

Hatfield mentions a male client, a process re-engineer, who wanted to challenge his stereotype of being a geek as well as the perception that he must be intensely boring because of his job title. “We discovered a story he could use that would humanise him; where his business partners could relate to him on a more personal level,” he reveals.

“He and his wife had moved to a new area. His two kids played softball so enrolled in the nearest local club. However, quickly it became apparent that something was up. His kids wanted to drop out because they weren’t enjoying the sport any more. So he set to work investigating the root cause of the problem. He talked to other parents, to the kids and made his own assessments. He started making small but significant changes, and soon got the backing to take over the club and turn it around. The parents stopped being upset with the coaches, his kids went back to play, and everyone was happy.

“After sharing this personal story with his business partners as a way of demonstrating the transformational results and outcomes process re-engineering can have on an organisation, the tale went viral. People were soon knocking on his door asking him to help them solve their various problems or to look for new ways of improving processes.”

Hatfield now dares you to have a go at writing your own personal narrative and to weave this in as part of your daily working life. What stories can you bring to life that will help influence and motivate people to take a risk with you, get senior buy-in, or gain newfound respect?

Personal narrative four stories a leader needs

1. ‘This is who I am’ story: what do I value and care about – keep it fresh and relevant. If you’re going to ask people to change, it’s a good idea that people know who’s asking.

2. ‘What’s my connection to the organisation’ story: what excites me about this organisation, and how do I value what it delivers.

3. ‘Why am I here’ story: as a leader you’re not just here to manage the shop, so what’s my agenda for change. What is the future-state I want to create? I am here to do x,y,z…

4. ‘What’s in it for you’ story: to be effective, a leader has to connect with an audience on an emotional level. What’s your agenda and how will this benefit your audience?

Competition offer worth over ??1,000

The Leadership Agency is offering Changeboard readers the opportunity to take part in a one-day leadership communication programme to be held in central London on Friday 11 January 2013. This will explore how to craft your personal narrative, and deliver it with passion. A total of eight places are available, each worth over £1,000.

Terms & conditions:

1. To qualify, you must be in a role where you commission leadership development programmes for senior leaders in an organisation of 2,000 employees or more

2. Sign up here to receive the Changeboard magazine: 

3. Answer the following question:

Q. What is the biggest leadership communication challenge you face in your organisation right now?

To enter:

• Please email in your answer to:
• Enter ‘Personal narrative’ into the subject header
• Include your full name, job title, company name and a telephone contact number
• Deadline for entries is: Friday 2 November 2012
• Winners will be notified by email
• You must sign up to receive the Changeboard magazine: and those who provide the most interesting and relevant answers will be offered a place, completely free of charge.