Why a CEO Should be the Storyteller in Chief
Among your many responsibilities as CEO, none is more critical than that of brand champion. Internally you’re the visionary, inspiring the organization to live out its purpose.
Externally – like it or not – you’re the keeper and communicator of your brand’s promise, the beacon and bellwether looked to by customers, influencers, and shareholders alike.
However, in an age of eroded trust and splintered, user-controlled communication channels, the old command-and-control CEO tools have lost much of their power.
So what does work to help the corner office be a strong brand champion today?
David Aaker, Vice Chair of international growth consultancy Prophet and the man known as “The Father of Modern Branding” may have one answer – what he calls “signature stories.” I got to chat with Aaker recently, whose latest book is Creating Signature Stories: Strategic Messaging that Energizes, Persuades and Inspires. While his counsel applies organization-wide, four observations stood out as having particular relevance to CEOs and the need to lead.
One: Facts fail to convince; stories get people to convince themselves.
CEOs love facts, and rightly so, given the need to deliver fact-based decision making. But while data points may convince you of which way to go, they are distinctly less persuasive to consumers and even B2B customers.
As Aaker notes, “Audiences really are not interested in your brand, your firm, your product. They’re just not – and even if a message gets through to them, they’re pretty skeptical. The reality is that, as compared to facts, stories are orders of magnitude more capable of gaining attention, of changing perceptions, of persuading, of stimulating action, of even inspiring. And we’re not talking about twenty or thirty percent better. We’re talking about 200 or 300% better.”
Part of this effect stems from the way that people receive and process a story. As Aaker notes, “You don’t counter-argue a story.” Presenting hard facts invites an audience to raise their rational guard, examining and even challenging the data – but telling stories invites them to enter in to the narrative. They let their guard down, let both the rational and emotional content sink in, and (assuming the story rings true) they arrive at their own conclusions.
Two: Stories are strategic assets.
Admittedly, storytelling is the business tactic du jour, particularly in marketing circles. Upper management, however, is wise to look beyond the tactical application of stories and leverage their strategic capabilities, which extend well beyond conveying marketing messages. Aaker says that includes “communicating your strategic message, your organizational values, your brand vision, your customer value proposition, your business strategy… [all of which] is really important to employees who are looking for meaning in their professional work, and also customers, many of whom are looking to have a relationship that goes beyond functional benefits.”
Three: CEOs can create the requisite storytelling culture.
The leap from simply relating the factual qualities of a brand or organization to using stories to bring it to life does not happen by accident. It is the product of vision, purpose and on-going commitment – all of which depend on the initiative and supportive efforts of top leadership.
According to Aaker, “You start out with knowing what your strategic message is. What are your organizational values? What is your purpose, or what is your higher purpose? What is your brand vision? What is your customer value proposition? What’s your business strategy? [Then you ask] what stories really reflect this value.” In other words, you, as CEO, do not necessarily need to be a literal storyteller yourself; you do, however, need to encourage and equip your people to uncover and tell the stories that define your company and set it apart.
Four: Compelling, authentic CEOs make for compelling, authentic stories.
Of course, as you encourage your people to mine their own work and customer experiences for signature stories illustrating the purpose, promise and passion of your company, don’t forget to also look for them yourself – and start by looking in the mirror. As Aaker relates in his book, via examples of CEOs from Salesforce.com, L.L.Bean, Essential products and others, a leader’s own story, particularly a founder’s story, can create the basis and inspiration for stories from throughout the organization. Telling your own story also helps you lead by example, providing motivation and a model for others to follow in developing storytelling as a valuable leadership skill.
What are your company’s signature stories? What’s your own?
For all CEOs who want to write the next chapter in their organization’s success, now is the time to learn what it means to be Storyteller in Chief.
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