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Leadership is persuasion

Stories have an emotional power to persuade that gives them the edge over pure logic. And as leaders, we are all about persuasion.

Persuasion is at the heart of leadership. We persuade employees to believe in our cause, to work smarter, and faster and more efficiently. We persuade our financiers to give us more money; we persuade customers to buy our product. Persuasion is what good leadership communication is all about, and stories are the most persuasive tool in the armoury.

There are other reasons stories have the edge. We live in an age of information overload. Stories cut through. Stories are sticky. They create those ‘Eureka’ moments by enabling us to share great ‘truths’ without being abrasive and confrontational. They allow us to deal with issues and problems and challenges without having to instruct or preach. Stories can kick start the difficult conversations you need to have to improve performance. With stories, you can challenge, enable, inspire and encourage the behaviours your organization needs from all of your people.

Stories have emotional power in ways even the best-crafted presentation can never match. Logic may get to the brain, but stories get to the heart. I learned this painful lesson when working in the 1980s for the CIA. (No, really, I did!)

Obviously, you are thinking of the Central Intelligence Agency. I mean the Chemical Industries Association. At the time, I was employed by Bayer, the chemicals and pharmaceuticals company. I was based in Newbury, Berkshire, in the UK. The CIA (the Chemical Industries Association) was running what it called a national ‘Speak out and Listen’ campaign. This required people from member companies of the chemicals industry to go out and talk to local communities all over the country, at Woman’s Institute meetings, at Round Table meetings, at town hall meetings and in schools. The idea was to show that people were at the heart of the chemical industry, and to try to explain more about what the industry did that was positive in people’s lives. The CIA prepared a brilliant PowerPoint presentation, gave me my speaking notes and I was all set for my first encounter with the public.

I had rehearsed and rehearsed the presentation and felt I was pretty good at it. My first presentation was in the local town hall, and I went along eager to do my talk. There, I showed an audience of more than 100 people slides of chemical plants, great photographs of the products of the chemical industry – from the steering wheels in cars, to bricks and medicines. I walked people through the history of the company and I talked about how much of a contribution we made to the UK, and to Newbury in particular. I used all the charts and graphs and statistics the CIA had given me. It was a fantastic data dump.

Unbeknown to me the organizers had also invited a speaker from Greenpeace. After a scattering of polite applause for my presentation, the next speaker stood up and told some terrible stories about the chemical industry. They weren’t factual, they were not even necessarily true, but they were powerful and they were emotional. The crowd turned against me. I feared for my life. As soon as a lot of hostile questions were over, I slunk from the town hall, now eager to end one of the most embarrassing and difficult evenings of my life. The next day I promptly wrote to the CIA and told them that I would no longer do ‘speak out and listen’ events.

Some months later, we held an exhibition in our foyer at Bayer for our neighbours. Our offices were set beside a residential area and we literally did have neighbours. The exhibition showed how chemicals went into furniture materials, into running shoes, into car steering wheels and hubcaps and dashboards. It showed how our pigments coloured the bricks our neighbours built their houses with. It put on display drugs such as aspirin that Bayer had invented, tennis rackets and other sports equipment – none of which could exist but for chemicals and plastics from Bayer. I stood and watched as our local neighbours studied the exhibition, examining each and every exhibit, amazed that they were enthralled by what they saw. The next day I phoned the CIA and said they should put me back on the ‘speak out and listen’ roster, but from now on I would do the talks my way. For the next couple of years I became a sought-after speaker, as I arrived at various events with my ‘box of toxic chemicals’ – all the exhibits that had so enthralled our neighbours when they came to our exhibition. I would start by telling people to stand back from my box of toxic chemicals, much to their bemusement. All they could see was a box of everyday household items – which was exactly my point.

Then I would tell people the story of how Bayer workers at a dye factory were responsible for inventing aspirin. I told them about how our synthetic pigments enabled them to have colourful bricks in their homes, without which every house would simply be a dull grey colour. I told stories of science, of problems solved and great innovations. They loved them. Once I had told them all these stories and handed out the exhibits for them to study, I would then open the floor for questions. Never again did I encounter a hostile audience, and every time we had a robust, healthy and mutually respectful debate. The lesson was clear – people love stories and people love props. Not only did those stories deliver messages, but they created relationships and built trust. Never again did I use a PowerPoint presentation.

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