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Storytelling is a Powerful Influencer

Storytelling, the new business currency

Quite recently I attended an event at Chatham House in London, along with several incredibly talented individuals, to discuss the Digital Transformation of Sustainability Information. Sustainability is one of those topics that is rapidly gaining prominence and discussion. Yet, it is also one which leads to divergent views, at times. Within sustainability, global discussions are underway on several topics, including digitization. It is in this backdrop that my digitization initiative co-founder, Liv Watson, and I are working for the public good to bring together stakeholders from around the world. We are promoting a dialogue within which stakeholders collaborate on a structured and standardized digital way forward for sustainable information flows (aka the information highway across the entire information supply chain). 

With this backdrop, you can probably imagine the challenges we might encounter. One simple example is encouraging funders to work across their philanthropy fields to fund individual digitization efforts that lead to a global collaborative, structured, and standardized way forward. Contrast a digitization pitch story with investment requests in net-zero efforts, climate technologies, and the like. 

How do we raise the digitization funding profile and influence investment when the topic may not have the same public image impact as cleaning up a river, pursuing corporate polluters, or organizing protests? 

And how do we simplify a somewhat complex concept into something that is relatable and one that encourages action? In a nutshell: tell a great story. 

Storytelling with purpose

Before I share how the story was told on the day, let’s look at a couple of techniques for breaking through with someone who starts from a place of being closed-minded. 

  1. Let your passion shine through
  2. Show people the real you

Starting with passion. Share the story behind how you realized that the “thing” you are trying to persuade them to act on came to life. For instance, when did you realize you were passionate about it?  Why is this something that ignites a passion in you? This is the moment where a personal story of blood, sweat, and tears brings it all to life and makes it real. Stories help to unlock and open minds and initiate the start of a dialogue. 

Show people who you really are. Individuals form impressions or perceptions about a person based on their interactions. The idea here is to show another side of us that others are not aware of. Perhaps a story about a lesson learned competing as a skateboarder or music video producer, or a story about a challenge we confronted, a habit we kicked, or a hobby we took on. As people, we tend to default to selling people on our credentials when in fact what would seal the deal is sharing who we really are. In essence, allowing our character to shine through.

So, how did this come together for us on the big day?

Bringing these aspects into a real project

We started our session with two simple stories:

First Liv vividly shared her passion, using research completed to objectively bring the challenges to life. Then she painted a vivid picture of a future with the digitization issues solved. She described who benefits, how they do, and why they do. She let the real Liv shine through in the few minutes of her allotted time. 

Brilliant!

Then I stepped in…. (by the way, Liv is a tough act to follow – she is warm, funny, and passionate in everything she says…but that never deters me…)

The challenge I was given was to bring funding stakeholders along the digitization journey. In essence, to help them understand why digitization is so important. 

My story leveraged air travel to explain why we need a standardized and structured common language as the foundation for digitizing sustainability information.

The story I chose was simple. We’ve each boarded and taken a flight, at some point, and done so with a peaceful mindset (relatively speaking). Why? Simple! We are confident taking it because we know the cockpit crew is consistently trained and certified – each person is held to the same high standard. We also know that every airline’s cockpit crew member is trained to use consistent language, call signs, and distress words. This means that data transmitted between flights, control towers, and crew carry the same meaning and context across the entire flow of information from one person to another. It is this approach that allows each party in the information flow to quickly understand data and context. This in turn increases our confidence in air travel, flights, and safety. We trust the entire system to work as intended. It’s this same principle of structure and standardization that we need within sustainability matters. The good news – the message connected!

Final Thoughts

The most effective leaders skillfully break down the barriers standing between them and the individuals they are seeking to influence. They know that the best way to do that is through storytelling. Remember to use crayons, colour, and imagination to paint a relatable story. A story that connects with the audience, allowing them to act on what they hear (and see).

Your turn

Sign in to the Community Member Area or comment below to share your tips for telling a compelling, relatable, or inspiring story. A story that influences and persuades others to act. 

Give it a try!

Cartoon credit: Stephan Liozu

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