Stories motivate, inspire and drive business outcomes. Even if you don’t realize it, you already know how to do it. Watch this video to position yourself for greater storytelling success.
The Bacon Brothers band had fans on their feet at a concert in Ocean City, New Jersey when the microphone squealed and speakers started blaring high pitched ear-piercing squeals called feedback.
The audience grimaced, some holding their ears, while the band instantly stopped and started fiddling with the dials on their amplifiers. Yet, what could have turned negative by turning fans off, actually turned positive thanks to the quick thinking and perhaps experience of lead singer Kevin Bacon.
Instead of making his audience uncomfortable by acting uncomfortable or showing embarrassment over the mishap, Bacon said “typically these things happen during sound check, where only special people are invited. You, my friends, are these special people.”
The audience roared with laughter. Not only did Bacon turn what could have been an embarrassing moment into a joke, but he made the audience feel important.
This is an important lesson for speakers of all levels. All of us make mistakes. The slides crash. We forget what we wanted to say. We leave out an important point. Perhaps we trip or stumble in front of a group. However, if we are not embarrassed, our audiences won’t be embarrassed for us. How we react and recover is how we’ll be judged.
Leading in times of crisis is no different. How an executive or spokesperson reacts under pressure can determine how their company or product will be judged.
Consider Captain “Sully” Sullenberger, the retired airline pilot who made a successful emergency landing in the Hudson River with 155 passengers on board. A flock of geese flew into the jet during take-off. All passengers survived and no one was hurt.
In an interview with Parade magazine, he talked about the importance of staying calm when announcing “brace for impact” to passengers just 90 seconds before hitting the water. He said “I wanted to be very direct. I didn’t want to sound agitated or alarmed.”
Sharp leaders understand that tone and words make a difference if you want to keep others calm during a crisis.
My father is one of those leaders we can all learn lessons from. Last year, he was diagnosed with a significant health issue. Despite the severity of the disease, endless treatments and infusions, he has stayed calm and upbeat throughout the ordeal and that is what has kept our family calm.
Those who study stress will tell you it’s natural for people to panic, react emotionally and think about worse case scenarios when something negative occurs. Yet, if you can take a step back and gather the appropriate information before instantly reacting, you will be better positioned to take a more measured and thoughtful approach to the situation. In our own crisis training programs, we encourage people to focus on the opportunity moving forward, not wallow in the crisis.
For example, if you unexpectedly lose your job, it’s easy to focus on your anger, defeat, or the boss you didn’t like. If it was a job that required a lot of unwanted time away from your family, perhaps there is now an opportunity to re-evaluate your priorities and pursue different avenues.
The iconic late Steve Jobs is an excellent example of someone who turned crisis into opportunity. When Jobs was fired from Apple, he went to work for an animation company that is now Pixar. When Disney bought Pixar, he became the company’s largest shareholder.
Whether professional or personal, we will all experience some type of embarrassment or crisis in our lives. The key is to change the conversation you’re having with yourself. When you do that, you will change the conversation you need to have with others.
My youngest son was 12 years old when he landed a lead role in his camp production of the Greek comedy Lysistrata. Toward the end of a wonderful performance, he forgot his lines. The audience fell silent. For my husband and me, the seconds that followed ticked endlessly as we were nervous for him. Suddenly, a proctor standing off to the side of the stage shouted out the line. He looked off stage and shouted back “what”?
She yelled it again, this time loud enough for the entire audience to hear. We sunk in our seats as some of the campers in the audience started to snicker. But our boy didn’t let that get to him. He stopped, smiled, looked out into the audience, and then pointing off stage quipped, “Whatever she said!” The crowd laughed loudly and thundered applause as the aspiring actor took an unscripted bow. They were laughing with him, not at him. He changed the conversation.
I read an article that said “in a crisis, it’s important not to let your emotions hijack you” if you want to manage the fight or flight response. It went on to point out that science has shown the best way to create a cohesive and coherent response is to do so with your head, heart and gut.
That means balanced breathing to calm down so you can tap into your heart to identify what’s important to you. From there, you can use your head and trust your gut to make solid decisions when you speak and act.
Whether dealing with something as critical as a life-threatening emergency landing or something far simpler like forgetting your line in a play or having your speakers blare feedback, when it’s happening to you, it feels like a crisis. Yet there is a similarity in all of these situations.
Like the Bacon Brothers, when we tune ourselves to focus on others, we can often turn something negative into something positive.
As I exited Amtrak at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station and made my way to the escalator destined upward to the grand train lobby, the oddest thing happened. The moving staircase that was still packed with people heading down to the train platform suddenly changed directions and headed up. Like a scene from a bad You Tube clip, surprised passengers stumbled over their own feet trying to walk down the up staircase while spectators laughed out loud when suddenly, the irony of the situation struck me.
How often do we step backward when trying to move forward? How frequently are our personal and professional goals thwarted with unanticipated hurdles that threaten to prevent us from accomplishing our goals? The lesson is not in the answers to these questions but rather how we learn to turn these mis-steps to our advantage. I believe some of the best examples can be found in political campaigns which can teach leaders’ volumes about communicating more effectively in today’s fast-paced attention challenged workplace.
More than a decade ago, I ran for the Pennsylvania state house and lost in one of the closest state races in the Commonwealth’s history. At the time, I was hard at work building my own business which included coaching and training members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. The state representative in my district had received a lot of negative press for allegedly smacking his girlfriend in public so opposing party leadership saw a good opportunity to reclaim the seat and thought tapping a former television reporter with name recognition was a great strategy. When I was first approached, I laughed out loud as the conversation went something like this.
Leadership: “How would you like to run for PA House?’
Me: “Not a chance.”
Leadership: “Why not?”
Me: “Should I tell you the truth or tell you what you want to hear?”
Leadership: “Oh please, we want the truth.”
Me: “For starters, I’ve interviewed hundreds of politicians and was never that impressed so no offense, but I have no real desire to be like any of you.”
Then I signed up.
Like any product, promise, service or idea, the key is to inspire and motivate so people believe in what you’re selling. As an example, politicians have to sell themselves every time they speak. Let’s say a candidate appears warm, friendly and sincere but when you meet them in person, they are scowling, not as happy as they appeared on TV, offer a droopy handshake and seem distracted as you speak to them. You would probably re-think your decision to vote for that person just as you would probably not be inclined to follow their lead in the workplace.
While social networks were not as prominent when I ran for office, they were already forcing people to have conversations in order to motivate and empower others. That meant talking with listeners instead of at them as I had learned form a twenty year career in television news. When we interviewed people, they wanted to share their stories. When we edited it for broadcast, we wanted snippets of information that made our viewers and listeners feel what it must have been like to be at the scene of that story. That meant making information relevant to others.
Step One: Keep the Conversation Real
When I ran for office, urban sprawl was a hot issue and my opponent was a member of the township planning commission and a self-proclaimed topic expert. Every time we were both questioned about it, she talked from experience and was usually quoted. I was not. That’s when I realized I needed to keep the conversation real and speak people’s language so I changed my approach. The next time I was interviewed I said: “Traffic has gotten so bad out here in Montgomery County, that I could balance my checkbook on the way home from work.” Granted, you don’t need a college education to come up with that one, but it resonated with readers and every time I said it, I got quoted so of course, I said it all the time.
Politicians understand the importance of using real life examples and storytelling to impact listeners but business communicators often lag behind fearing what’s appropriate in other settings is not appropriate in the workplace. Quite the opposite is true. In medicine, it’s the stories of sick patients that inspire researchers to search for cures. In war time, we cling to stories that offer hope about people who have overcome insurmountable odds. The stories of grief, hope and optimism that immediately followed the horrific events of September 11, 2001 are forever etched into our personal and national psyche. Stories are real and create rapport communicators need to share if they hope to drive the message home.
Step Two: Be Accountable
In my campaign office, we had a young woman in charge of our door to door walking campaign. It was up to her to determine what neighborhoods we canvassed and how many times we returned. There was a big map in the office with colored pins stuck on streets that illustrated where we had trudged. Shortly before the election, I noticed we missed an entire section of the district. When I questioned her, she became very defensive and claimed her strategy never included campaigning in this area. As it turned out, she made a mistake and was embarrassed to admit it. If she had taken responsibility, we could have changed course and potentially secured additional votes.
When people are unaccountable, they often make excuses, blame others or play dumb which can create an atmosphere of mistrust. In campaigns as well as business, accepting responsibility and not being afraid to say you erred in judgment makes you real and can actually increase confidence in your ability to lead.
Step Three: Have Heart
My older son was only nine during my short lived political career but he taught me a lesson I will never forget. It was a very competitive race where many people said they would only vote their party regardless of personal beliefs. On election night, my son and husband were assigned to hand out literature at a polling place. Every time someone would walk in the door, he would run up to them, hand out my flyer and scream “vote for my mom”. On the way out of the voting booth, an older man grabbed my husband’s arm and said: “I’ve never voted for another party in my life until tonight and I did it because of your son.”
Without knowing it, this nine year old instinctually knew that politicians can’t win races without good grassroots organizations, but more importantly, he cut through the politics and grabbed at their hearts.