The client wanted me to turn eight unprofessional storytellers into professional storytellers in four hours. At completion, her company had hired a professional video crew to tape these people telling their stories in two minutes or less, based on the tips we shared with them. The plan was to show their finished video stories at a corporate meeting. The crew was available for two hours, so the client said surely, I had plenty of time.
Realizing she didn’t understand the time frame wasn’t realistic, I offered options including bringing multiple coaches with me, so we had more time to help each individual shape, craft and practice delivering their stories.
The client didn’t want to pay for multiple coaches.
I suggested that we prepare over multiple days.
The client said they didn’t have more than a day. She said when they recorded their stories on video, I would be there to coach them through, so they would be receiving professional help.
Besides, she wondered, if eight stories are less than two minutes long, that’s sixteen minutes. She pointed out the camera crew is there for two hours, so even if it takes some longer than others, it shouldn’t take more than an hour to have everyone tape their stories. She said that’s what her boss wants.
No matter who her boss is, it’s not realistic.
Telling a clear, crisp concise story is not a born trait. It’s something learned, honed and practiced. With instruction, worksheets, some pre-work and a very structured session plan, I was confident I could help them tell their stories more effectively than when they first walked into the room.
However, even seasoned professionals often need multiple takes and on-the-spot coaching requires starting and stopping. Expecting people with no real experience to sit in front of a camera and recite their stories on video to be shown at a corporate meeting is completely unrealistic.
My client is what some would call a very ambitious worker who simply wants to know how to move a project forward in a way that gives the impression she is right on top of it. She wants to appear cutting edge. The one who comes through. The term for this is impression management.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to make a great impression. Most of us try to put our best foot forward so people will like us or feel they can count on us. Impression management is very important for leaders who want others to follow. But there must be a balance between authenticity and impression.
In this case, the client could inadvertently be setting me up to fail, which will backfire on her. Instead of nailing it and impressing her boss, if we don’t deliver exactly what she wants, she will look bad. She will blame poor outcomes on us, even though she failed to heed our advice or speak up on our behalf.
Impression management is defined as: “a process whereby someone tries to influence the observations and opinions of others about something”. For example, a manager might attempt to control information provided by a consultant, to give their boss the most favorable impression about what they can deliver.
Baylor University Professor John Carlson has studied this behavior in the workplace and calls it “deceptive impression”. In his research, he labels people like my client “sycophant” which typically means brown noser. Carlson calls sycophancy the most highly used form of impression deception. He says these people do not provide genuine opinions or honest feedback to their superiors, for example, enthusiastically endorsing their superior’s idea even when they don’t like it.
Interestingly, he concludes that sycophancy, has no significant effects on the relationship between the supervisor and supervisor’s evaluation of the subordinate’s performance.
That leads me to believe the real losers are program participants and other employees, who could be reaping far more benefits if their superiors communicated clearly.
In a similar event earlier this year, our team was hired to provide presentation training for a senior group of leaders. The client wanted us to teach her team how to become better presenters and provide “techniques to communicate messages”. Yet, she was unavailable for planning calls, didn’t respond to e-mails and despite repeated calls, failed to provide materials to help us prepare.
After the program she said, “this was a terrific program and we all benefited greatly”, but observed the agenda “didn’t allow enough time for new comprehensive message development to be incorporated into the training”.
On Sunday night, the evening before the program, she sent our lead trainer a multi-page wordy document of talking points and potential messages. No direction, no context. It was lengthy, written in corporate speak and difficult to understand. Then, without informing us, she sent the same document to her team. She instructed them to read it, use it to develop and write their own messages and bring it with them the next morning.
These are people who have no experience with message development. They came to the program confused, stating they didn’t understand what they were supposed to do.
What the client wanted and what she communicated to us were very different. Had she explained she was after comprehensive message development and subsequent presentation of those messages, we would have advised and structured differently.
Like storytelling, message development takes time and is critical to an organization’s branding and marketing. Trying to do everything in one day is not realistic.
Marge Piercy wrote a poem called To be of use. In it, she talks of people who strain in the mud and muck to move things forward. She writes “The work of the world is common as mud. Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust. But the thing worth doing well done has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.”
Chances are, both clients want to do well. Like many, they are probably inundated, overwhelmed and buried in more work than they can handle. Hiring you is something they were told to do. Now that they’ve checked that box, they just want you to show up and deliver so they can focus on other things.
The key to any successful project is clear concise communication. If outcomes fall short, sometimes it’s not a reflection on the work your team is doing, which is not to say that all of us should always be open to suggestions that help us improve.
In case you’re wondering, the storytelling program was a huge success. Given the limited amount of time to turn inexperienced communicators into great storytellers, they did exceptionally well. The client said she was happy and her boss was pleased. However, she added, this should have been spread out over several days as they really needed more time.
As for the other client, who was also trying to do so much in so little time, we set up a call and she took our advice. She wants us to allocate more time to facilitate message development with multiple teams before trying to help them deliver.
Go figure. Sometimes, things just work out as they should.