Now think of the meetings you attend. Do some voices always make themselves heard while others go unheard? If the answer is yes, there’s a good chance they are feeling disengaged and your team is suffering as a result. If you want to boost your productivity, now might be a good time to try your own amplification strategy!
Imagine you’re at a meeting and a colleague gets up and presents a report on the company’s performance over the last year. How much of what he says will you remember? According to a 2016 study, it depends on how the information is delivered. If your colleague relies on numbers, it might be as little as ten percent. If those stats are packaged in a compelling story, though, it’s likely to be as much as 70 percent!
The key message here is: Storytelling makes information more memorable and pitches more persuasive.
So why are stories so much more memorable than numbers? The answer lies in our evolutionary history. Statistical analysis of things like annual turnover is fairly new – it’s something we only really started doing in the modern age. Our receptiveness to storytelling, by contrast, is hardwired into our brains. For millennia, humans have communicated information, messages, and lessons through stories.
As psychologist Jonathan Gottschall puts it, this makes stories emotionally “infectious.” Whether it’s the latest office gossip or an epic poem, we identify with narratives that show folks like us facing problems and working to overcome them. Stats just can’t compete.
No wonder, then, that effective leaders are also great storytellers. Take a 2009 study by project management expert Eddie Merla. He found that managers who use stories to resolve conflicts and address workplace issues were more successful in reaching their goals than their number-crunching peers. That’s because storytelling simplifies complex situations and gets crucial points across quickly.
Few leaders have leveraged this insight more effectively in recent times than American president Donald Trump. Thanks to his background in reality TV, Trump is able to tell stories with clear villains and heroes. It was this knack for crafting powerful and compelling narratives that allowed him to beat Hillary Clinton in 2016.
His pitch to voters went like this. He began by identifying a clear threat: outsiders trying to change the way Americans live. This gave his story both victims – blue-collar workers facing declining living standards – and villains – China, Mexican immigrants, and the establishment elite. Trump then identified an opportunity. If Americans backed him, the hero of this story, he would make America great again by building a wall and ripping up unfair trade deals.
Hillary Clinton’s pitch lacked clear-cut villains and heroes. America’s problems, she said, were complicated, and her campaign presented unconnected streams of information, ideas, and speeches. Compared to Trump’s story, these just weren’t very memorable or persuasive.
Over the last 50 years, corporate life has changed beyond recognition. Old mainstays like the gold-plated company pension have almost disappeared entirely. Other things, like new technology, have come on in leaps and bounds. One of the most obvious differences – the increased frequency of meetings – is something of a mixed blessing. Most employees hate them, but no business can do without them. So how do leaders square this circle?
The key message here is: More and more meetings are badly run, but they don’t have to be.
Meetings are a fact of life and doing business. When they’re done well, they foster relationships, solve logjams, and build stronger teams. Unfortunately, that’s not the way most workers experience them. Take a Microsoft study from 2005. It found that 71 percent of people in the US felt that meetings at their company were ineffective. That’s a problem. As a 2017 Harvard Business Review paper notes, how you feel about meetings is directly correlated to how you feel about your employer. Hate meetings? Chances are, you hate your company!
But here’s the silver lining: the problem isn’t actually the meetings themselves but how they’re organized. And that’s relatively easy to fix.
Good meetings don’t just happen – they require planning. That’s where a lot of leaders go wrong. Rather than setting an objective, they book a room and hope for the best. If you want your meeting to be productive, however, you need to ask yourself four questions.
First, what are you trying to achieve? Second, why is it important? Third, who do you need onboard to hit your target? And, finally, how much time will it take? Answering those questions and creating a clear agenda will help keep your conversations goal-oriented. The result? Employees don’t feel like they’ve wasted an hour of their lives.
Next up, facilitation. This is all about setting an example. Take one of the prime causes of employee dissatisfaction: meetings starting late. Your job as a leader is to always arrive early and well prepared and communicate that you expect others to do the same. Start energetically and set ground rules. If cell phones derail the conversation, explain why you’re asking team members to leave them at their desks.
Finally, wrap things up by making a summary of the meeting available within 24 to 48 hours. This should document what topics were discussed, what decisions you reached, who was present, and what action items you agreed upon.
Whenever you’re talking, you’re usually stating things you already know or believe. This can be useful for others, but it’s only one half of the equation. Whether you’re in a meeting or in a one-on-one conversation, you’ll need to ask questions to find out new information.
Asking questions unlocks vital information, but you need to know what kind of questions to ask.
Questions are one of the most powerful tools in your communication toolbox, but they’re not all alike. In fact, there are three different types of questions.
The first kind are convergent questions. These are close-ended, meaning that they can only be answered with a “Yes,” “No,” or by stating a specific piece of information. Think of questions like “Where is your office located?” or “Can you have this report finished in three weeks?” In most cases, these types of questions only have one correct answer.
Then there are divergent questions. These are open-ended and exploratory, meaning they don’t have a single correct answer. When you ask someone “How do you think we can finish this project by the deadline?” for example, you’re asking a divergent question.
Finally, there are rhetorical questions. These aren’t really questions at all but statements that sound like questions. So, why do we use rhetorical questions? Well, it forces your audience to relate your point to their own lives. Take a rhetorical question like “Who wouldn’t prefer working fewer hours for more money?” Think about this for a second and you’ll find yourself imagining what your life would look like if this was a choice you could make.
Although they come in different forms, there are a couple of general rules of thumb you can use to make your questions more effective. First off, it’s always worth taking a moment to organize your thoughts before asking someone something. This will help you work out what it is you’re trying to find out, or if you’re actually asking a question at all. Secondly, make sure you’re sticking to specifics and keeping your questions concise. Vague questions don’t elicit the information you need and overly long questions only confuse the other person.
Stick to these rules and apply the other tips we’ve explored in the book and you’ll be well on your way to hitting your communication bullseye!
Poor communication is one of the primary causes of worker dissatisfaction around the world. This is why it’s so important to clarify your own objectives when you communicate. But it isn’t just what you say that matters – you also have to be believable and cultivate your personal brand. True leaders up their game by setting an example, channeling their passion, and using storytelling to communicate their message. Pay attention to the organization of everyday tasks and ask plenty of questions and you’ll be sure to hit the communication bullseye every day.
So try this today. Actively lean in to feedback.
When former Facebook and Google executive Sheryl Sandberg was asked what she looks for in potential hires, she replied that the most important quality was the ability to accept feedback. Even constructive criticism can be tough to swallow, though, so it’s a good idea to start developing a tougher skin. How? Simple: actively seek out feedback. Accept that no one is perfect and keep an open mind. Remember, the critical information you are about to hear is for your benefit.
Check out my related post: How to make team meetings more effective?