GREAT LEADERS TELL STORIES

… and so do great speakers.

I am seriously sick of PowerPoint no matter how many pretty pictures are included, and I am also dismayed at the way it is overused by many managers in the invalid belief that it is the best way to deliver a strong message and to manage behaviour.

Author: Gareth Saunders; CC BY-SA 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Gareth Saunders; CC BY-SA 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


I recently attended an all-hands meeting at a company where the board had asked me to accept an executive coaching assignment for their recently appointed CEO, so it was a great opportunity to see him in action. The company is doing well and he had a lot of good news and successes to share with his people. There was a serious air of excitement and expectation amongst the attendees, and a roar went up when the CEO came on stage amongst considerable fanfare.

He began his presentation and, after just a few words of thanks to his troops, he then launched into a 40 minute presentation with so many PowerPoints, and so many bullet points on each one, that after about 10 minutes of increasing frustration and ennui, amongst his people as well as me, I felt like standing up and screaming at him to just turn off his PC and to talk to his people … to just tell them something interesting that had a good chance that they would actually remember.

Great leaders paint pictures by telling stories, not by showing people lists of bullet points.

It is lucky that Mark Antony did not have PowerPoint at the time he said “Friends, Romans, Countrymen lend me your ears” otherwise he may have said “You can all see on bullet point 7 on slide 17 that I am asking you to take part in an aural loaner programme”, or something similar.

We do tend to remember stories that are interesting, that are compelling, that tell us something that resonates with who we are and what we are doing. It is very rare that we remember a list of bullet points, even if they do have a field of pretty sunflowers as their background.

Here are 4 examples of what I mean by the power of story-telling, all from my time in Singapore, where I moved nearly 20 years ago, and that have stayed with me ever since.

By Formulax; CC BY-SA 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

By Formulax; CC BY-SA 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


– How Singapore handled black market Viagra … When Viagra was first released by Pfizer, and before it was approved by the Singapore medical authorities, there quickly grew a thriving black market for these magic “uplifting” blue pills. To combat this there appeared in the Singapore Straits Times a front-page story about an unfortunate young man who had been admitted to hospital after ingesting one of these pills, and after suffering an erection lasting over 24 hours. His life-saving treatment had necessitated the siphoning of blood from his penis to be injected back into his overall blood supply. As a result, he had been rendered permanently impotent. While the story did not make a lot of sense, the Viagra black market in Singapore died overnight.

Author: Bgtp (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Bgtp (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


– Singapore and the Charlatan Medical Wizards … Elderly and sick people are generally very susceptible to charlatan medical cures for any serious ailments. The newspapers in Singapore regularly ran stories of elderly people, mostly women living on their own, who had been tricked into spending their life savings on a miraculous cure obtained from some “wizard”, who had managed to convince them of his power through some sleight of hand. This was a much more effective way of warning the elderly to be wary of such trickery than would have been even 1000s of PowerPoint presentations in retirement homes and clubs for the elderly.

– This donkey not look so good … For a conference keynote address, I wanted to illustrate the challenges of working in a region that had so many diverse cultures, and particularly about the fact that even though English was spoken in so many Asian countries, it was really a case of Nations being divided by a common language. I told the story of how because of a delayed flight I had arrived late in Malaysia for a company donkey trek down a beach to a pleasant bay for a bar-b-que. When I arrived at the saddling area there was only one very old and very mangy donkey left available for me to use. When I tried to climb on to the donkey the Malaysian handler said to me “This donkey not look so good”. I shouted that I didn’t care about physical appearances and that all I cared about was getting up the beach to the meeting point where I was expected. After just a few perilous metres into some palms I dismounted and berated the man as it was obvious that the donkey was blind. He couldn’t believe my anger as he had specifically told me “This donkey not look so good” when I had first arrived. I have been regularly reminded of this story over the last 20 years, most recently just a few months ago. I doubt whether any of these old colleagues of mine remember any of my PowerPoint presentations.

Author: Raul654 (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Raul654 (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


– Two roosters for a single hen … After I had been in Singapore for about 6 months I was asked to do a TV interview about the hectic life of an executive with the responsibility of running such a geographically large and diverse region. One of the questions I was asked was about how my wife handled my regular absences.I said that my wife was very independent, had many interests, and being in a somewhat silly mood, I added that she had also just told me that she had taken up a new hobby which was the keeping of chickens, and that she had therefore bought 2 roosters and one hen. When I had asked her whether this didn’t create a situation where the 2 roosters would spend all their time fighting over the one hen, she replied that it was not a problem if one of the roosters travelled a lot. About 2 years later at a company event, a young Indian colleague sidled hesitantly up to my wife to shyly tell her that they had something in common as he also kept chickens. My wife, who had not seen the TV programme had no idea what he was talking about. I believe that this may be one of the few things he clearly remembers about me from my time in Singapore.

By Herrick; CC BY-SA 2.5 license; via Wikimedia Commons

By Herrick; CC BY-SA 2.5 license; via Wikimedia Commons


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