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Sunday, July 1, 2012

Storytelling: A Fundamental Skill of Business Leaders


Imagine you're CFO of a startup on the hunt for funding and one day you get into an elevator, the doors shut, and you realize you're alone with the head of a well-known venture capital firm. You have maybe 40 seconds to make a pitch. What would you say?

"First, you need a great hook," says Vintage Foster, president of AMF Media Group, a brand strategy, marketing and public relations firm (and a division of Armanino). "The next equally important thing is to understand what your audience views as relevant."

Foster, a master storyteller who spent many years as a reporter and editor for the Detroit Free Press and as a publisher of two Bay Area business journals says that if you understand your audience and know what it finds relevant, your hook will open the door to dialogue, a relationship, and funding.

"If John Doerr was the guy in the elevator with you, you downplay what is important to you and focus on what is important to him," Foster notes. "You may use the same messaging, but you would emphasize different aspects of your story for each audience, even if that's an audience of one." Great business storytellers are very aware of who they are talking to and alter their story accordingly.

Based on CFO answers to our 2012 CFO Benchmark Study Report, it became clear that technical knowledge isn't enough to guarantee leadership success. Linking your organization's plan to the company plan and holding yourself and your team accountable are requisites, but if you want to have far-ranging influence in your company and take your own game to the next level, become a master story teller.

This is not to say that numbers aren't effective at influencing decisions. But, according to a number of academic studies, the ability to tell a compelling story is more effective and persuasive than technical knowledge or numbers.

Besides a hook and deep understanding of your audience, Foster gives the following advice:

  • Context - the set of circumstances or facts that surround an event or situation.
  • Dramatic tension - a challenge or conflict to be resolved.
  • Repetition - all teachers know that frequent repetition is required to get information to "stick."
  • Know when to stop - it's important to leave your audience wanting more, to "tantalize" them a little with a foretaste of what is to come.

"The late Steve Jobs was a master of these techniques and was probably the best business storyteller of all time," Foster says. "His ability to get his audiences to wonder about what is coming next, was a great device for laying the groundwork to continued profits." This sets up a cycle of ongoing dialogue Foster adds. "It's been said that the best marketing is a conversation, and storytelling is what gets the conversation started."

In the struggle for corporate resources, a political dimension arises in which the success of a CFO hinges on his or her ability to influence the CEO and Board of Directors as well as senior managers throughout an enterprise. "If you have a repertoire of compelling stories to tell to a variety of audiences and across a variety of platforms, you're chances of success increase dramatically," Foster says.

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