Execs Struggle with One of the Most Effective Storytelling Techniques

Showing one’s humanity is a sure-fire way to bring a storytelling dimension to communications.

Yet, most executives do the exact opposite. They make a conscious effort to hide their humanity.


To paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, we’re told early in our careers that business is business, personal is personal, and never the twain shall meet.

It’s a missed opportunity.

The simple act of opening up can strengthen business communications, giving lift to what otherwise would be vanilla information.

Before going further, let’s define this concept of opening up in business communications. In short, it means being willing to reveal a little something about yourself. Transition lines such as “That reminds me …” or “Let me share a quick story …” can serve as springboards into opening up.

It’s worth noting that opening up should come in moderation lest you end up in the TMI category. No one wants to hear that your kid refused an SAT tutor, smokes pot and is going to end up at the local community college.

Politicians certainly get the concept of how to open up.

The recent Republican and Democratic conventions provided ample examples of politicians opening up as means to connect with their constituencies.

Staying in the political sphere, one of my favorite examples of “opening up” comes from President Obama who every year appears on ESPN to share his college basketball picks for March Madness.

President Obama Bracket - effective business storytelling

Does the President’s ability to predict Arizona State upsetting Michigan — didn’t happen by the way — give the American public greater confidence in his ability to address the threat of terrorism or shepherd health care reform? Of course not. He does this so his target audience can identify with him and perhaps feel a connection with him.

For business role models, look no further than Warren Buffet who has perfected the storytelling technique of opening up. He doesn’t want the world to perceive him as one of the richest men in the world who always gets his right pinkie in the air at the perfect angle when lifting a cup of tea. Similar to President Obama participating in March Madness, Mr. Buffett strives for ways that the average person can feel part of his circle. Using his Annual Report for more than reporting financial performance, we find passages such as the following on activities at his shareholders’ meeting:

“To add to the Sunday fun Ariel Hsing will play table tennis (ping pong to the uninitiated) from 1 pm to 4 pm against anyone brave enough to take her on. Ariel, though only 11, is ranked number one among first under 16 in the U.S. I played Ariel, then 9, thinking I would take it easy on her so as not to crush her young spirit. Instead she crushed me …”

Of course, the profile of the individual has a say about the frame of opening up. For the President Obamas and Warren Buffets of the world, they can tap areas like a college basketball tournament or a ping pong prodigy that have zero relevance to their core platform. If you’re an executive at an enterprise computing company, what you share opening up needs to have relevance to the topic at hand.

This requires getting out of the weeds.

Trying to conjure up a personal story with a tie to “greater density in a solid state storage device” makes for a futile exercise. Instead, it’s about finding an experience/feeling that provides common ground between the personal and the technical. Maybe a sense of achievement underpins the personal story as a way to accentuate the sense of achievement with the new storage device. Or perhaps the development of the storage device hit unexpected obstacles that could be tied to a personal saga of pushing through barriers.

One final point —

As you open up, you’re going to experience a feeling of vulnerability.

Take a deep breath and stay the course.

Like any push out of one’s comfort zone, it does get easier over time.

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