I have always had a penchant for storytelling. I am not sure why exactly. I remember coming home from school, and mom not being there — she had a two-hour commute to work. My brother and I had to dream up games to play and stories to enact while we waited for her arrival. We played our favorite superheroes and explored new worlds created by our minds.
Years later I would use this skill to help motivate my teams, raise capital, and bring disruptive change to new industries.
For example, in my first venture, I once walked into the headquarters of a large bank with a box of Duplo Legos. They were curious about why I was carrying the familiar green container. After a few pleasantries, I explained how software was transitioning from monolithic design to a component-based approach. “This is how software will be built in the future,” I declared, while carefully snapping the little toys together on the table. I concluded, “You’ll soon be able to buy software like a ‘bag of blocks’ to help you develop mission-critical applications faster.”
At the time, explaining a new technology known as J2EE was like speaking to a caveman about laser beams. Today, if anyone dared tell that story they would get a strange look — everyone (now) knows software is all about “combinatorial innovation.”
But, back then, it was just a dream — a figment of the imagination.
I had to get them to believe in something that began as a vision in my mind, get them to connect with it emotionally, and then get them to believe in it too.
Here is the thing…
If you want to be a CEO, you need to master this.
Lucky for you, these crucial skills — storytelling and imagination — are already in your DNA. This is precisely what makes us different from Chimpanzees.
It’s true. Every CEO I know is a homo sapien.
“Sapiens rule the world because we are the only animals who can cooperate flexibly in large numbers,“ says Yuval N. Harari, author of Sapiens. It is one of the most fascinating books I have ever read. In the book, he explains how “we can create massive cooperation networks in which thousands of complete strangers can work together on a common goal.”
“The real difference between us and chimpanzees is the mysterious glue that enables millions of humans to cooperate effectively,” he says.
“This mysterious glue is made of stories, not genes,” he affirms.
This revelation was like getting hit by a bolt of lightning for me. So we are all wired to tell stories? People need stories to connect, to collaborate, to achieve a common goal? Is this why a brand needs to mean something more than its product?
It’s why start-ups need vision statements. It’s the reason your customers always ask for a case study, your future roadmap, and the long term plan for the company. It’s why your employees stand around the proverbial water cooler asking each other, “where are we going?”
People need to sit around a fire and tell stories about the future. They need to feel like they are helping to create a better future for themselves and others.
This “mystery glue” is why every story has a specific arc including both a villain and a hero.
Do you get my point?
As a CEO, one of your jobs — it’s maybe the most important — is to give your fellow sapiens what they need most, something to believe in.
Below is a recipe for unlocking your inner vision and storytelling ability:
“The real difference between us and chimpanzees is the mysterious glue that enables millions of humans to cooperate effectively. This mysterious glue is made of stories, not genes.” — Yuval N. Harari
If you are anything like me, chances are you need to explain some pretty complicated technology to business people. Telling them about the virtues of cloud computing, 5G, distributed ledgers, deep learning, or AI is not what will inspire them. Learn to talk to people using simple terms. One way to do this is to read children’s books. Another is to limit your speech and writing to use as little jargon as possible. One of my favorite books that helps with this is Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe. In the book, he explains some pretty complicated stuff (like the Apollo 5) using 1,000 of the most common words.
“Getting Clear” is a phrase I use a lot, especially with the first-time CEOs that I advise. It’s about starting from the beginning and asking yourself a lot of “why” questions. Why are you doing this? Why does your company exist? Why does it matter now? Why should your customer choose you? Why will the world change if you are successful? Why will this be different than anything before it? Why does your customer really need this? Why is this team best suited to solve this problem? Your organization becomes “clear” when your team is aligned, members trust each other, have organizational clarity and share a common reason to exist. Author Patrick Lencioni outlines this in his book, The Advantage, which contains a great framework for helping you get clear. Simon Sinek also explains why starting with “why” is the best recipe for vision shaping.
This turns out to be something hard for me since I really enjoy non-fiction books these days. In high school, though, I read books like Brave New World, Neuromancer, The Blade Runner and 1984 (I am re-reading it now). Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock is among my favorite futurist books. According to Eliot Peper, a writer with Harvard Business Review, “fiction can help [CEOs]. By presenting plausible alternative realities, science fiction stories empower us to confront not just what we think but also how we think and why we think it. They reveal how fragile the status quo is, and how malleable the future can be.” And, it need not be science fiction. Any fiction will do. It’s about learning the craft of creating a world that does not exist. It just has to paint an elaborate, vivid future. This is probably why books like Lord of the Rings, or Game of Thrones are so popular.
4–Get yourself a Story Framework
If you are not used to telling stories, crafting them, and delivering them, it’s essential to learn the skill quickly. I find frameworks to be helpful. Bernadette Jiwa has one she calls the Story Compass. Nancy Duarte, in her book Resonate, offers a visual approach to storytelling. Seth Godin’s blog post, “How to Tell a Great Story,” is a fun read and offers a simple blueprint. Andy Raskin and his approach called “strategic narratives” is a great new addition to the landscape. He teaches a course at least once a quarter in San Francisco. (I have considered taking it myself.) And finally, the Heath Brother’s famous Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, Stories are Made to Stick. Note, not all stories are created equal. Frameworks like these help you learn how best to craft your stories for specific outcomes.
Try to start every conversation with a story. If you have children, try making up stories to tell them. Try inventing your characters. (My daughter enjoys Dadda’s stories more than some of her many books.) Collect good stories from your team, especially stories about how customers are using your products. Stories about how people in your company are living your vision or your creed are good too. Spend time listening to your customers to unlock good stories. Mine stories from books, blogs, videos, conferences, any place you can get them. Put them in a database of sorts. (I use Evernote.) Then, study them to find common themes, construction, and form.
6–Get yourself some toys
In my office, you’ll find a box full of Legos (I still use these), marbles, sticky-notes, cards, Sharpies and pencils, rulers, plastic stencils of all shapes wooden blocks, balls, and other toys. I use these to spur my imagination. I am continually shaping new worlds that relate to my current venture. (These days you can find wind turbine models there as well.)
7–Take time away to think
One of my favorite (fictional) leaders is Captain Jean Luc Pickard of the Starship Enterprise. The fictional captain in the Star Trek: The Next Generation series had a ritual I believe every CEO should adopt. He always took time away from the bridge to retreat to his “ready room” and enter the “holodeck,” here he’d become Sherlock Holmes. And, when there was no important mission, he’d take leave on a starbase or spa-like planet and enjoy an old book. This ritual of taking time away from the “ship” is something every CEO should do. It frees your mind from the daily routine of making thousands of make-or-break decisions and just engages your imagination.