The importance of storytelling In leadership & organizations (augmented by visuals)
Have you ever been in a situation where you were speaking to another person or an audience, trying to convey something you felt was important, and wished you had a way of increasing the possibility of them remembering it? Did you try to make your case more memorable by putting it in the terms of a story that the listener could relate to? If you have ever led a group or have done public speaking then you probably know the value of telling a good story to get your point across. I know that for me personally, the lessons that have truly resonated for me in life have been the ones that were taught to me as a story. To this day, I will sometimes think about the life lessons my dad taught during my childhood that used stories from his own experiences to impart wisdom upon me and my 5 elder siblings. Or I think about the bedtime stories that were read to me by my mom or older sisters that were parables that gave me some of my earliest principles about right and wrong. And when the stories came along with pictures then they really cemented themselves in my memory! I can still see the haughtily looking creatures with the stars on their bellies treating their star-less belly brethren (try saying that out loud) poorly, and then remember how that Dr. Seuss story taught me a lesson about discrimination, fairness, and friendship that has stayed with me forever.
Stories and storytelling to teach lessons and share ideas have always been important to me and I feel it is at the core of what I do as someone who has built a near 30 year career on listening to others and then translating their words into real-time visuals, first as an MG Taylor network knowledge worker, and then as a solo entrepreneur “scribe-for-hire” with my company, Griot’s Eye Inc.
This emphasis on visual storytelling is why I named my entrepreneurial venture “Griot’s Eye” way back in 1998 after I left my core staff position at MG Taylor Corporation after being a member of their network for 6 years. As I explained in a previous post, “griot” is a West African term that means “storyteller”, and I believe that when I am fully concentrating on my responsibilities as a graphic recorder then what I am essentially doing is telling a collective story with visuals in real-time, by marrying the power of graphics with words to illuminate a shared narrative that is unfolding around us as ideas are presented, discussed, and debated.
Recently, working as a “scribe-for-hire”, I was speaking to a team of executives from a major industrial conglomerate in the energy field, while providing graphic facilitation at their agile initiative meeting. I was walking them through a series of graphic records I had created based on their discussions, and their leader asked somewhat facetious, if I could follow him around all day and capture all his thoughts in real-time visual notes. The team laughed, but I asked him to elaborate because I was keen on hearing him explain the value he saw in graphic recording – out of curiosity I just wanted to see if he really “got it.” And by gum (apparently, in a previous life, I was a prospector in the 1840s), he nailed it when he said: “well, it’s like what you’ve done is capture my thoughts in a way that helps make it…a story.” I was elated because he recognized the importance of storytelling in conveying his message. Though at the time he and the group had not explicitly come to tell stories, but what they had done over the course of two days of presentation and dialogue was create a collective story together all about how they were striving to achieve their goals and objectives. My role as a real-time graphic storyteller was to help give them visual reminders by synthesizing their key points and literally drawing the “big picture” perspective over their 2-day journey together.
Why storytelling is vital to today's leaders and organizations
There is a growing focus on the importance of storytelling in leadership and in organizations, and I believe I know why. Because stories are what we use to educate each other, to share ideas, to entertain, and to sometimes touch the heart – storytelling is one of the key traits that distinguish us as human beings.
Storytelling is now recognized as a leadership tool by organizations because it is a vital factor in influencing human behavior. That is why many organizations are now making it an intentional part of how they operate and communicate. Because you can have the most innovative strategy there is, but as the saying goes, “culture eats strategy for breakfast” and can therefore undo any future plans an organization has if the cultural norm and status quo behavior do not buy-in and adapt to planned changes.
Therefore companies are doing things like employing high-level storytellers that share stories regarding organizational accomplishments and goals to help shape corporate opinion and behavior. And storytelling techniques are being taught to leaders so that they can become better communicators to their staff to help inspire team members. From an organizational standpoint storytelling is equally as important. Because you cannot accomplish any grand mission without people believing in that mission. If an organization can articulate its mission, value proposition, or service offering in the form of a story that resonates with its stakeholders and potential clients and customers then it has a marked advantage over its competition. Organizations that have the best, most clearly defined stories, coming not just from their marketing and branding departments, but the whole organization, tend to be the ones that succeed and evolve over time. Apple and Nike immediately come to mind as being companies where storytelling is woven throughout their culture.
Storytelling + visuals go together like peanut butter and jelly
This storytelling movement melds perfectly with graphic recording at meetings, internal workshops, and strategy and visioning sessions because businesses now see how important the visual component is to storytelling. Words alone can be impactful, but words combined with visual augmentation can be even more powerful and add an extra layer of meaning and memorability to a message. Simply put, stories plus visuals go together like Kool-Aid and sugar, peanut butter and jelly and ham and burger.
When an executive is giving a presentation, at least a good one, there will more often than not be a storytelling component involved in it to hammer its message home (or massage its message, if they are looking for a subtler approach). For a graphic recorder, that type of real-time storytelling, capturing a presenter’s remarks as they are heard is relatively easy to map out because it is an individual speaker following a script of some kind – often, they even have their own visuals that show the major points of what they are saying to back them up (side note: it’s rarely a good idea to focus on their electronic presentations while visual note-taking, lest you reduce yourself to simply copying it). Once their presentation has ended what they have done is essentially presented a story to the listener, made up of factoids and anecdotes that fulfill their overall objective to get the audience to “see” their point of view through a series of stories. The beauty of graphic recording when it is done well is that it can literally help people see the presenter’s point of view by using visuals to call-out key themes and serve as mnemonic assisters.
How real-time visual storytelling can depict the “collective story” of a meeting
One of the key outputs of any presentation, meeting, or strategy session is the “collective story” that is created by the attendees. Whether the story comes from a presenter and their back and forth Q&A with their audience or is developed by the idea generation of a group working to come up with breakthrough thinking and new ways of working at a strategy workshop, a collective story is created over the duration of those events. And what that collective story is about is how they will try to meet the session’s objectives. Having a real-time visual storyteller on hand to document the presentations and dialogues that occur can be a distinctive and memorable way of showing (not just telling) how the objectives were met (or maybe even not met). Developing a collective story through presentations and collaborative discussion to achieve objectives is a way of ultimately swaying hearts and minds – hence, adding the graphic element then, is a way of bolstering the vision of that collective story. Utilizing a scribe at your next meeting can help educate, inspire, and remind attendees about the objectives they are working to achieve, and also communicate to the external community of stakeholders what occurred at the session, in the form of electronic reports created from photos of the graphic output, that show and tell the collective story of the session.
If you want to learn more about my thoughts on scribing as real-time collective visual storytelling and graphic reporting then be sure to read my next post.
If you are an event coordinator, meeting facilitator, or executive that is interested in harnessing the power of live visual storytelling at your next meeting, conference, or strategy and visioning workshop, then please contact Griot’s Eye! Let us show you how we can elevate your next event and make it truly memorable and engaging experience that can illuminate your story to help you win over the hearts and minds of your attendees and stakeholders!
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