The human brain is wired to focus far more on dangers than on positive information. This is a reality business leaders navigate every day, as they work to be intentional, clear and engaging in their communications. It’s also where Scott Halford can help. Scott sees effective storytelling as a key part of leadership, and he believes that with deeper knowledge of neuroscience, we can get a lot better at both. Scott is an internationally renowned keynote speaker, educator and advisor. He works worldwide to educate audiences about emotional intelligence, the neuroscience of achievement, effective performance and the success we create when we understand the intricacies of human interaction.
1. Don’t underestimate the power of brevity.
In this era of hybrid workplaces, a constant stream of digital communication is a given. Within it, we need to do what we can to ease the cognitive load on our teammates, and communicate as intentionally and concisely as possible. In his conversation with Maril, Scott suggests that unless you have a background in speaking, you should try to keep stories to employees down to 1.5 minutes. We find this to be helpful guidance, and guidance that, while not directly applicable, bears weight in the written digital realm as well.
In remote contexts, lots of information we used to digest by listening comes to us instead through reading — be it reading emails, chat app messages or links to articles. If this switch isn’t in and of itself a challenge for employees, the homogeny of the communication still may be. Adding to this is the reality that, as research has shown, our brains digest less information reading digitally than reading print. Limiting sentence length, creating sections with clear headers and being very intentional about what is better left for live conversation can all help, but no matter what, the challenge of daily inbox maintenance is set to be far larger for employees in this new era of work. Don’t underestimate the difference you can make by rereading, communicating with intention and trying when you can to keep the word count down.
2. Public speaking shouldn’t feel so different from one-on-one conversation.
Scott is an expert in helping leaders communicate new ideas and strategies to their employees. He points out that in one-on-one conversations, we naturally tend to begin with where our heads are at — talking through a personal viewpoint about how we’ve been or how things are going before we get into substantive topics. This is a usually intuitive progression, but when it comes time to speak to groups, many of us lose track of it. Instead of bringing the listener into our perspective, we jump straight into the topic, focusing our energy on being as clear and thorough as possible.
From a neuroscience lens, this is where we lose people. To be effective, our presentations of strategies need to tell the story behind the strategy, and without characters to connect to, stories don’t resonate. When we share how we’ve been, what we’ve been grappling with and the true struggle that’s led to the strategy being presented, we foster the oxytocin that comes with vulnerability, and lay the groundwork for strategies that still resonate a week later. The questions and fears that naturally emerge when employees are digesting change can be deeply assuaged if those same employees can understand where leadership is coming from.
Vulnerability and storytelling skills come naturally to many of us in the one-on-one conversations throughout our lives. When we get better at channeling that mindset as business leaders, our cultures and our results reflect the benefits.
3. All leaders should be mining their lives for the right stories.
Storytelling is an essential skill for leaders hoping to truly inspire employees. Scott has an exercise — called “Mining your life” — that helps people notice and think through powerful learning moments from their pasts and tap into the right mindset for powerful business storytelling.
To do the exercise, Scott suggests you write out every single age you’ve lived on a piece of paper, from zero to your current age. After that, write down whatever comes to mind for each age. If not much is coming, Scott recommends picturing every room in every house you’ve lived in, and writing down the memories that arise with each one. For each moment, ask yourself: Why do I remember this? Why was it important?
If a memory has stuck around for years, there’s a good chance it was formative; that it changed your life’s course, or epitomizes a lesson that still governs how you live. Once you feel like you’ve found that raison d’etre for the story, you push to try to find the business point. What is the takeaway for your employees? How will you package the story as you finish telling it? If you draw a blank for this part, it’s not right for a business context. But often, when we take time to think it through, we realize how relevant a personal moment really is to the way we lead now.
Even more powerful than helping identify valuable stories from the past, though, is the lens that the exercise helps develop in the present. Mining for stories, you get in the rhythm of searching for the lesson in everything, not just memories. The lens becomes a part of your day-to-day life, not just something you use to examine the past. From there, the anecdotes and lessons don’t run out.