How to be more trustworthy by telling strategically vulnerable stories

Which global challenge should be the biggest worry for leaders thinking about the future? (Hint: It’s not AI, blockchain or the Singularity.)

It’s trust.

It’s no secret that we’re moving towards a post-trust world. According to Edelman’s annual Trust Barometer, nearly 70% of us worry about false information being used as a weapon. 59% of us say that it is getting harder to tell if a piece of news was produced by a respected media organization. From a business perspective, the mandate to be trustworthy is more than a moral imperative. 56% of us think that companies that only think about themselves and their profits are bound to fail.

As the world trends towards a future of systemic distrust, more organizations will be challenged to answer the question of why? - why we care, why the work that we do matters, why we choose one action over another - as a way of demonstrating our trustworthiness to a skeptical audience.

As culture leaders, our role will be to not only steward the conversation around trust as a key organizational value, but also to model trustworthiness in the way that we work, so we can inspire our colleagues to do the same. To do so effectively, we need to turn to storytelling. Today, I’m going to help you understand how to be more trustworthy by telling what I call strategically vulnerable stories.

Jordan Bower

Understanding strategic storytelling

I spend a lot of time explaining the difference between “telling a story” and “crafting a narrative.” Telling a story is something we all do, sometimes dozens of times in a day. When we tell a story, we tend to focus on the way that something happened. Most of our stories answer the five W’s: what happened, where it happened, who it happened to and what they did about it.

But when we craft a narrative, we take a different approach to storytelling. Crafting a narrative is about creating a memorable audience experience: one that’s designed to produce an emotion or express a key underlying value that resonates with an audience. As leaders, the highest purpose of crafting a narrative is to communicate meaning to our audiences, revealing new perspective and motivating them to act.

Crafting these types of narratives requires two tools: the vulnerability to express something honest about ourselves, and the strategy to understand exactly when to reveal it. “Strategic vulnerability” may seem like a contradiction in terms, but actually, it is a realistic and practical way of using your own personal stories to connect with your audience. By being strategically vulnerable, we create a sense of openness with others that is appropriate, given the context of our relationship.

How to create a strategically vulnerable story

You could spend a lifetime studying storytelling and only scratch the surface. For our purposes, though, there are two key ideas you need to know to tell better leadership stories:

  • Stories are most engaging when they are about choices. Rather than telling us what happened, tell us what choices were available and why you chose what you chose. Compelling choices create tension, which naturally creates engagement in our audiences. Should I get a steady job or risk it all to be an entrepreneur? Just setting up the choice will make your audience lean in to hear what happened.
  • The key to motivation is understanding that values inspire action through emotion. Our values are the least interesting part about us. What’s interesting is the way those values come to life through our life experiences, and how they have helped us forward -- or held us back. As leaders, the reason we tell stories is to mobilize the emotions that create urgency and action. Rather than telling someone what your values are, you show your values through the context of your story.

There’s a simple exercise you can use to build your first Strategically Vulnerable story. First, start by thinking of a powerful choice you made in your life. What was a key moment when you turned to your values to decide what you should do? The choice can be about something profound or about something that seems relatively benign. All that matters is that the choice was difficult for you. Difficult choices naturally create audience interest.

Next, construct your story around this simple story structure, used by the Public Narrative model of leadership and organizing: challenge, choice, outcome.

  1. What was the challenge you faced that demanded a choice?
  2. What was the choice you made? Why? How did it feel?
  3. What was the outcome of the choice? What did it teach you?

Once you have the general structure of this story organized, set the timer on your phone for exactly two minutes and try to tell the story to fit this time frame. At first, this is going to feel really, really awkward. Persist. After you tell a story a few times, you’ll naturally get a sense for the rhythm and timing, and what you should keep in and leave out.

Once you’re comfortable, ask a friend to come and give you feedback on the way you tell the story. Don’t be satisfied with unhelpful feedback like “that was good!” or “you’re a great storyteller!”. Instead, ask them to answer these specific questions:

  • Were the challenge, choice and outcome clear?
  • Were details and characters vivid in a way that revealed how you were feeling?
  • Which of your values were expressed through the story?
  • Could you as the listener resonate with these values?

At first, it may seem tedious to spend so much work on one two-minute anecdote about your life. But storytelling is like all creative work: you get better at it as you practice. I approach storytelling with the same iterative philosophy used in Design Thinking and Agile Development: design, empathize, prototype, test and repeat. As you become better at the process, you’ll find it easier to apply the same process to other stories.

Using your strategically vulnerable story in a workplace context

What do you do once you’ve practiced your story? In the workplace, there are many opportunities for storytelling that go beyond making a speech. For example, you could tell your story when onboarding a new employee, when talking about your work at a networking event or as a way of connecting and inspiring a team before an important meeting.

The truth is, every time someone asks you how you came to do what you do, you’re already “telling a story,” even if all you’re doing is listing off a chronological timeline of your past jobs. By shifting your mindset to “crafting a narrative”, you can more effectively create emotional experiences in your audience, engendering empathy and creating connection.

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