"Let's Tell Stories" - How to Build Connections That Last

I remember when I was growing up in the 80s the major technology every kid wanted was the little orange coloured hand held game called Donkey Kong. If you were lucky enough to have it, you’d be glued to it at every opportunity.

I remember being dragged along to parties, to dinners, going on trips; but it didn’t matter where I was, if I had Donkey Kong, I would be blissfully occupied. I would zone in on jumping rolling barrels and eating bananas. It also ensured I was disconnected from the world around me.

Fast forward 30 years and I am on the way to work, and the bus was full with grown adults playing Donkey Kong. Well, that’s what it looked like. These days we’ve replaced our kid game consoles for grown up smart phones. And while they do keep us entertained, they are also keeping us disconnected.

Technology can’t love us back

I was recently chatting with Joanne Woo, VP of Communications for GE Australia, who commented that, “We’ve fallen in love with things that can’t love us back. We place more importance on phones than we do with each other.”

And this is a problem that is slowly creeping into our lives. We run the risk of losing the ability to truly connect with one another.

“Humans are designed to connect – it’s how we learn and grow – without it we don’t have a process of discovery to create lasting perspectives. We end up in isolation, being stuck in your own echo-chamber.”

Today’s Leaders who lead with connection matter more than ever
The world has shifted, and with it effective leadership. The internet has open-sourced knowledge to the point it is now a commodity that anyone can access easily and freely.

The old saying ‘knowledge is power’ has become redundant, at least in context to leadership. In the past, a leader held great insights and knowledge in their heads, and it put them in a position of power. Now, even the most junior member of the team can access that knowledge within a few minutes of searching online.

Great leaders, however, have always been set apart by their ability to connect with others. Connection has always defined great leadership, even if it’s been overshadowed by the love of knowledge for a few hundred years.

With knowledge now an easily accessible commodity, the timeless truth that ‘connection is power’ is now being amplified more than ever before.

I like how Joanne put it, “What’s the difference between a leader today and Google? It’s not knowledge, it’s the ability to connect.”

If you want to be a great leader, don’t try to compete with google. Find your courage, embrace your authenticity, put down your smart phone, and connect with your team.

How we connect

Before the rise of the industrial revolution, humans communicated through stories. This is how trust was developed. It was how we evaluated authenticity. It was how we created a bond with one another. Information was passed on through narrative.

When the industrial revolution took place, narrative was replaced with numbers. When you are constructing buildings and bridges, and other mighty man-made wonders, numbers are very important. But the shift did more than just change the way we valued data.

The industrial revolution effectively turned humans into robots, doing the same task over and over. In our modern marketplace, the artificial intelligence revolution is pushing us back to leverage our inherently human traits. The reason is simple. Humans make lousy robots compared to actual robots that are now entering the workforce.

So if we want to work with more of our human strengths, we need to communicate through stories, not stats. We need to communicate with narrative, because that’s the way human’s actually connect and build meaningful relationships, and from there build meaningful projects together.

A moment of clarity, change, and true connection

Five years ago, Joanne was watching with concern as the next speaker began their presentation. Another financial report? Another jumbo sized screen with a list of tiny bullet points? Was this really the way GE Australia planned on kicking off the year? She could feel the disconnect, but that didn’t stop each speaker from delivering one slide deck of data after the next.

Reluctantly, she turned and looked back from the front row and faced a sea of glazed over eyeballs. Their bodies were in the room, but their focus somewhere else entirely. The speakers were sharing content with the audience, but it wasn’t enough. Joanne knew things had to be different. They were going through the biggest transformation in the company’s 125-year history and needed to drive seismic cultural change.

What the employees actually needed, was to feel connected. They needed to be inspired by what GE was planning. They needed to feel the vision, not just hear about the technicalities.

When the leadership team debriefed later that week, Joanne spoke up:

“We can’t run things like this again. It’s not working. The staff are going back to their desks uninspired.”

When pressed as to a better alternative, she said, “Let’s tell stories instead. Not show data, but get staff to tell stories – lets invite them to present, and work with them to develop their storytelling skills. Let’s empower the staff to share stories about what they’ve seen in the field, stories about the work they are doing that’s making a difference in the lives of others; let’s empower our staff to connect with one another, and bring across GE’s vision in a more intuitively human way.”

The leadership agreed, and Joanne was given the lead to turn their next kick off event into a storytelling events. That’s what Joanne and her team did, flipping the road show on its head, renaming it GE Live, and focusing on employee storytelling. The results were also flipped for the better.

Feedback from the event showed that 95% of employees agreed that GE Live inspired them to win in tough markets, 95% employees agreed that GE Live made them feel proud to work at GE, and 98% employees agreed they would attend future events. All this happened with no traditional presentations, no data showcasing, and no long and detailed PowerPoint presentations. It came through making storytelling the central mode of communication and bringing employees into the centre of those stories.

In the following weeks, emails continue to pour into Joanne and her team.

“Amazing stories from our employees, I was very proud of them & to be part of GE.”

“Speakers were exceptional - each in their own way. The personal nature of their stories, delivered with genuine conviction was refreshing and different.”

“Consistent and clear messaging, appropriate for the times we find ourselves in and kept it “real”.

“This is the GE I want to work for.”

“Amazing speakers - the best I’ve ever seen in GE or at any event. Clear messaging, real stories and extremely well prepped to help bring out such amazing stories in just 10 minutes each. Well done - we need to do more of this!”

It became clear to the leadership of GE that if they wanted to communicate their strategy effectively to their employees, they didn’t need more data, they needed more genuine connection, and the way to achieve that was through narrative, not numbers. They discovered the magic of connection was not created by the metrics they presented, but in the stories they shared.

So, what’s the difference between a leader and Google?

The answer is not knowledge, it’s human connection.

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