In the run-up to last June’s Brexit referendum, J.K. Rowling wrote a brilliant piece about storytelling:
“I’m not an expert on much, but I do know how to create a monster,” she began, going on to say that all political campaigns tell stories and that one side in the referendum — the Leave side — had worked especially hard to create monsters, or villains.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, writing a day after the vote was taken, explained the outcome by saying the populist Leave side had told its story better than the political center — the Remain side — had:
“The political center has lost its power to persuade and its essential means of connection to the people it seeks to represent.”
He didn’t say that Leave had a better story. He said they told it better.
In politics the spoils often go to the best storyteller.
I’ve found that in leadership in general, the best storytellers make the most effective leaders.
Beginning, middle, and end
A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. For many leaders, including politicians, the beginning and the middle are simply a recap of the listeners’ current circumstances.
The end, in politics, is often about the bad things that will ensue if you vote for the other side. (Enter the monsters.) In true leadership, the end is about the good things that will happen if you follow me, or if we work together.
An emotional connection
A story makes an emotional connection with the listeners. Too often in today’s politics that connection is rooted in fear. In leadership the best connections are rooted in shared hopes and in a sense of cohesion, of belonging. We’re in this together, and together we’ll succeed.
Linking technical writing and leadership
Several of us, notably Mark Baker, have pointed out that storytelling is essential to technical writing as well. We guide our readers from a beginning point through a set of steps (the middle) to the desired outcome (end).
We try to connect emotionally with our readers: gaining their confidence, reassuring them as they move through the steps, and congratulating them when they finish.
Does it follow, then, that technical writers have an edge when it comes to being good leaders? I think it does, as long as we remember that we’re storytellers and that our calling is to help people meet their goals.
What do you think? If you’re a technical writer who became a leader, did you find that your skill at the one helped you succeed in the other?
What’s your leadership story?
Update, 30 June 2016: My colleague Ray Gallon has broken down the “Leave” story in detailed and illuminating fashion. Highly recommended: The Morning After: Brexit of Champions.