You may have heard of Sheryl Sandberg. She’s the COO of Facebook and in 2010 she was invited to give a talk at TED – the conference where thought-leaders share their one big idea. She decided to call it Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders.
“I was planning to give a speech chock full of facts and figures, and nothing personal,” Sandberg recently acknowledged.
So far, so predictable. Had she gone on to give that talk, it probably would have been well-received, but not much more than that. What happened next was that, shortly before taking to the stage, Sandberg admitted to a friend that she wasn’t feeling too good. Just before leaving home, her daughter had grabbed her leg and said, “Don’t go.”
Sandberg’s friend suggested she tell the story in her talk. Sandberg’s initial reaction was to dismiss the idea. But then she realised that, if she really wanted to encourage more women into leadership roles she would have to be open, honest and vulnerable. And so she began her TED talk thus:
“I left San Francisco, where I live, on Monday, and I was getting on the plane for this conference. And my daughter, who’s three, when I dropped her off at preschool, did that whole hugging-the-leg, crying, ‘Mommy, don’t get on the plane’ thing. This is hard. I feel guilty sometimes. I know no women, whether they’re at home or whether they’re in the workforce, who don’t feel that sometimes.”
Sandberg quickly realised something I have known for a long time. That the best way to connect with an audience on an emotional level is through the power of personal story.
The result of her last-minute addition to her TED talk was not only a book (Lean In), but also a non-profit organisation that helps women build the confidence and know-how to achieve their goals.
Sandberg continued to tell stories when she was writing her book. She says: “I wrote a first chapter and thought it was fabulous. It was chock-full of data and figures. My husband read it and said, ‘This is like eating your Wheaties. No one will read this book.’ And I realised through the process that I had to be more honest and more open, and I had to tell my stories.”
OK, we’re not all billionaire Facebook chief executives but there’s a lesson here for us all. We may think leadership is about achievement, expertise, credentials, performance and results. And it may indeed be all of those things. But surely at the heart of leadership is how you got there – your personal journey and how you overcame obstacles along the way.
Going back to TED for a moment, Carmine Gallo – the author of a new book called Talk Like TED - analysed 500 of the most popular TED talks and discovered that stories make up at least 65 per cent of the content of the most successful TED presentations. That’s a remarkable statistic that cannot be dismissed or ignored.
So, next time you are tempted to put together a PowerPoint presentation full of mind-numbing statistics and information, tell a personal story instead. And remember the words of Brene Brown, who starred in one of TED’s most popular talks of all time: “Stories are just data with a soul.”
I’d go further than that and say that heartfelt, authentic, powerful personal stories are the soul speaking.
How are you telling your leadership story? What stories are you telling yourself about leadership?
Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for a free half-hour session of one-to-one story archaeology to start digging for your leadership story.
This blog was inspired by Carmine Gallo’s article on Forbes.com.