In a brilliant new HBO documentary, the US behavioural economist Dan Ariely muses on the leadership qualities most likely to inspire others to follow. “It isn’t about data,” he notes. “People don’t get too motivated by data and facts.”
The magic ingredient, it turns out, is storytelling. “Stories have emotions that data doesn’t,” explains Ariely. “And emotions get people to do all kinds of things.”
Marketing leaders will prick up their ears. First, because marketing departments tend to be big, diffuse and populated by individuals with strongly-held, divergent opinions, so any insight from the behavioural sciences on how to get everyone pointing in the same direction is welcome.
And second, because storytelling is already a marketing ‘thing’: it has become fashionable in our commercial domain to lionise its power of persuasion over the rational and factual. For us, it fits.
A little caution might be advised, however. In the documentary, Ariely is just one of a suite of experts and commentators seeking to make sense of how a former high-flying silicon valley entrepreneur, Elizabeth Holmes, had duped not just the investment community but towering figures like Henry Kissinger and George Schulz into backing her doomed, blood-analytics venture, Theranos.
Great marketers don’t just work out what the world is missing, but determine the pathway, with as much specificity as necessary, to ensure that it gets delivered.
Holmes was compelling. If you start from the classical definition of narrative form – a sympathetic character overcomes tremendous obstacles to achieve a desirable goal – she displayed a mastery of three of the four implied components.
She was impassioned on the ‘what’: a tiny, pin-prick sample rather than the “torture” of a venous draw.
She was inspiring on the ‘why’: to make blood-taking so much simpler and calmer that even those with needle-phobia, like her, would get tests regularly and lives would be saved.
And she embodied the ‘who’ – a young, focused, preternaturally sympathetic character, who slept five hours a day and seemingly devoted the rest to ensuring Theranos would make the world a healthier place.
Where she was sketchy was the ‘how’. What exactly was the technology that could overcome the tremendous obstacles implied by the laws of physics? Ken Auletter, a New Yorker journalist who interviewed her for a piece in 2014, describes her answers as “comically vague”.
Holmes deflected the criticism by citing the need for commercial secrecy. The truth was that neither she nor anyone else working with her had found a way to deliver what the startup promised. Theranos was a sham. The black-turtlenecked woman on the cover of Fortune in 2014, worth $4.5bn, is now worth zero and facing trial for fraud.
Stories of the future
Our industry, Silicon Valley and perhaps behavioural economists too, have a tendency to play fast and loose with the concept of storytelling. The divide that is casually glossed over is the one between retrospective and prospective viewpoints.
Most stories, whether fiction or fact, are told retrospectively: this and that happened. In this format, the ‘how’ is often the engine of the piece, the part that compels, because whatever the character or entity is trying to achieve looks to be impossible and you want to learn by what means they pull it off.
Business and leadership storytelling, conversely, tends to lean into the prospective: this and that is going to happen. We’re going to make it so. But it’s often left there, with the ‘how’ a skimpy outline, not much more than an afterthought.
This is more like a vision than a story but it can work well enough at first. A leader can stand up at a global conference and evoke the narrative of a brand that has been unfairly knocked back, but will fight and muscle its way not just back to where it was but to the very top – and get a rapt response. Especially when it’s all accompanied by a noisy brand video.
To be a rank-and-file member of that audience asking, ‘Yes, but how will we do that exactly?’ is to risk accusations of negativity. Those are details. They’re for later. Let’s focus on big-picture stuff here today.
Yet, if the Theranos debacle teaches us anything, it is that the blinkered emphasis on ends over means can abruptly turn leaders into losers – and take the rest of us down with them.
Real storytellers do not merely tease with the ‘who’, ‘what’ and ‘why’ – but illuminate, surprise and excite with the ‘how’.
Later in the documentary, another commentator ventures that while Holmes might have been a flawed entrepreneur she was “a great sales marketer” – as though marketing is all persuasion and no delivery.
It isn’t and she wasn’t. Great marketers don’t just work out what the world is missing, but determine the pathway, with as much specificity as necessary, to ensure that it gets delivered – for the betterment of both consumer and business.
That means confronting detail early on – and communicating it. Ariely is both right and wrong in his dismissal of data as something to get people motivated. Of course it is uninspiring if it’s presented as just a series of numbers and facts. But what if they are joined up as a vital part of the narrative, such that there would be no storyline without them?
The location of the most vulnerable point on the human skull is data. The minimum force required to fell a 6ft 9in male with a blow to that point is data. The optimum trajectory to land a stone of a given size there from a given distance is data. Combined, they form the most memorable part – the ‘how’ – of David and Goliath.
The leaders we deserve
We should be automatically suspicious of leaders who leave out the ‘how’ of their prospective storyline, since they are voluntarily sacrificing the meatiest bit. Does it mean they have no idea of how stories work, or that they simply have no idea how the glorious future state they describe can be brought about?
But storytelling isn’t a unilateral pursuit. It is made possible only by the willing participation of the listener. If we want better leaders – whether of a team, department or the whole organisation – we need to become more critical listeners.
We need to have the courage to call out those who seek to leap directly from tricky beginning to happy ending, in the way we would lampoon a work of fiction where things suddenly work out for the protagonist with implausible convenience.
It’s hard enough to be a marketer, without adding the rigours of leadership and storytelling on top. Those who want to reach the heights need to embrace the realities of that ambition.
Real marketers never confuse vision for strategy. Real leaders are unafraid of detail and data. And real storytellers do not merely tease with the ‘who’, ‘what’ and ‘why’ – but illuminate, surprise and excite with the ‘how’.