The secret is all in the tale you tell

First published in the Financial Times on 1st January 2013. 

The start of a new year is the ideal time to rewrite our personal scripts

What is the special secret that makes a great entrepreneur? I’ve spent decades working with them seeking the answer.

Perhaps it is not always the obvious traits such as ambition, willpower or diligence. Rather, the one talent that all such individuals possess is the power to motivate – to lead others in a grand task.

So how do they enthuse and encourage followers? A key ingredient is the ability to tell stories. The more compelling the storyteller, the more devoted the adherents.

From Benjamin Franklin the printer and statesman, to Akio Morita at Sony, to Herb Kelleher at Southwest Airlines, each one in their own way connected with stakeholders by sharing a vision, and thereby enlisted staff, suppliers, bankers, investors and customers in a joint undertaking. These were not spin masters but brilliant advocates who caught people’s imaginations and won both their hearts and minds.

Effective politicians also have the ability to weave tales and convince voters to support their dreams. Like successful religious leaders and entrepreneurs, they understand the importance of the narrative we construct for ourselves and others.

Entrepreneurs know that we are each authors of our own script, and can change it if we summon enough determination. I’ve met many self-made men and women, and all of them have imagined their own journey. They are not fantasists but practical people who have invented a life for themselves – and persuaded others to help them achieve it.

We all grew up listening to stories: they are the way we learn about the world, and why we love entertainment such as the theatre, books, films and television drama. People and organisations which represent an authentic experience are more likely to forge a bond with the public – be they a manager giving staff directions or a brand promoted with brilliant advertising.

Storytelling lies behind much of what every entrepreneur does. A start-up must pitch to investors for money: the founders create a story around their new business, capturing the attention of backers.

Crafting a narrative also plays a crucial part in negotiations – for a job, a promotion, a big order, the sale of a company. Buyers need to become emotionally involved with the tale and it is hard to achieve real engagement with people via reams of spreadsheets.

For an account to be real it should be given first hand, not digitally. Only when an audience feels what you say will it have maximum impact.

Similarly, if I’m about to give a speech about entrepreneurship, I always feel more confident if the previous speaker’s presentation is full of PowerPoint slides and statistics. My talk will be a contrast. I prefer to capture a crowd with anecdotes of struggles won and lost on the battlefields of capitalism – without presentation props. What matters are plot, delivery, generating tension and the right climax.

There are a number of books on this topic: my favourite is called Tell to Win by Peter Guber, the Hollywood mogul whose credits as a producer include Rain Man. His whole career has developed from his flair for telling stories – be it pitching an idea for a film, raising finance, or getting partners on board his projects. He is not just a writer – he has been there and done it.

The daily news is the opposite of what I describe above: it tends to be devoid of heroes and positive endings, and much more likely to be full of disaster, conflict, violence and crime. Rolling news channels and the digital revolution mean the exposure and pitch of headlines are more intense than ever.

We cannot influence any of these events, unlike our own stories. So I recommend that readers avoid too much news and focus instead on cultivating their own narratives.

Accomplished entrepreneurs learn to master the art of storytelling, and realise that it is a vital tool for inspiring teams into action. One of my resolutions for 2013 is to get better at it. The start of a new year is the ideal time to rewrite our personal scripts – add a dash more hope and optimism perhaps, some fresh goals, a few worthwhile self-improvements and a vow to approach 2013 with a positive attitude – towards our work, our colleagues, our friends and family.

Every winning storyteller knows that the best tales are uplifting, and full of confidence in the future.