How to Change the World

Margret Mead famously said, “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Changing the world seems a heady pursuit, but it can start with a powerful idea. And when that idea is indeed put forth, it can inspire and compel people to change.

We all have ideas.  I can think of many encounters with colleagues who said “they should do it this way” or “if only we could . . ”  or “why don’t they . . .”     We have ideas for things that  are worthy of being drawn out of us and presented before others with the express purpose of influencing the way they  think, feel or act.   That, by the way, is XLC’s working definition for leadership.  It really is less about exerting control over others, and more about finding ways to capture their attention and imagination so as to galvanize this energy into productive action.

Think about it . . . the notion that one simple idea, if communicated in a way that resonates with others can start the process of meaningful change is exciting!     If you can find the right way to explain your idea, you CAN change your world.

So to us, this means that having the ability to communicate an idea through the spoken word (or, God forbid, yet another PowerPoint presentation) is a pretty important and fundamental skill set.     Not surprisingly, this is a common topic that we are asked to deliver to a growing number of organizations through our Influencing Without Authority, or a variety of programs offered by Dr. Tom Clark or Laurie Brown.

These communication arts focusing on written, spoken, or presentation skills are core building blocks to leadership success in our professional and personal lives.  Whether you are in a selling situation, trying to get your boss to support your new idea, trying to change the way your team works, getting the organization to adopt a new process or system, or trying to teach one of your children some of life’s lessons, we need the ability to engage people in powerful ways.

So how do you present ideas in ways that make it possible to change the world?  Here are some important points.

Context matters more than content.   This is a hard one for engineers, scientists and MBA’s who were trained that their data and analysis should speak for themselves.  Yet countless studies have suggested that HOW you say it matters much more than WHAT you say.  Some research suggests that speaker effectiveness is as high as 97% based on context vs. 3% from content.  Yikes!   That doesn’t mean that your content can be poor, but it does mean that in order for your content to be received, you need to get people to listen and absorb it.

Seek emotional triggers.   Influence is ALL about emotions.  Evidence suggests that even scientific and financial people make decisions mainly on EMOTION, and then seek to justify them with data after the fact.   Again, this may seem counter intuitive but if you “search your heart” you will likely acknowledge that this is also true.   So our communication strategy must look for ways to make emotional connections with our audience.  How do you do this?

Tell Stories.   One way is through story telling.  This works because it is personal, adds a degree of humanity to our argument, when an audience member can identify with the situation or emotion described in your story, it touches them at an emotional level.   Stories are useful communication tools because they can uniquely do more than convey a set of facts.  They can also reflect a point of view, set of values, and an emotional context that relates with the right side of a listener’s brain.    Connecting to both the left side (with facts and data) and right side (with emotional force) deepens the communication impact greatly.

(A colleague of mine has built a highly successful business teaching the art of Corporate Storytelling to technologists.  He helps left brain specialists see how to connect to the right hemisphere of their audience. )

Use imagery and metaphors. This is another way to affect people’s emotional states.  Our emotions are more impacted by the use of imagery (perhaps in music, pictures, or videos) and metaphors which trigger all kinds of imagery in the back of our brains.  When you look at great speeches in history (like Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the Washington Mall, he used repetition, metaphorical phrases, text from familiar songs (like Spirituals and God Bless America – that many in the audience had sung themselves) and Scripture passages (that also were familiar) as communications tools to connect with his audience (with our entire country, in fact) at a deeply personal level. (You can read the speech here).  These communication strategies impact the listener at a subconscious level and moves them–even without their being aware of it.

Have a Storyline.  Speech consultant Nancy Duarte has analyzed hundreds of speeches and concludes that the best among them follow a predictable pattern.  They tell a story in a kind of predictable (and teachable) way.    One common format for such storytelling follows this structure:

  • There is a likeable hero, who
  • Encounters roadblocks and challenges, and is
  • Transformed for the better

In this pattern of story, the hero is not only likeable; they need to be someone WE ourselves would like to emulate.   The transformation needs to describe how we also would like to see ourselves be.

Here is an example.

I sometimes tell a story of an elementary school principal I once met in the inner city of Detroit.   Her school faced every stereotypical challenge you imagine from an inner city school (single parent homes, poverty, drugs, gun violence, and corruption from the school district).   Yet Mabel Crawford (the principal) was a simple, passionate, motherly, energetic and dedicated person who led her team to produce student achievement scores that rivaled the wealthiest suburbs in the metro area.    This is powerful story because of the above factors.   We all would like to see ourselves in almost a David vs. Goliath situation, overcoming wickedness and evil to produce success for the innocents.   When people hear it, they immediately identify with Mabel, and want to be like her.  They recognize she is a mortal just like them, who through her hard work prevails under almost impossible situations.

Duarte also sees that the effective speech giver (storyteller) continually bounces back and forth between:

  •  The world as it is today, and
  • The world as if COULD BE

Each time the speaker toggles back and forth between the now and the world that could be, he or she makes the gap between the status quo and the desired future state large.  With each iteration between present and future one paints the status quo as increasingly untenable and the future state (which incorporates your big idea) as more desirable.

Here is an 18 minute TED talk by Nancy Duarte who makes a compelling case for how to present in a compelling, world-changing way.

If you watch this, pay particular attention to her slides, her use of imagery, and her telling of stories to convey the message.

Being a storyteller was once considered to be an important and enviable position throughout recorded history.  Through storytelling we share our history, define our values, desires, dreams as well as our prejudices and hatreds.  We used it to teach, and to inspire.   Being a storyteller once was revered.  Perhaps we should all pay attention to it again as an art form.   From the idea, through our stories, we can change the world.


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Filed under Leading, Personal Leadership

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