It’s A Wonderful Life, brought to life by Frank Capra, was a box office flop when released. A now venerated story that has become a holiday classic, inspiring millions to fight through adversity, was originally a financial misfire. Still, It's A Wonderful Life may not be Capra’s most important film or his greatest contribution to the free world.
During WWII, Capra produced a series of documentary films called Why We Fight. While the U.S. had hundreds of thousands of soldiers going through training to enter World War II, many of them really didn’t understand what was at stake. Capra gave them clarity and resolve, which many soldiers needed in great measure given what they were about to face.
The most popular in that series was called Prelude To War. Franklin Roosevelt thought this film was so important that he wanted it released to the general public. Disney contributed motion graphics to the film that helped certain difficult concepts come to life. One animation sequence in the film shows two globes: one black and one white. If the Axis powers win, the black globe becomes reality. Freedom and hope give way to slavery and oppression. If the Allies win, the white globe becomes reality. Freedom flourishes and human dignity is preserved. The contrast was stark; American soldiers knew which globe they were fighting for.
Capra understood something that I believe all great leaders comprehend: There is a deep connection between storytelling, inspiring people to take action and connecting deeply with their “why” – why they do what they do.
When leaders tell the right stories at the right time and in the right way, they help create clarity and resolve in the people who follow them. But this is not at all an easy thing to do.
“Why” Is Not Enough
Simon Sinek’s book, Start With Why, shows how great leaders inspire action by connecting with people’s why. Great leaders are clear about their why and don’t veer from it.
But I’ve noticed that it’s not enough to simply have clarity about your why. To achieve meaningful outcomes in business, people have to be inspired. But becoming a powerful and effective storyteller is not simple.
Three Things You Must Master To Become An Effective Storyteller
To persuade others to take action, leaders use word-pictures – simple, short narratives that clearly communicate the why of a leader. But for these mini-narratives to be effective, you have to master three key things: when to tell a story, which story to tell, and how to tell it with the greatest impact.
When To Tell A Story
Business is not entertainment, unlike movies or television. Most of the time, workers don’t need or want stories. These can become a distraction and even disrupt a focused work environment.
The first principle to master in becoming an effective leader and storyteller is to know when to tell a story. Stories are most effective in big moments when something important is at stake.
Abraham Lincoln was a master at this. As illustrated in the film Lincoln, he would launch into a story in what appeared to be the most inopportune time. But his stories often led to a poignant point. What sometimes appeared to be a misdirect, as if Lincoln was not paying attention, usually resulted in a moment of impact.
Effective leaders have the ability to recognize big moments. They reserve their stories for these times so they have the greatest impact.
Which Story To Tell
Effective leaders also know which story to tell to fit a given moment. Lincoln had a penchant for telling humorous stories about his experiences with the common people he met as a circuit lawyer in frontier Illinois. His understanding of human nature caused him to see that two farmers arguing over who owned a cow had the same dynamics as two cabinet members arguing about who owned the support of factions in Congress.
In my experience, the best stories are applicable to a given situation but they create surprise and a feeling of coming out of left field – at first. The best stories are never quite on-the-nose. But they hit so hard in the end that there is no doubt as to their purpose.
How To Tell It With The Greatest Impact
The best storytellers have a certain style -- writers call this "voice." I believe this is an apt description because stories are an auditory experience. Listeners need to feel something for the story to make an impact on them.
This is why great leaders practice their storytelling. They learn to control pitch, tempo, pauses for dramatic effect and other elements of good verbal expression. But they also learn to engage their audience in non-verbal communication, such as body posture, hand movements, eye-contact and facial expression.
Most importantly, master storytellers follow good story structure – beginning, middle and end – no matter how much time they are allotted to speak. I have coached executives in how to tell certain stories in anywhere from one to 30 minutes. It’s the exact same story but it’s tailored to fit the time available.
Leaders need to inspire their workforce to take action and to do this with resolve, even when it might not be easy. Capra understood how stories do this more effectively than other forms of communication. When storytelling, inspiration and clarity about the why come together, great things happen.