Helping CEOs Tell Their Story
I conducted an online session for a group of wonderful students today. My topic was “Helping CEOs Tell Their Story”. I do this every day as a corporate storyteller. But this time I started the session by asking them to pick and discuss a single piece of CEO communication they had found impactful. They chose from communication across different formats — speeches, articles, tweets, bylines, and even interviews. Steve Jobs and Elon Musk came up many times. We also had the usual suspects like Sundar Pichai, Indra Nooyi, and Mark Zuckerberg. There were common threads in the pieces the students had selected. Each of these messages was authentic, inspiring, and memorable. This is what every storyteller hopes to achieve for their CEO every day.
So how do we help CEOs tell their story? It is expected for you to be a great writer. But there is also so much more. This is about the nuts and bolts I use to get it right.
Know your Audience. Know Your CEO. It’s important to understand your audience to pitch your message. What do they want to hear about? What style works better for them? See the difference in the way Steve Jobs frames a commencement address versus an Apple keynote. Yet the consistent factor is high engagement because he is always tuned in to his audience. It’s also important to understand what your CEO needs. Sometimes you may have to play a consultative role, sharing the trends and the best ideas shaping your industry. You are a facilitator of the story. At other times, you may have to play a more hands-on role in framing the content. Your job is to always ensure the best stories are told.
Engage your CEO. Too much corporate storytelling suffers from a lack of involvement from CEOs. As a corporate storyteller, it’s also your role to engage your CEO. You need to seek out, find, and then truly believe in the significance of the story you are telling. Convey your passion to your CEO. Connect the dots between past, present, and future stories. If there isn’t a compelling reason to be telling this story, your CEO should not be telling it. You shouldn’t be either.
Record, two times. Actually, it’s best to record many times. It’s the most basic rule you learn as a non-fiction writer. Yet it’s also the most ignored one. But you forget this role at your own peril. I remember successfully setting up an interview with Sabeer Bhatia shortly after he set up Hotmail. It was a big interview at that time. The only problem was I discovered my recorder hadn’t been working after the interview. It taught me the importance of recording twice. Now I always have a digital recording, but I also make notes on paper as if there is no recording. This has proved to be helpful many times and helped to make me a more involved interviewer.
Write simply. Write correctly. When you are putting down your first draft, don’t aim for perfection. You are more likely to be judged by your ability to put ideas to paper, quickly. I have learned the greatest ideas are sometimes the simplest. But this is not to be confused with a lack of depth. And not checking for typos remains inexcusable.
Use feedback. The best stories are sometimes made in the second and third drafts. Don’t be discouraged when you receive negative feedback from your CEO. That’s better than no feedback. It’s what you do with the feedback that matters. The best CEOs understand creating communication is a collaborative process. The perfect story often emerges through a process of consultation.