Mike Sergeant is an author, consultant and international leadership communications adviser. He provides media training, pubic speaking training, reputation advice and PR strategy for world-leading corporations and globally prominent individuals.
Leadership is often thought of as a set of skills that ambitious executives and business owners should seek to acquire. Yes, there are some important techniques to master if you want to be a good public speaker or perform well on video. But far more significant is the strategic story you tell… and the coaching that will help you find and deliver it.
Leaders need to show who they are, what they value and where they are going. They need to set the tone, the destination and the direction. Their personal story and the story of the business must come together into something authentic, credible and commercially powerful.
Often the stories are left to the PR, comms and marketing people, whilst the leadership skills are in the hands of an army of coaches and trainers. The magic happens when you combine them: bring the story to the heart of the strategy. Then empower the leaders to deliver it.
The best stories are human stories. They are about people. Stories about companies, organisations and governments only take us so far. We usually want to know about the human beings leading them, and the people they serve.
In my experience of over 20 years as a BBC correspondent and communications consultant, I’ve thought a lot about why some individuals cut through and others drift in obscurity.
As a reporter, I interviewed presidents, prime ministers and global CEOs. Now I’m fortunate enough to advise some of the most senior business leaders in the world. So, what are the secrets to powerful leadership communication?
Two themes come up time and time again. The first is that stories are essential for effective PR, marketing, communication and leadership. Through stories, our species was able to mobilise over tens of thousands of years and achieve a dominant position on earth. Our brains are wired for storytelling. Those with the ability to tell the most powerful stories have hacked the path of history.
The second theme is that stories are about characters. It’s hard to find riveting stories about artificial constructs or legal entities. We want someone to play the lead role, and others to join the supporting cast. PR comes unstuck when the human element goes missing.
So, the challenge for any PR, comms or marketing campaign is this: does it make the business more human? Are we telling a story that’s going to work for an audience of real human beings?
Sounds obvious? I can tell you from my experience working on both sides of the TV lens that it’s amazing how frequently the human bit goes AWOL in the business world. Either the spokesperson doesn’t sound like a human being. Or the ‘key messages’ are robotic and clunky. Or the ‘PR strategy’ is an ‘engagement grid’ or ‘stakeholder map’, with no organic and characterful story.
To my mind, Leadership and Communications are inseparable disciplines. PR only really works well when the CEO understands that they need to be the Chief Story Officer. They must personally authorise and enable the business story creation and delivery. Plus, they have to be able to articulate it – in pitches, speeches, media interviews, videos and articles.
In my new book PR for Humans: how business leaders tell powerful stories, I uncover the principles of effective leadership communication and weave them together with my own stories. From the corridors of Westminster to the war zones of the Middle East, I’ve been searching for the most potent storytelling secrets.
None of this is to say that technology is irrelevant. Far from it. As digital tools become more powerful, and data creation accelerates, the most effective PR people will be the ones who can master the analytics and measure their activities accurately. But it will be the union of high-speed, high-tech story propagation with timeless human story creation and ownership that will deliver exponentially powerful results.
My message to business leaders – tell better stories as well as utilising new PR technology.
My message to businesses and their advisers – embrace human storytelling and the most advanced digital tools.
Robots will never beat us on storytelling. Because they can’t know what it is to be human. And stories will always be about that deeper connection to the nature of our species. But without the machines, we can’t make sense of this vast universe of code that we’ve created or try to navigate it.
And if you want to be a better, more credible leader, then the work usually starts with finding a clearer, more powerful story – for you and your business.
Rita Vicari | Unsplash