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SLA 2009: Transformational Leadership – Inspirational Language

Slightly less early start on Tuesday as my first session didn’t start until 9.30. I spent the morning listening to Steve Denning on “Transformational Leadership: Inspirational Language”. Steve began the session by warning us that what we were about to hear would be controversial, perhaps even disturbing – a rather ominous start! He described the problem of confirmation bias – the fact that people like to hear things which confirm what they already believe, and will find ingenious ways of dismissing anything that doesn’t fit with their existing world view, not matter how compelling the evidence. This is an emotional reaction, rather than a product of rational thought. He promised to use the session to teach us techniques to inspire enthusiasm and persuade cynical, unreceptive audiences of a message, by engaging with this emotional response.

He described the basic steps as:

  1. Get attention
  2. Stimulate desire for change (to counteract the confirmation bias)
  3. Reinforce with reason
  4. …Profit! (OK, Steve didn’t say that. Sorry, couldn’t resist…)

The basic premise was that the best way to communicate an idea was through storytelling: a narrative can communicate a complex idea and spark action. Steve suggested beginning with a story about how you coped with adversity, or describing the audiences problems in the starkest terms possible (“you know how bad you think this is? Well it’s WORSE!!”); emphasising that a negative tone is important at the start to grab your audiences attention and demonstrate that you understand and are qualified to talk about their issues. He called this “springboard storytelling”: using a story to make a point. We were also given some “rules” to follow – stories must:

  • Be true (and not just factually accurate – he gave some examples of Al Gore being caught out telling anecdotes which were factually accurate, but skewed as to give a misleading impression)
  • Be positive and plausible
  • End well – this is crucial: your story can begin with a negative tone, but must show a positive outcome
  • Be minimal – strip out any unnecessary detail

I wanted to include a link to the presentation here, which was apparently going to be put up on the LMD website, but I can’t seem to find them yet. I will keep an eye out, and add in a link here if they do show up: Steve said an awful lot more than I’ve reported here, and I think it would be really useful for people to see the actual presentation if they have an interest. If anyone else finds them somewhere, please do let me know. Cheers!


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