Congratulations on your appointment as IBM’s CEO. I’m looking forward to seeing how the company changes under your wise guidence.
I’m writing this letter because I’ve just read the transcript of your interview at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit held last year. I hope you don’t think this too bold but I would like to make some suggestions on how you could make even better use of stories in your public presentations.
It was interesting to note that on the news of your appointment the Fortune interview was reported in Harvard Business Blogs and The New York Times and in both cases they led with the story of how you were offered a senior role and how you asked the recruiter if you could think about it. When you told your husband that night he listened and just said, “Do you think a man would have ever answered that question that way?” It got you thinking about the importance of self-confidence.
What was interesting for me was that this story was right at the end of the interview in the Q&A session, yet that was snippet most attractive to the journalists. Imagine the additional impact your talk could have had if you added other anecdotes through-out your talk.
Let me start by saying that you seem to have a natural style for sharing stories. You’re relaxed, willing to have a laugh and poke some fun at yourself. This conversational style is appealing. It’s easy to listen to. So with that as a great base where are the opportunities for stories?
When Jessi asked you what was different at IBM between when you joined and now there was an opportunity to tell two stories: first to recount a specific incident in the early years that, say, illustrated the idea of inclusion and then tell a contrasting anecdote from the present. People really like stories they can see in their mind’s eye. So when you told your husband story we could all see your husband saying what he said. Our visual sense, even if only triggered in our mind, is our strongest sense and this is one of the reasons why stories, especially visual stories, are so memorable.
When you were talking about the simple things you do to engage your people, such as asking everyone’s opinion when they don’t speak up and then asking people what they think of that idea–which is a fabulous approach for a senior leader–there was an opportunity to tell a story which would start something like “you know, these small actions can have a big impact. I remember being in our board room with Lou and Sam …” We also love stories about people in power and celebrities. Everyone would have been on the edge of their seat wanting to hear what happened next.
As a general rule whenever you share an opinion like “Go and make a new market” people are waiting to hear a story of how you helped IBM do that. Stories share information as experience unlike opinion that shares information as fact. We learn best from experience.
It’s true that throughout the interview you shared many narrative snippets such as the reference to the tough times in the ’80s. The difference between these high-level narratives and a cracking story is a matter of detail. Memorable stories are moments that we can relive with the storyteller.
Anyway, that is probably enough from me. All the best with your new job and I’m hoping to discover a year from now a transcript from another one of your presentations laden with great stories.
About Shawn Callahan
Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on: