Never before in recent history have the communication skills of leaders been more important.
Since the coronavirus pandemic hit the world in early 2020, people from every walk of life and in every corner of the globe have struggled to understand what on earth was going on. We had no framework, no reference point, no practiced skills, knowledge or experience to navigate a pandemic that would rend the very fabric of our communities.
The shock and the fear was deep and wide. The shock waves and trauma are still around and going nowhere soon.
Households and workplaces scrambled hungrily for information from any source; what was really going on? Whose information could we trust? Social media, news media, our friends, our families, political or workplace leaders, our spiritual leaders, our fathers, our mothers, our sons or daughters? How could we tell what was true? Even now, what sources do we trust?
Can we trust science? Who has a hidden agenda?
Sharply contrasting communication styles have emerged. There was blame, attack, metaphors about battles, fights and war. There were also appeals to calm, unity and working together, metaphors such as ‘bubbles’. New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, whether you agree with her politics or not, was lauded by leaders from the right and the left for her excellent communication skills, and these centred around her powerful use of metaphor to tell a story.
Research shows on average we all use up to six metaphors every minute every day. Our lives and our communication is (to use yet another metaphor) riddled with metaphor.
They can have immense power and influence. Neuroscientists have found that substituting power verbs and metaphors can dramatically influence us in our experiences and decision making and how we see the truth. For example if we substitute the world ‘collision’ for ‘smash’ when witnessing a car ‘incident’ people’s estimates of how fast a vehicle is travelling can change dramatically. If the word ‘smash’ is used people estimate a higher speed, if the word collision is used they estimate a lower speed, unconsciously. As we are awash (another metaphor again for drama and emphasis!) with endless notifications across social news media, TV, radio, audio, video, politicians, community leaders, neighbours and friends, navigating what is true and what is not is immensely challenging.
Sometimes even what might appear to be quite harmless metaphors can create fear and disempower. Talk of ‘waves’ of the pandemic can give a sense that it will be a never-ending force with no end. Contrast this with the use of a metaphor like ‘fire-fighting’ which can enable people to fell they have a sense of control over something that can be overcome.
There are pluses and minuses with the use of all metaphors. The most important thing is to be aware of their power and how you use them, and to change and adapt them for different circumstances.
Building story mojo with the use of metaphor is now a key tool in a 21st century leader’s tool kit.
There is an onus like never before on leaders to reflect deeply and clearly on the language they use, the stories they tell. What metaphors and stories are you using? Will they create fear, or calm? Will they call people to action, or disempower them?
In my upcoming workshop Story Mojo: Story Telling for Authentic Leadership we will explore metaphor and storytelling in depth. Join us to take your leadership communication to another level. http://www.andrewmelville.com/workshops/