Leap Year reflections on storytelling – Boris, skilled orator or not?

At the start of a new year and new decade, as part of what is naturally a reflective period, we may find ourselves reviewing and analysing the main events of the last era and what can be learned from them. It’s a time of renewal, allowing for a fresh start all round.This doesn’t just apply to us as individuals, but is something being done by organisations too. January is a time when many CEOs and companies turn their attention to how they are going to reach, stay connected to and deliver for, their key audiences, (e.g. their customers, partners, suppliers and employees). This is not just about defining objectives and targets, but also about having a real and gritty story that key stakeholder groups buy into.

We need look no further than Boris Johnson’s recent speeches immediately after the UK’s high-profile, and extremely divisive election, for an example of attention-grabbing storytelling. Love him or loathe him – and for many he is indeed Marmite, when Boris Johnson speaks, he tells a story that makes people sit up and take notice.

So how does he do it? In his post-election speech, we saw him skilfully use some simple (and some might argue perhaps slightly disingenuous) techniques:

  1. A strong opening
    “My friends, well we did it. We did it. We pulled it off didn’t we – we pulled it off, we broke the deadlock, we ended the gridlock, we smashed the roadblock”.
  1. Hard punchy language that replays the ask and clarifies the state of play
    “This election means that getting Brexit done is now the irrefutable, irresistible, unarguable decision of the British people. With this election I think we’ve put an end to all those miserable threats of a second referendum”.
  1. Energy, proactivity and momentum
    “…we will get Brexit done on time by the 31 January”.
    “No ifs, no buts, no maybes – leaving the European Union as one United Kingdom, taking back control of our laws, borders, money, our trade, immigration system, delivering on the democratic mandate of the people”.
  1. Use of colourful, powerful imagery
    “Time to put a sock in the megaphone, and give everybody some peace”.
  1. Clear priorities
    Creating a story around the key things that he knows matter to the audience, for example, massively increasing investment in the NHS and using emotive language to reinforce what he intends this to bring for everyone.
  1. Underpinned by compelling numbers
    • delivering 50,000 more nurses
    • 50 million more GP surgery appointments
    • 40 new hospitals
    • a long-term NHS budget enshrined in law, £650m extra every week.
  1. Reinforcing humility
    As with every other Prime Minister who has ever taken office, Boris was keen to demonstrate a degree of modesty.
    “I am humbled that you have put your trust in me and you have put your trust in us”.
    “I, and we, will never take your support for granted. I will make it my mission to work night and day, to work flat-out to prove you right in voting for me this time, and to earn your support in the future”.
  1. Descriptions to empathise with the audience – we know how you feel and don’t take anything for granted
    “You may only have lent us your vote; you may not think of yourself as a natural Tory. …your hand may have quivered over the ballot paper before you put your cross in the Conservative box, and you may intend to return to Labour next time round”.
  1. Interactive audience participation to engage
    He also used a questioning tactic to generate a reaction from the audience, one which probably only works on stage, or in a scenario like this, but which had the desired effect.
    And with this mandate and this majority, we will at last be able to do – what? (Audience: “Get Brexit done”.)
    You were paying attention.
    More police – how many? (Audience: “20,000”.)
    How many new hospitals? (Audience: “40”.)
  1. A pledge – we’re in it together, we’re here for you, at your service
    “You voted for all these things, and it is now this government, this people’s government, it is now our solemn duty to deliver on each and every one of those commitments”.
    “Those people want change. We cannot, must not – must not – let them down. In delivering change we must change too”.
    “We must recognise the incredible reality that we now speak as a One Nation Conservative party … for everyone … working for you, the British people”.
  1. Reminder of key messages/commitments
    “That is what we will now do, isn’t it? That is what we will now do. Let’s get out and get on with it. Let’s unite this country. Let’s spread opportunity to every corner of the UK with superb education, superb infrastructure, and technology”.
  1. Ending with a rallying, targeted call to action to ensure impact
    “Let’s get Brexit done. But first, my friends, let’s get breakfast done”.

He took more or less exactly the same style of communication and key messages to Sedgefield, previously a staunch Labour bastion, now having elected its first Conservative MP since 1931.

  • “I want the people in the North East to know that we in the Conservative Party, and I, will repay your trust. There is much more that we want to do to repay the trust of the people in the North East. We want to take our country forward by uniting and levelling up across our whole incredible United Kingdom”.
  • “Everything I do as your Prime Minister will be devoted to repaying that trust. First of all, to get Brexit done… and improve our fantastic National Health Service”.

It was understandable that Boris made a bee-line for this community just one week after his election victory. We saw him telling an emotive story, designed to appeal directly to his audience’s interests and including decisive statements about what needs to be done.

So, what can we take from these rhetorical techniques as potential learning points for CEOs?

The recent Raconteur report published in the Sunday Times (10/11/19) about The Future CEO talks about how CEOs’ roles are changing and the importance of inclusivity, including the requirement to manage the needs of as many as 11 different stakeholder groups. It also notes that CEOs who lack the ability to build authentic connections will struggle.

Trust, (an ongoing issue for Boris), is cited as being critical in a new age of leadership where deference to authority is reducing and emotional intelligence is valued. According to Dr John Blakey, author of ‘The Trusted Executive’ and founder of the foundation of the same name, “Leadership credibility will need to be earned from building human trust, not exercising expert authority.” He also shares a thought-provoking formula for trust:

  • Trust = ability x integrity x benevolence

Additionally, Ben Renshaw, author of ‘Purpose’ is quoted speaking about the importance of a company’s vision. “It starts with a vision. If people feel they have a stake in the creation of that vision, you are more likely to carry them through the process of change”.

“You have to bring in your own personal vulnerability. Explain that change is coming and you don’t have all the answers straightaway. Treat people as adults. Give them the information they need. That unlocks goodwill in people”.

In dissecting Boris’ approach to storytelling, we can see that on the surface, he appears to tick all of these boxes. However, he should pay heed to Renshaw’s final words on the subject. “Talking about it is not enough; people want to see you put your words into actions. If you make promises, you have to keep them or you will be found out”.

Boris beware … only time will tell.

In the meantime, for their organisations, CEOs need to have a clear, authentic and compelling corporate narrative, which their stakeholders believe and support, in order to drive brand reputation and company performance.

At Fourtold, we provide our clients with smart, integrated inside-out communications consultancy and the delivery they need to build, enhance and protect their brand and reputation. We are committed to working with them to understand their audiences and define, fresh, open, authentic and compelling narratives that can be used to help stimulate intelligent stakeholder conversations and achievement of company goals.

We do this by being curious in our collaboration and using our Corporate Narrative Creation Tool to generate a narrative framework. This can be used as the foundation for all internal and external company communications, including CEO and other external keynote speeches, corporate presentations, annual reports, PR plans, employee engagement campaigns and much more.

We offer a focused, two-hour workshop which covers some key steps, with a range of probing questions and creative exercises that surface content about the company linked to specific elements, such as:

  • Identity & Culture
  • Purpose
  • Vision, Ambitions & Goals
  • Strategy
  • Impact & Outcomes

The outputs from the workshop are then used to create the first draft of the company narrative, as well as recommendations for next steps. Our senior team of corporate, internal and change communications experts, plus political advisers and trained journalists, have developed this approach from their wealth of experience over decades of working with a range of global organisations, across a variety of industries.

If one of your company’s new year’s resolutions is to get better at telling your story and you would like to book a Corporate Narrative Development Workshop, or discuss your corporate storytelling needs, please contact christina.fee@fourtold.eu or call us on +44 (0) 20 7348 0548.

Image by Bruno Cervera.