Leadership: Interview of John Kotter – The Power of Storytelling

Interviewed by Seth Kahan, March 2006

John Kotter, is an expert on leadership at the Harvard Business School. He has been the premier voice on how the best organizations actually “do” change. His books have been reprinted in eighty foreign language editions, and total sales are approaching two million copies. His articles in the Harvard Business Review have sold a million and a half copies.

I spoke with him by telephone from his home in Boston.

John: Five or six years ago I started thinking more consciously about my primary goal: helping people change what they do and get better results. I have spoken at hundreds of meetings. Increasingly it is clear to me that people have trouble remembering what they hear at these meetings. This means it isn’t having an impact on their decisions, their actions, and hence, results on the job.

As I explored, I became very interested in the brain. I learned about neurology, and emerging fields like medical anthropology and the study of the brain’s evolution. I began to wonder how people learned 500,000 years ago. They didn’t have PowerPoint slides. It was from direct experience and stories of direct experience.

Stories stick in the brain in a holistic way, better than charts, numbers and concepts. As a result the probability that the message will have an impact on behavior goes up.

I am often approached by former students or people who have seen me speak. When this happens I make a habit of asking, “What do you remember about that session?” It’s amazing how often it is a story as opposed to anything that is conceptual or numerical.

Seth: How has this impacted the way you teach?

John: I’ll tell you a story. About 3.5 years ago a German, a very creative guy, sent me an email to share what he had done with my book, The Heart of Change. He created a training exercise to help get the concepts across. He explained to me how it worked and I immediately loved what he was doing.

The next time he was in the U.S. I convinced him to come and see me. He had made up this 2 ½ hour exercise that was over the top, so creative. He was using a situation that involved penguins. Then it hit me that I should write a book. So, I sat down and started writing a fable about a penguin colony in Antarctica. The tale is entirely inspired by the huge amount of research we’ve done on groups trying to cope with a changing world, and why 90% of organizations handle change poorly.

Seth: So, you’re writing stories. Presumably you’re telling them, too?

John: I don’t just tell stories – I act them out. The visual component turns out to be quite important. I have spoken with psychologists and brain experts about this. It comes back to the brain and how sight is connected to the nervous system. More information comes into your body through sight than any other vehicle.

I discovered a long time ago that you can sit and dryly say these things. But, you add a lot more information if you not only tell the stories, you show the audience. I do this by picking out parts, just like a play. I create little one-act plays.

Seth: A little bit of theater?

John: Exactly. Theater has a negative connotation among PhDs unless you’re in London. But, there’s no question about it, this form of theatrical presentation makes better impact. I use exaggerated gestures. I walk around on the stage, as if I’m in a different location and situation…and I use voices! I do a pretty good southern female voice! . . . laughter . . .

Seth: Back to the penguin book. If you’re not using charts, what are you doing to make it visual?

John: I hired an illustrator. We designed pictures. People love it! I created a story that has 6 main characters and 3-4 minor characters. I made it funny in a subtle way. The penguins hit on every problem that you encounter when you’re facing this kind of change. They are brilliant at doing it. They are so clever… I mean, they are more clever than most executives . . . laughter . . . and penguins are birds you can identify with easily. Everyone says, Yeah, I know that guy. They draw you into the story. You get to see how different personality types interact when faced with change.

The title is, Our Iceberg is Melting. I did a first draft and sent it out to 20 people for their review. Three weeks later I received a call from somebody who said, “I want 60 copies.” It took off from there. It won’t be in stores until September. But, already 15,000 copies of that book have been sold!

Stories are key. If you want people to remember ideas so they can change and get better results, tell them stories.

On the web: www.JohnKotter.com

John Kotter’s latest book, Our Iceberg is Melting, can be found online at: www.OurIcebergIsMelting.com

Recent books by John Kotter:

  • The Heart of Change, Harvard Business School Press, 2002
  • John P. Kotter on What Leaders Really Do, Harvard Business School Press, 1999
  • Leading Change, Harvard Business School Press, 1996
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