By Nancy Duarte, a communication expert, C200 member, and CEO of Duarte, Inc., the global leader behind some of the most influential visual messages in business and culture. Known for effectively incorporating story patterns into business communication, Nancy has written six best-selling books.
The in-house communications leader at a public company recently sent me an anxious text: “Can we chat about what to say in a time of crisis?” Senior executives had announced significant layoffs in the wake of Covid-19, and they had botched the messaging.
Even though the pandemic itself was absolutely a crisis, many of the businesses that survived—including theirs—actually grew as customers needed their product as they sheltered. But now they’re facing more economic turbulence as executives steer through recession and layoffs, some making major cuts for the first time.
The comms director knew her company would need to relay information again and wanted advice on how to head it off. We hopped on a call and I asked what her leadership team had done to help her believe the leaders know how to navigate a crisis. Had she heard any of them talk about difficult situations they’ve led through before? No, she hadn’t.
No wonder she was worried. In a crisis, people need reasons to believe in their leaders, and her executive team hadn’t provided any. Frankly, even investors needed a reason to believe this team could lead through difficult times, because their stock quickly took a beating, too.
Amplify Three Types of Stories
In a crisis, people need to believe that you can lead them through anything because it’s your calling. They need to believe that how you lead matches the values you espouse. And they need to believe that your vision matters enough to stay in the game when the going gets really hard. All three, if told well, can instill belonging and resilience that will carry your team through tough times (and help them to thrive in the good times).
Your calling story: If you’re not the founder of the company, you need to have a clear reason you feel called to work there. Telling stories that emphasize your commitment to the company and your lessons from past victories and failures cements in their minds why to follow you. These stories need to be told at company meetings, at industry events, in the press, during earnings calls and analyst briefings. They should seep into communications when things are going well, so when a crisis is looming, you can lean into those narratives to inspire people to keep trusting you have the stuff to lead them.
This impending recession is my sixth external financial crisis in Duarte’s 34 years of business; our leadership team has many stories to tell about how we’ve navigated tough waters before—with bold moves, fiscally conservative moves, counter-intuitive moves—and how we’ve come out stronger each time. At our first staff meeting after shelter-in-place was mandated for Covid-19, we told stories about learning the value of contingency planning when a serious earthquake almost ended our (very young) business, about bouncing back after our biggest customer disbanded, about showing grace when the dot-com bubble popped and clients couldn’t pay their bills, and about finding new streams of revenue before others dried up during the Great Recession of 2008. We knew we had to give employees reasons to believe we could weather the complexity and uncertainty of the pandemic, too.
Your values stories: What you believe in as a leader drives how you behave—how you treat employees and colleagues, collaborate to solve problems, interact with customers, invest resources, and approach innovation—and it should set the tone for others’ behavior. When onboarding new hires in times of certainty, you probably do your best to infuse shared values and company values that will govern how people get their work done. But if the way you lead in a crisis doesn’t reflect those values, that can create cognitive dissonance and undermine the culture you’re trying so hard to build.
One of Duarte’s core tenets is to “astonish with value”—so customers get a lot out of each interaction with us. But once, out of that desire to astonish, we accepted way too much work from a customer in the heat of their huge deadline. It broke our staff, which grated against another core value: to “prioritize well-being.” That was a pretty big fail by leadership in a season when everyone was already spread too thin, and we know not to let it happen again. Sharing this story internally, in meetings and conversations, will be important so employees can call us out if we ever lose sight of that lesson. As leaders, we invite employees to hold us accountable to our values, we’re giving them a say in the future and earning their trust.
Your vision story: It’s a leader’s role to ensure the organization is headed in a sustainable and profitable direction. In crisis, some pivot, some double-down on the current direction, and some abandon it altogether and blaze a different way. In early 2020 we established a “moon shot goal” for the company, and the entire team was excited about it. When the pandemic hit, it was tempting to shrink our dream or pull back on the plans, but we chose to stand firm.
We communicated our intention to stick with the vision in staff and team meetings. I carefully crafted 22 video memos to bring the message home. We didn’t have stories about how we had done something similar before (a moon shot is a BIG push—not something you replicate), but we presented the challenge as a story so employees would identify as central characters and engage accordingly.
For example, at one company meeting a few months ago, I said, “You know those scenes in a movie where the protagonist has to act fast to get out of danger, and they have to choose between slamming on the brakes and stepping on the gas? We are stepping on the gas, and we have no regrets.”
Crises are inevitable. But if you give people reasons to believe in your leadership while times are good, you can keep them aligned, motivated, and loyal when things get tough. By using stories—and story techniques—to illustrate your calling, your values, and your vision, you’ll appeal to people as fellow protagonists, battling a common foe. You’ll align them in believing you can lead them out of this, and when you pull out, they’ll feel a close bond to each other, to you, and the organization.