Excerpted from Lead Positive: What Highly Effective Leaders See, Say and Do by Kathryn D. Cramer. Copyright 2014 by Kathryn D. Cramer. Reprinted with permission of Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint.
While the substance of what you say may be your credibility card, it is the sizzle of your words that makes them sticky. When you say it with sizzle, you are engaging the hearts and minds of your audience, inviting them to feel and invest in your message. In short, the sizzle is your leadership story.
I have been researching the motivational value of saying it with sizzle for the past twenty years. One of the major tools I’ve found is telling rich stories of lessons learned, defeats suffered, and victories won. I was fortunate enough to witness the power of strong storytelling when DuPont’s Senior Vice President of Integrated Operations Gary Spitzer used the story of Secretariat winning the 1973 Belmont Stakes horse race during his keynote address at a major internal conference.
After Gary presented his vision for the operations arm of DuPont, he asked, “What will it look and feel like when we get there?” He then told the story of how much he was affected as a child watching Secretariat win the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths and with that, the Triple Crown, the highest accomplishment for a Thoroughbred racehorse. In Gary’s view, it was one of the greatest athletic achievements in history by one of the greatest Thoroughbreds of all time. Gary then showed the entire race.
When the video ended, Gary told the audience how the video still brings tears to his eyes (it did that day as well). He showed a picture of himself with Secretariat taken in 1988. Gary just had to go visit him. He quoted from the official notes of the Chart Caller for the Daily Racing Form, the horse-racing publication of record, from that race day: “All that power. All that balance. All that heart. All that speed. Secretariat was ready to roll. And the margin kept widening, and widening, and widening.”
Gary explained that when Secretariat passed away and the autopsy was performed, they found that his heart was more than twice the size of the average equine heart. The veterinarian was amazed at how “perfect” it was and surmised that it was the secret to Secretariat’s speed and success. That was Gary’s vision for the organization, he continued: “A strong, powerful organization that would win with a margin that kept widening and widening. An organization with the heart of a champion. With the heart to win and the heart for each other and for our customers.”
After the conference, Gary told me he had never had so many people thank him for his message about putting heart into your work. I was not surprised in the least, because what Gary did in his opening remarks was filled with spellbinding sizzle. Let us review what happened:
Gary showed the Belmont Stakes race on a big screen to capture the audience’s attention and imagination.
The audience felt growing excitement as they watched the race unfold (I suggest you watch this race for yourself so you too can experience the thrill it engenders).
While the audience was still feeling the excitement of victory, Gary made his point about how heart can be the engine of accomplishment.
Gary’s leadership message left an indelible mark in the memories of the conferees, thanks to the unforgettable experience they had reliving Secretariat’s victory. The story of Secretariat became the story the audience wanted to experience for themselves. They wanted to “win by 31 lengths,” to strive for victory, and to have the heart of a champion.
A story well told transports the listener to a different time, place and plane. It captivates emotions and provides an exciting trajectory of experiences full of hope, struggle, uncertainty and surprise! Stories show us how to live life. Stories help us lead.