Telling stories that sell the sausage. And sizzle.


We sat in the back of a small city fringe café buried in a conversation about telling stories.

Swee Mak, Innovation Professor at Melbourne’s RMIT University, relayed a dilemma faced by leaders too often focused on a narrative selling an idea rather than reality. He pondered if storytelling had dissolved into marketing.

‘We live in two separate worlds’, he said, ‘one in which you must mean what you say and the other where you put ideas out without bringing them to life. {Some] consultants and philosophers, do a lot of communicating without being accountable.’

Leaders sell the sizzle without the sausage

As a professional engaged in helping people tell their stories for the right purpose and best intention, I find it challenging to reflect on how story is used this way. When I consider the current spate of world leaders selling the sizzle with no sausage in sight, Professor Mak’s observation multiplies in impact.

He emphasised the primacy of marketing when supporting a credible product or service offering, but queried its legitimacy when it promoted a narrative without substance.

‘This is the problem for thought leaders’ he said. ‘They must straddle the spectrum, to excite people, but then deliver on that excitement.’

In a world of research, Swee is constantly exposed to stories of new ideas selling people on what is possible. However, he argues such innovations must only be based on sound principles and an established track record.

‘There is no point going into the nuts and bolts if people are not inspired and energised to move. But a lot of leaders cannot span that spectrum. They are either nuts and bolts leaders or dreamers whose ideas come and go.’

Two forms of communication

Swee explained that these two types of leaders offer two forms of communication: one disseminates instructional information, and the other influences and excites.

In an operational world, the instructions (how) often come without the reason (why), and in an ideas world the reason (why) often has no instructions (how).

Instructional communication is often top down, stifling innovation, and influential narrative is too often lacking in mechanics.

Either way, one part is missing or incomplete and as Swee said, the stories people tell around either are rarely well crafted.

Therein lies the real opportunity.  Leaders need to learn to tell purpose-fit stories for maximum effect on their audience.

If you would like to find out how to polish your stories – the sausage, not the sizzle – join me at the next PowerPacked Stories workshop. You can find out the details here.

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