Many leaders struggle with effective communication. Here we address why storytelling is so powerful and how leaders can get better at it.
Bob recalls a defining moment in the turnaround of a large public company where he was the new CEO. During the senior staff meetings held every Saturday morning while the company was in crisis, each executive reported progress on critical milestones.
One vice president, let’s call him Phil, failed to deliver on an important assignment week after week. After a while, Bob had enough and grilled him, shouting at Phil that his excuses were unacceptable.
Everybody looked down at the table. It was a short meeting.
Afterwards, Bob asked Jerry, another V.P., for his reaction. Jerry paused for a while and said, “Well, you sure didn’t treat Phil according to our shared values.”
While he had to hold Phil accountable, Bob realized that he had let his stress and emotions get the best of him. Public humiliation was wrong.
Bob reconvened the meeting, apologized to Phil, and asked the team for forgiveness for violating their shared values.
That Saturday meeting became a defining moment in the turnaround. It’s when the team came together, committing to live by the shared values, even if they had to challenge the CEO. The company got back on track, regaining its financial health while operating ethically.
Jerry served as a “steward” that day. He spoke truth to power as a “voice of one.” His courage empowered others. After that episode, everyone on the team had confidence that they could hold each other to a higher standard and operate by the shared values.
Phil delivered his assignment the next week and became a valued team member.
We tell this story to illustrate important points about leadership, values, and culture.
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The Impact of Stories
Over the years, we’ve learned the powerful impact stories can have on people. Good leaders develop a capacity for good storytelling, whether verbal or written.
“Stories constitute the single most powerful weapon in a leader’s arsenal.”
-Dr. Howard Gardner, professor, Harvard university
As people hear a story, they “live it” in their own mind, almost like an experience. This drives the story home more powerfully and helps them remember it later.
Through the ages, people have learned from and loved good stories. Good stories are memorable. Most good stories have:
- characters with whom we can empathize to some degree
- a conflict or challenge, and
- a resolution revealing how the characters changed or resolved the challenge.
In their excellent book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, authors Chip and Dan Heath note that stories like the one about Bob above have a “challenge plot.” They define other common story plots as well (e.g., connection plot focused on building relationships and creativity plot focused on a breakthrough).
For leaders, good stories build relationships and connections with people. They engender trust and loyalty.
Good leaders learn to be good storytellers in service of a larger point or cause that can help unite, motivate, or focus their team.
Good storytellers are credible, authentic, and sometimes vulnerable, sharing their mistakes and lessons learned, not boasting about their greatness or brilliance. They might describe a victory or failure drawn from their personal history, the history of their organization, or an event from another time or place.
People learn in different ways, including visually, orally, kinesthetically (from movement or bodily senses), and more. So, descriptive words in a story might trigger the senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell, or taste, for example a “coiled rope in the corner,” a “buzzing noise,” or “grazing velvet fabric with my fingertips.”
Good leaders are good listeners too. They know everyone has their own unique story. We’ve found great value in asking people to share their story. (Be willing to reciprocate too, if asked.)
When telling a story, it’s helpful for leaders to convey the story’s lesson(s) and include actionable take-aways or calls to action.
Personal Values Exercise
Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.
Ten Storytelling Tips
Good storytelling is a learned skill. Here are ten tips for becoming a good storyteller:
- read and analyze good stories
- understand what makes a good story
- tell stories more often verbally and in writing
- address people’s senses to engage them more deeply
- ask people their stories and practice telling yours
- practice storytelling in safe places with family, close friends, and colleagues
- get honest feedback on your stories
- show through descriptions, don’t tell
- be open, honest, authentic, and vulnerable
- beware the “curse of knowledge” — when we assume that the reader or listener has the background knowledge to understand what we’re communicating
Good storytelling is a powerful art you can develop and master.
Postscript: Quotations on Storytelling and Leadership
- “Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world.” -Robert McKee, professor
- “The stories we love best live in us forever.” -J.K. Rowling
- “We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” -Jonathan Gottschall, writer and literary scholar
- “Story, as it turns out, was crucial in our evolution—more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to.” -Lisa Cron, Wired for Story
- “Good stories surprise us. They make us think and feel. They stick in our minds and help us remember ideas and concepts in a way that a PowerPoint crammed with bar graphs never can.” -Joe Lazauskas and Shane Snow, The Storytelling Edge
- “Inside each of us is a natural-born storyteller, waiting to be released.” -Robin Moore, author
- “There isn’t a stronger connection between people than storytelling.” -Jimmy Neil Smith, Director of the International Storytelling Center
- “Stories are our primary tools of learning and teaching, the repositories of our lore and legends. They bring order into our confusing world.” -Edward Miller, product designer
- “You’re never going to kill storytelling because it’s built into the human plan. We come with it.” -Margaret Atwood, Canadian poet
- “Stories are memory aids, instruction manuals and moral compasses.” -Aleks Krotoski, social psychologist
- “Today, if you want to succeed as an entrepreneur, you also have to be a good storyteller.” -Sir Richard Branson, English business magnate, investor, philanthropist
For a 2-minute video on the magic and impact of storytelling, see “The Power of a Story” by Jason Silva from his “Shots of Awe” series on YouTube.
- For a great book on storytelling and effective communication, see Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath.
- For an example of many of these ideas in action, watch Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
When organizations aren’t aligned, it can reduce performance dramatically and cause frustration and dysfunction. With this Alignment Scorecard, you can assess your organization’s level of alignment and make plans for improving it.
Bob Vanourek and Gregg Vanourek are leadership practitioners, teachers, trainers, and award-winning authors. They are co-authors of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, a winner of the International Book Awards. Check out their online tools: Leadership Derailers Assessment, Personal Values Exercise, Alignment Scorecard. Sign up for their monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!