Leader as Storyteller

Let me tell you a story. Nothing perks up an audience like those few words because we are wired for story. It is in our very DNA as we have told and listened to oral stories from the very beginning of human history.

Stories are also the most entertaining and effective way to convey information and persuade others in business because they create an emotional as well as an intellectual connection. This emotional component is important because it is what stimulates us and keeps our attention.

Although we may think we are purely rational in all our business dealings, the truth is we regularly make decisions based on our feelings and only justify them through logical explanations. Advertising has long relied on the fact that we rely more on our emotions than information in order to make brand decisions. One could certainly argue we increasingly choose our elected officials based on emotion rather than factual information.

Without an effective story that has both an intellectual as well as an emotional component, it’s difficult to stand out or make a lasting impression.

Think about the number of times you’ve been in a conference room where the speaker runs through a slide deck with numbers, words, images, data, charts and graphs in order to convince you of something. Does it make you sleepy just thinking about it? No wonder so many welcome the distraction of our cellphones.

If instead the speaker would begin by telling a compelling story that appealed to our emotions and also drive the main message, the slides could merely be used as a way to further justify the point. In this way, the story engages the audience in both the head and heart.

Consider how effective storytelling is used elsewhere:

  • Newspaper, television and radio news stories so often begin with an individual’s story to explain a larger issue and demonstrate its effect.
  • TED Talks would not be nearly as effective were it not for storytelling because the speakers draw us in by telling a personal story to convey a universal truth.
  • Every U.S. President since Ronald Reagan has highlighted an individual citizen’s story and included him or her in his State of the Union address in order to put a face to an important issue or policy.
  • Think about any great speaker you have heard and how, more than likely, the speaker told a compelling story that pulled so effectively at your heart-strings.

“This is because stories do much more than entertain,” says Paul Smith, author of Lead with a Story. “They actually engage your audience’s brains, creating an experience in which they learn a lesson, share a belief, and envision results as if they were there.”

In his book, Smith provides 21 of the toughest leadership challenges with stories to help navigate each of them. The book also identifies six key elements that are integral to help turn a good story into a great one. These elements are metaphors, emotion, realism, surprise, style, and how to put your audience into your story.

As a leader, you need to use storytelling as a way to rally the troops and convince others of your ideas. Stories enable your audience to relax and be entertained while you persuade them. Stories enable the speaker to connect with others, building trust and establishing rapport. And effective stories have a way of leaving a positive impression on the speaker and on the speaker’s message.

In Tell to Win, author Peter Gruber says the ability to tell a purposeful story that can truly be heard is increasingly in demand. “Moreover, in this age of acute economic uncertainty and rapid technological change, it’s not the 0’s and 1’s of the digital revolution, but rather the oohs and aahs of telling to win that offer the best chance of overcoming fear or compelling listeners to act on behalf of a worthy goal.”

No wonder some forward-thinking business schools like Notre Dame and DePaul University have added storytelling classes to their management curriculum. And companies such as Kimberly-Clark have held two-day seminars to teach its 13-step program for crafting a story. 3M is now using “strategic narratives” rather than bullet points. Procter & Gamble hired Hollywood movie directors to train senior executives on storytelling techniques.

So rather than fill your slide deck with emotionless data, tell a story that begins with a compelling challenge, then engage your audience with a struggle to overcome, and finally provide an eye-opening resolution that calls them to action.  As a leader, the more you are able to incorporate good storytelling into your communication, the more effective you will be at convincing, inspiring and motivating your people.

 

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