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Why Great Leaders Tell Stories

In recent weeks I have been receiving questions about storytelling for managers and leaders. The input came from a dialogue I began with the top 10% of my most avid followers. These are the professionals who have shared the most feedback within my tribe.

Sure enough, one of the recurring topics was the Art of Storytelling. There was a groundswell of interest in talking about the ability to tell stories.

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From the feedback, I saw these common threads:

  1. Storytelling at work is recognized as being vital to effective leadership. Great leaders use it very well, while not so great ones struggle at spinning a pertinent story.

  2. Not everyone is naturally gifted at storytelling. How do you get there?

  3. What are some do’s and don’t’s about storytelling at work?

Using this inspiration, I began compiling some ideas about improving your ability to tell stories to enhance your leadership style. First, some psychology:

The gift of storytelling may be one of life’s most powerful—and envied—skills. A story well told can make us laugh, weep, swell with pride, or rise with indignation. A story poorly told can be not just boring or uncomfortable, but positively painful to experience. Humans seem to be fundamentally hard-wired for stories—they’re how we record both the monumental events of life and the small, everyday moments.

Professor Hannah B. Harvey, Ph.D.

If you stop and think about it, storytelling is a huge part of our GNP. I’ve read estimates as high as 25%. All sales activities are based upon the effective conveyance of a story. The provider of a good or service needs to communicate a clear message to its buying audience. Without that story, the sale won’t happen.

The 30 or 60 second commercials on TV are really just very short stories.

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52270675 – Courtesy 123rf.com

Mergers and acquisitions often start with a story about the “what could be” if the two companies merge. Those stories get told to boards and shareholders. If the story inspires, then deals get done.

Job search and selection is often based on the candidate’s ability to tell his/her story in a way that connects with the hiring authority. And so on, and so on.

Nike is one company that embraces the power of the story. In 1970, Nike designated their executives “Corporate Storytellers” as part of their corporate culture. The stories the company leaders told ranged from recounting the company history —  “the Nike story” — to many tales of people simply getting things accomplished. By helping all their employees understand the company’s past, the stories help shape the company’s future. Imagine hearing the story of how Nike founder Bill Bowerman went to his workshop one day after a brainstorm session and poured shoe rubber into the family waffle iron. That was the birth of the famous Nike waffle sole. The telling of stories like this reflects “the spirit of innovation” at the shoe company, while connecting today’s work to Nike’s heritage and roots.
Entrepreneur July 2014

Stories put our whole brain to work, not just part of it. We feel more engaged when hearing narratives and we remember them longer. What gets remembered becomes top of mind.

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7903217 – Courtesy 123rf.com

For leadership, storytelling is more than one tool. It’s a whole array – tools that could help achieve multiple purposes such as sparking people into action, communicating who you are or who our company is, transmitting values, sharing knowledge, taming the grapevine and leading into the future.

Mintzberg’s classic [easyazon_link keywords=”Nature of Managerial Work” locale=”US” tag=”thredoth-20″]Nature of Managerial Work[/easyazon_link], showed that talking comprises 78% of a manager’s time. With that much time dedicated to speaking, managers can do much better if they have meaningful stories to tell rather that just dictating instructions.

To sharpen your own ability to tell a good story, here are some key things to consider:

Tell the Right Story

Selecting the right story can be daunting. Steve Denning actually writes that there are 8 different story patterns to use. Different combinations can be woven together .

  • Sparking action –  a what if story
  • Communicating who you are
  • Transmitting values
  • Communicating your brand
  • Fostering collaboration
  • Taming the grapevine
  • Sharing knowledge
  • Leading people into the future

Telling the Story Right

This is not limited to getting the details correct, but it means much more. You need to consider style, truth, preparation, and delivery. Don’t argue, present. Give the listener room to absorb the idea. Make the story pertinent to the matter at hand.

Motivate Others to Action

Leadership is mainly about inspiring people to implement new ideas in the future. And not just grudgingly but enthusiastically, because they believe in it.

Invite the audience to make large and rapid leaps of imagination. In a business setting, strip out all unnecessary detail. The minimalist style leaves plenty of space for the audience to imagine a new story in their own context. For each member of the audience, you actually have two listeners. There’s the physical person you see in front of you and there’s also a second listener known as “the little voice in the head.” In a story aimed at sparking action, you have to have a happy ending. How to give enough guidance but not too much? Use the magic phrases of … “What if” and “Just think”.

I am a big advocate for the notion that leadership inspires people to action. The ability to connect via storytelling is one of the most critical skill sets that can differentiate a great leader from a good one.

[reminder]How have you used story telling to enhance your career?[/reminder]


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