For many of us, our introduction to storytelling began with our parents reading us a bedtime story before we went to sleep. As adults, as leaders, who we tell our story strong influences our success.
“Bad leaders like to ‘shake the pan’. You see this a lot on TV cooking shows. The producer tells the chef to keeping shuffling the risotto around the pan. It’s more fun to watch, but apparently it’s not always the best way to cook. To top chefs, learning when to leave food alone – when to resist the temptation to flip the steak – is as important as learning when to manipulate it. It’s the same for leaders. Great leaders know when to stir things up and when to let it simmer.” Dale Carnegie
The ability to tell a story is becoming an essential skill that companies are looking for in their leaders. Storytelling is a way to bring people on a journey with you. Stories are used to inspire confidence, action, and to create a sense of unity. They help explain complex information in a way that puts everyone on the same page with the same point of reference. They don’t have to be long, but they do have to be clear and concrete in their message.
“The truth is that as leaders, we all have a story to tell; a narrative that says why this matters and why others should care.” Tanveer Naseer
But it takes some practice to become effective at organizing your thoughts and information into a comprehensive story that smoothly flows from one point to the next while keeping your audience engaged. Here’s how to get started.
Set the Scene
You must start by setting the scene in a way that will make sense to your audience. Use something that they will be able to visualize and connect with. Explain when and where the story takes place and introduce the characters in your story. Be clear about what these characters are trying to achieve and what challenges are blocking them. Most importantly, establish why you’re telling them this story. This will guide your audience through the narrative and hook them all the way to the end.
Keep It Real
Try to focus on real people and genuine emotions. Authentic storytelling is key to gaining consumer trust. Don’t try to fool your audience with an over-the-top tale. People know when you try to pull a fast one on them, and they will disengage. Transparency celebrates your uniqueness and acknowledges the human aspect of your story. Recognize that things are not always easy by showing your own challenges and failures; this creates an emotional connection.
Articulate the Goal
A great story teaches a lesson, explains a reasoning, or inspires action. Be clear about what the goal of your story is; everything should build to the message you want to leave with your audience. Know what you want your audience to take from your story and keep that as the focus. Messages should be singular in nature. One story equal one message. Trying to put too many points into a single story can weaken your key message.
Most people are familiar with what has become known as the I Have A Dream speech by MLK Jr. This speech told a story of a future world. It was successful because he consistently repeated the same phrase – I have a dream. Had he said, I have a dream, I have a vision, I have a goal, I foresee a future where, and a mix of other various expressions of the same theme, this story would not have resonated with and become a beacon for millions of people. The repeating of one consistent phrase is what makes this story so memorable.
A disorganized story leaves your audience confused and uninterested. The repetition of images and verbiage associated with your story helps imprint the message onto your audience. You need to be consistent in sharing your message. Storytelling takes practice. Know your story inside and out before presenting it. This will help you tell the story naturally.
Get the Audience Involved
Storytelling is a great way to strike an emotional connection with your audience. Your story needs to be memorable and shareable. People like to be a part of stories. Come up with ways to get your audience involved.
“Over the years I have become convinced that we learn best—and change—from hearing stories that strike a chord within us… Those in leadership positions who fail to grasp or use the power of stories risk failure for their companies and for themselves.” John Kotter
Here is a quick outline to help you build your story while incorporating the key tips above.
- Start with the context. What is your message?
- Use metaphors and analogies. Help the audience relate and connect.
- Appeal to emotion. Get audience engaged.
- Keep it tangible and concrete. Be clear and consistent.
- Include a surprise. Make it memorable.
- Use a narrative style. Be concise and to the point. Stories should be 3-5 minutes long.
- If possible, move beyond telling your audience a story to creating a scene or event for them to participate in.
Putting It All Together
There are lots of reasons for leaders to use storytelling as one of their communication tools. Leaders tell stories to diffuse conflict by saying indirectly what needs to be brought to light. This approach to conflict management demonstrates how to resolve struggles and address problems. Leaders tell stories to bring people together. Stories allow the leader to interpret the past and shape the future. Leaders also tell stories influence others. They can provide reasoning for decisions in a way that joins data with human emotions.
Leaders who are great storytellers inspire others to share the leaders’ story with others. It provides something memorable that the audience can pass along, furthering the message and creating a sense of ownership among those who are being called upon to carry out the story’s message. To be at the top of your leadership game, storytelling is must have skill. Use the tips above to improve the impact of your stories.
Revised July 2022. Originally published under The OD Pro in April 2020.