A core attribute of outstanding leadership is the ability to tell stories. Stories are the human currency of social connection, and empower engagement, change and personal development, all which are key aspects of being a great leader.
I remember once I was working in a highly technical field. A bright young ‘up and comer’ returned from presenting to the executive board, looking deflated and dejected.
‘Not only did I not get the project approved’, he said, ‘ they nit picked every detail.’ I asked him to take me through the presentation- maybe I could help him?
After the first minute or so it was clear that his 106 slides of data for a 20 minute presentation was probably not the way to go, so I gently stopped him, and said:
“It reminds me of a time when I had to ask the executive board for 50 Million Euros capex in a budget cutting year. No one thought I stood a chance. Even R and D, who had previously supported the idea, had stepped back and were hedging their bets.
All the information came in, from market research, production, R and D, and many more besides. It sat on my computer as slide decks, waiting for me to shuffle them together for a typical presentation.
Then I stopped and asked “how do I engage them with the idea? How do I get them to experience what it is like for the customer? How do they understand the excitement of the developers and the logic of the process?”
The answer was clear to me. I had to be a storyteller.
So I thought about the presentation in three parts: what am I asking for? What stories make that compelling? What evidence do I need to prove the stories?
And from there, the presentation came together.
As I walked to the board meeting, people were grimly wishing me luck, expecting me to fail and for a whole group to be reassigned. I walked in, thanked the board for their time and said “imagine…”
20 minutes later, as I left the meeting, people who had been hovering came up to me and were already commiserating “that must have been tough”. But I was able to confirm that my stories had saved the group and secured the funds for the project.
And there was a story. Or, a story about a story, or, a story about a story about a story. Any which way, what would you take out of it?
One thing you may take out of it is the value of stories in business and organisations. To take this one step further, I could suggest that being a storyteller is a key attribute of being a great leader.
Are you a storytelling leader?
The role of stories in history and culture
Before the written word, stories were the vehicle for communicating complex ideas, for inspiring, teaching, engaging and driving change (this sounds like a definition of modern leadership). The oral tradition existed in communities for thousands of years, helping to maintain and shape culture, explain the world around them (through religion, for example) and provide a basis for common understanding.
The oral tradition of storytelling was an enriching experience for the whole community – it entertained, it informed and created social connectedness and shared understanding between its members
Even today stories hold a critical place in our development. Before we can read as children, our parents are telling and reading us stories. We listen to stories and connect to their characters; we learn what is right and wrong; what is valued and what is shunned. We learn the way we fit into the world, what we can expect and what is expected of us. We listen to the stories of our peers, and define ourselves from these stories. We listen to the tall tales and the life lessons, and make sense of our experience along the way.
Stories allow us to imagine, and to share what we have experienced in a rich and engaging way. They help us answer the three unconscious questions that drive us : what keeps me safe?; What makes me successful; and what makes me happy? Stories have always served to enhance the lives of those that listen to them.
The descent into quantitative communication.
The scientific and economic enlightenments encouraged a change in the way people communicated. The emphasis on quantitative explanation, of measurement, of reduction of the world into measurable elements meant that the prevailing communication mode shifted from story to number.
From real experience we extract data and information and draw hypothetical reasons and conclusions. This allows us to take complex topics and reduce them to measurable abstractions, to manipulate these abstractions and draw inference and probabilities. The enlightenments taught us to value numerical representations, to think that we needed to be able to measure it for us to understand or explain it with rigour. This positivist stance lives on in science, economics and down into business today. Have you ever heard someone say “The numbers speak for themselves”?
Along the way we were taught that the ‘scientific method’ was rigorous. Those that could manipulate and communicate in numbers were needed and valued. We reduced reality to variables. Whilst measurement and review are critical parts of business, it is important to not over-weight the value of them, but to know about their context. Too often leaders can be blinded by the beauty of numbers, and forget to ask how and why they were collected or calculated, what assumptions were used, what epistemology was invoked, and (most importantly) what is the context of the insights we derive from them?
In simple terms, what does the number tell us and what scope can we use it in?
As numerical literacy has become the norm in organisations, the pure art of storytelling seems to have been lost. Reducing experience to numbers may allow a quick view on a complex topic, but without the richness of the story, how can their context, the experience those numbers represent, what we can learn from the experience they are drawn from, and the possibilities they offer be communicated and shared?
Why great leaders tell stories
Great leaders never forget that they are leading people. As human beings, we have always responded to the power of a story, and great leaders use story, analogy and metaphor to bring ideas, data and evidence to ‘life’. They share experience, create engagement, smooth change and enhance skills by telling the right story, at the right time. Stories are a vehicle to lead people more effectively and efficiently, and to share experience and enhance performance and possibility.
Why stories work.
Stories have always worked. Stories allow us to share experiences, and humans, based on the oral tradition, have always found stories powerful ways of communicating and connecting. Here are some reasons why stories work, even for leaders today:
Stories are told in social situations. They are both the vehicle and the message – that is, they are the vehicle of what is communicated within the story, but they are also the message – the process of telling a story and sharing experience is a social message about the relationship that we have. If I don’t care for or about you, I wouldn’t be telling you this story. Telling stories identifies and amplifies the social connection so much more than issuing orders or instructions.
If someone “tells” you what to do, it is easy to get defensive. “You should” or “you must” suggest that we have been doing it wrong. However, a story is just a story. Hidden within it are the same teaching messages, but they are delivered in second or third person, meaning the storyteller is not talking about me, but sharing with me. When we get beyond defensiveness, which happens with story, we are open to listen, be curious, and to learn. Stories move out listeners beyond defensiveness to curiosity and possibility.
Invite curiosity and ambiguity.
Great stories have a twist, a resolution, or moments of suspense. Behind this lies potential ambiguity which encourages the listener to be curious about where the story may go, and potentially have them ‘jumping ahead’ imagining resolutions. Simply inspiring curiosity and imagination opens the space for learning, empathy and change. Stories draw people out of their thoughts, and get them thinking, which is an enormously positive attribute in any organisation Sequencing.
The sequence of events talks to progression, growth and even consequences. Great stories have a sequence, which can reflect the sequence of things that need to happen, or simply demonstrate change by small steps. Stories work because the messages within them are revealed in a sequence that allows the listener to learn, or be moved, a small step at a time – rather than having to leap all the way to the punch line.
Rhythm and mood.
Stories have a rhythm, which can build and manipulate mood. We can connect into a prevailing mood, or shift the mood in an individual or group just by the stories we tell. A key element of all stories is the mood, and how this is created and impacted in the storytelling process. They say that emotions are contagious. Stories can be the virus through which leaders can inject the right mood, emotion and energy into a team. From celebration, caution, calm resolve through to vindictive anger, stories can develop and install moods which can be harnessed to shift the group forward.
Stories invoke experience
We experience stories. Stories activate a range of different processes in our brain, which draw on semantic memories and meaning, trigger imagination, feelings, thoughts and even involuntary actions. The richer the sensory description, the more deeply we are drawn into a story and these ‘internal experience processes’ are activated. In the end, we can almost believe that we experienced the events that happened in a vivid, compelling story. The experience is the basis of very powerful learning.
Isomorphism means that we can map what is happening in a story onto our own experience. We can see that ‘the prince’ has a similar problem to us, or ‘the unicorn’ comes up with some good ideas that I could try, or ‘the previous customer’ had a problem that I am afraid of. We are always searching for meaning in things. In stories, we automatically search for isomorphic components so that the experience shared in the story has meaning for our own experience.
Stories are not always the answer.
Sometimes, leaders cause more harm than good with the stories they tell. Here are some examples of stories which undermine leadership, community, learning and value:
Me, me, me! stories.
When leaders tell stories to others only to secure their acclaim, the story does more harm than good. Telling a story with no other value apart from ‘look at me, aren’t I awesome (more awesome than you)’ actually demotivates others. If you want acclaim as a leader, buy a mirror. Telling these stories destroys leadership.
“I did this so you should do that”, or “let me tell you how I did it” type stories are used to reinforce the power differential between a leader and the person hearing the story. Once again, this is a terrible story to tell as it most likely will trigger defensiveness and encourage disengagement.
Stories with racial, sexual preference or unacceptable language may seem OK in certain contexts, however each of these sends very clear but subtle messages about the type of leader that you are. Using racial or sexual preference references also can trigger massive disengagement from the audience, and encourage them to close down opportunities for sharing (if you make fun or point out things about those people, what would you say about me?). Inappropriate language also sends clear messages about the type of person that you are, based on the language that you use (and how the audience perceives or accepts that language).
Out of context or no point.
Sometimes leaders tell stories that are out of context, or have no clear point. The audience feels like their time is wasted, unless the story, analogy or metaphor can be seen to be related to what is going on at the moment.
Heard it before.
Repeating the same story over and over is also a problem. If the audience knows the story as well as the leader, then they don’t need to keep trotting it out. It encourages people to switch off, become distracted and even get defensive as they feel their time is wasted.
Where there is no time.
Sometimes, we need autocratic leadership. We need someone to stand up and say “do this!”. In such urgency, stories waste time, frustrate people and stop action. Selecting the right time for a story or analogy is critical.
Therefore, a great story is one that is relevant, valuable, appropriate, isomorphic, timely and empathetic.
Types of stories for leaders.
There are many types of stories that leaders can tell. As leaders develop their storytelling craft, there are a number of story types they can use to help them in different contexts:
Problem solution arc.
This is a powerful teaching tool, where the character in a story has a problem which is isomorphic with the listener’s. The story progresses from the problem to the solution, and the result, which can give the listener new tools and approaches in solving their own problem. These stories are great in sales situations, because you can amplify the feeling of the problem state, and also as the product becomes the vehicle to a solution, it becomes a compelling value proposition.
The cautionary tale tells people what not to do, or what they can avoid. It also is useful for spelling out consequences on unwanted behaviours. This is a powerful story, particularly in setting standards and culture.
The reframe is a powerful change story, because it encourages the listener to re-evaluate the meaning they have given to something, and to see it in a different light. By having a different meaning, it takes on new values and possibilities. These stories are often told by getting the listener to imagine being in the other person’s shoes, and identifying possible reasons and motivations for things that they may not have considered.
The values and standards story. Telling a story about what is valued, and what standards need to be kept (and for example, what happens if they are not) are really useful stories for setting culture and tone. Telling a story about how you had a decision to make and you made it according to certain values and standards allows others to get a sense of your character, and can help build trust. It also defines what your expectations and boundaries are.
The future pace.
This is a valuable story where you imagine a path into the future. In essence, you are laying out a strategic plan for the person to connect to and follow. Using storytelling allows them to experience it beforehand, and therefore increase the likelihood of it occurring. It can start “Imagine if…”
Storytelling as a skill
Storytelling is not a superpower or special trait. It is a skill that can be learned and developed by any leader who aspires to be better. As you build your skills, consider:
There is a story everywhere.
I remember a time when…
If you consider the different types of stories a leader can tell, then it becomes obvious that every moment of our experience presents an opportunity to provide us with a story, or the basis for a story. What happened on the way to work? Crossing the road? As you made a cup of coffee? As you spoke to that customer? Provided it has context and the potential to be isomorphic to the person or situation, every moment of our lives is a great story waiting to be shared.
Metaphor, analogy, descriptive language.
Sometimes it is simply a matter of enhancing the metaphors or analogies that you use in communication. By using experience (sensory) rich language, metaphors, analogies and stories all connect more deeply with the listener and help them connect to the message. Metaphor and analogy are great places to start your story telling skill build.
Start with the story (build your why).
As you build your skill, a great place to use a story is early in the communication process, as a platform for ‘why’ you are communicating. A great story sets context, creates engagement, opens possibility and allows experience to be appreciated and shared. It sets up the ‘point’ that you want to make.
Teach the ‘how’ with a story.
If someone you are teaching needs to learn a particular process or skill, try teaching it through a story. As they experience the problem – solution arc, the sequence of steps or the process for resolution, they are learning deeply these things in their own experience and imagination, which they can apply in their real world context.
Using stories to open possibilities, to aid teams breaking out of group think and reflecting and exploring are powerful uses of leadership story. Practice setting up workshop activities with stories about creativity, exploration, discovery, not knowing, etc. These will encourage people to think rather than just remain in their old habitual thoughts.
Becoming a storytelling leader.
Becoming a storytelling leader, and using stories in a conscious, considered way adds significant power to you leadership style and tool kit. If it doesn’t come naturally to you (yet), then practice. Think of a story which reflects the context, the people or the problem at hand, and share it authentically. Make your point and invite your audience to reflect on how it could apply to them. Have fun with it – get descriptive, use a range of senses, and invite your listeners to deeply connect with the experience.