Storytelling Helps You Be a More Effective Leader

Get Your Story Straight

Recently, Shelli and I were asked to speak at a leadership conference in Las Vegas.  There were about 200 people in the audience. In the middle of my presentation on succession planning a slide popped up with the picture of a white water river guide on a raft with a team navigating turbulent waters.  I was making a point about how important good leadership is when we are living in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world.  However, at that moment, it felt right to slow down and tell a story.  One thing I have learned about telling stories is that the story has to have enough detail that people know it is true and will grasp the context, but not too much meandering or people get lost.

I proceeded to tell a story about last summer when my family and I were in Costa Rica and went Level 4 white water rafting.  While I was telling the group about our adventure, one of my dear friends in the audience, Lisa, who had invited us to the event, leaned over to someone else on the leadership team and whispered “Our girl’s trip pre-Cristina consisted of sleeping, eating, drinking and relaxing around the pool.  Now we do all of that AND we have excursions – hot air balloon rides, jeep tours, pub crawls,..”  Very true!  So what did that story and that conversation do?  It illustrated a point, but more importantly, it opened up a little piece of my world to those people I was attempting to connect with and influence.


Did you realize that 78% of a leader’s time is spent communicating?  Storytelling is useful in far more situations than most people realize. The most common ways to use storytelling are: inspiring the people in the organization, setting a vision, teaching important lessons, defining culture and values, leading a change effort and explaining who the leader is and what he or she believes.   It can also be effectively utilized as a go-to-market strategy during business development activities.  Having a compelling story about your company can endear customers who become avid fans about not only how you help them reach their goals, but also how you fulfill your company’s core purpose.

Honestly, anyone can begin practicing storytelling in low-risk situations.   One of my favorite activities to utilize with a newly formed team is for them to share their Origin Stories.  An origin story is one in which you, a team member, would narrate a story of how you came to be where you are today.  It helps not only give your teammates some insights into you as a person, but it also lets them know of your competencies and experiences that they might not have otherwise known.  In this exercise, every team member would take a turn.  Last week, while attending an organizational psychology conference, speaker after speaker essentially used the origin story technique on a big stage.  Each keynote had at least one slide with either pictures or a “map” of their story about the journey of arriving in their leadership position.  It was extremely effective!

Great Companies Strategically Use Storytelling

Some of the most successful companies in the world use storytelling very intentionally as a leadership tool. Organizations like Microsoft, Berkshire & Hathaway, Procter & Gamble, Apple, NASA, and the World Bank are among them. They do this in many ways.  Some have a high-level corporate storyteller whose job it is to capture and share their most important stories.  At Nike, all the senior executives are designated corporate storytellers.  Other companies teach storytelling skills to their executives to ensure they are connecting with stakeholders in a meaningful way.

But not all of us are in companies where we are coached in how to tell a compelling tale.  In fact, storytelling is a skill that has to be mastered over years.  It can be a competitive advantage to your own leadership brand and that of your company, as long as you are being authentic and creative in your storytelling.  The big question is how can we begin weaving those compelling tales?

Five Keys to Getting Your Story Straight

To begin with, the biggest barrier to telling stories at work is not having any stories to tell.  More than likely there are stories that you run across every day and you just aren’t collecting them yet – so pay attention. When something teachable and memorable happens to you, write it down. A great story is about to be born!  In addition to that advice,  here are a few tips to being more effective in your stories:

  1. Start with the why.  Giving the headline at the beginning of your story about why anyone should listen is key.  Beginning a story is a lot like taking a book off the shelf and reading the first sentence.  It sets the stage for whether or not your audience keeps “reading”.
  2. Use metaphors and analogies. A well-chosen metaphor can add to the impact of a story, or replace a story altogether, because there are already entire stories attached to those few words in your audience’s brain, waiting for you to tap into.
  3. Appeal to emotion. Studies show people make decisions largely based on emotional reasons, and then rationalize them afterward so they feel logical. Great leaders know this intuitively and aren’t afraid to lead with both sides of their brain.  Influence others through emotion AND  data/logic.
  4. Keep it tangible and concrete. Avoid mind-numbing vague generalities and wiggle words typical of “management speak” today. Keep stories specific and concrete and they’ll be more engaging and memorable.  It seems basic – but break it down prior to speaking with a “hook” at the beginning, a solid middle and great end to wrap it up.
  5. Include a surprise, conflict and/or vulnerability. Surprises and conflicts you encountered not only get your audience to sit up and pay attention, but they also make your story “stick”. Studies show surprise triggers the release of adrenaline in the brain that heightens memory formation.   By being vulnerable and sharing our struggles, failures, and losses, we bond on a deeper level.  Something we can all agree is incredibly important!

With that, let us know your leadership story…we would love to hear from you!