Why Storytelling Is An Important Leadership Trait and 8 Practical Tips To Excel At It

I distinctively recall my preparations for an interview to get my first promotion. Requirement was to give a presentation on a technical topic and the senior tech leads would test my depth of knowledge, both on the topic that I was presenting and several more. I chose a less discussed topic at the time.  It was for a product called Tivoli Storage Manager also known as TSM. Now I had brainstormed on several ways to start my presentation – start with statistics of the product, common issues, sales pitch for the product, a joke, even sing a song to get everybody’s attention. Yes, you read that right. However, I zeroed in on a poem. After spending hours online, I had found a poem that expressing loss. My own translation of that poem was to express loss of data thereby going back to my topic. It worked! 

Ever wondered why the world’s religions have made use of fables and parables to hit out a key point? That’s because human beings tend to connect well and quickly through stories better than anything else. 

If it takes you hours of preaching to make a point, a story can achieve that within moments. This is because humans also have the tendency to fill in the gaps in stories and make sense of them on their own. 

Stories have a universal impact because:

  • People remember stories better than theory
  • Stories are told and retold and spread faster
  • Stories enable us to take action 

The world over, leaders – both business leaders and political leaders, apart from trainers, make good use of stories to emphasize on something. Former Pepsico chief Indra Nooyi frequently used stories from her own life and her experiences to hit across a point. 

What Steve Jobs did at the now legendary speech at Stanford’s commencement day in 2005 is tell about his own life struggles. His words ‘Connect the dots’ and ‘Stay Hungry Stay Foolish’ have acquired a cult status today. 

So does Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook. 

What these great leaders do is to put themselves up as a case study for others to derive their own lessons from. In fact, a good B-School is one that teaches through case studies and not theory alone. 

The psychology behind why stories work better than anything

As humans evolved, the need for being together increased. A feeling of connectedness is wired in our collective psyche. When we listen to stories, we actually play a part in that story and feel connected to the characters and the situation. It is a kind of cognitive play that our brain puts up to make sense of what’s in it for us, thereby forming our response which is usually empathy. The brain’s neural networks work better when we listen to a story than just a lecture. That’s because we love to connect the dots and form a mental picture of how the situation would have played like in our lives. 

The world over, stories have been used to drive home a point, to impart lessons in morality and also to shape behaviours right from a young age. A story also stays in mind longer than a mere lecture. By inserting key life lessons in a story, the narrator also takes the burden off about him being a preacher which would otherwise have been perceived as his personal opinion.

 World classics like Homer’s Odyssey, the epic of Gilgamesh (that is supposed to have be written on a tablet around 4000 years ago) are some examples of our ancestors knowing the significance of storytelling. Paintings, sculptures, murals, plays, ballads, songs are all a way of telling something crucial without sounding preachy. The behaviour of the characters , the twists and turns, the tragedy, the triumphs lead to key lessons being learned

Leaders have always used stories

Agreed that not everyone is a born storyteller and it takes a lot of imagination and command over the language to be a good one. That doesn’t mean we cannot incorporate stories in our routine communication. 

I often quote the video of Zappos founder Tony Hsieh, who is visibly nervous but uses his vulnerability to his advantage by using his own experiences as stories to drive home a point. Neither Steve Jobs nor Bryan Chesky (CEO of Airbnb) exude a film-star like charm on stage, but they manage to hook the audiences and communicate exactly what they want through anecdotes and stories interspersed in their speeches. 

In fact, the company Anecdote, actually trains leaders to use storytelling as an important aspect of communication, for leaders to inspire and engage with the employees, for sales personnel and even for keynote presentations. 

8 Practical Tips To Become A Good Storyteller

Stories don’t necessarily have to be fantasies replete with plots, sub plots and twists and turns. Simple life experiences in fact, connect much better because the audience can identify with them. 

We can plan to incorporate stories in our communication: 

  1. Identify the audience and align the key message that you want to drive
  2. Always note down anecdotes which can be quoted 
  3. Use metaphors and analogies 
  4. Always appeal to the emotions of the listener
  5. Let the story drive one or two key messages which can be easily derived by the listener
  6. Let there be an underdog, a simpleton who traverses his path and succeeds. Everyone loves to listen to success stories and identify with the hero
  7. Never make it too lengthy, brevity is the soul of wit. 
  8. Don’t forget to connect the beginning with the end and close the loop so that audiences are not left wondering about the context. 

Ideas, life experiences, news and articles from media, family stories, childhood experiences, friends and family, books, films, famous people and their lives, success stories and the like form great fodder to weave a story around something. If you have heard great leaders, they always intersperse their speech with several anecdotes. People find it difficult to remember figures but they remember stories for a long time. 

With attention spans dwindling by the day, one needs to judiciously make use of the available time and focus from the audiences. Use stories to open your speech, use some more to show how things are going wrong without sounding judgmental or critical. Use stories to counsel people through their life problems. Stories inspire. Stories clear doubts and ambiguities because a larger drama is being played in the minds of the audience, which he/she would not have otherwise admitted. Stories make difficult things sound simple.

Have you used storytelling to drive a key message? How was your experience? Take a moment and comment below. I would love to hear from you. 

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