Storytelling and Great Leadership

by Beth Yates

What does storytelling have to do with leadership? When you consider that great leaders are also great communicators, the connection begins to makes sense. Storytelling is a powerful method for messaging and advocacy, and can be used effectively in so many leadership situations. According to Forbes, the five most likely occasions are these: inspiring the organization, setting a vision, teaching important lessons, defining culture and values, and explaining who you are and what you believe. Storytelling also can be important when a leader must deal with a crisis.

To frame my views on leadership and storytelling, let me step back for a moment to share something I experienced 30 years ago. I had the opportunity to see two workshop sessions with Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner when they were creating Ms. Tomlin’s one woman show, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. Each night Ms. Tomlin would perform the show, stopping at certain points to rephrase a line or two, as Jane took notes on the audience response. It was amazing. Ms. Tomlin would read a line and the audience would laugh out loud. Then she’d make a few slight changes, and we’d laugh till we cried. Or it could be the opposite; we liked it better the first time. I saw an artist at work crafting her art form.

That is what storytelling is to me: an art form. A good story, well placed by a leader in a speech or announcement, can add so much. It can generate energy or emotion, or paint such a vivid picture that people remember the story long after you remember who told it or why. And that adds so much to a communication. But, wait a minute --- does it? Really?

What makes a story powerful? I suggest it goes beyond “good storytelling.” It’s a set up for content the leader is going to teach, or it’s an illustration of what a vision looks like in practice, or a vivid and motivating picture – you get the point. It isn’t just a great story. It isn’t “just” poignant, funny, interesting, energizing, and so on.

So, what makes a leadership story effective? It’s very relevant to the communication -- and it’s workshopped, just like Ms. Tomlin’s work. Strong leaders spend time crafting their stories before they tell them.  Some powerful storytelling techniques include:

• It’s delivered in a way that’s logical, with a clear beginning, middle, and end, and logical connections.
• When it ends, it ends. There’s a clear finish to the story, and a pause to let people absorb that ending.
• Your style is authentically “you” when you tell a story. Add gestures and animated facial expressions that convey energy and interest.
• Critical parts of the story are emphasized with vocal variety, tone, and volume.
• You may involve listeners with intermittent questions that pull them into your experience.

Frankly, this doesn’t come easily to most of us. I believe it’s harder for more of us than not. It takes discipline to figure out a meaningful story at the right time for the situation, and then to craft it. That is the workshopping part of crafting and perfecting our stories. We figure out what needs to be said and what doesn’t. We play with gestures and volume and word choice. And our own interest in the story and how it supports the message we’re communicating keeps the story alive for us even after we worked it through numerous times. Sometimes, we retire a story because it’s just gotten old and faded and the seams are starting to show.

Leaders don’t want to have participants walking away saying, “Wow, that story about handling a difficult customer was great. I’ll remember that for a long time.” A truly masterful leader has participants saying, “Whenever I’m faced with this situation at work I’m reminded of the story she told about how she handled that customer issue, and I use that to guide my handling of the situation.” Imagine that.

Tags : leadership storytelling communication

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