The leader as storyteller
In his landmark study on leadership, Harvard professor Howard Gardner found that “the key to leadership … is the effective communication of a story.”
Stories are a great way to connect with people, make complex ideas easier to understand, and make your message memorable. But storytelling is more than an easy way to connect with others. It is a powerful and persuasive vehicle used by top leaders to convey their message with maximum impact and minimum resistance. Today’s most effective leaders know how to use various story templates to communicate their vision, gain acceptance for their ideas, convey values, and inspire their people.
Many cultures have strong storytelling traditions. This is true regardless of your time in history or your geographic location. Yet few leaders of any kind use stories in their work.
Generally speaking, business and government leaders value facts, data, logic, and reason. However, when facts are presented to them, people try to make sense of them through critical appraisals. They look for flaws in your argument. As a result, using only logical facts and arguments can put your audience in a confrontational state of mind.
The narrative, on the other hand, combines facts plus emotions. When people get emotionally involved in a story, they don’t look for ways to tear it down. By packaging your message in a story, you can present your message to your audience without hitting them over the head with it.
By harnessing the power of stories, leaders could be much more persuasive. So why aren’t more leaders using stories? I can think of three main reasons.
1. Many leaders don’t know that stories can serve many purposes, such as:
Introducing yourself. The right story can place you the way you want to be perceived, rather than allowing others to define you. Stories can help you build rapport with your audience, establish credibility, and tell others what you stand for.
Promotion of your brand. Some of the most respected companies in the world have great brands in part because they have great stories. We know their stories, and these stories shape how we feel about these companies.
Communicating your vision. This is what makes or breaks a leader. Kennedy, Reagan, and Gandhi excelled at articulating a clear vision for the future, and they did so with stories.
Pass on key organizational values. Every organization has a socialization process. The right stories can help members feel like they belong much better than a list of core values on a wall poster.
These are just a few of the purposes that stories can serve, and there are many others.
2. Another reason most leaders don’t make better use of stories is that they don’t think stories are appropriate for business communication. They feel the stories are cheesy, not serious enough for corporate types worthy of a higher echelon. This, of course, does not make sense. Great leaders, from Jesus to Lincoln to Churchill, have used stories to powerful effect.
Most of the best companies in the world have well-known stories. A man going door to door trying to sell his recipe for fried chicken (KFC). Another man who sells smoothie machines discovers a small hamburger stand (McDonald’s). Two men playing in a garage create a technological giant (Apple, HP and many others). How many small business owners would love to have a story like this? Many do, they just don’t realize it!
3. The third reason so few leaders tell stories is that they don’t know how. Now we are getting to the heart of the matter. It’s easy to see the purposes stories can serve and dispel the myth that stories are unwelcome in a business setting. It is more difficult for a leader to deal with his discomfort in giving the artistic interpretation that is the narrative.
Fortunately, it is not that difficult. There are only two things to learn: how to create a story and how to convey it.
There are several templates for creating stories. The template you use depends on your purpose in telling the story. While you can’t use the same template for every story, there is a template that will help you structure any story you want to tell.
Finally, there is the delivery of the story. There are many techniques you can learn to bring stories to life, but the most important thing to remember is to tell your own story in your own way, from the heart. You can’t fake authenticity.
Rather than using only selfish data, facts, and statements, a great leader can connect with his audience and convey a powerful message through the fine art of storytelling.