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Leaders should tell more stories

Leaders should tell more stories
Published: January 2, 2019
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Why is storytelling important?

“A story is like the water you heat for your bath. It takes messages between the fire and your skin. It lets them meet. And it cleans you.” – Rumi

Stories reach the parts of us that facts alone can’t. For millennia, we have been telling each other stories to help make sense of the world. Stories can educate, inspire, warn and touch us. Good stories are memorable and easy to pass on.

They help to create meaning, loyalty and allegiance. They even help us to unite.

If you look at the stories that religion tells you, you see storytelling in action. Stories can move large groups of people to work together for a common goal – whether that is war, religious conversion or Democrats winning the next election.

Stories Matter

For millennia, the oral tradition has been the most effective method for transmitting shared history, new ideas, key messages and visions for the future.

To this day, journalism, law, politics and even military interventions rely on the power of storytelling.

Not that much has changed since our times around the campfire.

The media and the medium may have got faster and more sophisticated, but online news, the radio, fiction, history and gossip – all of these are variations on the theme of storytelling.

Great leaders are powerful storytellers. Watch Oprah, Steve Jobs even Trump at work and you see storytelling in action.

Basically, the power of storytelling is that they help people:

  • tell tales that otherwise get left behind
  • help translate the complex into the easily comprehended
  • and encourage and inspire action

And yet, nowhere in an MBA classroom will you find the words ‘storytelling’ and ‘improvisation’ on the agenda. So, how can you master the art of storytelling to become a better influencer and leader?

1. Tell The Right Story For The Right Time

In the storytelling tradition, we say that every story has a particular ‘gift’.

That means, in order to maximise your impact, you need to know why you are telling the tale you are telling. What is it that you want your audience to know, feel or do as a result of the story? So, what do you want?

Discredit your competitors?

Reassure your employees during a turbulent time?

Get your customers excited about the possibilities of your new product?

The key to the right story is that there is one simple message or take-away from it that is really memorable to the audience.

For example, in the story ‘the boy who cried wolf’ we take away the message that teasing and faking might mean that when you really need help and support, no one believes that you do!

Consider the gift you want to give so you can tell the right story at the right time.

2. Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff

The most important element of storytelling is that the person telling the story is present and in the room. There is nothing worse than watching an awkward paper shuffling exercise, where someone reads off script or repeats the words on the slides above them.

Memorising story is much easier than you might expect. It’s actually more intuitive than a longwinded presentation or speech. To memorise the story you actually only need to know the answers to five simple questions.

Where does the story start?

Who is the main character?

What challenges did they want to overcome?

What got in the way?

Where did they end up?

Once you know the answer to these questions you can ad lib and freestyle between the points. No one needs perfect polish and timing – they just want to know how the story turned out.

3. Your Voice Is Your Best Instrument

Have you ever read a story to a child?

Perhaps you naturally changed your tone, your speed, your volume to make the story more exciting to the audience?

The same theatre and expression apply to telling stories to an adult audience. Remember to play with your voice. You can alter the volume of your voice, the speed at which you are speaking and add impact through a pause at a key moment. These simple techniques can bring the magic of story right into the room with you. I’ve found it doesn’t matter what age is your listener when they are being told a story in a captivating way, all of us are five years old again.

Stories are intermediaries. They act as the medium by which we can take the unknown and mysterious and turn it into felt and memorable experience. Once you have got a feel for the alchemy of story, you may well become addicted to sharing them, over and over again.

Erica Sosna is a TEDx speaker and the career coach for the hero in you. Her book, Your Life Plan, uses storytelling methods to enable her clients to be the central character in their own life story.