The Art of Effective Storytelling and Leadership Communication

“Are you telling stories again?”, your parents probably said to you when you were young, suspecting you of not being totally truthful. But metaphorical stories and anecdotes as a form of communication in the adult world are powerful. Leadership is about communication, and one of the most effective ways to communicate is to use stories to illustrate key corporate themes. Why stories? Isn’t that rather simplistic and patronizing? Isn’t that talking down to educated employees? No – storytelling is an effective leadership activity and one of the oldest forms of communication. Storytelling is the act of telling or writing stories, or narratives. Typically, stories use visual, literary, auditory, or other creative media to educate, inform, entertain, or inspire an audience to take action. It is a valuable communication tool, and storytelling pays off for you when thoughtfully prepared.

What’s more, recent research has shown that stories are the best way to convey important organizational themes and values. Complex strategies can be simply explained and remembered better when told as stories.

Whether you are a leader in your organization or whether you are preparing communication material for managers internally or as a consultant, you can make your material more effective by introducing stories into them.

How can you seek stories from others?

Arrange to meet with the manager and as you ask about the facts needing to be communicated, also say that you want to ask questions about the human interest aspects of his or her work. Explain that you need more than facts to connect with your audience – either a live audience or newsletter recipients; you need to talk with them to find out the background and the human interest side of the material you will be covering.

Then explore behind the facts, the work went on behind the scenes, the history of the project, who was involved and how they went about their work, the path they followed and why they embarked on the project in question, etc. Drilling down past bare facts should start to reveal some interesting themes and stories.

Stories are simple, timeless, and can appeal to people at all levels – and they are fun. They are versatile – they can be used in many situations.

Speaking to a live audience

Researchers at Ohio State University conducted several experiments on cognitive processes that occur when people become immersed in a story. That feeling of being so lost in a narrative that we hardly notice the world around us is called transportation. And the researchers discovered that when people are transported by a narrative — whether it’s true or imagined — they tend to view the character more favorably and embrace the beliefs and worldviews the story presents. The Quantified Communications blog quotes Briar (no, she’s not ‘Brian’) Goldberg, the Director – Speaker Coaching for TED Conferences and a former QC executive communication coach. She elaborates on advice from writer Mark McKinnon, who detailed the classic narrative arc she uses to help speakers frame their messages as narratives:

“The best stories start by establishing the setting and introducing tension through conflict. The turning point, when the tension is at its highest, is the climax, and what follows is the resolution of the conflict, establishing a new normal for the characters.”

This timeless formula for storytelling is shown in the diagram below. You don’t have to take ‘tension and conflict’ and ‘climax’ literally. The tension might be about something like conforming to a project budget which some people were urging should be exceeded, or trying to keep to a timeline when factors outside your control meant a delay in receiving vital project equipment, etc.

Image: from Quantified Communications.

If you are giving a live presentation, give your story a theme or moral. Be willing to repeat the theme, but keep the story short. Rehearse the story. Don’t think that because you know the outline of the story you will be able to get it right on the day. Don’t take that chance. Invest some time in rehearsing the story by telling it to your workmates, family or even your dog. Your dog is a very good listener!

Stories are not just case studies with facts and figures and a bit of padding. You need to talk about something from your own experience or use an example of an incident or adventure from other people’s experience that their audience can relate to. People remember stories in proportion to their vividness. To be vivid, a story should be about a real person, have a strong sense of time and place, and be told in a colorful way, full of expression.

Bring emotions into the storytelling

You can be emotional and excited in telling the story, and use gestures and smile as you talk. Business people are taught to be objective – “stick to the facts” – but research shows time and again that bare facts aren’t enough to persuade an audience – you need to bring emotions into your talk, to hit your audience hot buttons. When you do, they will remember much more of your message and respond more than they would otherwise.

Be specific with people’s names in your stories. If you don’t, you lose will credibility and vividness. Verify all facts beforehand so you don’t lose credibility because your audience knows some of your facts are wrong. End your story with a conclusion that clearly demonstrates the intended message or lesson to be learned.

When people hear stories about people they can identify with, the people in the stories become role models and their peers are encouraged to behave the same way. Such stories tend to be repeated and their lessons are spread. These stories are especially apt when told to new recruits because the stories help them understand the organizational culture very quickly – the legendary behaviors, values and history of the organization, which signal the unwritten expectations about their own behavior.

Stories can be about corporate values

For instance, at a company where I was contracted recently, the external design engineers who planned a bio-diesel manufacturing plant for us to set up, returned $20,000 from their fee because they had made a design error we hadn’t noticed. Although not obliged to, we passed on the refund to our client. This was a good example of our staff supporting the company value of ‘enduring business relationships.’ What’s more, it makes a great example for new-business presentations and meetings of how the company values good business ethics as a top priority.

Stories are valuable for supporting change efforts. Your top management should be able to convey to employees their vision for the future encapsulated in stories that show the organization as it will be in the future: “In five years time I can see us being able to…” Stories can illustrate where the organization has come from (the unacceptable behaviors), where it is going to and what each employee can expect for themselves from the change (“I can envisage our staff being able to…and going to…when we have completed the transformation. I can see Bill Smith talking to me in five years time how these changes have helped him to…”). You can also tell stories that illustrate what your competitors are doing.

You can pick up stories of customers and other stakeholders

And it’s not just your own internal stories. A medical company shows a videotape presentation annually to all its 30,000 employees worldwide featuring the stories of patients who have benefited from the company’s products. The employees feel personally involved in their company’s mission to restore people to full life. They can see the end result of their work. Many are profoundly moved by the patients’ stories.

The same principle applies to investor relations activities. Financial data such as annual financial reports are rather like looking in your car’s rear vision mirror to see where you are driving. The numbers don’t really provide any great insights into future success; they are just confirmation of the past. Increasingly, investors want the company’s future summarized in a way that tells the story behind the numbers, the company’s potential as an investment. They want key insights into non-financial indicators: the caliber of key managers, tales of their patent applications, and marketing scenarios. You can talk about these things in stories, in little cameos that demonstrate your capable management.

But beware: There is a difference between telling a credible, interesting and concise story and trotting out superficial hype and marketing waffle.

Put ‘stories’ on your meeting agendas

You might feel self-conscious about this (I would!), but try putting the topic of “Stories” on meeting agendas if you are a manager or have influence on the agenda of team meetings you attend. See if you and your colleagues can discuss your current issues in terms of the stories that can illustrate themes from those issues. Make the only agenda item in a couple of team meetings deal with the telling of everyone’s story about their most meaningful recognition. (Recognition and celebration activities are stories within themselves.) Another time ask every team member to tell a story about other team members along the theme of “I heard something good about you.” Include the details because they often make the difference. You can even re-enact the person’s actions in the event you are describing.

In your daily rounds make a note of the stories you hear and the events and actions that are worth turning into stories. You will be surprised how many you find if you are alert to collecting them.

Try Googling to see what is said about storytelling. You will find a lot of companies do storytelling. Nike is one. It is a trendy thing to do, but has also been with us through the ages. Several articles on storytelling have been included in the Harvard Business Review, which is the ultimate sign of approval! One especially useful article, “A refresher on Storytelling 101” by JD Schramm from 2014 is worth reading. Subscriber access or payment is needed for HBR articles. Another good article is Lou Hoffman’s “Five Storytelling Techniques to Give Business Communications Liftoff,” from 2015. Leadership and internal communication expert David Grossman also offers some concise, practical advice in his 2021 article, “A quick formula to tell the best stories.”

Another storyline

For another angle on developing a story, Rob Biesenbach discusses an “Easy formula for unlocking the power of stories.”

Kim Harrison

Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. As he has progressed through his wide-ranging career, his roles have included corporate affairs management; PR consulting; authoring many articles, books and ebooks; running a university PR course; and business management. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.

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