Article

Hone your storytelling skills for effective leadership

Storytelling is an art and skill that only a handful of leaders wield effectively. Like so many so-called “soft skills” that have long been undervalued, storytelling is rarely taught as part of a career curriculum.

By Susan Lahey

Published January 15, 2021
Last updated January 19, 2021

Abraham Lincoln used stories to solve arguments, often to the dismay of his cabinet, saying, “I don’t propose to argue this matter…because arguments have no effect upon men whose opinions are fixed and whose minds are made up. But this little story of mine will make some things which now are in the dark show up more clearly.”

Storytelling is an art and a skill that only a handful of leaders have known how to wield effectively. Like so many so-called “soft skills” that have long been undervalued, it’s rarely taught as part of a career curriculum. As an organizational leadership tool, stories help to inspire both compliance from employees and enthusiasm, which leaders really need when they’re constantly having to ask people to evolve, grow, and change in response to the environment. Imagine the difference, for example, between telling employees they have to face the stress and uncertainty of a digital transformation because they’re losing market share versus telling them the story of Jen:

Jen is 23. She just moved into her first apartment and she’s both exhilarated to be out on her own and terrified by the responsibility. She couldn’t sleep the first few nights because of the unfamiliar noises she heard outside. Was someone screaming… or maybe it was just a cat? Right away, there’s a plumbing issue that she needs building maintenance to address. She spent hours on the phone with the utility company, and sat home waiting for her internet provider to show up… only they didn’t. Jen is losing enthusiasm and confidence; it’s starting to feel like she can’t handle adulting, even though all her friends seem to be managing it. Nothing seems to come easily. But then she signs up for [your product, say banking, or investing, or grocery delivery]. It’s easy, it’s fast, all she has to do is log onto a friendly, intuitive app that seems to welcome her and know what she needs. Her confidence soars: Maybe she’s got this, after all.

The story of Jen, in this case, is what brings to life the reason why your employees are doing the work they do. They’re not desperately trying to chase market share, which might in this moment feel like a losing battle—instead, they’re providing an experience that makes Jen’s life easier. Stories enlist your team on a mission, aligning and motivating them to make the necessary changes so that they can deliver the best experience to customers like Jen.

[Related read: 13 ways to be a customer-driven company]

Why stories are effective

This isn’t just fluff; it’s science. Paul J. Zak, Ph.D., author of Trust Factor: The Science of High-Performance Companies, wrote an article about this principle for the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good magazine. If you can capture someone’s interest with a story and paint a picture for them, he says, you trigger their empathy, causing them to synthesize oxytocin. When that happens, he said, “people are more trustworthy, generous, charitable, and compassionate…”—and sensitive to social cues which may motivate us to engage to help others, particularly if the other person seems to need our help. In other words, storytelling changes behavior.

In other words, storytelling changes behavior.

Another researcher, Judith Glaser, wrote that all of our conversations produce chemical cocktails, often either releasing the stress hormone cortisol or the “love” hormone oxytocin. Cortisol causes people to shut down and reduces empathy, teamwork, and creativity; oxytocin does the opposite.

But to trigger oxytocin, you have to learn to weave a compelling story, a skill that requires effort and practice to master. Some people learn it as part of their upbringing; for others it’s a formidable - if worthwhile - challenge.

“The majority of people I meet are not good storytellers,” said Jeff Gothelf, who recently published an article in Harvard Business Review called “Storytelling Can Make or Break Your Leadership.” Good storytellers are even more rare at the top of the organization, he said in an interview, possibly because “creativity is discouraged as you go up in leadership.” Also, authentic storytelling is vulnerable and requires a level of humility.

“Some leaders fear any kind of deviation from the PowerPoint templates because it threatens the perceived seriousness of their position or title and that moves people away from powerful, creative storytelling,” Gothelf said. “Then there are those who have a desire to come across as William Wallace. Those are the two extremes of it, most folks miss the effective middle ground between these two things.”

[Related read: Inclusive leadership has never been more imperative]

5 tips for telling a good story

“Storytelling is creative work,” Gothelf said. “It takes an explicit, targeted effort to tell a compelling story. If you do it well, you’ll contextualize the story to the work the team is doing, humanize it with anecdotes, and include your own experiences. People can sniff out bullshit.”

Gothelf recommends that leaders don’t restrict themselves to the lessons of business storytelling, but absorb storytelling wisdom from many corners, like “The Clues to a Great Story” TED talk by Andrew Stanton of Toy Story and Wall-E fame:

Storytelling is an art and a skill that only a handful of leaders have known how to wield effectively

“Storytelling,” Stanton said in the talk, “is joke-telling. It’s knowing your punchline…knowing that everything you’re saying from the first sentence to the last is leading to a singular goal and ideally confirming some truth that deepens our understanding of who we are as human beings.”

Here’s a quick compendium of storytelling insights:

  1. Paint a picture of people. “iPhone commercials always talk about the benefit; Samsung always talks about the features,” Gothelf said. Samsung will say ‘We have a 12megapixel camera; iPhone will say ‘Show grandma the new baby.’”
  2. Pace it. Timing might be the hardest part of storytelling. But it’s a lot like learning when to swing a bat or a tennis racket, and at what angle or with what force. You need to build it not so fast that the point is lost, but not so slowly that people lose interest. If we just said ‘Jen was scared to be grown-up, but your new app will make her feel empowered,’ that’s not a story. The details—was a scream or was it a cat?—can connect people viscerally, but can also bog you down. Finding the right balance is not something people become good at overnight. A Fast Company list of pacing problems included giving too much background, taking too long, including too many details, and going on unnecessary detours.
  3. Make it authentic. The empathy drive comes from the ability to relate. Real stories are best.
  4. Shape your story to your audience. You wouldn’t tell your mom a story the same way you would tell your colleague, and you can’t tell the same story to your marketing department as to your supply chain department. As Gothelf wrote: “If you want to know what your target audience is curious about, what worries them, and what motivates them, a series of quick, informal conversations is often the most effective way to figure it out. You can then infuse your storytelling with words that speak to your audience’s specific anxieties or concerns, while avoiding language that will come across as bland platitudes.”
  5. Absorb stories. Watch presentations like TED talks. How did the stories go over? Were they obviously ice breaker stories that didn’t move the session forward and made you feel kinda bad for the speaker from the get-go, or did they capture your attention for the rest of the talk, and why?

[Related read: In an uncertain world, knowledge is power]

Storytelling helps connect the dots

From a leadership perspective, storytelling can be used to explain to employees why something has to change in a specific way, how the change will be accomplished, and what they can expect the results to be. Employees at various levels in the company don’t always have the overall big picture of the company within the industry landscape, or knowledge of other departments, or even of the customer experience.

Timing might be the hardest part of storytelling. But it’s a lot like learning when to swing a bat or a tennis racket, and at what angle or with what force.

Storytelling goes both ways, too—it’s not always about shepherding change from the top down. Storytelling is also an effective technique for selling an idea to executive leadership above you. Stories can be used to supplement raw numbers and data you may have collected to back a proposal. Perhaps, for example, your customer service department is receiving 3,000 monthly tickets that could be eliminated by redesigning the company website. When paired with a story about the end user, the conversation expands beyond the savings and investment to include the customer experience.

Ultimately, making employees feel empathy with, and connection to, the world they’re contributing to is where storytelling is really powerful.