In his historical study of 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 post memorable. But telling stories is more than just a folkloric way of relating to others. It is a powerful and persuasive vehicle that top leaders use to get their message across with maximum impact and minimum resistance. Today’s most effective leaders know how to use a variety of story models to communicate their vision, gain buy-in for their ideas, convey values, and inspire their employees.
Many cultures have strong storytelling traditions. This is true regardless of their epoch in history or their geographic location. Yet few leaders from any side use stories in their work.
Generally speaking, business and government leaders appreciate facts, data, logic and reason. Yet when presented with facts, people try to understand them through critical appraisals. They are looking for loopholes in your argument. Therefore, using only facts and logical arguments can put your audience in a conflicting state of mind.
The narration, on the other hand, combines facts and emotions. When people get emotionally invested in a story, they aren’t looking for ways to bring it down. By wrapping your message in a story, you can present your message to your audience without hitting them over the head.
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 do not know that stories can serve many purposes, such as:
To present oneself. The right story can position you as you want to be seen, rather than allowing others to define you. Stories can help you build relationships with your audience, establish your credibility, and tell others what you stand for.
Promote your brand. Some of the most reputable companies in the world have great brands in part because they have great stories. We know their stories, and those stories shape how we think about these companies.
Communicate your vision. It’s what makes or breaks a leader. Kennedy, Reagan, and Gandhi all excelled at articulating a clear vision for the future, and they did it with stories.
Transmit the key values of the organization. Every organization has a socialization process. Good stories can make members feel much better than a list of core values on a poster hanging on the wall.
These are just a few of the purposes that stories can serve, and there are many more.
2. Another reason most leaders don’t make better use of stories is that they don’t believe stories are appropriate for business communication. They think the stories are trivial, not serious enough for worthy business types of the upper echelon. This is of course nonsense. Great leaders from Jesus to Lincoln to Churchill have used stories with powerful effect.
Most of the best companies in the world have well-known stories. A man goes door to door trying to sell his Fried Chicken (KFC) recipe. Another milkshake machine vendor discovers a small hamburger stand (McDonald’s). Two men tinkering in a garage create a tech 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 why so few leaders tell stories is that they don’t know how. We are now getting to the heart of the matter. It’s easy to realize the purposes stories can serve and dispel the myth that stories are unwelcome in a commercial setting. It is more difficult for a leader to deal with his discomfort by giving the artistic performance of storytelling.
Fortunately, it really isn’t that difficult. There are only two things to learn: how to create a story and how to deliver it.
There are a number of 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 to 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 your way – with your heart. You cannot fake authenticity.
Instead of using just data, facts and selfish statements, a great leader can connect with their audience and deliver a powerful message through the art of storytelling.