The Leader As Storyteller

In his landmark study of leadership, Harvard Professor Howard Gardner found that “the key to leadership… is effective communication of a story.”

Stories are an excellent way to connect with people, to make complex ideas easier to understand, and to make your message memorable. But telling stories is more than just a folksy way to relate 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 various story templates to communicate their vision, win buy-in for their ideas, transmit values, and inspire their people.

Many cultures have strong storytelling traditions. This is true regardless of their time in history or their place geographically. Yet few leaders of any stripe use stories in their work.

Generally speaking, leaders in business and government value facts, data, logic, and reason. Yet when presented with facts, people try to make sense of them through critical evaluations. They look for flaws in your argument. As a result, using only facts and logical arguments can put your audience in a confrontational state of mind.

Storytelling, on the other hand, combines facts plus emotions. When people become emotionally invested in a story, they aren’t looking for ways to shoot it down. By packaging your message into a story, you can introduce your message to your audience without hitting them over the head with it.

By harnessing the power of stories, leaders could be a lot more persuasive. So why don’t more leaders use stories? I can think of three main reasons.

1. Many leaders are not aware that stories can serve many purposes, such as:

Introducing yourself. The right story can position you the way you wish 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.

Promoting your brand. Some of the world’s most highly regarded companies have great brands in part because they have great stories. We know their stories, and these stories shape the way we feel about these companies.

Communicating your vision. This is 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.

Transmitting key organizational values. Every organization has a socialization process. The right stories can help members feel like they belong far better than a list of core values on a poster hanging on the wall.

These are just a few of the purposes stories can serve, and there are many others.

2. Another reason why most leaders do not make better use of stories is that they do not believe stories are appropriate for business communication. They feel stories are corny, not serious enough for dignified upper-echelon corporate types. This of course is nonsense. Great leaders from Jesus to Lincoln to Churchill have used stories with powerful effect.

Most of the world’s best companies have well known stories. One man going door to door trying to sell his recipe for fried chicken (KFC). Another man selling milkshake machines discovers a tiny hamburger stand (McDonald’s). Two men tinkering in a garage create a technology giant (Apple, HP, and many others). How many small businessmen would love to have a story like these? 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. Now we’re getting to the heart of the matter. It is easy to become aware of the purposes stories can serve, and to dispel the myth of stories not being welcome in a business setting. It is more difficult for a leader to deal with his discomfort in giving the artistic performance that is storytelling.

Fortunately, it is really not that difficult. There are only two things to learn: how to craft a story, and how to deliver it.

There are a number of templates for crafting stories. The template you use depends on your purpose in telling the story. While you cannot use the same template for every story, there is a template to help you structure any story you wish to tell.

Finally, there is delivering 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 your heart. You can’t fake authenticity.

Instead of using only data, facts, and self-serving statements, a great leader can connect with his audience and deliver a powerful message through the fine art of storytelling.

David Goldwich, the Persuasion Doctor, is committed to helping people get what they want. A “reformed” lawyer, David teaches people how to play the negotiation game and become more assertive, compelling, and persuasive. He gives talks and conducts workshops in persuasive business presentations, negotiation, storytelling for leaders and sales professionals, and other areas of influence and persuasion. Learn more at

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