Table of Contents
- The scoop on storytelling
- The science behind storytelling
- A business case for leadership storytelling
- How is storytelling done for effectiveness?
- Key benefits of leadership storytelling
- A storytelling catalog
Business leaders operate in increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous (VUCA) high-pressure data-centric workplace environments with heterogeneous global workforces. Additionally, they are bombarded with data via reports, dashboards, and systems. To be most effective, these leaders must understand the dynamic process of delivering corporate information in understandable soundbites, making data-driven decisions, engaging and inspiring diverse global teams, and fostering influence. However, these requirements take more than mere leadership knowledge and competence to be most impactful and successful; it requires a specific skill known as persuasive communication—the art of storytelling.
Storytelling is a powerful communication tool for corporate leaders who develop organizational stories to make sense of rapid, ongoing streams of data and information—the “sensemakers.” Then, through the art of storytelling, they become “sensegivers” as they take those vital bits of information and generate coherent, succinct, compelling, and memorable narratives. Leadership storytellers employ sensemaking and sensegiving techniques as a vehicle to share corporate information with their stakeholders and shareholders.
Telling corporate stories is arguably one of the most effective, yet least-used, methods for capturing the imagination and delivering information, providing context, linking business objectives, and sharing business strategies and ideas in a cohesive format. In addition, it serves as a persuasive communication function for organizational leaders by representing personal, interpersonal, and corporate perspectives. Storytelling has the potential to influence, help people connect, develop genuine understanding, unite around shared purposes and goals, and inspire action.
“A good story has power. The power to inspire. The power to energize and the power to move people to action. Good stories have the power to build understanding. To entertain. To teach. To humanize the big picture” – Andy Goodman.
The scoop on storytelling
Storytelling: n.: A vivid description of ideas, beliefs, personal experiences, and life lessons through stories or narratives that evoke powerful emotions and insights.
Storytelling is an ancient art that has existed for thousands of years in various forms—pictures, drawings, images, songs, poems, plays, verbal and written stories, and movies. It is a method of weaving language into a concrete narrative to create rich, believable experiences. Storytellers tie together characters and plots to accomplish this feat, resulting in stories that act as metaphors for the human experience. In other words, storytellers do not merely relay facts; they use words, so the audience gets involved in the story as though they had a first-hand experience. Additionally, great storytellers share insights, invoke emotions, capture attention, engage the listeners, and leave the audience with information and new knowledge to absorb.
Storytelling is, and has always been, a highly effective medium to deliver a message or relay information. It is the reason why the art of compelling and impactful storytelling has become an essential leadership tool. Denning (2004), a prolific author on the topic, posits, “the age-old practice of storytelling is one of the most effective tools leaders can use” (p. 122). Through storytelling, leaders can emotionally connect with their stakeholders, build engagement, convey vital information, set strategic visions, and inspire action. After all, storytelling is about experiences. When a leader shares a story, he/she relives an experience and invites others to share that experience. Thereby connecting and engaging with the listeners and delivering the intended message(s) through a story.
Jimmy Neil, Director of the International Storytelling Center, declares, “We are all storytellers. We all live in a network of stories. There isn’t a stronger connection between people than storytelling.”
Stories are how we think and speak
Stories are how we (a) create our identities, (b) make meaning of life, (c) explain processes, (d) make decisions, (e) justify our decisions, (f) persuade others, (g) foster connections, (h) build relationships, and (i) define and teach social values.
Stories are a linked sequence of events one experiences, forming a chain from the beginning to the end. It depicts a clear theme leading to a specific conclusion or providing a particular message (Vora, 2019). As humans, we think and talk in terms of sequences and event chain links all day long. We begin at a specific point prompting successive experiences/events, all interlinked, leading us toward an end, a conclusion, a decision, or a message.
Science dictates that the human brain is hardwired to storytelling, so, knowingly or unknowingly, we are constantly creating narratives in our minds or delivering them in our conversations.
The science behind storytelling
In The Science of Storytelling: Why Telling a Story Is the Most Powerful Way to Activate Our Brains, Leo Widrich shares science reveals that evolution has wired our brains for storytelling. As a result, stories help us to remember.
Also, the brain becomes more active when we hear or tell stories.
Storytelling’s power lies in its ability to trigger neurons within the human brain. It turns out that when we hear information delivered via a story rather than simply shared facts, our brains light up, and neural activity increases fivefold.
A story can engage our entire brain. Also, when we convey stories to others based on personal experiences that have helped shape our thought processes, we can have the same effect on the listeners. According to Princeton University scientists, the brains of an individual telling a story and the person listening to it can synchronize. It is because the brain neurons get activated similarly.
When the brain receives a story, its neurons fire in the same patterns as the storyteller’s brain. Known as ‘neural coupling,’ it creates coherence and alignment between the storyteller’s brain and the listener. As a result, the listener begins thinking from the storyteller’s perspective and starts agreeing with the points being made in the narrative. Consequently, shared experiences can influence others to go through a similar sequence of events highlighted in a story.
Note. Adapted from Speaker–listener neural coupling underlies successful communication, by G. J. Stephens, L. J. Silbert, and U. Hasson, 2010, PMC: Pub Med Central, 2010.
Leadership storytelling is crucial to grasping the audience’s attention and garnering ‘buy-in’ to the conveyed message(s).
Leaders, through the art of storytelling, can provide profound, rich, meaningful experiences by crafting and telling relevant organizational stories, forging connections among stakeholders, communicating concepts and ideas, sharing data, and translating abstract concepts into a vital employee mandate. Stories are undoubtedly more engaging than a delivery of cumbersome information, a dry recitation of data points, or a discussion of abstract ideas. Furthermore, it is an excellent approach to uniting people as they identify with each other based on shared human experiences.
What is leadership storytelling?
Leadership storytelling is an interactive art of using packets of sensory language and actions to reveal the elements and images of a business story while invoking the stakeholders’ comprehension and encouraging their imagination. It is a learned leadership skill that shifts employees’ mindsets by suspending beliefs and introducing new ideas. In addition, it allows leaders to communicate their vision to guide employees in the desired direction.
Like traditional storytelling, leadership storytelling tells a story. However, unlike conventional accounts, it is a communication tool that carries a message to inform, engage, motivate an audience, and spur action. It involves crafting and performing a well-made business story with a hero or heroine, a plot, a conflict, a turning point, and a resolution.
Leaders share a story about an experience but link it to a business context or message to influence and inspire an audience into action. As a storyteller, the leader grasps an audience’s attention by evoking the context and descriptive landscape (sights, sounds, smells) in which the business story occurred. It is also different in form because business stories have a purpose, are supported by data, and are authentic. They are true organizational narratives that relate to and align with a firm’s mission and vision.
When employing leadership storytelling, the storyteller places the most vital context, the core message—the purpose—at the center and uses the narrative to elaborate or explain that central principle.
Leadership storytelling plays a significant role in driving employee buy-in and improving their engagement within a company.
Why should leaders explore storytelling?
Storytelling is a crucial tool for management and leadership because, often, nothing else works!
- Charts leave listeners bemused!
- Prose remains unread!
- Dialogue is just too laborious and slow!
Time after time, when faced with the task of persuading a group of managers or front-line staff in a large organization to get enthusiastic about a major change, storytelling is the only thing that works—Denning (2011b).
Storytelling is indeed the currency of human interaction and social connection, which can have a powerful effect on changing perspectives, attitudes, actions, and behaviors. It can help business leaders connect their employees both rationally and emotionally to a business’s journey and galvanize employees by connecting them to a higher (common) purpose.
As stated in the introduction, organizational life is highly pressured and data-centric. It is filled with multitasking, decision-making, emailing, text messaging, surfing the internet, tweeting, and engaging with social media sites on a continuum.
So how do stories penetrate the noise and reach beyond the ongoing activities?
Storytelling is an invaluable resource in today’s information age, with an unfathomable sea of information, a constant stream of activities, and an overload of data at everyone’s fingertips. It provides the means for delivering substance, describing the expected tangible benefits, and giving meaning in a manner that people can quickly grasp and easily understand.
Stories have sensemaking capabilities, and a skilled storyteller—as the sense-giver—selects crucial bits of information and data to create a coherent, concise, compelling, and memorable business case for an audience (stakeholders), especially when those on the receiving end are extremely busy and faced with a multitude of tasks. Stories serve a vital purpose in the business environment, where distractions and busyness reign supreme. Stories cut through the noise to capture attention, share context, create meaning, and deliver the intended message. Additionally, most listeners prefer interaction and engagement rather than viewing a boring presentation or hearing a lackluster speech.
Storytelling transforms information and brings data to life. Data alone is hard to understand, remember, and reiterate. Stories hook the audience to the data. It can convert dry facts and figures and convey their meaning proactively and efficiently while making the information understandable and relatable.
When leaders talk in narratives, their black-and-white words transform into color. The drab data or requests become a mission and a call to action. As a result, listeners/stakeholders find the leader more captivating and inspiring.
As Guber (2011b) states, “Magic happens when you narrate otherwise soulless data into emotional nodes that render an experience to an audience … that makes the information inside the story memorable, resonant and actionable” (p. 4).
Employing the art of storytelling is vital to persuade and motivate in ways that data, bullet points, and directives simply cannot deliver. Through storytelling, leaders can influence our brain’s functioning and elicit desired responses by …
Note. Adapted from The Power of Data Storytelling (p. 15) by S. Vora, 2019, Sage Publications. Copyright © 2019 by Vora.
Capturing attention: Dry facts and figures become interesting when molded into a story, leading to a dopamine rush that grabs the listeners’ attention and enhances their learning mechanism.
Garnering buy-in: Incorporating information storytelling helps overcome the enormous challenge of getting an audience’s buy-in on the presentation of complex data analytics and conclusions.
Emotional connection: Emotions generated through a data story make an impression on the audience, facilitating retention and recall. The emotional connection also facilitates persuading and motivating the desired action.
Pattern recognition: When information gets enveloped in a story structure, it starts depicting patterns the human mind can quickly grasp, understand, and retain.
Storytelling is highly effective because narratives plant ideas, thoughts, and emotions into listeners’ brains, create connections between people, and invoke shared experiences.
Many organizational leaders, past and present, have employed the art of storytelling to communicate and convey business information, direction, and vision.
A business case for leadership storytelling
Many organizational case studies have revealed how their leadership storytellers impacted their organization. However, for this application, the choice is to use the case of Steve Jobs, a cofounder of Apple Computer, Inc. (now Apple Inc.) and former CEO of Apple Computers, as a model for compelling storytelling.
Steve Jobs introduces the first iPhone. Jobs delivers a compelling story that has forever impacted the Apple brand. It is the epitome of the art of storytelling!
As a result of his gift for compelling and impactful story delivery, Forbes, in 2015, heralded Steve Jobs as the world’s greatest storyteller. The contributing writer states, “The Macintosh launch was especially dramatic, but Jobs introduced heroes and villains in nearly every product launch … Steve Jobs understood the ‘stuff of drama,’ and it’s one of the key reasons his product launches were the stuff of legend” (Gallo, 2015).
Jobs recognized the power of storytelling. Moreover, he intuitively understood the fundamental building block of a compelling narrative and undoubtedly repeatedly delivered a great story to launch Apple products and services. He typically employed the problem (villain) followed by the solution (hero) storytelling methodology
Job states, “The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. The storyteller sets the vision, values, and agenda of an entire generation that is to come …”
It is hard to beat his drive and passion; it is undeniable and palpable! Therefore, it is the primary reason Job’s fervor, creativity, and art of storytelling still resonate with audiences today. Even after his passing years ago, Jobs continues to inspire and engage through his stories.
How is storytelling done for effectiveness?
While there are a variety of methods for compelling storytelling, below are some techniques to be a most effective business storyteller:
Being audience-specific: A story should be adapted based on the audience, as the idea is to have the information resonate. Who are they? What motivates them? What are their concerns?
Capturing the audience’s attention first, fast, and foremost: Without their attention, the message will not come across, and you will likely have trouble sustaining their interest.
Building the storyline around “what’s in it for them”: People like to know there will be some value for their time and effort.
Aiming to connect and engage: Making a personal connection is crucial; by bonding with the audience, you can obtain and sustain their attention for the story’s duration.
Using actions to deliver the message: It is best to use vocalization, physical movement, and gesture to connect and deliver a compelling story. Body language, vocal quality, facial expressions, and movement in a performance space help the audience enhance the comprehension of discourse and retain the information. It also gives the audience essential clues about how you genuinely feel about the content being shared, which in turn helps elicit similar responses in their minds (and hearts)—neural coupling.
Humanizing the story: People have an innate desire to relate to others, so deliver relatable content that connects and builds a relationship with the audience.
Providing relevant business content: It is the content that connects the audience, keeps them engaged, and takes them on an organizational journey.
Making the narrative authentic to the organization: Use strategic narrative to deliver the business story, like where the firm has been, challenges faced and overcome, where it is currently, and its plans and strategies, moving forward.
Sharing a positive message: Stories must be positive in tone to inspire action. For example, happy endings inspire – not negative stories. (Remember, dopamine? The story with a satisfactory conclusion creates happiness, dopamine is released, and the result is a feeling of euphoria that compels the recipient into action.)
Motivating the listeners by demonstrating authenticity: The business story must be true. Authenticity is easily recognized and valued by an audience. Also, it shows honesty and is one of the fundamental ways of making and maintaining an emotional connection.
Connecting by showing humility: Genuine humility shows a capacity for growth and learning. It builds trust in the story precisely because it demonstrates that, as a leader, you are (a) not claiming to have all the answers, (b) open to feedback, and (c) willing to learn and adjust course as needed.
Sharing purpose, goals, and targets: Every business story must have a purpose connected to the intended message being conveyed. Also, stating goals, actionable points, and intended targets triggers motivation and prompts action.
Aligning the narrative to the organization’s strategy, objective, mission, and vision: It reminds the audience of the purpose and provides a road map to the future.
Employing powerful narrative and relevant data: When sharing business stories, there must be the inclusion of hard facts, data, and figures, and support for the data and facts with compelling narratives like customer experience (CX) scores, case studies, and other relevant evaluation results. It makes the intangible tangible and explains the data, making the information more appealing and memorable.
Keeping the information brief but compelling: The minimalist effect is more effective. A short and to-the-point story is more likely to hold the audience’s attention and greater the odds of keeping their interest. So, keep the information precise and concise. (see the eight different narrative patterns)
Changing passive listeners into active participants: Encourage active imagination and engage the audience by interacting, getting them involved, raising questions, giving recognition, and asking for feedback.
Comparing and contrasting: Storytelling makes complicated concepts easily understandable. However, to get the desired result, communicate complex ideas by comparing and contrasting—the before and after and the problem and solution story effect.
Using “state-of-the-heart” technology online and offline to ensure audience commitment remains strong: Using technology to create and transmit stories will keep the audience engaged and motivated. Today’s state-of-the-art social media communication platforms allow people to develop, spread, and strengthen relationships and build communities through conversations among users with shared interests and concerns.
Stating clear outcomes: Each storyline has a beginning (the make-or-break situation), a middle (where all the action occurs), and an ending (the bridge, the link, the conclusion), so it is best to state clear outcomes nearing the end of the narrative. It ensures everyone is on the same page, eliminates ambiguity, and reduces uncertainty.
Avoiding giving directives: Being too directive—for example, telling the audience what to do or what to take away from the story—does not work. While it is suitable in traditional storytelling that often ends with, “The moral of the story is …,” which is a directive ending, it is not ideal for business storytelling.
This is certainly not an exhaustive list; however, it does showcase some effective techniques for successful storytelling!
Great storytelling begins with you aiming to connect, engage, influence, and inspire …
After all, “we all are in the ‘emotional transportation business,’ … The process of telling a great story starts with you being fully committed and motivated to achieve a goal” (Guber, 2011a, p. 20).
Key benefits of leadership storytelling
- Is crucial for leaders to convey information because stories are easy to remember.
- Connects people and ideas.
- Communicates complex messages.
- Allows for different perspectives to emerge.
- Is timeless. It has been an effective leadership tool for decades and continues to be impactful.
- Makes abstract concepts meaningful and is far more effective than simply furnishing dry, conceptual facts and figures which are hard to absorb and bring to life.
- Creates sense, coherence, and meaning.
- Maintains listeners’ attention and increases comprehension. Stories are highly structured forms of communication, so they facilitate an audience’s understanding of facts and data.
- Helps people to recall shared information. Unfortunately, most people forget more than 40 percent of the information they hear by the next day. After a week, they will likely have forgotten approximately 90 percent of what was shared.
- Appeals to different types of learners. In any group, roughly 40 percent will be predominantly visual learners who learn best from videos, charts, diagrams, or illustrations. Another 40 percent will be auditory, learning best through lectures and discussions. The remaining 20 percent are kinesthetic learners, who learn best by doing, experiencing, or feeling.
It has aspects that work for all three types.
(1) Visual learners appreciate the mental pictures storytelling evokes.
(2) Auditory learners focus on the words and the storyteller’s voice.
(3) Kinesthetic learners remember the emotional connections and feelings from the story.
- Is demographic-proof. Everybody — regardless of age, race, or gender —likes and appreciates stories.
- Creates a strong impact that holds the audience’s attention. People are naturally drawn to stories because they provide context and color, inviting the reader’s mind to engage with storytellers and their narratives.
- Puts the listener in a cognitive learning mode and a different orientation. When listeners appreciate a story, they get engaged, stop any activity, change their posture, lean forward, and just listen.
- Inspires imagination and motivates people to act.
- Invokes emotions and makes people think, feel, and act on those thoughts and feelings.
- Helps to develop valuable descriptions of situations in which knowledge is applied and solutions are discovered.
- Inspires change.
A storytelling catalog
As discussed throughout the article, storytelling is an increasingly accepted way to achieve leadership goals and objectives; however, leaders need to employ a variety of narrative patterns for different aims. Storytelling is not a one size fits all approach. A leader must choose the correct method for the business purpose and challenge at hand.
The following catalog sketches varying organizational narratives and shares recommended approaches (Denning, 2011a).
Eight Different Narrative Patterns
Note. Adapted from The leader’s guide to storytelling: Mastering the art and discipline of business narrative (p. 34-35), by S. Denning, 2011, Jossey-Bass. Copyright © 2011by Denning.
The catalog serves as a menu of options that a leader can use to weave a narrative for a presentation. The point is that there is no single way to tell a story. Instead, a story comprises an array of tools, each suitable for a different purpose. As a result, different combinations can be woven together as an integrated narrative tapestry (Denning, 2011).
To that end, understanding these patterns’ differences are vital to compelling storytelling and avoiding the most frequent mistakes that leadership storytellers often make and keeping them from getting the desired results.
For instance: Employing ‘Sparking Action’ as a case in point!
Using a story with negative tonality will generally fail to spark action. ‘Burning platform’ stories, like revealing that the company could potentially go bankrupt if it does not increase innovation and gain a competitive edge in the market, will certainly not stimulate innovation and spur action in the audience. Though informative, such a corporate story might get the listeners’ attention, but it is unlikely to inspire and motivate action. It will likely have an adverse effect.
By contrast, a ‘sparking action’—a springboard story that communicates a complex idea and spurs action—is positive in tone and style. The principal method to successfully use this narrative pattern lies in delivering the information in a minimalist fashion. The rationale for the brief story is that the content is much less important than the new story listeners imagine for themselves. As the audience envisions a new narrative set in their contexts, they unwittingly craft action plans for implementing the change program. Also, because the story is now the listeners’ own (neural coupling), they tend to find it convincing and compelling. In effect, they are already co-creating the strategic shift and have bought into the change initiative and action plan. In a quick delivery, ‘buy-in’ has occurred!
In incorporating leadership storytelling, it is essential to highlight that storytelling is a tool to achieve business purposes, not an end. Therefore, a sharp focus must remain on the business purpose and objective being pursued when introducing storytelling. The advice is to use the applicable tools shared on the eight different narrative patterns associated with different purposes, as shown in the image above.
Leadership storytelling has advantages as it enables the articulation of emotional aspects as well as factual content, allowing the expression of tacit knowledge (that is always difficult to convey). Also, by grounding facts and data in a narrative structure, it augments the likelihood that the information will be received and understood. Employing the shared techniques and the different narrative patterns will play a crucial role in connecting, engaging, inspiring, and influencing an audience.
After all, “Stories are the single most powerful weapon in a leader’s arsenal” Howard Gardner, Harvard University.
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Denning, S. (2011b). The springboard: How storytelling ignites action in knowledge-era organizations. New York, NY: Routledge.
Gallo, C. (2015, Oct. 8). Steve Jobs: The World’s Greatest Business Storyteller.
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