What Storytellers Can Teach Leaders

StorytellingPicture this scene.  We come into work on Monday morning and everyone is gathered around the coffee station, talking about their weekends.  Several people share the litany of activities they were involved in — ‘we went to Home Depot, watched my daughter play soccer and caught a movie.’  You start to think, “I really need to get to my desk and get to work.”  Then someone says, “Let me tell you what happened at this event I attended Saturday night.  We were all sitting down to dinner when…”. Your ears perk up, you really start listening and that work you needed to get to can wait.  You’re pretty sure you’re about to hear a great story.  Odds are that story will be repeated by everyone in the group to at least one other person.  On the other hand, very few people will remember the trip to Home Depot.

Leaders can learn a lot from great storytellers.  Leaders need to influence people to move in a particular direction, to buy into a vision, to join you in tackling a challenge.    Great storytellers know how to convey information so that we respond both emotionally and intellectually. In a post from American Economist Olivia Mitchell, she shares tips on how to tell stories like one of the great storytellers, Malcolm Gladwell (author of Outliers, Blink, The Tipping Point).  She uses examples from a chapter in Gladwell’s book Outliers to illustrate her points.

1.  He starts with one subject

Gladwell’s book explores why certain people are exceptionally successful.
We hear personal stories and detailed statistics – but Gladwell always starts with a story about one particular person.

2.  He paints word-pictures

Before he starts his story, we get a description of the main character. So as Gladwell tells his story, we can visualize the person in our minds.

3.  He gives us detail

He describes in vivid detail the circumstances that the character faced.
He gives examples that bring it to life.

4.  His characters speak

Gladwell doesn’t just narrate a story – he has his subjects tell the story in
their own words:

5.   He makes us curious

Gladwell tells the character’s story without revealing exactly why it’s
important.  He creates a bit of a mystery and promises to unravel it.

6.   He multiplies the story

He uses more than one example.  He uses an example of one person and
then shows how it is a story shared by many, many people.

7.  The clincher

Gladwell adds the clincher to prove his point.

The power of stories is real.  A large part of my work is facilitating teams and groups.  One thing I’ve noticed is the impact of stories on involvement and engagement.   When I start a sentence with “Let me tell you about a time when..” or “let me tell you a the story of…” The heads in the room pop up, people lean forward, IPhones they were looking at under the table are put away.

We all are looking for that emotional connection in the sea of facts and information we’re exposed to at work every day. Stories from leaders make them more human, help people identify with the what and why of a situation and to take action.  How have you used stories today?

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