Storytelling: for the boardroom, not only the nursery

Storytelling is a powerful piece of kit for your leadership tool bag. Whatever the business challenge, whatever the direction in which leaders need their staff to follow them, storytelling is a great way to motivate people. The emotional element of storytelling makes it more effective than facts, figures and PowerPoint presentations combined.

Next time you’re addressing staff, next time you’re introducing an initiative or a novel approach, try telling a story. You might just find the impact more powerful than you expect.

Why storytelling is such an effective leadership tool

Telling and listening to stories is in our human DNA. We gathered around the warmth of the fire in prehistoric times and listened to tales from our family, tribe members and leaders. For generations we’ve absorbed cautionary tales passed from grandparent to parent to child. Stories have been instrumental to human evolution. They underline how our shared knowledge has been built, our identities formed, and our view of the world shaped. And this is exactly what storytelling does in a leadership scenario.

Most of all, stories are emotionally engaging. We’ve all sat through PowerPoint presentations which seem to drone on interminably, with little point or decipherable action. Compare a speaker who tells a compelling story. The difference is stark:

“If you can harness imagination and the principles of the well-told story, then you get people rising to their feet amid thunderous applause instead of yawning and ignoring you.”
– Fryer, B. (2003) Storytelling That Moves People. Harvard Business Review

Stories give our brains an easy-to-understand example to latch onto. Would the moral of Goldilocks be so effective if the story laboured the exact quantity of the porridge, its temperature, its precise flavour profile? Probably not.

Storytelling is such an effective leadership tool because it takes people on a journey. By utilising a medium that’s been familiar to us since childhood and weaving in new elements, leaders can connect with people and take them forwards as one.

Benefits of storytelling

An idea plus emotion equals magic. Tell a story well and the inspirational element of storytelling gives rise to positive action. We’ve already established why storytelling is effective. So, what are the benefits of stories in a commercial setting?

  • Listeners engage – The human brain works constantly to order the information it receives into a narrative so that we can make sense of the world. A list of facts and figures is hard work for the brain. When the information is wrapped up in a story, it’s easier to grasp quickly, easier to remember, and therefore easier to recall when motivation begins to wane
  • Stories build trust – The act of telling a story requires the teller to be direct, open and honest. Well, if they want to connect to their audience of course! Being dishonest or glib might be swallowed by the audience in the moment, but when the truth comes to light the consequences will be disastrous. Honesty inspires trust and gives the impression that the leader can be relied upon
  • Listeners find the will – Sharing in an emotional journey means listeners are far more likely to walk the next steps with a leader. Persuading people with facts and figures only goes so far. If people have a clear understanding of the purpose behind what is asked of them, they are much more likely to find the will to do it
  • People take action – The next logical step after finding the will to do something is taking action. Understanding a key idea and having an emotional motivation means more people take action more often

How to tell stories that motivate people

Whatever tale you choose to share, bear these key points in mind.

  • Be honest – Whether you’re telling a story from your own personal history, the story of someone you learned from, or repeating a well-worn fable, be honest. Don’t gloss over the cracks. Share failures, vulnerabilities, your reactions, interpretations and lessons. Your listener will smell insincerity a mile away and your efforts will only cause mistrust and a lack of action
  • Know your audience – Who is listening? What matters to them? Think through your story ahead of time and highlight factors which will answer the questions your listeners have even before they have asked them. By taking your listener on a journey which fulfils their emotional needs, you’ll keep them engaged
  • Relate your story to the situation – Your story doesn’t have to be directly related to the subject you’re speaking about. What matters is that you draw out the relevant parts. Don’t make your audience work too hard to understand your meaning. Be flexible, adaptable and remember the purpose at the heart of your story
  • Believe your own story, and the goal – If you don’t believe in your own goal, or the story that is going to help you get there, who else will? We’re not asking you to believe that three bears live in a house and eat porridge. You do need to believe that the moral at the heart of your story is true and that it is the correct torch to illuminate the path which takes you forward

What story can you tell?

Persuasion using your intellect alone won’t cut it. You need something more. As Aristotle put it, powerful oratory is composed of three elements: the speaker’s character, their intellectual argument and an appeal to the audience’s emotions. Your position as leader covers the character element. The data that infiltrates every aspect of corporate life provides intellectual stimuli in abundance. Storytelling completes the trinity with its powerfully emotive character.

If your organisation has a new story tell, why not get in touch? While it’s up to you to write the script, we can support you as you develop your ideas and put them into practice. We’re on 0117 370 1800 and welcome the opportunity to hear your story.


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