Leading by a Tale

Let me tell you a story: I once presented a program to the department heads of a university business school in which I attempted to demonstrate why and how storytelling was useful to their students. After a few jokes about milk and cookies, these professors told me that they preferred statistics to stories. The consensus was that with a few minor exceptions, storytelling had no place in a serious business school curriculum.

Within six months, most of these department heads were let go. I believe that the same lack of imagination that caused the faculty members to scoff at my presentation contributed to their short-lived careers.

Fortunately, imagination is very much in evidence at some of the greatest organizations in the world, from Nike to the World Bank. The leaders of these companies know that storytelling is one of the most powerful tools of persuasion there is, and for good reason. According to Makingstories.net president Terrence Gargiulo, well-told stories can perform nine main functions:

  • Empower a speaker
  • Create a particular environment
  • Bond individuals
  • Engage the mind in active listening
  • Negotiate differences among individuals and groups
  • Encode information
  • Serve as tools for thinking
  • Act as weapons
  • Bring about healing

What’s more, they accomplish all these tasks by appealing to emotion and enhancing memory – creating indelible images in our hearts and minds that are so strong, we actually feel we have experienced the story ourselves.

Perhaps even more importantly, storytelling exercises the imagination. And when you have a strong imagination, you can imagine alternatives to a whole range of business and personal challenges, from developing a new type of widget to solving inter-office conflicts. 

What is Storytelling?
The National Storytelling Network, and the several thousand professional storytellers it represents, define storytelling as face-to-face oral narrative that employs non-verbal communication and imagination. However, stories can also be created for annual reports, newsletters and any other internal or external written business communications. Just bear in mind that when stories are shared live, they tend to be much more powerful than when they appear in print.

For one thing, the storyteller can gauge the best way to deliver the story by the reaction of the audience. This means that if attention is flagging or people look puzzled, he or she can respond immediately and adjust the performance accordingly. In addition, a dynamic performance can generate the kind of energy that engages and inspires, especially for people who may not respond as well to the printed word, such as young people or those with limited reading skills. 

How Do Leaders Use Storytelling?
Stories told by leaders – whether they are bosses, generals, politicians or team captains – are generally intended to build trust, motivate, inspire or educate, and sometimes all four at once. They can be personal experience stories, folktales, current events stories or fictional tales created for a particular situation. Leaders can deliver a full-blown story with a beginning, middle and ending as part of a speech or in a meeting. They can also use story shorthand, referring to a name, event or phrase that summons up a familiar narrative in the minds of the listeners. For example, mentioning “9/11” so powerfully evokes the image of a cataclysmic terrorist strike that when Mumbai, India, fell under attack, the events were described as “the 9/11 of India.”

Experts say that the most effective type of story in any given situation depends on which of the above- mentioned goals a leader intends to achieve. Business-storytelling guru Annette Simmons, president of Group Process Consulting, says there are six types of stories that leaders tell:

  • Who I Am. A story that demonstrates where I am coming from and why you should trust me
  • Why I Am Here. A story that expresses my agenda
  • The Vision. A story that reflects a vision of the future that my listeners can buy into
  • Teaching Stories. Demonstrating how and why a desired skill is valuable
  • Values-in-Action. An example of the positive benefits of shared values
  • I Know What You Are Thinking. A story that reflects what I know about the group I’m addressing to show that I have their interests and attitudes at heart. Simmons notes that these kinds of stories will help persuade others that the leader is worthy of their trust and hard work.

When Do Leaders Share Stories?

Do you train people in your line of work? Jo Tyler, assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University, has worked in organizational development for several corporations, including the Otis Elevator Company. She recalls that an escalator repairman who ignored safety precautions was once seriously injured on the job. Instead of letting the man go, Tyler reassigned him to train the company’s maintenance crews. He told his story to new hires, and the company’s safety record skyrocketed.

Do you need to resolve diversity issues? Acclaimed storyteller/trainer Susan O’Halloran works with corporations to help them resolve employee issues connected to gender, race, religion and other sensitive subjects. One of O’Halloran’s most effective stories is a West African folktale she calls “Kofi’s Hat.”: Two brothers and two sisters got along perfectly; the couples married and happily settled on adjacent yam farms. When they decided to pool their resources and work together, they won the village’s annual yam contest, much to the dismay of the perennial winner, Kofi.

                    "Storytelling is one of the most powerful tools of
                    persuasion there is, and for good reason."

Kofi then created a hat that was different on the right than on the left. He walked down the road between the two farms and caused dissension between the couples as to what the hat actually looked like. They stopped speaking to each other and never worked together again. Needless to say, they never won the yam contest again.

You can see how a story like this could lead to a useful discussion among people who are certain that their – and only their – perspective is correct.

Want to liven up a meeting or keynote address? Create a strategic plan or corporate vision? Ignite change? Enhance technology? Personalize employee orientation sessions or annual reviews? In these situations and more, storytelling has brought about proven results. 

How Can You Start Using Storytelling In Your Organization?
You may wish to keep a story diary of memories that come to you during your day that you may wish to share with others in your organization. Or, you can search the Internet for folktale collections that contain simple tales demonstrating important character traits. You may also put out a call to your organization for stories – anonymous or not – that demonstrate certain themes (courage, loyalty, jealousy, honesty) or situations (first day at work, harassment, job training). As you can see by the examples, the stories may be positive or negative, depending on the desired goal. Some companies initiate sessions where employees of all levels are mixed together in small groups and share stories on particular themes. In cases like this, be sure to encourage good listening skills, without judgment and with generosity. You may also wish to employ the “Vegas” rule – that is, the stories told in the group remain in the group.

Is there a storyteller in the house? Although the ability to tell and understand stories is said to be one of the main characteristics that makes us human, some people are more talented and practiced at it than others. You may not be comfortable sharing stories with those you lead. In that case, there may be someone else in your organization who can take on that role.

Or, you may wish to bring in a professional storyteller to coach and guide you, or even to help create and present the story herself. (To find a storyteller, visit the National Storytelling Network at www.storynet.org.) Just remember storytelling consultant Stephen Denning’s advice: We don’t choose to use storytelling in business; we must use it if we are to achieve consensus about the organization’s goals and the best way to achieve them. The only choice, he says, is whether or not we do it well.

Caren S. Neile, Ph.D., ATMS/CL, is a member of West Boca Toastmasters in Boca Raton, Florida. She directs the South Florida Storytelling Project at Florida Atlantic University and serves as Southeast Regional Director on the Board of the National Storytelling Network. Dr. Neile has presented on storytelling at two Toastmasters lnternational Conventions. You can reach her at cneile@fau.edu.

Some Leading Books on Storytelling for Leaders

  • Denning, Stephen. The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative. John Wiley & Sons, 2005.
  • Silverman, Lori L. Wake Me Up When the Data Is Over. Jossey-Bass, 2006.
  • Simmons, Annette. The Story Factor: Inspiration, Influence and Persuasion Through the Art of Storytelling. 2nd Revised Edition. Basic Books, 2006.
  • Simmons, Annette. Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins. AMACOM, 2007.
  • Wacker, Mary B. and Silverman, Lori L. Stories Trainers Tell: 55 Ready-to-Use Stories to Make Training Stick. Pfeiffer, 2005.