As children we will more than likely have delighted in the bedtime stories our parents read or made up for us. As adults we will have enjoyed the repeated stories of adventure and mishaps that happened to various family members or loved to escape into a good book or binge on the latest TV series. Humans seek out stories to comfort, motivate and inspire ourselves in every part of our lives, and that includes business. Organisations are increasingly making the connection between great leadership and great storytelling skills. Of course, not everyone is a natural born storyteller, but it is a skill that can be honed and developed with the right training – the key is understanding why it is so powerful.
From the earliest times, we have used stories to help us make sense of the world around us and ultimately of ourselves. We love stories at the most basic level because we can relate to the characters and themes, and by doing so, learn about the world and what is expected of us. We recognise dilemmas and difficult circumstances that we have observed or experienced, challenging characters who bring tension with them, and all the familiar feelings of conflict, fear, hope and happiness. The knowledge we glean not only helps us to understand what might motivate other people’s choices and responses, but also enables us to better understand ourselves. Very importantly, at the core of most stories, are the clues about how to resolve conflict, how to adapt and how to persevere.
When you can see just how important storytelling is to our understanding of ourselves and the world around us, you can begin to see the power that the good storyteller holds.
Remember how we learnt about others and ourselves from stories? It’s also true that if others can understand you better, they are more likely to trust you, so the ability to share your story authentically will make you a better leader. In addition, leaders with great storytelling skills can create a compelling and shared vision that makes them more likely to be able to retain and recruit the best team members. That shared vision can translate into a clear direction that is easier for team members to understand and aim for. This clarity of purpose causes workers and teams to strive more efficiently towards their shared goal, and visualising their shared success makes it more likely to be achieved. It’s obvious really, isn’t it?
Stories can be used as an example of excellence, a cautionary warning or as a blueprint to success that everyone can buy into and measure against. Essentially, storytelling encapsulates the “Why” in everything you and your organisation does, and didn’t someone very clever once say “Start with the Why”?
We know the “why”, so now, let’s look at the “how’. The joy is that storytelling is a skill, therefore it can be learned. There are clear steps to building a powerful story and clear steps to delivering an engaging story.
One: First you must build a credible narrative – the message must be clear and easy to visualise. Therefore a strong hook needs to be created to catch the imagination and interest of the listeners. The best stories are lively, appealing and humorous. If we think of good stories such as; Cinderella, Star Wars, Harry Potter, they all follow a simple, consistent structure. A humble setting, a challenge for the main character, a golden opportunity being presented, allowing for an adventurous journey with a final success achieved.
Two: Presentation. A good storyteller will engage the audience both verbally and physically. Verbally by the language, vocal tones and pace they use. Physically by the energy they exude, the eye contact with their listeners, and the way they use the space around them. Good storytellers may use ‘props’, such as slides, but these should be considered subsidiary to the voice of the storyteller. Again, the skills to be a proficient storyteller can be learned and honed.
Three. The true art of a storyteller is to be able to adapt to each and every audience. In business it is sometimes easy to think that the story being told can simply be repeated exactly the way it has been told before. However, although the content of the story is the same, different audiences may need different parts of the story highlighted. Senior Leaders of an organisation will need a different telling of a story than, for example, Team Leaders. Different departments within a business will need different information from the story to understand their part in the journey.
Leaders who are trained to utilise the power of storytelling can influence and inspire, engage and reassure more effectively. They can pull a workforce together to share a new vision or goal and they can build morale when times are hard. The beauty is that all this is available, to any organisation, by investing in this powerful skill.