The Power of Storytelling in Leadership Communication
We can all name them: Who in your organization holds your attention when they speak up? Who can you count on to be the most engaging dinner conversationalist? What speaker do you see on a program who pulls you in?
The names that come to mind are those who tell stories so well that time seems to stand still. And it’s true whether they’re speaking to an audience of one or 1,000; on a sales call or a stage; a podcast or around a meal. Those who most deeply connect with their listeners do so through great storytelling.
Decades of research and centuries of wisdom make clear that our brains are wired to remember well-told stories long after the facts grow old. Those who are able to share meaningful and impactful narratives become success stories themselves.
Great storytellers become the most memorable leaders, the best salespeople, the most influential mentors, and the teachers we will remember for a lifetime.
Storytelling is part of the marrow of what makes us human. We see it in cave paintings, hear it in ancient songs, read it etched into stone and transcribed onto scrolls. But the truth is that the art of storytelling matters even more today than ever. Think about all the websites, webinars, podcasts, streaming video, and good, old-fashioned, in-person conversations we engage with every day. The way we use these platforms to tell the stories of ourselves, our experiences, our companies, our brands, and our ideas can reach and influence people to a degree unmatched in human history.
The good news on the storytelling front is that great storytelling can be learned. In fact, it must be learned. I’ve written dozens of books in my life and been fortunate to have several of them become best-sellers, influential in their space. But I’ve improved my writing with every book or article or speech because I have apprenticed myself to the craft of storytelling. That’s how much I love and appreciate this art.
Along the way, I have discovered a handful of principles—10 to be exact—that the great storytellers regularly apply. I won’t go into all of them right now, but let’s look at the three that I’ve watched cripple even the very best wordsmiths.
KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE.
The first one sounds very basic: know your audience. I use the word “sounds” because the truth is this takes work! Knowing your audience requires advance thinking and, often, research on your part. But it’s worth every second. Failure to learn what they can about your audience is the biggest mistake most storytellers make. And given how easy research is to do today, making this mistake is inexcusable.
Different audiences see the world through different frames of reference and share different experiences, interests, and even values. For example, telling a story about a January vacation in Montreal to someone from Florida may require you to fill in more blanks about cold weather (and cold weather humor) than would be the case with somebody from northern New Hampshire.
So, take time to learn what you can about your listeners, then use that information to connect with them. By doing so, you show empathy, which makes you easier to “hear.” When I teach the art of storytelling to audiences, I put it this way: There’s nothing that makes someone more interested in you than when they find out you’ve taken time to show interest in them.
DEFINE YOUR STORYTELLING ROI.
The second important principle – and the place where so many fail – is that they do not look at their story and ask: What do I want the listener to do, think, or feel when they’ve heard my words? It is a simple process of defining the ROI that should come from the experience.
Memorable storytelling is a combination of what you say and how you say it. Let’s look quickly at a third principle: the use of dialogue to help you say something with greater detail and emotion. Consider the following two sentences:
1.She quietly told her dad how much his presence at the moment meant to her.
2. As they danced, she leaned in and whispered, “Dad, you being here is everything I’ve hoped for since I was seven years old.”
The first sentence offers an example of telling what happened, the second an example of showing what was actually spoken between two people. Which sentence strikes you as more powerful? Using somebody’s actual phrasing can add color to a story that will pull your listener or reader in and make them care about the characters. And that’s one of your storytelling goals: to have your audience care, preferably in a deep way, what happens.
I hope you can see from these three principles that storytelling isn’t a form of magic but of technique—although the effect you can have on others can seem like magic at times. And becoming a far better storyteller than you believed possible is certainly within your grasp! You just have to approach it as you would other leadership development and effective communication skills worth mastering.
Get to know Don Yaeger and our other Maxwell Leadership Thought Leaders!
Don Yaeger is a nationally acclaimed leadership speaker, 11-time New York Times best-selling author, longtime associate editor of Sports Illustrated, and a Maxwell Leadership Thought Leader. During his time at Sports Illustrated, Don earned a reputation as one of the greatest storytellers of our time.
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