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The Leader As Storyteller
In his groundbreaking research on leadership, Harvard professor Howard Gardner found that “the key to leadership is . . . the effective communication of a story.”
Stories are a great way to connect with people, make complex concepts easier to understand, and make your message memorable But storytelling is more than a folkloric way to relate to others. It is a powerful and persuasive vehicle that top leaders use to get their message across with maximum impact and minimum resistance. Today’s most effective leaders know how to use different story templates to communicate their vision, win buy-in for their ideas, transmit value, and inspire their people.
Many cultures have strong storytelling traditions. This is true regardless of their time in history or their place geographically. Yet few leaders of any stripe use stories in their work.
Generally speaking, business leaders and governments value data, information, logic, and reasoning. Yet when information is presented, people try to understand it through critical evaluation. They look for flaws in your reasoning. As a result, using only facts and logical arguments can put your audience in a conflicted state of mind.
Storytelling, on the other hand, combines events and emotions. When people are emotionally invested in a story, they’re not looking for a way to shoot it. By packaging your message into a story, you can introduce your message to your audience without going over their heads
By harnessing the power of stories, leaders can be much more persuasive. So why don’t more leaders use stories? I can think of three main reasons.
1. Many leaders don’t realize that stories can serve many purposes, such as:
Make yourself known. Instead of allowing others to define you, the right story can position you the way you want to be perceived. Stories can help you build rapport with your audience, establish credibility, and tell others what you stand for.
Promote your brand. Some of the world’s most respected companies have great brands because they have great stories. We know their stories, and these stories shape our feelings about these companies.
Communicate your vision. This is what makes or breaks a leader. Kennedy, Reagan, and Gandhi all excelled at articulating a clear vision for the future, and they did so through stories.
Transmitting core organizational values. Every organization has a socialization process. The right stories can help members feel that they are better than a list of core values on a poster hanging on the wall.
These are some of the purposeful stories that can serve and there are many more
2. Another reason most leaders don’t make good use of stories is that they don’t believe stories are appropriate for business communication. They think the stories aren’t serious enough for dirty, prestigious high-level corporate types. It must be nonsense. Great leaders from Jesus to Lincoln to Churchill have used stories with powerful effect.
Most of the world’s best companies have well-known stories. A man goes door to door trying to sell his fried chicken (KFC) recipe. Another man invented a small hamburger stand (McDonald’s) selling milkshake machines. Two guys tinkering in a garage build a tech giant (Apple, HP, and more). How many small traders would love to tell such a story? Many do, they just don’t understand it!
3. The third reason so few leaders tell their stories is because they don’t know how. Now we get to the heart of the matter. It is easy to be aware of the purposes that stories can serve and to dispel the myth that stories are not welcome in a business environment. It is more difficult for a leader to overcome his discomfort in giving an artistic performance such as storytelling.
Fortunately, it’s not really that difficult. There are only two things to learn: how to create a story and how to deliver it.
There are several templates for creating stories. The template you use depends on your purpose for telling the story. While you can’t use the same template for every story, there is a template that will help you structure any story you want to tell.
Finally the story is presented. There are many techniques you can learn to bring stories to life, but the most important thing to remember is to tell your own story in your own way—from your heart. You can’t fake authenticity.
Instead of using only facts, figures, and self-serving statements, a great leader can connect with his audience and deliver a powerful message through the fine art of storytelling.
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