Although we’ve always recognized the power of stories, over the last several years, we have become aware of how storytelling with a purpose can be an important leadership tool for aligning and motivating others. While charts, graphs, statistics, and facts validate one’s credibility, thoroughness, and hard work, stories give life to the data and can motivate others to exceed expectations.
Leadership stories differ from stories that we tell in casual conversation in that a leadership story has a purpose that aims to affect the audience in a positive way. A leader may need to boost morale during a tough time, encourage employees to persevere in the face of obstacles, accept an impending change, commit to growth and development, or evoke any of a number of other responses. For that reason, the story must begin with the personal experience of the leader and end with how the audience can use that knowledge and insight. As a leader, you should create a mental template that allows you to frame your story to have its most powerful and lasting effect.
Create the context and establish your credibility
Although leadership stories should be brief (no more than 3-5 minutes unless a particular situation demands a longer rendition), take time to frame your story so that the audience understands the environment in which it took place and where you were at a point in time. Be careful to avoid making your story sound boastful. Even if you are telling a success story, highlight your challenges, difficulties, and vulnerability, such as admitting mistakes. Your story should balance credibility and humility.
As for topics, our leadership story can be an experience from your childhood, your early adulthood, your first job, a recent situation, or any experience that has given rise to a great story. One factor to consider is whether your audience will gain important insights about you. Will they know you better because of your story?
Pay attention to structure for comprehension and retention
Your story should have a clear, attention-getting opening, a middle that moves to the experience itself, and an ending that shows a specific outcome. You will do better to tell about a specific event rather than merely describing a situation. Rather than talking about how your first boss was impossible to please, tell a compact story that describes how you finally figured out a way to make her happy.
Avoid supplying too many details, but use enough specifics to allow your audience to form mental pictures of the event. Don’t leave your audience hanging, wondering what happened. Your story should have a clear outcome. What changed? How did you change? How did the event affect other people? What did you earn from the experience?
Create relevance for the audience
The most important element of a leadership story is making sure that your audience takes away something important and that they see how your story can be useful to them. Once you finish telling your story, transition to making your audience the focus. How can they learn from your mistakes or from your struggles? What about this story translates to the audience’s current situation—either as an individual or as a group? For example, a statement such as “When you feel that what you do doesn’t really matter, be aware that someone may be watching to see how you handle a situation.” Putting your situation in the audience’s world elevates your story to something beyond your personal experience.
Deliver your story with passion and energy
Support your story with enthusiasm, and appropriate tone, and consistent body language—and above all, authenticity. Even if you have told this story many times, it should sound fresh and new to the audience. And it should be 100 percent true. Did you stay up all night working on your first big project, or did you really only work until 1 AM. One may feel tempted to embellish or add a bit of drama to a well-worn story, but as a leader, we have an obligation to those who follow us.
Leadership stories benefit both the leader and those whom he or she leads. Being able to tell an effective leadership story enables leaders to present business issues in a way that resonates with others on both a logical and emotional level. Further, storytelling provides people with insights into the leader’s character, wisdom, and experience that goes beyond business and technical expertise. Followers recognize that their leader is a person who has faced some of the same difficulties and defeats that they may be struggling to overcome. Not only does the story achieve worthy objectives but it also offers opportunities for stronger and more lasting relationships.