The Power of Storytelling in Leadership


11 August 2016

Over the past 10 years storytelling has taken off in the consumer and brand world. It’s often referred to in the context of content marketing or discussed in terms of brand, brand storytelling. Jaqui Lane shares her insights.

Stories have the power to influence behaviour, inspire action and persuade perspectives. Yamini Naidu, author, Power Play

Over the past 10 years storytelling has taken off in the consumer and brand world. It’s often referred to in the context of content marketing or discussed in terms of brand, brand storytelling.

As a business storyteller I was excited when marketers and brand people saw the value in storytelling but in the process they’ve turned it into something different altogether. It’s therefore important that those in the corporate world learn the difference between brand storytelling and storytelling for and in business and how it can be a powerful tool for leaders. So, I thought I’d share some insights and commentary about the power of storytelling in leadership.

What’s so great about storytelling?

Anthropologists contend that 70% of everything we learn is through stories.

Our identities, beliefs and our values all live and breathe in the matrix of stories. It’s the primary material of how we each perceive reality — our culture’s collective agreements.

Stories create the emotional context people need to locate themselves in a larger experience. As Barak Obama said, I had to know and understand my own story before I could listen to and help other people with theirs.’

So when you’re thinking about your business story be willing and prepared to share some of your own story.

Storytelling for business

Many of the world’s most successful leaders already embrace, prioritise and “think” in story.

Companies are increasingly being asked to navigate off the map, be agile, innovative, responsive . . . you’ve heard all the words, and you’ve heard the phrases: ‘The old rules of the game are obsolete’, ‘This climate requires new thinking, new tools, and new approaches.’ The challenge is, if you don’t know how to express these words and in a compelling way that actually connects with people there’s going to be a disconnect. There probably already is.

You need a way to express what’s going on to those you lead without jargon, acronyms, corporate speak, boring corporate platitudes or, dare I say it, slogans. Just ask our politicians about the effectiveness of the last one of these. Zero.

In any given situation – business included – a dominant story already exists. Whatever constraints you perceive in the existing market are usually connected to the old story. If you want/need to change it you need to look for the bigger story — the more universal human story that cuts across old boundaries, limits, and categories. If you reframe your business issue into a wider story you’ve completely redefined the issue. With this shift in perspective, the constraints are often much easier to overcome.

Giam Swiegers is a storyteller

How you express yourself as a leader today and tomorrow requires a new language — because you can’t envision, much less communicate, new possibilities without the language to do so. Storytelling is this ‘new’ language. Just ask the Giam Swiegers, the Global CEO of international engineering and technical services company Aurecon. Back in 2010 he articulated the power of business storytelling in a presentation he gave on the Power of story telling.

In the presentation Giam commented that:

  • Someone gave me the gift of understanding how powerful storytelling is in corporate communications. There’s no more powerful way of creating a culture or changing behaviour within organisations that the art of storytelling.
  • One of the great lessons I learnt from Wayne Goss our Chairman [at Deloitte] was when he said to me, “Remember when you start getting really bored with repeating the message, it’s only then that they start getting it”.’
  • If I could give leaders one bit of advice about improving their communication it would be spend a bit of time understanding how you tell stories.’

If you’re wondering how he has bought storytelling to Aurecon, click here to learn more

Why storytelling now?

In the corporate environment where there’s so much change and the pace of change is fast, it’s even more critical for companies to develop a clear and compelling story and then make sure that everyone in the company is engaged with it – that the story resonates and it’s one that everyone understands, remembers and can re-tell.

When you’re leading a company, whatever level executive you are, it’s vital for you to learn how to translate what you see or are part of creating, into a story others can equally believe. Corporate speak, top-down directives, PowerPoints, are not the answer. When you cultivate trust and confidence, others will be willing to follow you into the new and unfamiliar.

As Michael Margolis comments: ‘Leaders lead by telling stories that give others permission to lead not follow.’

Sharing your story

When he was CEO of NAB, John Stewart was surprised to learn that he spent more than 75% of his time communicating. Like most CEOs and leaders, a large part of your role and your success in it depends on your ability to influence people, opinions and outcomes. This success is about crafting a message that resonates and communicating it effectively to inspire others to act.

If you want to excel as a leader of tomorrow, storytelling is a core thinking skill you need to have. Whatever your objective might be you need to understand the fundamental role of storytelling. As a leader trying to influence and inspire others, you will measured and assessed on your ability to tell stories that make others care, believe, and act on what’s most important – in essence create high levels of emotional connection.

How to create a great story

Paul Dillon, Manager, Learning Strategies, Schulich Executive Education Centre,York University comments that: ‘Stories must be compelling, truthful, beautiful, believable, and inspirational if they are to have an impact on the lives of others.’

I am not sure that in the corporate world the stories need to be beautiful but I agree with every other part of what he says so let’s look into the key parts of his comments.

Stories must be compelling: Get really clear on what makes your story real and approachable. No corporate speak which comes out as blah blah blah. Ditch the meaningless words and acronyms. If you’re not sure about what words and phrases are covered in this check out Lucy Kellaway’s Guffpedia.

Stories must be truthful: Just as in real life, the corporate stories you tell need to be honest, open, truthful and shared with trust if they are to be powerful and resonate. Sometimes this is hard as ‘things happen’. That’s life, and that’s business. I’ve published and written over 400 business histories/stories and there’s not one story that doesn’t involve challenges, hardship, stuff-ups, mistakes, stupidity. That’s real. Shit happens. Embrace it. You do in your personal life, do it in business.

Stories must be believable: Messages from management are typically interpreted with suspicion. Remember, people have to believe in the story in order to belong to the story. It begins with your own personal story as the messenger so, if you’re not prepared to put yourself out there it’ll be hard to bring others with you on the journey. Think about what you’d say/share if you weren’t in your business attire. Loosen up. Your team need to understand you as a person to assess what your credibility is for leading them through the journey ahead?

Think about how you model or demonstrate the story in your own daily actions? Corporate storytelling isn’t a one-off thing. Just refer back to Giam Swiegers comments at the beginning of this post.

YES. You have to share something about you.

I was fortunate enough to have a business partner for over 20 years who was a great storyteller. His technique (although this was just natural for him) was to use analogies to explain things and then intersperse some of his own experiences. He was a great teacher and it wasn’t until he died that I realised that I had absorbed his style of storytelling in business. I was so very fortunate to have Steven as my business partner for 22 years and I often tell stories about our experiences.

Stories must be inspirational

For people to change the way they act, whether it be answering the phone at a call centre, working with colleagues, customers or clients, presenting your company’s services to potential clients, whatever, they need to be inspired enough to want to change.

Inspiration comes from being connected to a story, one that creates a deep emotional connection and therefore, response. Inspiration comes from the actions of people not a corporate entity.

Often there are inspirational stories within companies at many levels that are unknown or simply not shared. There’s a whole raft of story types, but they all revolve around human action, reaction, courage, dignity, insight etc.

How storytelling can help you lead more effectively.

Confidence in our leaders is based on their ability to live the story. So tell a big story. Why? Because small stories offer little room to move. They feel confining and restrictive.

Instead, look for the universal theme that anyone can get behind—a core value or human aspiration that’s easy to connect with. The bigger the story, the more room under the tent for people to show up.

As a corporate storyteller, aka a corporate historian, I love the proverb that comes from ‘It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.

As the leader or executive in a business that is part of Australia you’re facing a range of challenges, no least of which is the uncertain political and economic environment we now face. This fast-moving and uncertain environment requires reinvention, revitalisation, and renewal.

Your role means that you need to reinterpret your story, and this requires thinking deeply about the words you use and the story you tell so it better reflects the world you seek to create. This can be achieved through the linking of stories across your past, present, and future.

Successful businesses respond to change. Most corporate leaders just haven’t been that good at sharing the journey – the story – among themselves or with their customers/clients.

The way we all connect has changed at a fundamental level. The people you work with want to know and share in the story. Your customers and clients are interested to.

Your corporate story told well and with clarity, honesty and passion will link the invisible lines of connection. It’s these links that reinforce coherence and stability in times of change and allow people to find their own place in it.

If you want help bringing your story to life, contact us.