How To Use Storytelling in Leadership & Management
How do we link leadership and management to storytelling? Effective leadership is characterized by effective communication. Skilled storytellers are effective communicators. Therefore, the manager who is a skilled storyteller will, in all likelihood, also be an effective leader. For centuries, stories have been used to connect people, to teach, to train, to bring people on board, to enlighten people, even to boost morale, encourage and motivate. These roles are all expected of effective leaders.
Whether it is to increase performance in a sales team or delivering a professional and satisfactory service to clients, in all fields the successful leader connects, inspires, and motivates those that he leads in order to achieve certain objectives. Storytelling can greatly help leaders to inspire employees, sharing a business objective or vision, defining company culture and values, teaching necessary concepts, giving basic training, and even helping employees to get to know their leaders better!
Moreover, stories have the potential to make the complex simple. This in itself enhances communication – it helps us to make sense of information and to better understand. What’s more, something happens in the listener’s mind that has a remarkable impact: neurochemicals, oxytocin, and dopamine are released. These work in leadership and management’s favor!
Good stories stimulate brain activity and the release of neurochemicals. For example, oxytocin is a hormone that plays a role in social bonding. It can promote trust and motivate voluntary cooperation. It is released when one hears a good story and causes one to feel empathy. In turn, empathy causes one to be more willing to take action. (This hormone’s effect is so profound, it helps mothers to bond with their babies after birth! If it can do that, it must surely have a significant impact on the bond between storyteller and listener too, given that oxytocin is released when one hears a good story!)
Then there is dopamine, an important brain chemical that influences your mood and feelings of reward and motivation. When listeners can relate to characters in positive stories they feel as if they have received the positive outcome themselves. This drives their behaviors and actions and thereby propels them into action!
So, in a nutshell, why should leadership embrace storytelling? Storytelling is the approach that helps the leader to truly connect with those under his / her authority. Moreover, stories have great potential to trigger emotions. Without a story, information becomes clinical, but with a story information becomes emotive. As such, the listener can connect with the information in a deeper and more meaningful way. This, again, will impact actions taken by employees as emotions play an enormous role in decision-making.
In addition, it simply is easier to remember information given in the form of a story. If you think about it, what will you remember better: a list of facts or a gripping story; a series of statistics, or a fascinating story with the same gist?
Storytelling has the potential to engage, inspire, clearly illustrate, enhance communication, emotionally connect, even persuade… – all abilities leaders are expected to have. Storytelling helps leadership to better communicate and ultimately to get people on their side – to get people committed. However, the stories used by leadership need to be good stories – certain criteria apply!
According to Steve Denning, an expert in the field of organizational storytelling, for leadership stories to have the desired effect, four criteria are required:
The story must be “authentically true” – otherwise, trust between leader and employee will not be kindled. Tall tales are a no-no! Half-truths are not good enough either!
In order to inspire action, stories must be positive in tone. Happy endings inspire – not negative stories. (Remember, dopamine? It is the story with a satisfactory ending that creates happiness, dopamine is released and the result is a feeling of euphoria that compels the recipient into action.)
Stories need to be short and to the point – told in a “minimalist form”. Why, because, according to Denning, there are two listeners for every participant in the storyteller’s audience… The “two listeners” refers to the listener you can physically see in the audience, plus the little voice in that listener’s head (i.e the listener thinking about things while he is listening to the speaker). So, the story must be minimalistic so that the listener is focused on what is told and their thoughts do not start wandering off in other directions. (A streamlined minimalistic story, without unnecessary peripheral details is also the type of story that is ideal for a short explainer video! After all, leadership stories do not necessarily only have to be told – they can also be shown as a short animated video.)
Storytelling makes complicated concepts easily understandable. However, to get the desired result, complex ideas must be communicated by contrasting the situation before with the situation after. Problem-solution stories are therefore ideal for communicating complicated concepts.
Leadership and management’s role exceeds far beyond planning and issuing orders. One cannot instruct an employee to be more motivated, but through storytelling, one can inspire them. When management leads with a good story you are likely to miraculously find employees who are complying with a subconscious eagerness to excel in their jobs!