January 25, 2024 / Esther Choy
Think of one impactful leader you’ve encountered in your lifetime. An image of someone important and influential to you will likely sprang to the front of your mind. They could have been a teacher who made learning fun, or a mentor who motivated you to reach for your full potential. Whoever came to mind first, these individuals are those who have mastered the leadership skills of fostering engagement, establishing trust, communicating clearly and with passion, and instilling motivation.
These essential leadership skills have a common thread woven through them, and that thread is storytelling.
Defining Leadership Storytelling:
When I began Leadership Story Lab in 2010, I was often met with inquisitive looks when I told people I teach businesses the art of leadership storytelling. Now, in a world where leadership skills are paramount, I receive responses closer to, “yes, I just read an article about that!” Business storytelling is becoming more and more of a sought after leadership skill.
Understanding Leadership Storytelling
Leadership storytelling is the deliberate arrangement of facts and emotions to create a strategic narrative. It’s not just recounting or listing events. It’s a strategic approach that considers the audience’s needs and what will be persuasive to them. It intertwines facts and emotions, and invokes feelings like sadness, hope, motivation, suspicion, or even disgust. These feelings are then what drives and persuades the audience to take some kind of action.
The Effectiveness of Leadership Storytelling:
Science confirms what we’ve seen throughout history- our brains are wired for stories. On a general level, think of your own experience. You probably remember more stories where someone led you through an event that was rich in detail and invoked feelings. You probably don’t remember as many presentations where facts that were bulleted on a Powerpoint slide.
The Science Behind Storytelling
Recent advancements in neuroscience have shed light on the impact of storytelling on our brains. A brief video drawing from the research of Paul Zak, the director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, shows that narratives can trigger the production of cortisol in the brain. This evokes a sense of distress that rivets our attention. Stories that bring about feelings of care and connection can prompt the release of oxytocin—a hormone synonymous with empathy. The greater the oxytocin, the deeper the connection we establish.
When you convey information through storytelling, your audience is significantly more likely to retain what you share. Astonishingly, studies indicate that the majority of people forget around 50% of the information presented to them within an hour. After 24 hours, they likely have forgotten about 70% of that information, and within a week, that figure rises to an astonishing 90%.
Stories, therefore, offer a distinct advantage. Jennifer Aaker, General Atlantic Professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business, says that information delivered through storytelling can be up to 22 times more memorable than facts presented in a conventional, non-narrative format.
Impact on Essential Leadership Skills:
Storytelling may sound simple (especially if it’s something we’re wired to do) but like other leadership skills, it requires time and intention to cultivate. It’s not a mysterious, inborn gift, but rather a highly trainable skill. It is well worth the investment, since we see that the art of storytelling has an impact on the following four leadership skills:
1. Fostering Engagement Through Storytelling
As the above studies have shown, when we communicate in storytelling format, people’s brains are wired to engage with what they’re hearing. Stories release certain chemicals in their brain that rivet their attention, so storytelling is an effective way to engage your team or audience.
For example, if someone starts off a presentation by saying, “Getting kicked out of your apartment is not fun, but if you have a support system, it can be a kick in the right direction,” they likely have their audience hooked with an intriguing beginning.
2. Motivation: The Emotional Power of Storytelling
Storytelling evokes emotion. For example, let’s say there’s a member of the millennial population named Christine who is feeling left out in the cold. Over the years, she has seen stories on social media about issues with the environment, increasing hunger, abuse of children and women. These have all sparked compassion and empathy within her. She yearns to be part of a movement, something bigger than herself, but these issues seem too big- as if there’s not a real meaningful difference she can make by herself. When Christine sees a monthly giving program that allows her to donate to one of these causes and join a community of like-minded people to make a bigger impact, she jumps at the chance to sign up.
When people engage with a story that results in eliciting a feeling, they are more likely to be driven to a behavior. Whether a story evokes empathy, passion, or indignance, we’re able to motivate an audience to action that aligns with our desired outcome. Whether we’re motivating a team toward our vision or a potential customer to a product, storytelling is an essential skill that can help us inspire movement and action.
3. Building Trust Authentically
Storytelling empowers leaders to lead authentically. Uncovering and sharing your stories helps you better understand your identity as a leader. When others comprehend you through your narratives, it provides them with additional avenues to connect with you. As a result, this leads to greater trust.
For example, let’s say someone starts their presentation with a story about how getting kicked out of an apartment was a boost in the right direction. In doing so, they allow their audience to get a glimpse of who they are as a person. This allows listeners to connect with them on a different level than if they would just present information on slides.
In this story, the audience learns how new management forced the speaker’s family to relocate, and how their parents flew in to help with the move. Through this, their audience sees that they value family, or learn what they enjoyed about living in suburban Jupiter, FL. The audience might experienced something similar with having to move, or they might identify with the uncomfortable newness of change. In all of this, the presenter offers the chance for the audience to learn more about them and potentially connect with them, which leads to a greater sense of trust and authenticity.
4. Enhancing Communication Skills
Communicating through storytelling allows your message to be better understood and remembered. Communication is an essential skill for a leader. Having the ability to swiftly craft stories that are tailored to your audience and message can come in handy! It certainly did for our client who was looking to persuade others that she was an ideal candidate for her dream job.
This client had undergone multiple rounds of rigorous selection criteria. She was contending with highly qualified candidates that boasted numerous qualifications and credentials. In the final round, she only had 15 minutes to convince the decision-makers of her suitability for the role. No slides, no props– just her story, which we developed together. She not only landed the job, but also showcased the power of leadership storytelling as an essential and compelling leadership skill.
In the ever-evolving landscape of leadership, storytelling is becoming a sought-after and essential leadership skill. Through the art of storytelling, leaders can engage, inspire, and guide their teams with authenticity and purpose. Storytelling will not only strengthen the existing tools you have as a leader, but stand alone as a leadership skill that can transform how you impact and inspire those around you.
Learn how to implement storytelling in your business context and become the trusted person your network turns to when they want an expert in authentic communication. Join our Certified Story Facilitator training!
Better Every Story
"This is an amazing and insightful post! I hadn’t thought of that so you broadened my perspective. I always appreciate your insight!" - Dan B.
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