September 15, 2023 / Esther Choy

Are all these hurricanes due to climate change? Are we going to be able to limit global warming to the critical threshold of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels? Will the ongoing war in Ukraine find a resolution, or will it escalate, and continue to jeopardize global food and oil supplies? How will the use of AI impact my industry and my job?

There is no shortage of existential threats to speculate about. And while we all could spin out into a cyclone of worry, it’s important to remember every generation has weathered existential threats before us. That doesn’t mean that the climate crisis, the impact of AI, and geopolitical relationships are not incredibly concerning. It means that we must take stock of the leadership skills and tools we have as we are leading our teams through these times of escalating uncertainty.

A simple but necessary tool we all have available to us is storytelling. Since the advent of language, humans have been telling stories to pass on important ideas and information, to build trust and friendship, to galvanize support for innovation. No matter how advanced our machines become, research, like that of Roger Schank, reveals that our brains are hardwired for storytelling. They help us remember information, make connections, and form meaningful relationships with other people. In our epoch of uncertainty being a master storyteller is a must-have leadership skill.

Leadership storytelling has many critical components and uses, but a key characteristic of storytelling is that it is a vehicle for sharing authentic emotion, in a persuasive way. If you want your audience to have a sense of hope, fervor, or team spirit, the fastest way to help your audience be receptive is to tell a story that inspires that emotion.

AI can help us sort through endless piles of data, but telling a story to help us interpret data, build trust and connection is not (yet) something we can outsource to a machine. AI doesn’t have the leadership skill which enables it to read the room (just yet) and interpret unexpected situations the way a 21st century leader must.

Case in point: In San Francisco, a group of creative protestors are rendering driverless cars immobile by placing orange traffic cones on the hoods of the cars. Millions of dollars of research and testing becomes paralyzed because the cars are unable to decipher the context of what is happening. They don’t understand that data, the message, of the oddly placed traffic cone. Business leaders must be able to understand the curve balls (or traffic cones) that are thrown at them, and react accordingly.

Part of the power of storytelling as a leadership skill is knowing when a situation calls for a story, and if so, what story? What connections do you need to make?

To answer the questions above, a business leader must be able to recognize if their context calls for proving or persuading. If you want to prove something to your audience you must share the data that supports your point. But in times of uncertainty, most people need more than proof. They need persuasion. If you want to persuade your audience, it will require a more nuanced approach. Leaders must understand where their audience is coming from, what they need to know, and what, if anything, is preventing them from accepting the data.

When the context calls for persuasion, leadership storytelling can help your audience understand and recognize what kind of action is needed next. It’s more than just presenting data; it gives data context. Proving and persuasion often overlap and work together, yet remain intrinsically different kinds of conversations. Thus, it is critically important for a leader to develop the discernment to know exactly what their situation calls for.

Being a persuasive leader skilled in storytelling is not just about knowing how to craft a story with a beginning, middle and end — though that is important. The heart of this leadership skill is about understanding your context and sharing the right story to serve your audience at that singular moment.

The structure of a story can translate beyond telling a conventional story — it can provide a sense of cohesion and completion to presentations and all sorts of other leadership communication needs. In the next three articles, we will look at three different scenarios when leadership storytelling offers pragmatic communication strategies for leaders.


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