Leadership is about communication, and the most powerful skill is ‘storytelling’

How many of your management team are true leaders — those who can inspire the organisation, set a vision, teach important lessons, define culture and explain what the organisation is? Of those who are, how many are great communicators? Turns out some of the leadership and all of the communication are learnt skills. The easiest and the most powerful communication skill is telling great stories or ‘storytelling’.

Storytelling is critical for management and leadership because very often nothing else works. Graphs will leave listeners untouched. Conversation and dialogue can be too didactic. But the same listener can be moved with a great story.

Storytelling in the business context translates abstract numbers into compelling statements of a leader’s goals — by drawing the listener(s) into the story. Though business cases are made of hard numbers, stories make them spring to life because storytelling can show causal relationships. 

The question, therefore, is not about telling or not but rather to tell them unwittingly and clumsily or intelligently and skillfully. Storytelling can be learned by anyone who wants to be a leader — CXOs, senior and middle management.

Why is storytelling important?

In a  meeting or a talk in a short time-span, a leader can communicate maybe only one or two powerful ideas. Storytelling, however, allows for multi-layered complex ideas to be told since they are not sequential but interwoven. It is this association that and sharing of complex ideas that can allow leaders to spark change, transmitting values, share knowledge and lead people into the future.

Leaders establish credibility through telling stories. The audience can feel and respond immediately and deeply. Stories can communicate complex ideas, break status quo, generate interaction and transformation.

Rather than merely advocating and counter-advocating positions through constructed and business focused meetings, talks, emails and other such communication a  story, especially a personal one, breaks through the acceptance barrier. Communication becomes empowering — even as the leader comes across as more vulnerable, yet someone who is still a leader because (s)he has persevered.

Why is storytelling so powerful?

Storytelling draws in the listener and draws on the active, participation of individuals as against conventional management focuses on lifeless elements — mission statements,  strategies, processes, budgets and assets. Stories make people discover a degree of coherence that is otherwise very difficult to achieve — something that has been an underlying principle of psychotherapy.

When a listener hears a story that touches him or her they feel their lives have meaning.  This feeling eventually vaporises and the listener inevitably falls back into an everyday pattern, but with the difference that a radical shift in their lives have taken place and their motivation and behavior are primed for change.

What makes a good story and a good story-teller?

First and foremost the story needs to be personal and it needs to imply values. People make deep associations with leaders that have the courage to tell a strong personal story, and where the story implies certain values. The second is that the audience associates with people with a ‘consistent’ self‐image. For a leader, it is important to have a clear view of a personal life‐story that is aligned that is the thrust what you want the audience to see.

The leader tells a story to show people who they are. Their identity as an individual doesn’t lie in their roles, it is in the one‐of‐a‐kind person they have become as a result of the experiences they’ve had.

The leader must tell stories interactively and model it on a conversation. This creates a relationship between the leader and the listener that is symmetrical — such that the listener could speak next. It is this feeling with the listener of being in an open conversation that the leader is vulnerable that the listener is drawn ‘into’ the story.

Types of storytelling

  • Style: The leader should tell the story as if it were being told to a single individual. The story should be kept simple, focused and clear with no alternate points of view.
  • Don’t argue the truth: The leader should offer listeners an unobstructed view of the truth and listeners will see it and recognise it for what it is — that any reasonable person would have to agree.
  • Practice ease: Only 7% of the meaning of communication comes from the content of the words spoken; 93% comes from non-verbal communication. The leader should seem spontaneous. They should choose the shape of the story and stick to it.

Points of action

The story needs to have an end in mind — what do you want the listener to do when the story is over? These could include:

  • Sparking action: The story describes how a successful change was implemented in the past, but allows listeners to imagine how it might work in their situation. Communicating who they are, provides audience‐engaging drama and reveals some strength and vulnerability from the leader’s past.
  • Transmitting values: The leader uses believable characters and situations and ensures the story is consistent about values and actions.  This feels familiar to the audience and will prompt discussion about why they can’t follow the same values/action too!
  • Sharing knowledge: Leaders focus on problems and show, in some detail, how they were corrected and why the solution worked and solicit alternative — and possibly — better solutions.
  • Leading people into the future: The leader evokes the future they want to create without providing excessive detail that will prove to be wrong.

No matter how compelling the numbers of sheets, charts or infographics, if they require people to act in unfamiliar ways, that is unlikely to happen. But effective storytelling often helps. Storytelling can inspire people to act in unfamiliar ways. And remember it not only gets the message across effectively, but its incremental cost is also zero!

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Rakesh Shukla slept on railway platforms on his way to creating a world-leading technology company — 
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