Since the dawn of human sapiens, storytelling was a natural part of leadership. It existed in every nation, each with its own traditions: The Celtic culture had its bards and Druids, the Norsemen of the Scandinavian countries told sagas, the Islamic countries listened to teaching from Sufi masters and dervishes, the people of Mongolia and Siberia were influenced by the tales and medicine of the shamans and the Ute tribes of Native Americans made their best storytellers their tribal leaders. Storytelling was popular because before writing was developed, the success of communication was measured largely by how much of it was remembered by the audience. They couldn’t just go write it down. So a high value was placed on techniques that helped people remember things like the rhythm of a song.
From Industrial to Knowledge Economy: Return of the story
How did storytelling go from an office obscurity to a defining characteristic of leadership? The short answer is that it was simply returning to the natural order of things. The better question might be, “Why did it take a temporary hiatus to begin with?” Back then, telling stories was a major means of conducting day-to-day business. After all, when human beings themselves are the medium, even work-related messages tend to be narrative in style and experiential in content. Eventually, after several millennia of success, storytelling in business began a gradual decline. The advent of writing, the printing press, and organized business practices made business communication far more technical in style. Storytelling slowly gave way to formal reports, memos, and policy manuals. The professionalization of business in the early 1900s accelerated this trend. Business schools churned out thousands of bright, analytical management professionals trained to look at a business like a machine that needed to be finely tuned. Telling stories would have identified someone as old school— certainly not a member of the new avant-garde of business leaders.
Over the last 20 years, and especially the last decade, storytelling has retaken its rightful place in management’s bag of leadership and influencing tools. Today, many of the most successful organizations on the planet intentionally use storytelling as a key leadership tool: Microsoft, Nike, Motorola, 3M, Saatchi & Saatchi, Berkshire Hathaway, Eastman Kodak, Disney, Costco, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Southwest Airlines, FedEx, Procter & Gamble, Armstrong International, Mary Kay Cosmetics, Kimberly-Clark, The Container Store, REI, Northwestern Mutual, NASA, and The World Bank.
Why is Storytelling such a powerful medium?
People are looking for context and meaning to navigate the intense challenges of the current landscape, not more facts and figures. As a result, there is perhaps no more significant alignment lever right now to enable an organisation’s aspirations than story.
In aligned organisations, leaders have developed an emotionally engaging story that has relevance and meaning to every single member in the organisation, from the CEO to the front line. These stories are memorable and easy to communicate since they rely heavily on metaphors and pictures to convey meaning rather than facts and figures.
1. All humans have the capacity for telling stories. From an early age, we are hungry for stories. It’s been hardwired into us.
2. Stories are infectious. They can spread like wildfire without any additional effort on the part of the storyteller.
3. Stories are easier to remember. It is believed facts are 20 times more likely to be remembered if they are part of a story. The pattern seeking mind has many associative hooks to hang new facts to as opposed to a series of bullet points.
4. Stories evoke an emotional response. Slides don’t. Have you ever heard someone say, “Wow! You’ll never believe the PowerPoint presentation I just saw!” Probably not.
5. Stories appeal to all types of learners. In any group, roughly 40 percent will be predominantly visual learners who learn best from videos, diagrams, or illustrations. Another 40 percent will be auditory, learning best through lectures and discussions. The remaining 20 percent are kinesthetic learners, who learn best by doing, experiencing, or feeling. Storytelling has aspects that work for all three types. Visual learners appreciate the mental pictures storytelling evokes. Auditory learners focus on the words and the storyteller’s voice.
6. Stories put the listener in a mental learning mode. Listeners who are in a critical or evaluative mode are more likely to reject what’s being said. According to training coach and bestselling author Margaret Parkin, storytelling “re-creates in us that emotional state of curiosity which is ever present in children, but which as adults we tend to lose. Once in this childlike state, we tend to be more receptive and interested in the information we are given.”
How can you improve your storytelling?
Your story needs to be able to answer the following questions:
- What is the main objective of your story?
- What impact do you want to have on your audience?
- Where, when is this taking place?
- Who are the key players in the story?
- What do they want?
- What is blocking them?
- What is the outcome?
- What can be learned from this?
- What is your personal opinion?
AT ACT Leadership, we have a one day workshop that process a step by step process to you being able to tell firstly your story and secondly a story that helps bring change into your organization. If you would like more information, please contact us at