The Power of Storytelling: Why Leaders Need to be Narrators

By Dean Foust

Exceptional leaders wear many hats: They set the strategy and set the tone. They inspire employees, assuage customers, and convince investors to buy their company’s stock. And the truly visionary leaders don’t stop there. The visionaries create communities and build movements.

The most effective leaders know that winning the support of these and other stakeholders cannot be done with slide decks, spreadsheets, graphs, or handouts. Rather, it requires creating compelling narratives about what’s possible. Exceptional leaders know that great stories are a beacon and a binding force — illuminating a bright future and inspiring audiences to come along on that journey.

Steve Jobs understood the power of narratives and the stories that comprise them. “The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller,” he once said. “The storyteller sets the vision, values and agenda of an entire generation that is to come.”

So did Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and Golda Meir. These historic figures knew that simply publicizing a new policy or initiative was not enough. To build trust, sway the masses, and create change required powerful narratives that their followers could relate to.

The modern executive gets it, too. A study by McKinsey & Co. found that 87% of executives ascending to the C-Suite consider the ability to create a shared vision to be the key determinant of success. Surprising, perhaps, is that less than one-third of the roughly 1,200 leaders polled said that it was easy to create such a story.

One reason may be that as the pace of business has accelerated, storytelling doesn’t feel like a priority. Selling the world on your vision isn’t easy when you’re dealing with activist investors, restive labor unions, social media flare-ups, and the crisis of the day. But great companies understand the goodwill that can be generated from powerful storytelling. Chipotle, Nike, and Johnson & Johnson have survived recalls, boycotts, and bad publicity by having authentic, inspirational core narratives.

Creating impactful narratives takes effort. You must decide which stories have meaning and will move audiences to action. And you must decide when, where, and to whom each story should be told. But when told well, stories have the power to change the minds of employees, investors, customers, policymakers, regulators, and broader society.

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Here are five tips to help you get a start as a storyteller:

Tip #1: Make time to collect stories.

In my experience, asking C-Suite executives for a story just draws a blank. The trick is to make time. Build 10 to 20 minutes for reflection into your daily calendar. Keep a story journal and catalogue the memorable interactions with employees, customers, and other people you meet. And don’t worry if the stories you collect don’t feel epic. Often, it’s the little moments that provide the most profound life lessons, says the legendary screenwriting teacher, Robert McKee. “Given the choice between trivial material brilliantly told versus profound material badly told, an audience will always choose the trivial told brilliantly.”

Tip #2: Humanize your stories.

Don’t be afraid to show emotion, authenticity, and vulnerability. 

Sharing memories and anecdotes from your life not only helps you connect with audiences at a deeper level; personal stories also make people more receptive to your ideas. In this video, Indra Nooyi, the former CEO of PepsiCo., speaks candidly about her struggles to balance a demanding job with her responsibilities as a wife, mother, and daughter.

Tip #3: Take your stakeholders on an adventure. 

Transport your audience to a world of enchantment. Taking listeners on the classic hero’s journey will help them overcome their fears and summon the courage to slay the proverbial dragon.As the head of executive communications for UPS, I worked with our executives to craft stories that resonated. This included our four TED@UPS events, where 14 of our presentations were selected as a TED Talk of the Day.

My duties also included supporting our CEO and other C-Suite executives at the World Economic Forum in Davos each January. UPS hosted an annual invitation-only event on the Future of Mobility, a panel discussion that included the CEOs of Verizon, Uber, Boeing, and Tencent, to name a few. For the 2020 event, I collaborated with our CEO on talking points that painted a bright vision of the future of logistics. An excerpt:

“Technologies like drones, autonomous vehicles, hyperloops, AI and advanced analytics are reinventing logistics as we know it. Supply chains will become more predictive, autonomous, efficient, and responsive to today’s “on demand” economy.

“In the future, deliveries won’t take weeks or days… but hours or minutes by drone. Merchants and suppliers won’t wait until you order. Using analytics, supply chains will anticipate your needs and move the product to a nearby staging area before you order. That could be a fulfillment center — or an autonomous locker that moves around a city.

“To help companies optimize inventories, supply chains will move in real time:

“Today, you wait for volume to cover the costs of filling a truck, plane, or ship. In the future, drones and automation make it affordable to move goods autonomously… in smaller lots… and in real time.  

“Workers and robots will fill small containers as orders come in. When containers are full, they’ll move by drone or autonomous “long-haul” trucks to a staging area — and will then be delivered “on demand” by drone, autonomous vehicle, mobile locker, or UPS driver.

“As delivery times shrink, businesses can carry less inventory. In fact, the day will come when inventories & “out of stocks” become thing of the past.”

Granted, the future we painted wasn’t as riveting as the heroic stories of UPS drivers thwarting crime or pulling someone out of a river. But to the business leaders we invited to our Davos event, painting a vivid picture of how technology could slash their inventory and logistics costs resonated as deeply as Robert De Niro’s latest film. And it shows that stories can come from everywhere.

Tip #4: Provide teachable moments and strikingly clear solutions.

And remember that it’s not about you. Joseph Campbell, who popularized The Hero’s Journey, made clear that the hero isn’t the narrator — it’s the audience. As the narrator, you’re Yoda, the sage who is coaching the audience to reach their destination.

Tip #5: Repeat, repeat and repeat. 

Once you develop a great story (or stories), tell them so much that your employees, your board, and even your family grows tired of hearing them. I had a client CEO who didn’t want to give the same speech again in different cities. I asked him who his favorite band was, and he said The Rolling Stones. I said, “Well, you’re not Mick Jagger and you don’t have fans following you from city to city. Even if you told these stories before, no one in this audience has heard them.” He laughed, got the point, and gave the same speech again.

 

If you want to improve your communications skills, I can help. I offer a range of services, which includes helping executives create narratives, build thought leadership platforms, and become persuasive communicators. If you’d like a free, 15-minute consultation, email me at dean@inspirentcomms.com

 

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