Become a better leader - tell your story

Storytelling is a natural mode of communication. We share stories in our social circles – over coffee, during speeches at special occasions, and on social media. Why? Because our stories go where data and statistics or justified reasoning can’t – our hearts. They carry emotion and ingenuity and engage our listener(s) on a deeper psychological level.

It makes sense then that we should use storytelling in the workplace – to elicit desired responses, to influence, and persuade.

Business psychology specialist and owner of executive coaching and leadership consultancy ECue, Peter Ferreira, says great leaders tell great stories.

“Effective leaders are effective communicators. Storytelling is a key communication tool and a powerful method for messaging and advocacy, which can be used in many leadership situations,” he says.

He cites Forbes, which highlights the five most common occasions leaders use storytelling as:

• inspiring the organisation
• setting a vision
• teaching important lessons
• defining culture and values, and
• explaining who you are and what you believe.

With years’ of experience working with leaders to develop their skillsets, Peter recalls a particular experience when he was delivering a leadership course, where an attendee shared his experience and successfully yielded the power of storytelling.

“The attendee was a Managing Director of a high profile beverage manufacturing company. He shared with me and approximately 300 company staff his story about taking a leap into the unknown in his career,” Peter says.

“He explained that this step led to some unexpected turns and how it ultimately resulted in him taking on his current role.”

Quality of attention in the room was impressive – a product of this man’s ability to tell a good story.

“His ‘how I got here’ story provided insight into who he was and created a relaxed environment of openness and receptivity,” says Peter.

“The content of his story demonstrated his openness to growth and understanding through risk-taking, something he had learned from his own path taking lots of twists and turns.

“The majority, if not all attendees, had never experienced a senior executive disclosing this type of information.”

Stories provide meaning. They ‘humanise” us and help us to connect people to the bigger picture.

Author and Senior Lecturer at the UQ School of Communication and Arts Dr Kim Wilkins says to create a good story, structure and language choice are paramount.

“In terms of conceptualising your story, it can help to imagine it as a movie blurb. For example, ‘When a plucky executive is confronted with market saturation of similar products to hers, she goes on an eye-opening R&D journey to find the key to making her brand stand out.’“

She says it helps to consider a narrative structure. That is, beginning (the equilibrium), middle (response to a problem), and end (the happy-ever-after and the gesture to the future).

“The beginning is where the problem to be solved first arises – somebody notices the problem and articulates it; the middle covers the steps that were taken, including ones that didn’t work if they are interesting; and the end shows the solution falling into place and setting the characters on a new and better path,” Kim says.

She adds that storytelling is best if you use plain language fluently.

“If you want to add emphasis, don’t add adjectives or adverbs: swap wishy-washy verbs for hard working ones.”

“So, rather than ‘Our sales went up rapidly’ use ‘our sales surged’; or instead of ‘the invitees entered the project enthusiastically’, you could say ‘the invitees leapt into the project.’”

Kim’s point about including information that didn’t work – struggles or “failures” – is key. Don’t feel as though you (or your product or company) always need to be the hero or heroine in your stories. Often audiences relate more and learn more from our challenges.

To enhance your leadership skills and impact people on an emotional level, consider these tips, and with practice, you too can master the art of storytelling.

Are you an effective storyteller?
"Storytelling is a key communication tool and a powerful method for messaging and advocacy, which can be used in many leadership situations."
Peter Ferreira, Executive Coach, ECue