Storytelling in business leadership. If leaders use stories. You can too.
Old-style comedians who appeared on stage or in TV variety programmes were often sent on first to ‘warm up’ the audience, get them settled and ready to appreciate the acts to follow.
But what about the comedians themselves? How did they get they get the sometimes unruly crowds ready to receive the main part of their act? They told them a story, usually beginning with, “A funny thing happened to me on the way to the theatre.”
This would be followed by an amusing and entirely imaginary tale about overcoming enormous obstacles before arriving safely at the theatre doors. With the audience now in a receptive mood, the gags that followed would bring howls of laughter and thunderous applause.
What those comedians didn’t know, but somehow sensed, was that when people hear stories, their brain chemistry changes and they feel connected to the storyteller. This new empathy makes them more receptive to the jokes.
In business, telling stories – truthful ones this time – has the same effect. If you stand before a room full of strangers who have come to hear your presentation, imagine if you could make them emotionally closer to you before you began.
Knowing they were now eager to listen, how much more positive would you feel? The answer is, of course, you’d immediately relax, feel more confident and less anxious about failing. Even if you make a blunder, if the audience is on your side, it will hardly matter.
Where can you find the material for these stories?
From your own experience.
If it’s a presentation you’ve given before, talk about something interesting or amusing that may have happened. (I personally remember flying with a business partner to a client’s offices 1,000 miles away to make a pitch. When we arrived, each thought the other had the flash drive holding the presentation. Fortunately, the client was sympathetic, as he’d done the same thing himself not so long before!)
A customer’s experience with your product or company.
What’s useful about this approach is, while it’s not necessarily entertaining, it is relevant and sharing stories your listeners can immediately relate to their own business is an effective way to promote empathy.
Borrow a colleague’s story.
Don’t claim it as your own, of course. But, if you don’t have any fresh ones, it’s a perfectly acceptable alternative. Just begin by saying something like, “My colleague, Kate, loves to tell this story, which shows you the kind of company we are…”
Find a hook in current affairs.
Grab something from the headlines or that’s trending on social media that makes a suitable hook on which to hang your story: “I don’t know if you caught the president’s budget speech on the news this morning, but the story he told about asking five economists the same question and getting five different answers, reminded me of…”
How does storytelling help in leadership?
In two ways. If you use the technique regularly and effectively in the course of your job, you’re likely to accelerate your growth towards a leadership role.
Why? Because most business leaders themselves recognize the power of storytelling. Have you ever been in a room with the CEOs of three leading organizations? Each of them will have at least one story to fit every occasion, every subject of discussion.
Mastering this art, assuming you have the other necessary qualities of leadership, will be a profound advantage and will mark you out as a potential high achiever.
Not only do senior executives share stories among themselves, they use them as a method of guiding and coaching their own people. In any situation, whether awarding praise, scolding someone or issuing a challenge, a good leader will, almost automatically, find something appropriate in their personal storybook that will help drive the lesson home.
The power of stories in the digital world
In the age of ‘always on’ managers who work long days and are connected by mail, internet and cell phones, we lose the ability to absorb further factual detail. Most of us reached overload some time ago.
Stories not only force a change of pace by requiring us to stop and listen but, by building an emotional connection, help the message to penetrate.
Practice your craft until it comes naturally
Now, here’s very short story. In the heydays of Hollywood, one of the most successful producers was a man named Samuel Goldwyn. One of the production companies he founded, Metro Goldwyn Meyer, MGM for short, put its name to some of the biggest box office hits of all time.
Later, when Goldwyn went solo, he became an Oscar-winning producer in his own right. One day on the film lot, he saw a beautiful blonde starlet, whose name was never established. He turned to one of his assistants, pointed to her and said, “Give her to me for a couple of years and I’ll make her an overnight success.”
Goldwyn, originally from Poland, was known for his difficulties with the English language, but his remark highlights an important fact: actors, public speakers, broadcasters and popular politicians most certainly have a special talent, but it takes many hours of practice and rehearsal to make it seem so natural.
Get together with friends, trusted colleagues and family. Practice your stories on them, ask them for criticism and accept it openly. These are people who want you to succeed so accept their comments gracefully.
Sometimes, despite the seductive power of storytelling, you may need to get very quickly to the point. An irate client or distraught colleague doesn’t have the time or interest to listen to one of your favourite recollections. They need action now.