Why effective leaders are good storytellers

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —September 30, 2014
Filed in Business storytelling, Leadership Posts

When I run our storytelling for leaders program I like to point out that effective leaders are good storytellers. I say “good” because a leader merely has to share a story or two to set them apart from the rest because most leaders communicate entirely with opinion and lofty abstractions–yawn. A leaders’ message really sticks when they illustrate their point with a real life experience, i.e. a story.

Leaders and storytelling

A masterclass in leadership storytelling

I saw a beautiful example of how it can be done a couple of years ago when I was helping the leaders of an insurance firm be better storytellers. The company had just appointed a new CEO and he wanted to address the 100 or so people at the workshop I was facilitating.

When the CEO arrived he shook my hand and introduced himself to the audience. Within a couple of minutes he told his first story of how he started his career in commercial insurance in the UK and the terrifying job he had assessing assets atop power station cooling towers. This was his connection story. He was showing how he was a little bit like his audience. He had some understanding of their world.

He followed with an anecdote about a company where he was on the executive team and how they hit a cash crisis and the tough decisions that had to be made. He never wanted to be in that position again. He was making it clear what was important to him, sharing what he valued.

In 15 minutes this CEO shared a few more stories that helped everyone know what type of person he was, what he cared about and what really motivates him to take on this new role.

We had just had a masterclass in leadership storytelling.

Now, some might say, “well yes, he’s clearly a natural storyteller. But for me storytelling just doesn’t come that easily.” Let’s think about this. Cast your mind back to your first ever business presentation. Can you remember it? I can certainly remember mine and I have to say it didn’t come easily at first. But I learned to present in front of a business audience with practice. You can learn to be a good storyteller.

We are all storytellers

Thankfully, we have a great head-start because we are already storytellers. For example, when we’re chatting with colleagues at a cafe we will recount one story after another without giving it a thought.

To bring this intuitive skill we all have into our business communications we need to keep in mind three things:

  1. Notice your experiences so you can share them to make a point. Many good stories are right under our nose. Just stop and think about what’s happened in the last 24 hours and ask yourself, can any of these experiences illustrate a point I want to make? If, yes, jot it down.
  2. Know the business point of your story? Don’t tell it until you’ve thought about the point and then preface your story with it. For example, say “Effective leaders are good storytellers.” And then tell the story to illustrate what you mean.
  3. Be specific and share a moment in time rather than a generalised, high-level story. The specific moment will help people see what’s happening and the audience will feel it and remember what you’ve said.

With practice finding and sharing a story to illustrate your point will become a habit. And your repertoire of stories will grow. In time stories will pop to mind just when you need them.

When stories become part of the way you communicate your ability to influence, engage and inspire as a leader will soar.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

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