Why leaders need good storytelling skills – Part 2

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —February 16, 2016
Filed in Business storytelling

Here we are at Part 2 of Chapter 1 of my new book Putting Stories to Work. In Part 1 I started to describe some of the various ways leaders can use storytelling to communicate strategy and engage people. I finish Chapter 1 with 4 other ways to put stories to work.

Launch date is 20 March. The printing press starts rolling in a couple of weeks. If you would like to pre-order your limited edition hardcover and get a free copy of our eBook Character Trumps Credentials then pop on over to here. If you pre-order the Kindle send us the email and we will email Character Trumps Credentials to you.


As a teenager I loved basketball. I was in a team coached by my best friend’s dad, Walt. One season we found ourselves in the grand final. At our last practice session in a gymnasium before the big game, Walt gathered the team in the middle of the court, pointed to a line on the floor and said, ‘Do you all think you can walk along this line?’ We all nodded and proceeded to walk the line.

Basketball anecdote for good storytelling skills

Then Walt pointed to a balance beam and said, ‘Can you walk along the balance beam?’ We all said, ‘Sure thing coach’, and we walked along the beam. Then Walt said, ‘Imagine this beam crosses a deep, treacherous canyon with a fierce wind blowing across it’. After painting this scary picture, he asked us to walk across the beam again. We all made it without falling.

‘Lads,’ he said, ‘our game this weekend is like the ordinary balance beam crossing a windswept canyon. It’s just another game, yes, but there will be a lot more pressure this time. Are you ready for this game?’ We were duly inspired by Walt’s words, and we won the grand final. Walt generated a strong desire to win in the players by using the analogy of challenging ourselves to cross a dangerous canyon.

The analogy story is a powerful one to have in your back pocket as a leader, and we will discuss it further in Chapter 6. Of course, what Walt did with us is only one type of inspiration. There are many others. We often inspire ourselves. The celebrated documentary-maker Ken Burns felt inspired the day he worked out the secret to engaging with historical photographs.

He told The New York Times: ‘I remember realising early in the process [of filming] that I had to listen to the photos, not just see them. Are the waves of the East River lapping? Are the workers hammering? I can remember not wanting to break the spell, not wanting to move my eye from the eyepiece, but to live in that world. It gave me a kind of key to unlock what has been, for the past 35 years, the way I’ve tried to wake the dead’.

Good documentary-makers, like any good artist, reflect on their practice. They notice when something happens and tell themselves a story to make meaning of it. As leaders, we need to do the same. This act of noticing is the first step towards good storytelling. We are also inspired by the actions of others, especially if they reflect how we would like to see ourselves act under difficult circumstances. These moments reveal character.

We often don’t get to see remarkable actions firsthand, but this is when stories can play a role in inspiration. I recently coached the general manager of a well-known home maintenance brand. To kick off the new financial year, she got up in front of all her employees and told the story of how one factory worker—let’s call him Gary—became concerned about one of the machines in his factory. He thought it was dangerous to use.

So in his own time, under his own steam, he set about improving the factory’s safety processes to address this threat. When the GM told Gary’s story, everyone pictured what he’d done and they felt proud. Gary himself went up to the GM at the end of the session and excitedly told her about another safety issue he was working on. Such stories of remarkable efforts are great fuel for inspiration.

You can share inspiring stories systematically. Apple is one company that regularly shares stories to inspire great customer service in its retail stores. Its process is simple but it has an amazing impact.

Each day the company undertakes a net promoter score survey of randomly selected customers. If a customer gets great service from an Apple employee and gives them a perfect 10, then at the next morning’s staff meeting, the store manager will say something like, ‘Yesterday Mary got a 10’. Everyone claps. Then the manager says, ‘Mary, remember that customer who came in to get their iPhone screen fixed? Can you tell everyone what happened?’

Mary then tells the story of the iPhone screen, giving everyone else the chance to hear what it takes to get a 10 from a customer and high praise from their manager. Again, this creates a feeling that fuels a desire to take action. It breathes life into the employees, and it is done every day. To inspire at work, leaders must share stories of events big and small. Stories are concrete and specific, so the resulting desire to take action is coupled with a clear example of what to do. It is the antithesis of merely spouting abstractions like ‘Let’s innovate’.


Leaders are decision-makers. They have to be. As soon as they walk into the office in the morning, they are bombarded with decisions that have to be made: ‘Can our business partner sell our product in that new market?’; ‘Do you want to talk to the journalist from The Times?’; ‘When should we share the new strategy with staff?’; ‘Should we defy the auditor’s recommendation for the good of our customers?’; ‘Should we do business with them?’; ‘Do we fight this, or do we just let it slide?’

Most of the decisions experienced leaders make, day in and day out, are intuitive. When presented with a situation where a time-critical decision is needed, a leader matches it with something they’ve done in the past and then mentally tests that course of action to see if it works. If the mental simulation works out, they go with that decision.

This match-and-test approach happens in a flash, so quickly that it’s hard for a decision-maker to recall how they made such a decision. But there is nothing magical about this. These judgements are based on the experience of continually making lots of decisions and seeing the results. As Nobel laureate and the granddaddy of psychology Herbert Simon puts it: ‘Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition’.

Another Nobel laureate, Daniel Kahneman, has also acknowledged this. Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, which points out the many biases we have as humans that can lead us astray, is often cited as the reason for a growing feeling in business that we shouldn’t trust our intuition as much as we do. But Kahneman says he ‘never believed that intuition is always misguided’.

In fact, in 2009, Kahneman and his research frienemy Gary Klein, who champions intuition, put their heads together to figure out when this kind of decision-making works best. They concluded that it is when the decision-maker can see the results of their decision-making, giving them the opportunity to practise the skill and learn from this.

This is exactly the environment that the modern-day leader inhabits. The key word here is ‘experience’. Experiences continually wash over us every day, but only the ones that evoke an emotion get noticed. And of the experiences that get noticed, only a few are thought about and translated into a story that explains what happened.

Over time, these accumulate into a repertoire of experience-based stories. It is this catalogue of significant, emotionally evocative experiences, framed by stories, that guides and reinforces our decision-making practices. So to influence a decision-maker, you need to change the stories their intuition relies upon. As a leader, you can do this either by creating a new experience for a decision-maker (triggering a story) or by telling them about a new experience.


Nothing beats first-hand experience. So if you want to influence a decision-maker, help create situations where they experience something new and remarkable, which will prompt them to tell themselves a story about what happened. I call this story-triggering. Here’s one example.

A US manufacturer was being squeezed by imports, particularly from Japan. When management investigated, they discovered that a typical Japanese factory could turn out about 40 per cent more products per employee than their own firm. Management made several attempts to persuade their factory workers that the firm needed to lift its game or it would keep losing business to its Japanese competitors. But the workers didn’t believe them.

They thought that the managers were not really interested in the company’s viability, only in creating bigger bonuses for themselves. Besides, they felt they were already working as hard as was humanly possible.

To break the impasse, management selected 10 influential workers and flew them to Japan so they could visit a typical factory there and see the difference in productivity for themselves. Touring the factory one afternoon, the US employees saw that their Japanese counterparts were indeed working faster and more efficiently, but they dismissed this as a stunt—just the Japanese workers putting on an act for the visitors.

The American workers were finally convinced when, late one night, they made an unannounced visit to the factory. To their surprise, the night shift appeared to be working even harder than the day shift had. A new story had just been triggered for these workers—a story they would carry back to the United States and share with their colleagues, and which would influence future decision-making.

We’ll revisit story-triggering in Chapter 4.


If the decision-maker can’t have the experience themselves, then the next-best thing is for them to hear the story of what happened. Don’t underestimate the value of this. Research performed at Princeton University showed the profound impact that telling a story can have.

In 2010, neuroscientists Greg Stephens, Lauren Silbert and Uri Hasson conducted a series of experiments which revealed that when someone hears a story, their brain lights up in the same way as the speaker’s brain when they are telling the story. In the researchers’ words: ‘Speaker and listener brain activity exhibit widespread coupling during communication’.

The experiments began with a young woman telling an unrehearsed story about her high school prom while hooked up to a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine that recorded her brain activity; the woman’s story was also recorded. The researchers then asked 12 test subjects to listen to the recorded story while their own brain activity was monitored.

The first thing the researchers noticed was that the brain activity of the storyteller matched the brain activity of the listeners. As you would expect, there was generally a small time lag in brainwave synchronisation as the listener took in the storyteller’s words and comprehended the story. But remarkably, the researchers found that the brain activity of the listener often anticipated that of the storyteller at a particular point in the story.

The listener was predicting what was coming next. And here’s the kicker: the subjects who did more predicting did better at the comprehension test they took after hearing the story. Really engaging stories, ones where the listener is trying to predict what happens next, have the greatest impact. Or to put it another way, they are the most meaningful.

Now it’s rare that by telling just one story you will influence someone’s mind. This is partly because we are hardwired to be cautious of new things, in case they pose a threat to us. It’s an instinct that has served our species well. As we evolved, we learned that if a new person, animal or plant turned up, there was a chance it could kill us. So we approached the newcomer with caution—it was an effective survival strategy.

In business, new things can include ideas, approaches, techniques, products and services. When we first come across these, our gut still tells us, ‘Watch out’. Fortunately, it turns out that the more we hear about something, the more we accept it, or even like it. The renowned psychologist Robert Zajonc called this the mere exposure effect.

This is why it can be a good strategy to tell a series of stories that illustrate why a new thing is valuable. My business partner Mark Schenk did this when he was the knowledge manager of an Australian defence-related engineering firm. He wanted to get support from the CEO to expand a new initiative called ‘communities of practice’, which involved bringing together like-minded people in the firm on a regular basis to learn from each other.

Mark’s strategy was simple: each time he bumped into the CEO, he told the man a new story about how one of the firm’s communities of practice was making a difference.

The first time Mark tried this, the CEO listened to the story but gave no indication that he was supportive of the idea. The second story Mark told elicited a similar reaction. In their third encounter, Mark told the CEO a story about how the Department of Defence had asked their firm if it had an estimate of how many Defence personnel were using a particular engineering software application. As it happened, the firm had established a community of practice around this topic and it was able to give the department a pretty accurate answer—within a couple of days.

The CEO was amazed: ‘You mean we can answer a question about the Defence Department faster than they can? Tell me more about these communities of practice Mark’.


Work can move at such a hectic pace that we often don’t get the time to reflect on important projects that we’ve completed. But valuable lessons can be learned through reflection, and telling stories about what happened can help us to do this.

A team I worked with had toiled on a particular project for two years, and when it was finished they decided to devote half a day to finding out what lessons they’d learned from it. A senior manager in the team came up to me before the session and boldly told me that there weren’t any lessons to be learned from the experience—he would soon think differently.

As the project team wandered into the meeting room, they saw a 1-metre-tall scroll of paper covering one wall, with a timeline on it. I asked the team members to think of significant moments in the life of the project, write them on post-it notes and place the notes on the timeline. About 30 significant moments were posted, such as ‘New CIO’, ‘New Version of Software Released’ and ‘Office Move’.

I pointed to the first one, ‘Got Project Funding’, and asked the team, ‘So tell me about how you got your funding. What happened there?’ One of the old hands kicked things off by describing how, before the project had been officially green-lighted, they’d had to get money from multiple buckets. As a result, in the early days of the project, they didn’t have a project sponsor.

In a tone of exasperation, the senior manager who’d felt there was nothing to learn then spoke up: ‘It was such a pain. Never let me start a project like that ever again’. Flip-chart marker in hand, I asked whether that was a lesson. Multiple people called out to me: ‘Yes it is.’ ‘Get that one down Shawn.’

We experience a lot in the workplace, but these experiences are mostly forgotten—except for the ones that we turn into stories. Stories give experiences a fighting chance of survival, translating them into narratives which contain the relevant lessons. But here’s the thing: it’s only at the very moment the story is told that the lesson is learned— without the story to give it a context, at best it remains a vague feeling.

The leader’s role is vital here. They can help create the conditions for such lessons to emerge, and once they have, they can become stories that can be retold. Conveying a lesson as a story is particularly effective when the behaviour or attitude you are hoping to impart is complex and can’t be illustrated by something as simple as a flowchart. A good example is company values.

A bank we worked with had included ‘integrity’ in its set of corporate values, but what does ‘integrity’ really mean? To explain this, you can’t just list a set of behaviours to follow. (In fact, the bank had tried that and it hadn’t worked.) Instead, you need to provide examples. So our goal was to help the bank find stories that illustrated its values.

I remember one of the stories about integrity came from a young lawyer who’d recently joined the bank. He’d just finished an internal project advising another part of the bank when he realised he’d made a small but significant error. He didn’t think anyone would notice and for a moment he considered just letting it slide. But then he thought, ‘I don’t want to be that type of sloppy lawyer’. So he went and explained what had happened to his boss, who then informed the internal customer.

The error was fixed and the lawyer was praised for his honesty and diligence. That’s integrity. Some of the best lesson stories concern blunders you made that caused you pain. When you tell such a story, your audience makes a mental note to not repeat your error. Here is an example I sometimes share, usually when I see a customer going down the same fateful path.

Anecdote often works with an executive team to help it create the story of the company strategy. A while back we were set to help a large logistics company with its strategy story. As I was about to get started, I was told that the company’s executive, including the CEO, was too busy to come together and create their story. The client asked whether I could instead interview the executives individually and then craft a story for them to review.

I said that wasn’t our process, but the company insisted. (Yes, I know, I should have bailed out then and there.) So I interviewed the executives and crafted a story. It seemed to go well— the people I worked with were enthusiastic and supportive. Then we gathered the executives in a boardroom and I started to tell them the story I’d prepared.

All the people I’d interviewed smiled and leaned forward to hear the story. But after I’d spoken just a few sentences, the CEO interrupted me: ‘Excuse me Shawn, but quite frankly I think all stories are lies’. The smiles around the table quickly turned into frowns and the meeting was cut short. The next day I got a call to say that we’d been fired.

When a client asks me to short-cut our strategy story process, saying that their executives are too busy to work out the story themselves, I tell this lesson story. They rarely need any more convincing to involve every single executive in the story-creation process. No-one wants to feel the embarrassment many people felt that day.

As a leader, you should be looking for ways to help lesson stories emerge while at the same time mining your own experiences for those painful moments you don’t want others to struggle through. This will require strength of character and humility, but you will be rewarded by strong new connections.


Imagine that you’re responsible for communicating your company’s new strategy, and just as you’re about to do so, you hear something worrying on the corporate grapevine. A lot of employees appear to believe the strategy was created by the new CEO going home one night, digging up an old strategy from his previous company, then making copies of it and plastering them across the executive suites of your company’s headquarters. Now, you know this is not how it happened. The executive team actually went through a well-thought-out process to develop the strategy.

So your instinct is to refute these claims. You want to set people straight with the facts. This thinking, however, is just leading you into a trap. To simply deny an untrue story often merely serves to reinforce the misinformation.

A much more effective way of countering a misleading story is to tell another story—a better one. I explain how to do this when I discuss how to tackle anti-stories in Chapter 6. For now, though, let’s look at how researchers discovered this enduring feature of stories.

In 1994, Holly Johnson and Colleen Seifert conducted one of the first experiments to show how stories can have a big impact on correcting misinformation. Their experiment involved a report into a suspicious fire.

Two groups were sent a series of messages simulating how a warehouse fire might be reported in real time. The first group learned that the firefighters had traced the fire to a short circuit next to a closet containing volatile materials such as oil-based paints and pressurised gas bottles. In a follow-up message, the group was told there had been a mistake: there had not been any volatile materials in the closet and they should just ignore that misinformation.

The second group was also told about the short circuit and the closetful of volatile material, and then received a message saying this information was incorrect and should be ignored. But they were also given an alternative explanation for what might have happened. They were told that, in fact, rather than paints and gas bottles, the closet had actually held petrol-soaked rags and empty fuel drums, suggesting that arson might have taken place.

This group now had a new story to explain the fire. Both groups were subsequently questioned about their understanding of what had happened. When the first group was asked ‘Why did the fire spread so quickly?’, their response was that ‘the paints and gas bottles must have exploded and accelerated the fire’. Evidently, despite being told to do so, they hadn’t struck that misinformation from their minds.

The second group, however, responded to the question by suggesting arson, having discarded the misinformation and instead embraced the new story about the fuel-soaked rags. Clearly, the second group, which had heard the plausible story that implied arson, was much less influenced by the original misinformation than the first group, which had simply been told that a mistake had been made.

This study demonstrated that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to beat a story with just facts. What you need is a better story. It’s understandable that stories are so robust and resistant to change. When we hear a story, we take in a complete and internally coherent bundle of information. But if you cut out even one small bit, it’s no longer complete and coherent. Without a replacement story at hand, we revert to the original version—even when, as rational decision-makers, we know that part of the story we are relying on to make decisions is untrue.

I’ve felt the effects of clinging onto a story despite knowing an important part of it was false. It happened on my first visit to Washington, DC. I was staying at the Willard Hotel, a grand and historic place at the top of Pennsylvania Avenue. My friend and fellow story practitioner Paul Costello swung by to guide me around the monuments of the National Mall, but we started our tour in the lobby of the Willard.

‘Back in the 1870s,’ Paul began, ‘the White House wasn’t the most comfortable place for President Ulysses S. Grant to relax, so he would often unwind with a whiskey and a cigar in the lobby of the Willard Hotel. Word soon got around that the President could often be found in the hotel’s lobby, and people began to come here to get Grant’s ear or seek favours.

After a time, these people became known as lobbyists’. ‘Wow’, I said. ‘What a great way for that word to come about.’ Then Paul said, ‘It’s just a myth. The term originated from the gatherings of members and peers in the lobbies of the British Houses of Parliament’. It’s such a good story, though. I can picture President Grant with his hand wrapped around a cut-glass tumbler, smoke billowing from his cigar as he sits in a corner of the Willard’s lobby surrounded by a gaggle of people. I have to fight hard to include in its retelling that this story is a myth.

Leaders will always be confronted with misinformation, half-truths, even barefaced lies. Sometimes we just need to ignore them. But when we do need to counter misinformation, stories are our most powerful ally.


We have just seen six applications of storytelling in a business setting. Quite frankly, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I’m constantly amazed at how leaders use stories to achieve business outcomes.

In Part 2 of this book, you will learn how a hotel chain helped its salesforce illustrate its brand with stories, how big data is looking to stories to convey insight, how a retail store prepared its workers with stories before its grand opening, and most importantly, the many and varied ways in which leaders can find and tell stories to engage and inspire the people they work with.


This article is adapted from Shawn’s book Putting Stories to Work: Mastering Business Storytelling. Order your hardcover here or the Kindle here.

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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