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What’s your story? Leadership and storytelling

5 min read


Storytelling — once the stuff of childhood nighttime rituals — has grown up and is quickly becoming a go-to tool in the very adult world of business. MBA programs, workshops, and coaches all offer strategies and support to help today’s leaders craft a better story.

And it makes sense. According to Pamela B Rutledge, Ph.D., in her post on Psychology Today, “The Psychological Power of Storytelling,” “Stories are how we think. They are how we make meaning of life. … Stories are how we explain how things work, how we make decisions, how we justify our decisions, how we persuade others, how we understand our place in the world, create our identities, and define and teach social values.”

The advantages of the story

Those who understand this dynamic can elevate the quality of their leadership — and their results — by leveraging the natural human propensity to make sense of the world around us through stories. These leaders create a narrative that contributes to greater connection, engagement and shared meaning.

Stories distinguish themselves from other communication vehicles in a variety of ways that contribute to their power in the workplace.

  • A well-told story appeals to a wider variety of learning, listening, and information-processing styles. You have a better chance of getting your point across to more people when it’s framed in terms of a story.
  • Stories have a way of tapping emotions and creating a visceral impact (that even the most well-crafted PowerPoint slides leave on the table).
  • They’re more memorable than other communication vehicles. According to Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D., in her Psychology Today post “Your Brain on Stories,” “you are literally using more of your brain when you are listening to a story. And because you are having a richer brain event, you enjoy the experience more, you understand the information more deeply, and retain it longer.”
  • They tend to be delivered through “human” means versus e-mail, texting, etc. This alone helps to cut through the noise of the thousands of disembodied messages we’re bombarded with daily.
  • Stories are efficient as they predigest and pack a potentially overwhelming volume of information for grateful inhabitants of a time-starved world.
  • When told live, stories create not just a shared experience but a shared space for dialogue as well — something craved by workers who are increasingly feeling disconnected in today’s virtual world.

Stories have the power to inform, instruct and inspire when crafted intentionally and delivered skillfully. And they’re remarkably flexible in terms of the context and content they can support. For example, stories can be used to:

  • Provide important information about who a leader really is, offering a window to his/her values, motives, and passions;
  • Frame the past and generate a shared foundational understanding upon which to build;
  • Position threats and opportunities, bringing the need for change into sharp focus;
  • Personalize strategy and breathe life into it (as opposed to issuing another missive or creating another poster for the lunchroom);
  • Preview the future, creating an appetizing vision that motivates and inspires; and
  • Package lessons and insights in a quick and memorable fashion.

Plotting out your stories

Leadership stories that accomplish all of this don’t occur spontaneously. While they may appear to be off the cuff, there’s nothing impromptu or unscripted about them. They are intentional, thought through in great detail and frequently rehearsed to ensure they hit the mark.

The most effective stories tend to share a few common characteristics. They are authentic and personal to the leader. They use appropriate humor. They tend to have a narrow or specific focus, which helps with one more characteristic: brevity. Unlike Grandpa’s long, winding stories on the porch, some of the best leadership stories are relatively short.

Additionally, the best and most memorable ones feel honest and candid. They reveal vulnerability and even mistakes. As a result, they evoke emotion. In fact, research suggests that people learn more from stories of struggles overcome than stories of perfection. When leaders let their defenses down and share errors, missteps and mess-ups, they not only gain greater credibility; they also teach more.

And, because they are at their very core classical literary devices, stories also contribute to a more effective outcome:

  • The classic three-part structure of set-up, confrontation and resolution lends itself to a variety of story types.
  • Metaphors and analogies offer descriptive imagery, framing concepts in more understandable and/memorable terms.
  • Sharing dialogue and repeating what was spoken between or among individuals creates an immersive experience that engages and triggers a different type of understanding.
  • Surprises and unexpected twists keep the listener on the edge of his or her seat.
  • Intentional repetition of key words or phrases can also drive home the important points being made, make the message more memorable, and sometimes yield those signature leadership expressions that go viral in an organization.

“Stories are the single most powerful tool in a leader’s toolkit.” ~ Howard Gardner

With all of the tools available to leaders today, many are returning to a low-tech, old-fashioned, tried-and-true strategy that likely traces back to some of their earliest childhood memories. Want to lead? Start with a story.

So, tell us your story. What do you do that makes storytelling effective?

Julie Winkle Giulioni is the author of “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Employees Want,” with Bev Kaye. Giulioni has spent the past 25 years improving performance through learning. She consults with organizations to develop and deploy innovative instructional designs and training worldwide. You can learn more about her consulting, speaking and blog at

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