Great leaders tell great stories.

typewritter1Stories engage people, are easy to pass on, are easy to remember,  and – crucially – they appeal to the part of the brain where we make our decisions.  If you want something to get done, appeal to an emotion of some sort.

And if you want to appeal to emotion, try telling a story.

I was running a leadership programme this week, and the theme for the afternoon was story telling.  Normally I give people time to prepare to tell us a story by inviting them to bring an object of personal significance to the event, and to think about how they are going to explain it to us.  This week I decided to take the exercise to a new level.

I asked people to be prepared to tell us a story about something they found challenging as a teenager.

The results were startling.  Bear in mind this was a group of people who did not work together all the time, were of differing status within the function (we had people with not only their boss but their boss’ boss in the room), and who I would say were largely untrusting of each other.  I was quite ready to pull the plug on the activity halfway through if they failed to engage with it (which I thought was distinctly possible).

Instead the complete opposite happened.  One of the most senior people in the room started us off by telling us about the day her parents told her and her sister they were getting divorced, and how she chose to stay (much to his surprise) with her father rather than live with her sister and mother.  The opening sentence of the next one was “As a teenager I was destined to be a delinquent.”  Then someone described how hard she was finding it seeing her marriage fall apart.

And so it continued.  There were tears as well as (thankfully) applause and laughter.  The impact on the group was tangible.  People had chosen to be vulnerable with their story, and as a result others responded by showing trust and mutual respect.  I felt I saw a team form before my eyes.  One of the most cynical people in the room (used to be a consultant – they’re the worst!) summed it up for all of us:

“In just two minutes I have completely reformed my opinion of someone.  I had no idea that storytelling could have that effect.”

The great thing about storytelling is that it doesn’t need to take extra time.  Changing the way we communicate can in fact save time, because once you have connected with people and established trust you don’t have to work so hard convincing them to do stuff.  You’ll get productivity gains too, as they’ll become engaged with what you are trying to achieve.

Try weaving it into the way you connect with people.  Add a story to your next presentation.  Open up with it when you are selling something to someone you don’t know.  Invite your team to tell their stories.  Allow some time for it in your meetings.

If you’re struggling with how to structure your story (sometimes Beginning, Middle, End is all you need, by the way), here’s one I made earlier.  It’s based on the structure of all fairy tales, and most of Walt Disney’s famous films.

Give it a go, and tell me a story at some point to let me know how you get on.

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Photo:  Jorge Marquez

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