Storytelling As A Leadership Tool

When I first started out in advertising, I was told the story of the agency’s successful launch campaign for a major client’s new product. When the agency introduced the idea for the campaign, the client was livid. It wasn’t what they expected, and it certainly wasn’t what they thought they needed for their product to be a success.

The agency believed in their concept and stood behind their innovative idea 100 %.

Their middle ground? Both parties agreed the agency would develop a parallel campaign more in line with client expectations and to pay to put both campaigns into market research.  The client agreed to abide by the research results and launch the winning campaign.

In the end, the agency version got the highest research scores ever! It gave the client’s product a massive push onto the market, became talk-of-the-town, and went on to win a creative prize in New York.

Oh yea, in the end the client agreed to pick up the research tab.

Anyone who keeps track of recent developments on the leadership horizon has come across the subject of storytelling within the leadership context.

Enveloping important business lessons within the framework of a story helps effective leaders do more than just pass on knowledge and know-how. Storytelling transfers theoretical knowledge into a practical context, the story itself personalizes and individualizes the information,  and the entire experience strengthens and inspires the team.

The most commonly used types are stories that answer one of the following question(s):

Who am I? – When you take on any type of leadership rôle, you may think you are an unwritten page for the people around you. You aren’t! Instead they project a myriad of preconceived notions and past (negative) experiences onto you before you’ve even had an opportunity to personally introduce yourself and shake everybody’s hand. Telling a story about yourself – one that highlights a specific shortcoming or business-related mistake you have made – isn’t only the opportunity to share a learning experience. This type of story also lets people know that you are not invincible, and that you trust them with that knowledge. It will make you more approachable.

Why am I here? – This type of story provides you with an opportunity to show your team that you have no hidden agenda. By being upfront about your motivations and what you hope to accomplish with your team’s support, you open the door for mutual trust.

What do I want you to know? – Passing on an important business lesson in the form of a story helps your team remember what you want them to do and why they are supposed to do it. Encouraging your team to identify the higher purpose of their actions make them realize the real value of their contribution – and understand that you recognize it, too.

Where do I want you to go? – When defining and communicating a vision to your team, it’s essential they accept part ownership in the vision, and understand their exact rôle in achieving that vision. Establishing this common goal is also vital when – during tough time – as their leader you need to re-activate their enthusiasm and motivate them to continue on course.

What are the core values that govern our actions? – It’s (too) easy to write values like ‘integrity’, ‘honesty’ or ‘achievement’ into a mission statement. Much more difficult, however, is bringing these terms to life in a way that people understand what you mean, as well as how these terms impact their work and their relationships to one another and clients.

Where is our middle ground? – As a leader you are sometimes called upon to bargain even when you strongly believe you are in the right. The challenge here is to let the other party see that you truly understand their perspective, while challenging them to give your method a try.

How can you ensure that your storytelling fulfills the purpose for which it’s intended? Here are four tips you might find helpful:

  1. Maintain your authenticity. Although you have made a decision to match a specific story with a certain learning objective, it’s important your team see that you are sincere in your storytelling.
  2. Be an observant raconteur.  By keeping eye contact and watching their reactions, you can better assess whether or not you are getting your message across.
  3. Practice makes perfect. And practicing your story will reassure you that you are getting directly to the point you want to make.
  4. Make your storytelling experiential. Your story will come alive when you address as many of your audience’s senses as possible. Make sure they not only ‘hear’ what you are saying, but ‘feel’ and ’see’ it as well.

What knowledge and know-how is essential for your team – and what stories do you have to share?


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