Former President Barack Obama was once quoted in a CBS news article, saying that if he could change one thing about his presidency, it would be to tell more stories, which got me thinking: is storytelling linked to effective leadership?
Then I remembered the story of a young mathematician called Jim Bangel, who was hired by P&G in the Research & Development department. Jim had to write a monthly memo, like all his colleagues, describing in detail the results of his research. These memos were generally dull and full of the kind of language that only an engineer or chemist would comprehend. After all these years of writing plain, boring memos, Jim decided to do something different: he decided to write a story. He named his prime character Earnest Engineer, and in the story, the readers got to follow the learnings of Earnest. The lessons and conclusion were the same as Jim would have written in the traditional memo. But the story was, in fact, far more appealing and gained everyone’s attention in the office.
This led to Jim being appointed as the company’s official corporate storyteller. Sometimes, even the CEO would ask him to write a story on a particular topic, as he knew that people would read Jim’s stories. As a result, Jim Bangel became the single most influential person at P&G, all because one day, he decided to write a story instead of a traditional report.
So, what does storytelling have to do with leadership? Everything! Stories have a compelling and inspiring effect on employees. It can transform a dry PowerPoint cramped with information into a fascinating picture of the goals of a leader or an organisation. Unlike popular belief, leaders who are effective do not order people to simply ‘get motivated’ or ‘be creative,’ but they lead their employees on the path to these outcomes through powerful storytelling. Take the example of any TED talk; they usually have a recipe that anyone can follow. It starts with the individual’s personal experience, leading to an illustrated story, and ends with the moral of the story. The result? Well, the audience is hooked by the story and deeply impacted.
As Benchmark’s Bill Gurley states,
“The great storytellers have an unfair competitive advantage. They are going to recruit better, they will be darlings in the press, they are going to raise money more easily, and at higher prices, they are going to close amazing business developer partnerships, and they are going to have a strong and cohesive corporate culture. Perhaps more to the point, they are more likely to deliver a positive investment return.”
Now, the main question is: How do companies incorporate storytelling in their leadership practices?
Some of the most empowering and successful companies in the world use the art of storytelling as a critical leadership tool – Microsoft, Apple, Google, and NASA, to name a few. It is never too late to start employing this secret sauce to make your organisation succeed. Let us see how you can do that.
Build a Storytelling Culture
Building a culture of storytelling at the workplace will yield many benefits. One can employ the following methods to achieve this.
- Make sure that coaches and mentors share their experiences through their stories
- Get leaders to be role models by sharing their stories
- Encourage those with client relationships to draw out the stories of their clients and connect them with their own experiences and internal knowledge
- Make the employees report their progress in the form of stories (just like Jim Bangel did)
- Focus on placing great stories at the centre of each leader’s agenda
Put Storytelling into Practice
Follow these quick tips to effectively put storytelling into practice at your workplace.
- Record great stories to encourage meaningful conversations
- Create a story bank so that all employees can understand all examples of the mission in action and the vision for the future through inspiring and memorable stories
- Make it a habit to simplify PowerPoint presentations by using fewer words and maximum visuals like infographics, videos, etc.
- Include senior leaders’ live-sharing stories as part of the formal learning programs
- Create forums, large or small, in which every employee can practise telling a story about the company strategy and how it resonates with their personal mission
Leaders are not always perceived as the most accessible people and are often seen to exist in a world different from everyone else. Stories help put leaders and their employees relate more easily. A leader who can effectively impart a message in the form of a story becomes more like a friendly guide who wants the best for everyone. One of the fundamental responsibilities of a leader is to define a vision for the organisation and share it using the art of storytelling. After all, a story does what facts and figures can never do: inspire and motivate people!