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Craig Cochran

Quality Insider

The Leader as Storyteller

Smart leaders use the power of stories whenever they have important messages to convey

Published: Thursday, July 19, 2012 - 11:18

President Obama was recently quoted in a CBS news article as saying that if he could change anything about his presidency, it would be to tell more stories. That got me thinking. Could “storyteller” really be a legitimate role for a leader?

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Obama spoke of storytelling almost like it was the central responsibility of a leader. That is a gross overstatement, but storytelling certainly can be a tool of a leader. Armed with strong character and an effective vision, storytelling can be one of the most effective vehicles for sharing the vision.

People have been telling stories for tens of thousands of years, since the very dawn of civilization. Before language was even developed, Paleolithic people told stories in the form of pictographs and simple drawings. These stories educated others about what had happened in the past and how it could affect people in the future. It could be argued that the first organizational memo in history was probably a cave drawing rendered in charcoal and chalk. The message was a visual story that was quickly digestible. A very simple form of communication? Certainly, but that is the beauty of stories.

Besides the historical basis for storytelling, nearly all people grew up hearing stories from a very early age. Most babies hear dozens of hours of stories before they can even talk, and many of the earliest messages about life are communicated as simple bedtime stories. So it’s no exaggeration to say that stories are built into our very DNA. The story elements of character, setting, time, and conflict are familiar and readily understandable, and they never fail to grab people’s attention. Smart leaders use the power of stories whenever they have important messages to convey. Even if the message is not purely a story, a leader will certainly employ the descriptive language that is so commonly a part of storytelling.

It should be intuitively obvious why stories are so useful to leaders, but let’s spend a minute and define the specific advantages of this form of communication.

Stories are memorable. Because the leader’s message is folded into the dramatic context of a story, it is more likely to be remembered. This is not just anecdotal. Research has shown that messages that are communicated in the form of a story are understood more readily and retained for a longer period of time than other forms of communication. This is because a story provides a universal framework that anybody can relate to.

Stories can be shared. When a leader tells a story, he is literally spreading the seeds of his message far and wide. Not only do constituents enjoy hearing a story, they also enjoy retelling it. A story gets retold again and again, and the underlying message of the story is carried along with the retelling.

Stories illustrate concepts clearly. A story paints a picture with words. It makes concepts come alive in vivid color. How many memos or emails have you seen that make concepts come live? Very few indeed.

Stories provide examples to be followed. One could argue that it is more efficient for a leader to just say what he means. If the leader wants something to happen, she should simply say, “Make this happen.” If she doesn’t want something to happen, she should simply say, “Don’t let this happen.” These are certainly economical uses of words, but they are received with all the excitement of a dead fish. The leader’s intentions, wrapped in the form of story, provide a living example to be followed.

Stories make leaders more human and empathetic. Leaders are not always the most accessible creatures. They are often perceived to exist in a different world from the rest of us, gazing down from their ivory towers and executive offices. A story brings the leader down to everybody’s level. It makes them real. Constituents understand stories, and they relate to leaders who can tell them. A leader who can frame his message in the form of a story becomes more like your father, a friendly guide who simply wants the best for everybody. In short, the leader becomes more human, more empathetic, and much more likeable.

As a leader, your first responsibility is to cultivate the character that facilitates leadership, and then define a vision for your organization. Once you’ve laid that groundwork, don’t forget the power of storytelling for sharing your vision. It will put legs on your message and carry it far and wide.

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About The Author

Craig Cochran’s picture

Craig Cochran

Craig Cochran is a project manager with Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute. Cochran is the author of The Seven Lessons: Management Tools for Success; Problem Solving in Plain English; ISO 9001 in Plain English; Customer Satisfaction: Tools, Techniques, and Formulas for Success; The Continual Improvement Process: From Strategy to the Bottom Line; and Becoming a Customer-Focused Organization, all available from Paton Professional. His most recent book is ISO 9001:2015 in Plain English, also available from Paton Professional.