Leaders speak to influence and inspire their audiences — not primarily to convey information.
And telling stories is one of the best ways to influence and inspire. Stories grab people’s interest and attention. They engage people’s imaginations and emotions. They’re memorable. They move audiences beyond — not counter to — their critical, nit-picking minds.
And they invite people — both the person telling the story and the people listening to it — to let their guards down and to become vulnerable. They are disarming, which is a good thing in today’s highly polemical world.
I recently gave a workshop for the executive leadership team at a major healthcare system. The person who brought me in warned me in advance that the executives prided themselves on being hard-nosed, bottom-line professionals who weren’t into “touchy-feely crap.”
I started by telling one of my own stories. I had them reflect on how stories work and on how important they are for leaders. (Howard Gardner, the Harvard professor, said “Stories constitute the single most powerful weapon in a leader’s arsenal.”) And then I had them tell stories to each other.
I had them tell a story of the person who influenced them most in their professional life. It was a safe topic to begin with, and everyone had a great story to tell. People began to relax. Then I asked them to tell a story about the person who influenced them most, having nothing to do with work. Finally, I asked them to tell a story about a turning point in their lives, when they made a choice that forever altered the way they act or think or feel. And I asked them what they learned from those experiences — what the moral of their story was.
There was no holding back. No defensiveness. People wanted to tell their stories. One person’s story inevitably made someone else want to tell his or her story.
When leaders tell stories, they make themselves real, vulnerable, human. And they invite others to respond in kind. That’s a good thing, to my way of thinking.
Here are two books I recommend on the subject:
The Way of the Storyteller, by Ruth Sawyer, blends literary history, criticism, analysis, personal anecdote, and how-to instructions. It includes stories from around the world and a comprehensive reading and story list.
The Story Factor, by Annette Simmons, is a more contemporary study. It illustrates how to tell stories to persuade, motivate, and inspire audiences in ways that cold facts, bullet points, and directives can’t.
What’s your experience with stories? Do you have any books to recommend?