“Tell Me a Story”

Tell Me a Story

The following is an excerpt from John Baldoni’s The Leader’s Guide to Speaking with Presence: How to Project Confidence, Conviction, and Authority.

“Even the people who wrote the Bible were smart enough to know, ‘tell them a story.’ The issue was evil in the world; the story was Noah… Now the Bible knew that and for some reason or another I latched on to that.”

That was Don Hewitt, creator and executive producer of one of the longest running shows in U.S. television history, 60 Minutes, explaining the “secret” of his success. According to Steve Kroft, a 60 Minutes correspondent, Hewitt did not concern himself with issues per se; he focused on stories shaped by those issues, be it war, consumer fraud, health investigations, or celebrity profiles.

Hewitt was fond of saying that every child realizes the importance of “tell me a story,” but when we reach adulthood, we forget. Yet Hewitt’s absolute commitment to storytelling is something leaders, particularly those with big initiatives to push, should remember. Story is a form of person-to-person connection that leaders, as author and University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School professor Stew Friedman writes, can use to connect with their followers.

There are three reasons why a good story can be a useful leadership tool:

  1. To inform. We all want the facts, but if a leader wants the facts to matter he needs to add a little seasoning. Stories can take raw data and give them life. For example, why not use a spreadsheet to tell a story about rising sales or declining quality? Use the data to make your points. Then flesh out that explanation with stories about the effect on individuals, teams, and the company as a whole.
  2. To involve. If you need to get people on your side, you need to involve them in the process. You need to engage their interest. For example, if an executive needs to persuade people to support an initiative, she can describe how the initiative will benefit the customer but also emphasize how it will improve the lot of employees too (more customers, more sales, more revenues, more jobs, more opportunities for promotion, etc.).
  3. To inspire. Employees become jaded; there is only so much “importance” they can absorb, even when their jobs are at stake. So it falls to leaders to find ways to inspire their teams. Stories are the ideal vehicle for inspiring people because successful stories can dramatize the human condition. A story about a customer service representative who drove to the house of a customer to rectify an error, or a salesperson who drove through a raging blizzard to close a sale, can quickly become the stuff of corporate legend. These stories give sustenance in times of travail, and they say to an employee faced with long odds, “If she can do it, so can I.”

There is another advantage to using stories, and that’s something Hewitt alluded to with his reference to the Bible. Use stories to make your points rather than relying on platitudes. In fiction writing workshops, they call this “Show, don’t tell.” For executives, this means avoiding corporate speak; instead, tell stories about how your initiatives will improve the lives of customers and employees.

Not every issue need be reduced to a story. There are times when a leader needs to be direct and to the point, to lay out the issue and the challenges in clear and precise language. For example, if a company is losing market share to a competitor, the sales manager might want to quantify the decline in sales by percentage and by lost revenue. Yet even in such circumstances, that same executive could drive the message home by naming the lost customers and describing the effect of their loss on the company.

A leader picks the right story at the right time to drive her point home, leaving no doubt about the importance of an initiative and its impact on the organization. It’s up to a leader to use stories to dramatize urgency and humanize events so that listeners become followers.

About the Author

John Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership educator, executive coach and speaks throughout North America, Europe and the Middle East. John is the author of more than a dozen books, including MOXIE: The Secret to Bold and Gutsy Leadership, Lead with Purpose, Lead Your Boss, and The Leader’s Pocket Guide. He serves as chair of leadership development at N2Growth, a global leadership advisory firm.  In 2015 Trust Across America named him to its list of top 100 most trustworthy business experts for the second consecutive year. In 2014 Inc.com listed John as a Top 50 leadership expert and Top 100 leadership speaker. Also in 2014, Global Gurus ranked John No. 11 on its list of global leadership experts.