Last week, I traveled to Ecuador to present the Leadership Workshop portion of the High Potentials Program of Harvard Business Review-Latin America. As such, I lectured on two days, first in Guayaquil and then in Quito. It was a quick and enlightening visit. In my discussions with the participants, I discovered much about this country and its people. And, the food was truly spectacular!
On both days, the participants were fascinated by my use of storytelling in leadership self-expression. They wanted to know why I used storytelling so extensively in coaching leaders, and they asked for examples of the types of stories I encourage individuals to tell. It all got me thinking that it might be a good idea to write something on these themes here. Much of what follows in this post is adapted from the chapter 2 of my latest book, Email, social marketing, and the art of storytelling.
In fact, people often ask me how I came to believe so much in the power of story and storytelling. On the one hand, the answer to this question is straightforward. As a coach of leaders and entrepreneurs, I came to believe in it because it works. Leaders inspire and teach with their stories of identity. Brands do as well.
On the other hand, if the concept of storytelling has taken center stage in much of the work I do today, my own path to discovering it was somewhat circuitous.
As I look back, I think that even as a schoolboy I observed my teachers and coaches with a certain fascination for how leaders communicate. Why are some individuals so effective at motivating those around them with their words?
This interest in how leaders motivate continued into my adult years. When choosing a subject for my doctoral thesis in business administration, I decided to explore the question of a leader’s discourse and the elements that make it effective. My research led me unequivocally to the conclusion that the most powerful and inspirational forms of communication are story-based.
Simultaneously, my early practice as a teacher and as a coach of business leaders was lending similar insights. As I began prodding others to find and tell their stories of identity, I discovered along with my clients and students the true power of personal narrative.
Today, with nearly 15 years of experience in the field and with an ever-growing interest in self-expression, I observe with increased attention and awareness what works best in the speeches or presentations of business and political figures. Time and again I am led to the same conclusion: Outstanding leaders weave their life experience into personal stories that they use to teach, motivate and influence others.
When I listen to the speeches of inspirational leaders, I see again and again the impact of storytelling on an audience. Barack Obama, for example, is a masterful storyteller who relied on his personal stories of identity virtually every day of his campaign for the American presidency.
At the same time, storytelling is not just for politicians and CEOs. It is an increasingly important skill in today’s world, whenever persuading and inspiring others is the goal. I am convinced that storytelling—when it is personal and authentic—is the most effective way to present ideas in many contexts: sharing knowledge with one’s employees and colleagues, presenting to venture capitalists, selling one’s product or service, or making public statements.
Whenever I speak of the coaching I do involving leadership and storytelling, or of the leaders I admire, I stress the two words in italics above: authentic and personal. It is not only about becoming a good storyteller; it is about learning to tell personal stories of identity from our life experience, the stories that express our character and true nature. And, I emphasize over and over: In this type of storytelling, there is no place for the demagoguery or manipulation that we (unfortunately) find all too often in modern-day politics. It all my work, it is about finding and telling authentic stories that inspire others by demonstrating our true nature and our deepest convictions.
Through my work with several business clients in recent years, I have come to the realization that one can readily apply these story-based approaches to branding and corporate communication. Both leaders and brands can improve the effectiveness and relevance of their messages by emphasizing their authentic stories of identity.
One word of caution about stories and storytelling: While I tend to advance numerous arguments in favor of story-based discourse, I do not wish to imply that we should abandon abstract analysis and present everything in story form. Rather, storytelling and rational argument should complement each other. What I do mean to say is that story is underutilized in modern-day communication, and that we would do well to rediscover its power.