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Stories: A Leader’s Must-Have Tool

A well-told story packs more influence than any spreadsheet, graph, or slogan

Good stories have a power all their own. They can make complex issues understandable. They can give people a sense of community. They can call people to action in ways they never imagined.

As a young journalist many years ago I covered large events ranging from business conventions to religion conferences to political rallies. I always watched and listened to the speakers very carefully. But most revealing was what I observed in the audiences. When a speaker said something like “Let me illustrate with a story,” the audience would always become more alert and attentive. It was as though the listeners were thinking “Okay, here comes the really good stuff.”

So why don’t more leaders have storytelling in their toolbox of skills? That’s always been a mystery to me. But one thing’s for sure: the value of good stories and effective storytelling cannot be overemphasized.

Kevin Cashman certainly knows this. In the updated edition of his fine book Leadership from the Inside Out he highlights many of the whys and wherefores of good storytelling. He shared some of his insights in a recent interview.

Rodger Dean Duncan: You say that spreadsheets are the language of management information and stories are the language of leadership inspiration. How can a leader go from mere storytelling skills to using stories to connect people’s self-awareness to service and performance improvement? In other words, how can good stories go beyond mere rah-rah and really inspire people to want to improve?

Kevin Cashman: Numbers are numbing to most people while stories speak to the whole person, both head and heart. Using an authentic, relevant story draws people in, engages our imaginations and our memories so that even if the exact experience didn’t happen to us, we feel like it did. It resonates with meaning. So rather than grind through numbers, goals or updates, share a story that illustrates what you value, admire or celebrate in the organization. Research shows that character-driven stories enhance empathy and cooperative behaviors, such as engaging employees to help customers solve problems and feel good about their part in finding a resolution. Telling founding stories connects people to purpose, the original passion behind the enterprise.

Duncan: How can stories become part of an organization’s culture, part of a team’s DNA?

Cashman: Telling founding stories is an excellent way to connect everyone to the original passion behind the enterprise. Keeping that story at the forefront with the organization’s purpose and helping individuals connect to it with their own purpose story is a great foundation for an organization’s culture. The privilege of a leader is to inspire new narratives. Recognize that every experience is a potential story that is part of the organization’s DNA. People may already have a story about you, your team and your organization. The real question is: what is the current story and how do you want to change it?

Duncan: The sweet spot of an effective story seems to be the intersection of the storyteller’s authenticity and the relevant needs of the listeners. How can story mastery be learned and constantly improved?

Cashman: Effective stories require that we go deep to know our deepest narratives of character, learning, loss, recovery, privilege, and values. This is the journey to authenticity. Relevance requires that we understand the needs, fears, concerns, and struggles of others. Relevance is the journey to emotional intelligence and connection. Story mastery is going deep to touch others. Reflection and connection are key practices throughout these journeys.

Duncan: How can a leader build up an inventory of authentic stories that engage and inspire others (and even motivate the storyteller)?

Cashman: Notice that stories, inspiring stories, are already within us and around us. First, know your own stories. Reflect on the highs and lows of your life to inventory your learnings, loss, and values.

Second, begin to notice stories around you, on your team, in your organization, in your family, in your reading, the media … everywhere! Recount these stories to celebrate the character you admire in others.

Know the inventory of stories is already there, but we may not “have taken stock of our story inventory” inside and outside of ourselves.

Duncan: What are the must-have ingredients of a story that inspires people with a desire to do better and be better?

Cashman: Ingredient #1: the story moves you. If it is not inspiring to you, it will not inspire others. All inspiration begins with self-inspiration.

Ingredient #2: The story moves others. This involves crafting the narrative in a way that transcends itself and reminds us of a universal challenge, character trait or important consequence. When it does, relevance dawns, inspiration happens and scientists tell us that the hormone, oxytocin, associated with trust and connection, literally flows in our bloodstream!

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