What is it about stories that makes them so powerful? Why is brilliant storytelling one of the leadership skills that can elevate a leader from good to exceptional? Following the recent EO Global Speakers’ Academy course, where we delegates all worked on telling our stories more effectively, it’s something that I’ve been giving considerable thought to.

Professor of Ethical Leadership at NYU, Jonathan Haidt, put his finger on it when he asserted that “the human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.” As a species, we have used stories to pass on information, to inspire and to educate for millennia. Stories are passed down through generations and form the basis of every religious text. We frame and make sense of our world through stories.

Storytelling in leadership

Do you remember those amazing memory experts we used to see on TV, who could memorise the order of a shuffled pack of cards in just a few minutes?  When asked how they did it, they’d explain that they created a story in their heads to link each card to the next. This is because our brains are wired to recall stories much easier than facts and figures.

And so it is with leadership. Leaders need to instil a set of values, a vision and a purpose in their team. These need to live and breathe in the organisation and communicating them via a story, a story in which every person in the team can see themselves, makes the experience personal, memorable and meaningful.

Stories unite, inspire and connect people, boosting a leader’s impact and effectiveness.

Gaining insight

It’s the same with learning. Leaders are often asked for advice but, rather than telling someone what to do, when they use storytelling and experience sharing instead to help that person find their own answer to the problem, the results are more impactful and sustainable. The teller helps the listener to see themselves in the story, opening up the possibility for insight. This insight – literally sight from within – is essential to create behaviour change. And as leaders, that’s what we are there for, to create behavioural change in our teams and customers.  Developing such leadership skills enhances the learning experience and promotes self-responsibility in each team member, leading to sustainable and continuous improvement.

Actionable learning

We see the power of storytelling in creating behaviour change every time we run an After Action Review. The process of inviting participants in the AAR to share their expectations and lived reality of a situation or event – to tell their story, if you like – feeds into the collective learning experience. These stories from each individual then form the basis of agreed actions and changes which will be made by everyone, with the explicit intention of improving how the organisation or team operates in the future.

Unlike other sorts of post-project reviews or debriefs, is it the personal, story-based nature of the process (as well as the skill of the AAR conductor in framing the discussion) that makes it such an effective learning tool.  In fact, nearly all our customers who use AAR report that the behaviours often change immediately after the AAR meeting, and this is because people have gained insight whilst listening to the different stories within the group.

Howard Gardner states that “storytelling is the single most powerful tool in a leader’s toolkit”. I would argue that listening perhaps has the edge but, when it comes to ‘transmitting’ rather than ‘receiving’ information, brilliant storytelling is undoubtedly one of the essential leadership skills.

If you’d like to hone your storytelling, and you’re in EO, I’d highly recommend the next Global Speakers’ Academy in November.

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