To Be a Great Leader, You Must Be a Great Storyteller — Here's Why

Nothing tops the need to be a great communicator, especially through storytelling.

person talking to someone else
Strelciuc/stock.adobe.com

If someone asked you what your biggest job is as a leader, what would you say? To hold people accountable? Come up with great ideas? Keep everything organized? All of those things are critical.

But nothing tops the need to be a great communicator, especially through storytelling.

Why Storytelling Makes the Difference

A few Christmases ago, I gave my son a Rubik's Cube as a gift, thinking from my own experience with the puzzle that he'd mess around with it and solve it just by tinkering. I thought he'd need hours. Instead, he hopped on YouTube and found a tutorial on how to do it. By the end of the day, he had it down to about five minutes.

Now pause.

The larger point of the story is that different generations think and do things differently. But did you picture him? A boy with the cube? Could you see him in your head watching the video and twisting the cube around? Try using this story to talk about how different generations learn and process, and I guarantee more people will remember the points you were trying to make.

Most leaders are pretty great at understanding facts and keeping them in their heads. They have to be. Virtually all business processes are built on quantifiable data, and the pace of the market requires leaders to pull and apply that data on the fly. The stakes — which can involve millions of dollars and thousands of workers — are too high for leaders not to grasp their company and its context inside and out.

But at the end of the day, facts aren't what make your business, concepts or directions relatable. They're not what's going to make people connect to what you're doing. Stories do that. And as the Rubik's Cube anecdote above demonstrates, they make it easy to visualize what you're getting at. Because our brains are built to work on emotions and images, that visualization and all the feelings it evokes make it way easier for others to remember what you said.

When you apply this to business and people can visualize, understand and remember your story, suddenly they have a much stronger grasp of your message and intent. They don't forget your mission, what you wanted them to do or why it matters. They can cognitively make sense of it and have a sense of purpose, excitement or urgency about it. And if you want engaged, loyal teams that really get things done, that's everything.

Anyone Can Tell a Story, Including You

One trap people fall into with this is they think some people are born storytellers and others, well, they're probably the people you want keeping your books. But everyone is a storyteller. You probably told your friend this morning about the accident you saw on the side of the road, for example, or maybe someone in your family talked to you about how they found a great deal while shopping online.

We all have the capacity to weave a good tale or analogy and tell what happened. But in a lot of offices, the idea of being "professional" gets to people. They think that because they're on the clock, everything has to be serious. They start focusing on features and benefits or pros and cons. They look for facts and deliver those rather than using storytelling the way they naturally do in other settings.

But some people are brave enough to make work personal and give more than facts. A great example is Spanx. People didn't talk about Founder Sara Blakely's initial investment or production process. The company became a success in part because she had the courage to tell the story about how, when she initially tried to sell the business to a bunch of companies, no one wanted it. Facts and figures weren't intriguing — her journey was. And once a few people passed that journey story on, a lot of people paid attention because they related to being in a startup company making products investors didn't seem to like.

Yes, They Really Are Interested (Even If They Think They're Not)

Of course, even when you have a high value point, the challenge is that people can let their biases and ego get in the way and assume they're not interested in what you have to say. Sure they are. You just have to understand how to get around that mental programming and pick the storytelling approach or analogy that's going to resonate with their own experience and way of thinking. If you engage them right out of the gate this way, then the facts can always follow.

Stories Mean Opportunities, You Just Have To Take Them

Telling stories well at the office can increase your visibility and exposure. People know you're relatable and get things across well, so they invite you to present, talk to others or join teams. So the better you get at it, the more work you can expect. But within that, you will also have more opportunities that can push you and your company forward.

So, practice storytelling. Master it. Get people excited, resonate with them and help them remember. It's a built-in way of communicating that's phenomenally effective, so you might as well use it.

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