Great Leaders Tell Stories
Persuade, problem-solve, and plot a path forward through storytelling.
Humans are simple animals. At our core, we’re just cavepeople. Once our basic needs are met — food, water, sleep, shelter, human connection — we want to wrap ourselves in our furs, gather around the campfire, and hear a great story.
Everyone loves stories. Stories help us make sense of the world, and of ourselves. Stories evoke emotion, cultivate empathy, open our eyes to alternate ways of being, and paint the picture of future states that we’d never thought of on our own.
A story has three acts. First, there’s your protagonist, going along, doing their thing, until they face what seems like an insurmountable problem. Fear! Doubt! Pain! Suffering! Uncertainty! The tension mounts. Everyone leans in closer to the fire, eyes fixed on the storyteller.
At the height of the conflict, when everyone is on the edge of their seat, a switch flips. Due to a revelation, a change in thinking, a stroke of genius, clever maneuvering, and circumstance, our protagonist turned hero finds the way out and comes out on top. Everyone cheers.
Finally, the resolution, as we cavepeople sigh with contentment. We put on that protagonist’s shoes and walked a mile in them. Our primitive empathetic instinct feels accomplished, entertained, resolved. We’re ready to face our own challenges in life with bravery and confidence.
Storytelling in the workplace
It’s 2021 — these days you’re sitting in front of a webcam instead of a campfire, and you’re wearing your Zoom shirt instead of furs. You’ve got to inform, convince, and inspire your team members, customers, stakeholders, and higher-ups. You might think that your job is to make a great slide deck and write a pitch-perfect script to read alongside it. Guess what? Your job is actually to tell a great story.
Stories are the most powerful tool that leaders have to influence how others think and their worldview. The most compelling narratives move people — they take people on a journey and evoke feelings along the way.
On the face of it, Steve Jobs’ legendary Apple keynotes featured a guy onstage with a slide deck behind him talking about the new products his company launched. More than perfectly formatted slides or quotable sound bites, every successful presentation needs a compelling narrative (though Jobs’ keynotes had all three). Wayne Goodrich, Jobs’ right hand in preparing those keynotes, explains:
“What few people realize is that, like Pixar movies, there is a color scheme throughout the 90 minutes, and an emotional ramp. And yes, there are heroes and villains, action sequences, humor, and plot twists. You have to be careful not to wear the audience out. You have to manage building to a climax. Steve understood this better than anyone.”
When you put together a presentation in the workplace, structure it like a story — one with an emotional ramp and three dramatic acts. The three-act structure gives you the framework to decide what’s in and what’s out. Throw out details that ultimately don’t add to the power of the narrative. Add the color that will make your audience relate, understand, or see the bigger picture. And in a business context, include the information that demonstrates your credibility and authority on the subject matter.
Don’t let your supporting materials, whether that’s a deck, a document, a video, or a whiteboard drawing, dictate your pacing or sequencing. Those are just tools to accompany you. Great leaders are great storytellers, and great storytellers know that dramatic structure is the backbone of their message. Everything else follows it.
Storytelling is strategic
Storytelling in the workplace is not limited to keynote speeches or big presentations. It’s something leaders use just about every day. It’s a tool that can do a lot of heavy lifting in solving problems, persuading, and striking the path forward.
- Problem-solving. Every story, at its core, is about solving a problem. But when your audience already knows there’s a hairy, complex problem with no obvious solution, your story’s job is to walk them to your conclusion. Start by painting the full picture of the problem, especially the aspects of it that are lesser known, and build that emotional ramp toward the solution. If the solution will be unexpected to your audience, your story needs to make it seem like the obvious choice.
- Persuasion. The classic workplace storytelling scenario is persuading someone — a boss, a client, a prospect, a team — to take action. Lots of people just call this sales, but sales (whether you’re selling a product or an idea) is storytelling as well.The thing about sales is that your audience may not know that the problem you’re trying to solve exists in the first place, or they may be resistant to the idea of changing. Your job as a storyteller is to make them feel the pain and suffering the problem causes — and again, lead them to the solution. When your story does its job here, deciding to go with your solution is a no-brainer.
- Plotting the path forward. Strategic storytelling is bigger in scope than day-to-day problem-solving and persuasion. This is where you lay out a long-term plan of action. When you’re putting forward a roadmap of where a company or business unit or team or product line is going, your story begins with the basic questions: Who are we? What are we trying to achieve? What are we great at? What could we be better at? Who do we want to be in 5–10 years? Then, the solution: Here’s how we get there.
Every time you talk to people in your workplace, it’s a chance to change their thinking, show them a better future, and solve problems. Whether you’re gathered around a campfire, onstage giving an Apple keynote, or speaking into your webcam, when you tell a great story, your listeners will be right there on the journey with you.
Gina Trapani (@ginatrapani) is a Managing Partner who leads Digital Strategy at Postlight. Send her an email: email@example.com.
Story published on Mar 31, 2021.