The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling

Mother reading to children

Used with permission.

Facts and logic can engage the mind, but if you want to motivate people so that they act enthusiastically and with real commitment, if you want to persuade them to adopt a particular course of action or way of being, you have to engage their hearts, and a great way to do that is by telling stories. Stories can be incredibly useful because they are much more memorable than plain facts or logic; they draw your listeners into the topic so they become personally interested and emotionally involved, and they help people understand what you really mean. They connect people’s aspirations with your ministry and the future state you are called to create. In another post, I talked about how stories keep your ministry’s Christian identity alive. You still need facts and logic  of course, but augment them with stories to add the sparkle and zip that inspires people to take action.

Learn how to tell stories

So how do you tell a story well? There are lots of books that promise to let you in on the secret. If you check Amazon for storytelling books, you’ll find just under 20,000 of them! I haven’t read them all; in fact I think I’ve just read one. The good news is that after reading just this one, I felt no need to read anything else. Often the first book whets your appetite and then you read others to go deeper, or to get a fuller understanding. The book I read left me feeling I knew enough and what more could be said?

Many of the storytelling books I considered reading are quite generic. They might tell you how to tell stories that you could use around a campfire, or with your kids or friends, but will these books help you at work? I picked one that was written specifically for organizational leaders, and the table of contents includes the kind of stories that I, as a leader, want to tell.

The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling

In The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative, Stephen Denning walks you through the different kinds of stories that organizational leaders use, tells you when you should use each type, and shows how you craft a story to suit its particular purpose. Here’s just a brief summary of the story types:

  • Sparking action stories help bring about change;
  • Communicating who you are stories build trust in a leader;
  • Communicating who the organization is stories establish your brand, building trust in the organization;
  • Transmitting values stories help ingrain the corporate values so that people understand “how things are done around here;”
  • Fostering collaboration stories develop a shared perspective among group members;
  • Taming the grapevine stories work with the flow of office gossip to present an accurate understanding of what the gossip is about;
  • Sharing knowledge stories spread knowledge about what works and does not work among staff; and
  • Leading people into the future stories prepare people for change.

As an example of when you might tell stories, when I came to CCCC I was a complete outsider.  People naturally want to know who the new ‘boss’ is, and they want to know the person well enough that they can predict what the person wants from staff. This book wasn’t published then, but I know now there is a name for the type of stories I told. I shared a number of “Communicating who you are” stories about key points of transition in my life, about critical incidents that formed my approach to leadership and so on. These stories were one way of conveying to the team my values, my beliefs about leadership, the culture I’d like us to have, and how I make decisions. I’ve told lots of stories since then, particularly “transmitting your values stories” to staff (for emphasizing our team values), and “communicating who the organization is” stories to external audiences.

You’ll discover that stories are usually quite short and to the point. Some people may think of them more as anecdotes than stories. I really found it helpful that Denning gives examples of everything he talks about, so you can always get an idea of how to apply his ideas. And for every type of story, he provides a template so you quickly know how to create it.

I think Denning’s book is great, and if you want to learn how to tell stories, this is the book for you.

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