How to Craft a Good Leadership Story

  • 3 mins read

The most effective way to influence people is through telling good leadership stories that create emotional buy-in. Most executives and managers know this, but few find it easy to create a story that works.
Daphne A. Jameson, a professor of management communication at Cornell University, has researched how language is used in business meetings. She has found that storytelling is an important way to resolve conflicts. Managers can effectively use narratives when direct action is difficult or impossible, stimulating people to solve problems among themselves.

Stories are how we think. They are how we make meaning of life. Call them schemas, scripts, cognitive maps, mental models, metaphors or narratives. Stories are how we explain how things work, how we make decisions, how we justify our decisions, how we persuade others, how we understand our place in the world, create our identities, and define and teach social values. ~ Dr. Pamela Rutledge, Director, Media Psychology Research Center, Fielding Graduate University

A story is “a fact, wrapped in an emotion, that compels us to take an action that transforms our world”, write TV writer/producer Richard Maxwell and executive coach Robert Dickman in The Elements of Persuasion: Use Storytelling to Pitch Better, Sell Faster & Win More Business (HarperBusiness, 2007).
Infants organize their world in stories, even before they acquire language, according to Jerome Bruner, a research professor of psychology at New York University. While stories consist of the content of our thoughts, they also represent how we think.
Bruner estimates that adults are 20 times more likely to remember a fact when it’s part of a story.
Research tells us:
1. Stories don’t have to be long.
2. Stories don’t have to be verbal (think of brand logos).
3. The right story, at the right time, helps us shape and control our world.
4. Elements of a Leadership Story
Crafting a memorable, inspirational and transformational story begins with a good outline, note Maxwell and Dickman. A successful story must have five basic elements:

  • Passion (the enthusiasm and energy with which you tell the story).
  • A relatable hero who gives your story a point of view and allows your audience to enter into the story in their own minds.
  • An obstacle or an antagonist who presents problems that must be faced. This struggle involves strong emotions that engage the audience.
  • A moment of awareness when everything changes for the hero (the problem is solved, and there is an emotional release). The audience learns from the story as it plays out in their minds.
  • A transformation that occurs within the hero, which improves his situation or allows him to make new discoveries.

Taking a story apart like this may make it seem more complicated than it is. A good way to improve your storytelling is to take a look at a story you’ve used in the past. Dissect it for these five elements, then take each one and work on making it better.
How can you make the hero of the story more human to your listeners? How are his or her obstacles similar to those of the people you’re trying to influence? Stories with real people are never black and white: how can you add realism and authenticity?
What’s been your experience with telling a good leadership story? Have you had any backfire? I’d love to hear your experiences.

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