“To be a great storyteller you must first be a great story collector.” – Dale Carnegie
After posting last month’s blog, How Leaders Can Use Tough Compassion to Elevate Their Business, I received several messages about using storytelling as a leadership tool to strengthen relationships. Storytelling is something that comes naturally to very few but the good news is, it can be taught and it is the stuff legacies are made of.
I recently remembered a story I came across on the Disney Institute Blog that has been shared across the organization for decades. Walt Disney was a master storyteller and this tale has been used for ages to reinforce behavior that supports Disney’s culture of delighting and creating joy for all guests.
On a visit to a Disney theme park, a little girl and her mother came to a fenced-off construction site. To her mother’s dismay, the little girl threw her favorite Disney doll, Belle, over the fence. When park staff retrieved the doll, it was in a sorry state, spattered with mud, dress torn, hair bedraggled. Attempts to find a replacement in the shop proved futile: Belle had been replaced by a newer model. So the doll was taken first to a makeup artist, who washed her and styled her hair, then to the wardrobe department, which made her a new dress, and finally to a “party” with other Disney princesses, with a photographer in attendance.
Good as new, Belle was returned to her owner that evening, along with a photo album that showed what a great time she’d had during her “makeover.” Later, in a thank you letter, the girl’s mother described the moment of Belle’s return as “pure magic.”
Why are stories so powerful?
Stories are engaging and the more a leader’s stories are repeated throughout all levels of an organization, the more effectively they reinforce behaviors critical to success. I often write about emotional intelligence and one of the things many leaders overlook during times of instrumental change is that behavior is informed by beliefs. So, asking for compliance or telling others what to do might work in the short term but it will not build a foundation for sustainable change. For change to have roots, leaders often have to shift mindsets. Stories create a powerful opening in others that makes aligning beliefs, that inform action, possible.
Are you a great story collector?
Before harnessing the tool of storytelling in your leadership, it is important to have a collection of stories that support your vision and reinforce behaviors critical to the organizations’ success. Sit down with a notebook (virtual or otherwise) and write a list that answers these questions:
- What are the three major changes we are facing as an organization?
- What organizational cultural norms do I hope to reinforce to help us succeed with these change initiatives?
- What behaviors or scenarios have I experienced throughout my career that, if told intentionally, could give us momentum to succeed today and in the future?
Now that you have your starting points for these stories, it is time to build some scaffolding. The biggest compliment a storyteller can receive is if their story grows over time and is the recipient of embellishments and added colorful details. It does not mean your story has been changed, quite the opposite. It means it has been indoctrinated into the culture so much so that others have made it their own. That is evidence a change is being accepted and owned and a leader’s legacy is growing each time the story is repeated.
What are the best tools for honing storytelling skills?
Below are some tips from Masterclass.com gathered from some of the best storytellers in the world.
- Choose a clear central message. A great story usually progresses towards a central moral or message. When crafting a story, you should have a definite idea of what you’re building toward. If your story has a strong moral component, you’ll want to guide listeners or readers to that message. If you are telling a funny story you might build toward a twist that will leave your audience in stitches. Regardless of what type of story you are telling, it’s important to be very clear on the central theme or plot point that you are building your story around.
- Embrace conflict. As a storyteller, you can’t shy away from conflict. Great storytellers craft narratives that have all sorts of obstacles and hardships strewn in the path of their protagonists. In order to be satisfied with a happy ending, audiences have to watch the main characters struggle to achieve their goals. It’s okay to be cruel to your main characters—in fact, it’s necessary. Compelling plots are built on conflict, and it’s imperative that you embrace conflict and drama in order to become a better storyteller.
- Have a clear structure. There are many different ways to structure a story, but the three ingredients a story must have are a beginning, middle, and end. On a more granular level, a successful story will start with an inciting incident, lead into rising action, build to a climax and ultimately settle into a satisfying resolution.
- Mine your personal experiences. Whether or not you are telling a real story directly based on personal experience, you can always look to your life for inspiration when coming up with new stories. Think about important experiences in your real life and how you might be able to craft them into narratives.
- Engage your audience. Great storytelling requires you to connect with your audience, but much of how you captivate your audience depends upon the mode of storytelling you’re using. If you’re reading a short story in front of an audience, you might want to play around with bringing your gaze off the page every so often to make eye contact with your audience. If you’re recording a podcast, so much depends upon the expressiveness of your voice and your ability to convey emotion with your tone.
- Observe good storytellers. Your personal stories will always be unique and specific to you, but there’s no better way to learn how to craft and deliver a narrative than by watching storytellers you admire relate their own stories. Whether it be a family member who regales you with childhood tales around the dinner table or a local politician who excels at public speaking, chances are you’ve come across more than a handful of talented storytellers in your life. Look for good storytellers and learn through observation.
- Narrow the scope of your story. If you’re telling a true story from your own life, it can be hard to choose the important main points that you should include. Many people have a tendency to include every detail and end up inundating their audience with facts that dilute the central story arc. Choose a clear beginning and end to your story, then write the key plot events as bullet points between them.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said, “The true scarce commodity is increasingly human attention.” So while all these storytelling tips are helpful, keeping a story under a minute in length gives it the highest probability of being understood, leaving a lasting impression, and having others repeat it. The good news is everyone has one minute to spare in their day to listen to a story so make it worth their time. It is when leaders’ stories “go long” that they lose impact and potency.
Leaders are change agents, perhaps now more than ever. At times it may feel impossible to move people in the direction of a change initiative whether it be a new technology rollout or a different direction for an operational process. When leaders deliver stories effectively, listeners are invited to suspend their beliefs about themselves, their work, and their world momentarily which is long enough for real change to occur.
Leaders have the capability to go down in organizational history through the use of stories that move people to adopt new behaviors in order to drive desired results that matter most to the organization.
Walt Disney left a thriving company culture behind, and storytelling helped beliefs become cultural cornerstones that tell a consistent and lasting narrative through the ages. Once upon a time… you know the rest.