Leadership and the secrets of storytelling - Business Works
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Leadership and the secrets of storytelling

by Geoff Mead, author and narrative leadership expert Sincerity and passion matter most when telling a story, but it is worth spending time and effort to develop your storytelling skills, says Geoff Mead, storyteller, author and narrative leadership expert.

From branding and content marketing to defining strategy and purpose; from improving internal communications to engaging stakeholders and employees; from convincing investors to managing risk and reputation; the need for leaders to be able to tell a good story has never been greater. No wonder storytelling is such a hot topic in business schools these days.

A story told with enough detail and feeling for it to seem real provides an imagined experience which can stir the emotions and hopes of an audience. The story can be told in many ways: in writing, on video, by images. But the most powerful effect comes from telling it in person, which is why TED talks are always filmed in front of a live audience.

Choosing your story

Stories activate the listener's imagination and emotions by conveying a real or imagined human experience. Use stories for what they're good at and make sure you don't overload them with data, analysis, opinions, argument etc.

Think about the effect you want your story to have and find a story that illustrates your point in action. An audience works out the point of a well-told story for themselves because it gives them a vicarious experience for their imaginations and emotions to work with.

know your audience and what they care about

Know your audience and what they care about. You can be very challenging if that is what's called for, but people are much more likely to pay attention to what you have to say if you begin by acknowledging the realities of their situation.

Preparing your story

It's often more persuasive if you make someone else the hero or heroine of your story. But you do need to find a personal connection with the story which might be as simple as letting the audience know how you are touched, inspired, or affected by the events you have recounted.

Engaging stories tell us how characters meet and overcome (or fail to overcome) the obstacles that thwart their desires. Straightforward victory narratives are dull and unconvincing; there is no light without shadow; we want to know about the struggle. Make your story come alive with concrete descriptions, three-dimensional characters, dramatic moments, humour and passion.

Avoid the common mistake of novice storytellers who kill their stories by carefully writing them out and reciting them from memory. Instead, make sure you know how the story works, ie. the sequence of events and key turning points and then trust your innate ability to find the words. Practice telling it aloud and get feedback from a colleague.

Telling your story

When you tell your story to an audience, make eye-contact; use your gaze both to see and be seen. Your relationship with the audience moment by moment is your best support, even if you are feeling nervous. The power of your story comes as much from your mutual connection with the audience as it does from the words.

Tell the story in your own words and use straight-forward language. If the audience has to spend its energy untangling complex sub-clauses and trying to make sense of unfamiliar jargon they won't be paying attention to the story itself and they won't get the point.

Do listeners the courtesy of allowing them to make sense of your story for themselves. Resist the temptation to tell them the moral your story or what it means, it's self-defeating. Tell your story with conviction and it will stand for itself.

Encompassing the bigger picture

a fundamental and defining task of leadership

Telling a convincing story that acknowledges where a business (a group of people, organisation, idea, or movement) has come from, recognises the realities of the present situation, and offers a worthwhile future is a fundamental and defining task of leadership.

Telling the Story by Geoff Mead

Stories are how we make sense of our lives and always have been. There have been civilisations that have flourished without benefit of the wheel, but none has ever been devoid of stories or storytellers. The long-term success of any leader depends on the stories they tell, the stories they live and how well those stories speak to the needs of those around them.

Dr Geoff Mead is the author of Telling the Story: The Heart and Soul of Successful Leadership, published by Jossey-Bass (2014)

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