There are several key leadership skills all great CEOs possess: honesty, humility, empathy, the ability to delegate. Smarts.
I’ve been blessed to work with, and for, a variety of leaders who possess these skills. CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Editors of small Oregon newspapers. Today, I lead my own company — BookBaby, the nation’s eminent self publishing services company — but in developing and honing my personal leadership style, I’ve studied the people I’ve worked for in the past, analyzing what, exactly, made them so effective. What accounts for their ability to inspire, unite, create?
The answer I return to time and time again stems from what on the surface may seem like a surprising source: their ability to tell great stories.
Storytelling is the most underrated tool in business. It’s certainly proved the most impactful tool in my management career. In fact, I believe that in order to be a truly great leader, you need to be able to tell great stories.
It’s unlikely you can run a successful, durable business otherwise.
Simply put, stories inspire.
To tell great stories is to convey the intangible, articulate the ineffable, and, yes, inspire the dejected. This is because great stories revolve around people — who they are, what they do, why they’re important. Telling stories about your employees, for your employees, can be a powerful way of engaging with them.
Consider how much more impactful it is during an all-hands meeting to replace vague praise — “Good job on that quarterly report, Karen!” — with specific praise in the form of an engaging narrative: “Karen helped this new romance author achieve her dreams for her first book, starting with suggesting book editing, then with helping her understand why eBooks are preferred for romance readers. Now, she’s selling thousands of books on Amazon. Outstanding work, Karen!”
This is backed up by science. A large 10-year, 100,000-person study conducted by HealthStream asked employees what they need most from their employers. Respondents with the highest morale reported that their managers were effective at singling them out for recognition, often by way of telling stories about the great work they’d done.
Stories help teams and organizations bond.
Speaking of science, Uri Hasses of Princeton University once conducted a study in which he analyzed brain activity in audiences as they listened to a speaker tell a story. He compared their brain activity to that of the speaker. He found that both the speaker and the listeners’ brains were operating and engaging on similar wavelengths when the story was being told, even though just one person was producing language — the others were merely consuming it.
What this proves is telling a great story is quite literally a means of connection, which means it can double as a way to foster cohesion around a mission, a process, or a culture.
Storytelling is the best medium of communication.
The best leaders I’ve worked for have articulated who they are and what’s important to them through stories.
To lead effectively, one must be identifiable as a real person. You must be relatable, approachable, and trustworthy. Telling stories about yourself or your experience is a great way to make yourself known like this.
Stories prove powerful in explaining impersonal things, too. Especially when it comes to conveying your views on delicate issues such as diversity, inclusion, or some controversial new strategy — explanations which require nuance, subtly, definitions of ideas and feelings which are inherently hard to define — stories almost always prove more effective than PowerPoint slides or Excel sheets.
That said, telling great stories is harder than you think.
In his landmark book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell identifies a key ingredient of telling great stories called, “The Stickiness Factor.” He defines The Stickiness Factor as “the quality that compels people to pay close, sustained attention to a product, concept, or idea.”
So what kinds of stories are “Sticky”? They’re the ones that prove:
- Tangible and succinct. No management-speak is ever wanted or needed.
- Full of metaphors and analogies. Strong, image-invoking language adds impact and broadens context.
- Full of emotion. Emotion drives many peoples’ decisions. Don’t be afraid to appeal to both the logical and emotional parts of the brain.
- Surprising! Want to make your stories really sticky? Include a plot twist or surprise. Studies show surprise triggers the release of adrenaline in the brain, which enhances memory formation.
At the end of the day, not everyone will be an incredibly engaging storyteller. It’s harder for some than it is for others. Yet the best way to improve — other than lending credence to the advice above — is somewhat simple: start listening.
The biggest barrier to telling stories at work is not having stories to tell.
Tomorrow’s leaders need to start collecting their own stories today. You never know when something teachable and memorable will happen to you. When it does, write it down, and file it away.
Who knows? Your next great story — along with the next, more impactful chapter of your leadership career — is likely waiting to be told.