Why a leader would give a speech without telling a story is beyond me.
Stories engage an audience’s emotions, imaginations, and interest. They’re memorable. They communicate important lessons. They make the speaker more personable, more transparent. They’re as fun to tell as they are to listen to. What’s not to be gained by telling a story?
Stories are about conflict (within yourself, with others, with conventional wisdom, with society and its norms, with technology, with nature), the resolution of that conflict, and the wisdom gained in the process.
(As an aside: I believe that audiences are won over more by a leader’s hard-earned wisdom than by any other thing she/he does, is, or says.)
The question, to my mind, isn’t whether you should tell a story. The question is what kind of story you should tell.
I recommend against telling modern business parables. They are obvious moral truisms wrapped in the guise of a story. (Stephen Covey’s story about a captain’s confrontation with a lighthouse keeper is a parable. Spencer Johnson’s story of mice in a maze looking for a piece of cheese that keeps getting moved is a parable.) I find parables heavy handed and pedantic and one-dimensional. I feel like I’m being taught something, not being allowed to discover or to explore a truth on my own. But maybe that’s just me.
Leaders can tell stories that are personal or organizational…as long as the stories serve the purpose of the speech. (Personal stories are, well, more personal. They carry more emotional power. They are riskier to tell, and their payoff is potentially greater.)
Personal Stories that Leaders Tell
When you’re telling a personal story, you have to be careful. You don’t want to come across as a narcissist. You are, by necessity, one of the central characters in a personal story, but you shouldn’t be the center of attention. It’s not about you. It’s about your audience and about helping them learn a lesson about their lives, their situations, their potential.
Here are some of the most helpful types of personal stories:
- Coming to Wisdom
Leaders tell stories of events or encounters or crises that made them change their fundamental outlooks or behavior.
- Turning Point
Leaders tell stories of times when they made a decision that significantly changed the course of their lives.
Leaders tell stories of times when they fell short of a goal they had set, or lost something that mattered to them, or disappointed themselves and the people who trusted them.
Leaders tell stories of times when they won a victory, solved a problem, or fulfilled a dream.
If a story is not about the hearer he will not listen… A great and interesting story is about everyone or it will not last.” – John Steinbeck
Organizational Stories that Leaders Tell
As a leader you have the opportunity and obligation to tell your organization’s story. You can communicate a lot about it — its mission, values, culture, history — without sounding like an infomercial. (Instead of beginning your next presentation with a slide that says, in effect, “about us,” try telling a story about your organization instead.)
Here are some of the most helpful types of organizational stories that leaders tell:
Leaders tell stories of how their organization came to be, because its formation says a lot about its character, mission, and purpose.
Leaders tell stories of the legends — the organization’s founders and the people who played a critical role in its recreation — as a source of inspiration.
Leaders tell stories of their organization’s growth and development, the challenges it faced and overcame along the way, its transformation, and the lessons learned along the way.
- What Matters Most
Leaders tell stories of critical times (i.e. conflicts) in the organization’s history and the choices made at the time in order to highlight its core values.
- Problem / Solution
Leaders tell stories of the major problems their organization confronted (either an internal problem like a financial crisis or an external problem like a healthcare issue) and how they were resolved.
- Case Study
Leaders tell stories of recent successes their organization has enjoyed.
What types of stories would you add to my list?
Photo courtesy of umjanedoan at flickr.com