What Kind of Stories Do Leaders Tell?

Christopher Witt —  August 29, 2012

Story Road

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.
  • Failure
    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.
  • Success
    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:

  • Founding
    Leaders tell stories of how their organization came to be, because its formation says a lot about its character, mission, and purpose.
  • Legends
    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.
  • Chronicle
    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


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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.

4 responses to What Kind of Stories Do Leaders Tell?

  1. These are excellent “types” of stories — but all but the last is a “Me” story. I would concentrate on “you” (Case Study) stories. “What do you want? What do you need? How can my company help you? Here’s an example of a client with a huge challenge that we solved….” If the leader wants to talk about success, let her talk about how her company’s work helped the client achieve its goal.

  2. Great educational/training piece, Chris. There’s a time and place for each of these types of stories–in a speech, on a website, in a marketing piece, in a blog post.

    If you only have the audience’s attention for 7 minutes, as some experts claim, and you’re giving a 50-minute speech or an even longer workshop, your presentation would certainly benefit from using a variety of these types of stories. It would be a lot more interesting.

    The case study is the most sales-oriented of the types, and if it isn’t done properly, can raise credibility issues. The person responsible for the success story may not even be around any more. In a large organization, there may be no guarantee that a new client can select the consultant she will be working with. Many companies publish case stories without names and dates. The reader doesn’t even know if the case study is made up or if it occured in a different economic environment or in a foreign culture. As an erstwhile analyst of investment management firms, I could go on about the challenges of selecting future performers based on past results and sales presentations, but won’t.

    This is an excellent reference piece to make sure you’re considering using the best possible type of story in every situation. Thank you for the article, Chris.

    • Eugenia,

      Thank you for your insight comments.

      I agree with your reservations about case studies. They are, to my thinking, a lesser type of story. They’re meant to hammer home a point, not to create a world in the audience’s imaginations where characters play out conflicts and quests and explorations.

      Good stories can’t be reduced to a single, simple moral. And they lose some of their evocative power if they’re used solely to make a point (especially if that point is “buy this”).

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