Steps to Being a Leadership Storyteller


How do leaders influence people to adopt their point of view?  They make change happen by adopting the language of leaders. Recent political events provide an important clue.

Facts, Figures, and Imagination

In the last U.S. Presidential contest, it appeared that Hillary Clinton was destined to become the Democratic Party nominee. She had name recognition, had lived in the White House, and had a well-oiled political machine. But as events unfolded, then-Senator Barrack Obama won the primary, and ultimately staged a dramatic win of the Presidency.

While the two Democratic candidates’ positions on the issues were similar, their manner of speaking about them was not.

Telling Stories

StorytellingObama told stories — about his early childhood, his mother, his time at Harvard Law School, and his time as a political organizer working the old Chicago neighborhoods.

Clinton spouted facts and figures, and she had an amazing grasp of the facts behind the issues.  But it is this contrast, facts versus stories, which made the difference. Obama’s stories allowed him to connect with voters at an emotional level; Clinton’s facts appealed to our cognitive side.

To get people to change their mind, however, you are better off using story-telling and a three-step presentation order.

The Storytelling DNA

In his book, “The Secret Language of Leadership,” Stephen Denning argues that both the order and manner in which you give people information greatly influences how they think.  He suggests that excellent leaders use a powerful model that first connects them with listeners emotionally, through stories, and then presents them with the reasons for change.

Here is what he means:

In a traditional presentation model – which we were all taught as children – you define the problem, analyze the impact, and recommend a solution.

But if you want people to change, the traditional model often does not work.

The reason lies in what behavioral researchers call “confirmation bias.”  When we think we know something to be an objective truth, we automatically conclude that if opposing evidence is presented there must be something wrong with the source.

Checking the Facts

In 1979, a psychologist by the name of Charles Lord ran experiments to determine what happens when people are presented with conflicting information. He assembled 24 proponents and 24 opponents of capital punishment and presented each group with research that refuted their beliefs. He found that both sides found arguments to support their original thinking.

So how do you get people to think differently?

Denning found that effective leaders construct presentations in a distinctive three-part pattern:

1.    Get their attention.
2.    Stimulate a desire for a different future.
3.    Reinforce the desired future with reasons why it will work.

Steps to Leadership Storytelling Influence

Step One

Getting attention – is necessary because people will be preoccupied with their own thoughts and activities. The best way to get their attention is to personalize the message through stories with which they can identify emotionally. Stories about people in similar situations who found a better way are the right kind of stories.

Next Step

Help people see a new future — one that is desirable. Martin Luther King was a compelling story teller.  In perhaps his most famous address, the “I have a dream” speech, he invited people to come along as he explored his vision for the future.

MLK Jr. said “‘I have a dream,’ not ‘I have a plan.'” ~ Simon Sinek

To see the future you describe, people have to believe it is attainable. The proof is best that illustrates how it has been done before, or why it is possible to create for the first time.

Final Step

Reinforce the vision with reasons.  The decision to change is an emotional one – a mental mindset to look at strange ideas with an open mind – but the ideas must still be supported.  If you provide the reasons first, you risk that people will question your credibility and tune you out.  If you garner attention, illustrate a compelling future that people want, then illustrate how it can be realized, then — and only then — will the intellectual reasons for the change and its benefits make sense.

To do this well, you have to master the audience’s story – understand exactly where they are coming from. You also have to cultivate narrative intelligence and commit to telling authentically true stories.

Once you do that, you are on your way to making change happen – maybe even running for president.

So how are you communicating with your teams to bring them the ideas needed to change in your organization? Do you blind them with facts and unload a “data dump” on them? Or do you take the steps needed to open up their imagination with the powers of stories? I’d love to hear your tricks of the trade!

Joel Harris Head is Managing Partner of Headwinds Ltd
He helps clients build more engaged and accountable teams and stronger leaders
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