Using stories in leadership… Are you sitting comfortably, now I’ll begin…

… that’s how a popular children’s programme used to start which was on just before Woman’s Hour so listened to by thousands of children every day.

We all love stories, whether they are total fiction or stories about real life events we still love them. It’s the way that history and indeed news was passed on in days of yore and one of our most treasured memories as a child being told stories or someone reading to us.

There are few of us who don’t watch television, read books and or magazines, go to the theatre or cinema – every one of these experiences involves stories.


Richard Olivier, son of Lord Olivier and founder of Mythodrama realised that using Shakespeare plays was a great way to use stories in leadership since every play, if broken down into its component parts, has great insights for any leader in business. His book ‘Inspirational Leadership – Henry V and the Muse of Fire’ and the courses and workshops he developed have been very successful. And all because we love a story and even more love a story within a story.

The scene where Henry – having spent the night listening to his men and realising that they are ready to walk away from the battle, speaks to the troops, nay inspires the troops to fight alongside him – is often played to leaders. He tells the stories they will tell their children and their children’s children of the battle won against the French. And indeed eight thousand sick, ill equipped, near starving men were able to defeat twenty thousand well equipped, well fed and battle ready soldiers because they were inspired to do so by their leader. If you want to listen to the speech click here for the YouTube clip

Recently I was very privileged to see Professor Stephen Carver speak at an event on using story telling in business, he uses this in both his lectures at Cranfield University and around the world and directly with business leaders, executives and boards. Carver uses stories to talk about change, project management and risk. And has used the story of the Battle of Britain to demonstrate that at times risk is necessary in projects.

Even Einstein realised the power of stories — ‘If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.’

Stories have been used in advertisements for years, the most remembered TV ads are the ones where a story is told, things we relate to and remember that brings a product front of mind when we are buying. Just think of the adverts that have impacted you the most.

Those who use logical rhetoric in leadership are usually conventional and safe, use reasoned logic, use IQ, are linear in their approach and if they make a mistake then everything they have talked about can be destroyed with the same reasoned logic.

Whereas when storytelling it’s unconventional, emotional and often complex, uses EQ, sells not tells, speaks to hearts and minds and its hard to destroy the logic.

The trick of course is to blend the two methods of communication as some people will not be open to hearing stories whereas others just don’t connect with linear and reasoned logic approaches. Because it may engage their minds but not their hearts and as we’ve spoken about before unless the heart is also engaged then there is no real connection, buy in, or belief.

There must always be a structure to the story, and it has to be relevant and comparable to the situation experienced by those listening to the story otherwise it loses its power and impact.

A story is a great way to deliver the truth of a situation and talk about new situations; characters in a story can be used to talk about decision making and risk. Just think of the power of using the stories in Apollo 13, Gladiator or Star Wars films for example.

I’m sure that like me you were told to deliver a presentation by “telling ‘em what you are going to tell ‘em, tell ‘em, and then tell ‘em what you told ‘em” which is sometimes called the news reader’s model. And the same model is used with storytelling too.

And use the power of three when telling stories – talk about three things and where possible use words that begin with the same letters and don’t intersperse with and… Andrew Dlugan has a great piece of the power of three in speeches and the same goes for storytelling. Three is more powerful than two or four when communicating with humans.

We generally speak at 150 wpm but are processing at 500 – 750 wpm, we like and look for patterns not linear thinking, and the average attention span is about 7 ½ minutes. How someone uses their voice i.e. tone and energy accounts for 38% of how we listen and absorb, body language can be up to 55% whereas content is only 5%.

The speaker’s body language and the tone of voice has to match the message, otherwise we simply won’t believe the message. That’s why the greatest story tellers and inspiring speakers use their voice and have great stage presence. They also use their eyes and indeed their faces, our eyes are vey expressive as is the rest of our face so its not just how we use our bodies but our eyes and face too. They have to tell the same story.

Jim Blasingame wrote for Forbes on the Three Cs of Business Storytelling:

Connect – Use stories to connect with prospects and convert them into customers.
Convey – Use stories to convey your expertise, relevance, humanity and values.
Create – Use stories to create customer memories that compel them to come back

See that power of three again and some great pointers to effective storytelling, effecting sustainable change, evidencing social credibility. And of course connecting with people.

So are you sitting comfortably and I’ll begin…

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