Leading the way: The art of storytelling

Alex Taylor ¬ Tippie School of Management
Alex Taylor ¬ Tippie School of Management

From the time we were children, stories have been used to entertain and often provide the context for important lessons learned. They are universally accepted and translate well across cultures and industries.

Aesop’s fables, the tales of Confucius, the Torah, the Koran, the Bible and many other collections offer memorable stories, moral points and life lessons.

More contemporarily “Good to Great” (Jim Collins), “One Minute Manager” (Ken Blanchard), “Quiet Leadership” (Joseph Baddaracho), and “On Becoming a Leader” (Warren Bennis) are collections of business stories and anecdotes used to teach effective leadership skills to gain personal, professional, and organizational success.

Simon Sinek, a management theorist, suggests that effective leaders make employees feel secure and have an ability to draw people into a circle of trust. And done correctly, storytelling can be a disarming way for leaders to demonstrate their humanity, make a point or sometimes help explain complex thoughts and ideas in a relatable way.

In an April 2012 Inc. Magazine article, Riley Gibson proposed three reasons storytelling is a good skill to have:

1 Stories are memorable, as opposed to pure facts and data

2 Because stories are memorable, they travel farther and are easily retold, which helps others convey the same points

3 Stories often inspire action by thought or deed.

We tell stories when we interview for jobs; when we share customer experiences/anecdotes to make a sales pitch; to entertain others; to garner support; to inspire action/reaction — laughter, empathy, understanding.

Heck, even an elevator pitch is nothing more than a short story to sell yourself or an idea quickly and succinctly.

So can storytelling be learned? I believe so.

Here are a few tips I try to keep in mind when I develop a “story”:

1 I know the point I want to make before I tell the story. Without the end in mind, I might ramble, lose the audience and my credibility.

2 I try to focus on three simple points or memorable sections: the set up, the story, and the conclusion (the point). If any one section or point takes longer than two minutes — no more than four minutes total elapsed time — then the story is probably too long.

3 I sometimes write the story down before I tell it. This practice helps me identify how each element fits together to make key points and tell a good story.

4 I like to practice my stories by floating the theme, concept and idea by others — without them really knowing why I’m doing it — to get their reactions. The practice helps me get comfortable with the material, and the feedback helps me make adjustments.

5 Last but not least, I learn a great deal by listening to others tell their stories.

If you get a chance, I encourage you to listen to some TED Talks online. These are a great resource to learn terrific information and witness the art and results of good storytelling.

So with storytelling skills you can lead and succeed happily ever after.

The End.

Alex Taylor is associate director at the University of Iowa’s Tippe School of Management, Twitter handle: @ataylorataylor

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