What is storytelling?
Language has been a key tool since the very beginning of development to communicate thoughts and put the mind into action. Storytelling, using the medium of a language, has been a means to transfer centuries of wisdom from one generation to another. Stories are impactful because it has been a vital part of who we are and how we connect to the world. Narratives of our lives are shared with others¬- friends and family. A story penetrates where logic and intellect are denied access: our hearts.
Facts persuade people, but weaving visions as stories that ignite imagination can aid leaders to inspire, align and get a commitment. Stories are powerful tools that help elevate people’s sense of higher purpose by stirring their souls. Strategy leads to informed action, but shared values kindle a sustainable organization. For leaders to envision new directions and motivate others to move towards it, they need to engage with their people emotionally. To inspire commitment, loyalty and continuous involvement to accomplish a mission, leaders need to connect with their people; and narratives do all this and more.
In organizations, stories serve to ameliorate human relations and help to make sense of shared values in the world of business. As a tool, it is about nurturing experiences of resilience, failures, and tribulations and embracing awareness to facilitate symbiotic growth through human connections.
One important hook that stories promote is deepening leadership presence. A narrative allows leaders to affix an emotional aspect to facts that otherwise presented fails to be persuadable. When a leader shares his stories, people connect and relate better. When vulnerabilities are openly demonstrated, employees can relate to their bosses and become more aligned with the organization’s vision. They may also show a higher level of commitment. Storytelling is integral to design thinking and long-term growth of the business. This key turning a brand into a legacy, a leader into a visionary and win the trust of employees.
Emotionally laden content adds value to and forges a cohesive relationship between speakers and listeners, subsequently deepening levels of motivation; therefore, a storytelling narrative inadvertently acts as a pathway to imbibing an organization’s culture. People on either side of the narrative are able to recognize characteristics and values that hold the greatest significance to them and are able to parallel their core values and principles with the percepts implied through the story.
Characteristics for successful storytelling
For a leader to effectively perform a narrative, the leader first needs to examine the narrative quality of a piece, does it evoke the emotions it is meant to? Leaders should take on a bystander stance and introspect on one's lived experiences- relive and relearn from one’s crucibles and connect the dots of one’s life that tells a unique story. Self-awareness, a necessary prerequisite, is integral to the effectiveness of storytelling in contributing to management and leadership. The first step towards authentic leadership is the awareness of the self.
Unfortunately, self-awareness is often associated with a sense of finality; being self-aware is most often considered an end-of-the-line encounter, one that is reflective of having accomplished the highest state of mindfulness. Self-awareness and exploring self is a journey, not a destination. Self-storytelling enhances and amplifies self-awareness and functions on an ever-expanding and evolving continuum. It spins cogwheels towards greater awareness that is often latent within ourselves. As storylines evolve towards more depth and complexities, so does our awareness towards selves and the organization.
Narratives, as they are today, must not be limited as mere buzzwords in the business world, but should and can be used as essential drivers of change. Storytelling has human connect with personal anecdotes that can increase relatedness and subsequently foster belongingness. Stories help information retention when statistics fade from memory. Organizational visions become reality as stories convey purpose much more effectively- it evokes empathy and lends explanation to why the top 10 companies in the Global Empathy Index generate 50% more earnings.
Narratives also initiate fluidity at the workplace by allowing diversity of experiences to circulate among individuals. Recounting experiences prepares individuals to efficiently handle a diverse and also unfamiliar range of situations that they may encounter, hence conserving time otherwise dissipated on errors.
How storytelling can be incorporated and how must one perform the act of telling a story:
Storytelling as a tool is used to encourage communal feelings specific to organizational behaviors that augment its success. So storytelling must, therefore, be employed strategically in situations where employees are required to feel motivated to work impetuously towards the company’s goals.
One such way that leaders can do this is by conducting small storytelling sessions infused with routine procedures such as performance appraisal reviews that focus on one particular theme. Themes such as motivation, resilience, and engagement can be discussed through anecdotal storytelling facilitated by leaders’ own experiences. When leaders do not have experiential stories of their own (which is highly unlikely as getting to leadership positions is not devoid of colorful experiences), encouraging employees to share their own stories of struggles and accomplishments would not only accentuate the mutual uprising of the said themes but also gets employees more holistically involved in the process of motivating themselves as well as others. Often organizations also hire delegated storytellers to keep their employees motivated. But a buck or two can be saved if organizations incorporate it into their routine organizational culture.
Key factors for performing a story successfully:
- Clarity and Specificity: A story must be precise and specific with its content- it should have a purpose. Values that the leader intends to impart through the narrative must be easy to derive for the listeners. While the values must be visible, they must also not be presented vaguely as guidelines or rules for employees to follow. The key effectiveness of a narrative lies in its ability to rapt it listeners, engage them to make guided inferences.
- Business appropriate: A story must be noticeably relevant as an analogy to the value being urged upon through the session. Even if a well-performed narrative gets across to most within the audience, there is always scope for enhancement through active participation by the audience. Storytelling should serve as a tool and platform to exchange views and ideas for improvement through the encouragement of active engagement of employees. The more involved employees are, the more effective its outcomes.
- Appeal to the empathy: The crux of storytelling is to appeal to the empathetic nature of humans. The human brain cannot function platonically, therefore, getting the listeners involved passionately will undoubtedly engender vigor within their thoughts that plain facts and orders would never accomplish.
Storytelling, if done right is simple yet highly resourceful tool. It could reform the progress and potency of leadership in the world as an acting agent of self-awareness, reflective and developmentally-prepared leaders to manage diverse and challenging obstacles.
Hammack, P. L., & Pilecki, A. (2011). Narrative as a Root Metaphor for Political Psychology. Political Psychology, 33(1), 75-103. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9221.2011.00859.x
Boje, D. M. (1991). The Storytelling Organization: A Study of Story Performance in an Office- Supply Firm. Administrative Science Quarterly, 36(1), 106. doi:10.2307/2393432
Andenoro, A. C., Popa, A. B., Bletscher, C. G., & Albert, J. (2012). Storytelling as a vehicle for self-awareness: Establishing a foundation for intercultural competency development. Journal of Leadership Studies,6(2), 102-109. doi:10.1002/jls.21239