Why Storytelling is a Mandatory Skill for Leaders

GCG Leadership Development Team

In the hypercompetitive and challenging business environment, leaders who can effectively influence, inspire, and persuade are the ones that stand out. 

Good storytelling helps you create a positive impact on your organization, your teams, and your career. Here is a closer look at why storytelling is an important skill for leaders and how you can become a better storyteller.

What is leadership storytelling?

Storytelling is an effective communication tool for leaders who are responsible for motivating, energizing, and inspiring their teams. Powerful stories can transform mindsets, change the status quo, resolve conflicts and align teams with the company’s vision and culture. Well-told stories will help leaders establish their credibility, authenticity, and influence while enabling them to build high-performing teams.

Why is leadership storytelling important?

Because stories are free, quick, refreshing, entertaining, and memorable, they are a great way to inspire, engage and persuade others in the organization. Storytelling has multiple uses:

  • Engaging narratives can help build your credibility, reliability and fit with the company culture. 
  • Leadership storytelling enables leaders to lead authentically and become more powerful. Your stories can help others understand you better, gain new perspectives and remember hard facts.
  • Storytelling is known to stimulate the release of hormones that can help your teams bond, collaborate, and become more empathetic. Whether it is conveying lessons, changing mindsets, instilling organizational values, or motivating disengaged teams, storytelling is the flexible tool leaders need to achieve their goals.

In what ways can it help leaders be more effective?

Compelling stories can help leaders come across as credible, relatable, and approachable. Narratives will help you connect with your audience better, change behaviors and mindsets while inspiring teams to take the desired action.

Some of the key benefits of storytelling include:

Encourage desired behaviors: The brain produces many hormones, which are chemicals that perform vital functions in the body. Some of the key hormones the brain releases are oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin. Dopamine is known as the “feel-good” hormone linked to pleasurable sensations, motivation, reinforcement, and learning. Oxytocin is also known as the ‘love hormone’ that promotes empathy, trust, and bonding. Serotonin regulates mood, memory, and learning ability. 

Scientists have found that storytelling can change the levels of these chemicals in the brain. In fact, the brain steps up the production of these ‘happy hormones’ when we hear engaging stories. 

A lab experiment conducted by a professor of psychology at the Claremont Graduate University and founder of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies, Paul J. Zak, highlights the science behind storytelling. Researchers tested if stories narrated on video were more effective in stimulating the production of oxytocin in the brain compared to in-person interactions. When the researchers compared the blood level of oxytocin before and after the video narratives, they found that stories encouraged oxytocin production more than in-person interactions.

Makes it easy to understand and remember hard data: Stories make information easy to understand, particularly when it relates to large volumes of data or tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is acquired by self-participation, empathy, and physical experiences. Unlike formal learning, tacit knowledge cannot be easily transferred to others, making it difficult to acquire and convey. However, studies show that in the corporate context, expert knowledge (the knowledge that is of the highest value to a company) is often tacit.

People primarily tend to understand facts and numbers with the help of stories. When leaders tell a compelling story to convey information, it can help the listeners or viewers generate new tacit knowledge, making stories an effective way to share tacit knowledge. 

Well-told stories can help leaders overcome the mental barriers that their team members can build against complex or new knowledge. Psychologist Jerome Bruner suggests that the chances of listeners remembering a fact is 22 times more when these facts are embedded in a story as compared to hard facts. More areas in the brain light up when we hear a story as opposed to processing hard facts.

Persuade, motivate and inspire: One of the primary tasks of leaders relates to influencing, inspiring, and persuading stakeholders ranging from staff, customers to investors. Storytelling helps in connecting with these stakeholders, changing behaviors or ideas, and inspiring them to act. Stories encourage “neural coupling’ a phenomenon where the listener’s brain neurons mirror that of the speaker creating coherence and synchronization between the listener and the speaker. 

How leaders can become better storytellers

Know your target audience – If your audience includes a mix of veterans, new hires, managers, and investors, the same message may not resonate with all of them. An effective story is one that addresses the audience’s specific concerns, pain points, and expectations. While it is better to segment your audience into subgroups, informal conversations with your audience will help you understand what they want to know, what motivates or worries them.

Add the human touch – Talking about your own professional life’s challenges or personal struggles is an effective way to humanize your story, add a new perspective, and inspire your audience. 

For instance, Rowan Trollope, Five9 CEO uses fills his stories with entertaining firsthand anecdotes that make him more relatable and approachable. Dig into your cache of professional or personal stories that reveal your struggles and how you overcame challenges. This can help encourage your audience to adopt new mindsets, gain new perspectives, and take action. 

It is also important to be humble when talking about your own challenges. True humility can endear you to your audience and build trust.

Infuse emotions – The greatest stories typically have obstacles, a mistake, or a disaster that need to be overcome. Zak’s research found that the brain releases cortisol when there is conflict or tension in the story and oxytocin when people empathize with the main character. Happy endings stimulate the release of dopamine. To keep these hormones flowing, structure your story by starting with a problem/obstacle, the solution, and the end results.

Include visuals – Psychologist Albert Mehrabian showed that 93 percent of our communication is nonverbal. Researchers also have found that the brain processes visuals 60,000 times faster compared to text. Additionally, it takes just 13 milliseconds for our brains to process an image. Including visuals in the form of charts, images, videos, and art whenever possible can help strengthen your narrative while improving its retention. You can use visuals to

  •  Emphasize a point
  •  boost comprehension and retention of information.
  • Decode text
  • Enhance emotions and attitudes.
  • heighten creative thinking
  • influence decision making

Add humor – Introducing humor in your stories is an effective way to invoke empathy. Your audience is more likely to engage with you when they laugh together. Laughter will also help build likeability – an essential factor in promoting trust in the storyteller. Think about instances when something went comically awry in your company’s or your professional history. You can also include relevant YouTube videos that evoke laughter.

Be specific – Specificity reduces anxiety. If you give your audience practical advice and clear direction, you empower them to take action and make your story their own.

Ask for feedback – Seeking feedback from your audience is a great way of knowing how effective your story is in achieving the end goal. You can test your story by narrating it to a small ‘test’ group and asking them about how your story made them feel and what questions they have on the story.

Build your skills with a leadership coaching certification 

Impactful storytelling is one of the key factors that can make all the difference between success and failure in leadership. Research shows that there is a strong link between leadership skills and storytelling skills. In other words, the better the leadership skills, the more effective your storytelling skills are likely to be. 

When your aim is to be a better leader, leadership coaching can help! Learn more about our leadership coaching programs here or download the Leadership Coaching for Professionals brochure here.

If you are a leadership coach looking to become a part of the world’s largest leadership coaching organization with ICF accredited certifications, click here or download the Coach Certification Program brochure here.


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