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Why Great Leaders Tell Stories

leadership storytelling
Woman telling a story standing next to a whiteboard


Stories constitute the single most powerful weapon in a leader’s arsenal.   

Dr. Howard Gardner, Harvard University


By John Millen

Training and coaching leaders over the past 20 years, I’ve found that the best, most inspiring leaders tell stories.

That’s because human beings are hardwired for stories. All of the world’s civilizations survived and prospered through storytelling.

One of my keynote conference talks is called How to Tap the Power of Storytelling (in a Company with Left-Brained Leaders). I deliver this one to insurance, financial services, technology and other technical industries.

I make the case for more storytelling, especially by analytical leaders. I believe the CEO of a company should be the Chief Storyteller because that person influences all of the organization’s most important stakeholders. 

And leaders at every level serve as role models for how others should communicate.

Here are four reasons why the best leaders tell stories and you should, too.

1. Stories engage our emotions

When you tell a relevant story, you have your audience’s attention. We are engaged and, given the right emotional connection, we will give you access to our hearts and our minds.

Don’t take my word for it –– test it yourself. The next time you’re viewing a TV sports event where you’re not rooting for either team, watch your perspective change when they run a profile of an athlete.

It's usually a hero's tale about a person who wouldn’t be playing without having overcome serious challenges in life: illness, abuse, family loss. You’ll feel your emotions engaged. When they return you to the field two minutes later, you’ll very likely find yourself wanting that person and team to win. You’re human.

If you raise your awareness, you will notice that we are immersed in stories: TV, movies, books, radio and social media. But the more important stories are in our lives--the ones we share with our families, our friends, business associates, and ourselves. Stories are how we process our lives and the world around us.

2. Stories better convey meaning

Some very smart, analytical people think that giving people more facts and details will lead to better understanding. 

The fact is, today the opposite is true. Today less is more.

We are all massively distracted by information overload and micro bits of information washing over us from emails, to texts and social media. Some research estimates that we receive more than 5,000 marketing messages each day. 

Stories are a shortcut, using a small amount of time to convey an enormous amount of meaning and connection. Telling people stories will make your point in many different ways.

3. Stories are persuasive

Sales professionals have always known that despite people’s insistence that they use reason to make purchase decisions, we buy on emotion.

This has been validated as scientists view the reasoning of the brain in real time as decisions take place. We all make decisions in the emotional center of our brains, the place where trust lives or dies, and then justify those choices in the rational front of our brains.

I know you say you bought that car for safety and mileage, but it’s a red power car that makes you look great. Come on, man!

4. Stories are memorable 

We’ve all sat through hour-long presentations of information and if a story was told, that will likely be the one thing that we remember.

But I want to be clear, I’m not arguing for stories over facts. I’m saying you need to give people both because stories provide a much more efficient and valuable way to reach people.

In fact, research finds that stories actually make data more memorable. Research by Professor Jennifer Aaker of the Stanford Graduate School of Business found that telling a story makes the data 22 times more likely to be remembered.

Collect your own stories

What does this mean for you? As a leader, or someone who simply wants to better communicate with others, I suggest you become a collector of stories from your life and work.

Start telling stories

Here are three best places to hear great stories.

Test what I'm saying for yourself to raise your awareness: when you feel engaged, what was the story you heard?

Notice the stories you tell. Are they relevant to the point you want to make?

Start telling the right stories and you'll notice you become a stronger, more engaging leader.



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John Millen

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