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Why Great Leaders Tell Stories

By John Millen

An effective leader, as she makes the rounds at her organization, must ask one—and only one—question: ‘Got any good stories?’    Tom PetersLeadership Expert


Pop Quiz:
>> As consumers, do we buy products and services based on logic or emotion?

>> Which is more persuasive, a series of scientific studies or a simple, relevant story?

>> What do we find more interesting, numbers or people?

You no doubt know that the answers to this quiz, based on science and practice, are emotion, story and people.
And they illustrate the power of storytelling in our lives and organizations. The fact is that human beings are hardwired for story. All of the world’s civilizations survived and prospered through storytelling.

This is why great leaders tell stories.
Stories Engage our Emotions
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 story: 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.

Collect and Tell 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 and teller of stories. 

I recently spoke at a conference for marketing and communications professionals in the insurance industry. The title of my talk was: “How to Tap the Power of Storytelling (in an Industry with Left-Brained Leaders)”

I made the case for more effective storytelling, especially by analytical leaders. I believe the CEO of a company should be the Chief Storyteller, because that person has the greatest access to all of the organization’s most important stakeholders. The leader also serves as a role model for how others should communicate.

Here are a few of the proof points I shared in my talk:

Stories Convey Meaning
Some very smart, analytical people think that giving people more facts and details will persuade them to take action. 

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

We are all massively distracted by information over-load 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 short cut, using a small amount of time to convey an enormous amount of meaning and connection. Telling people stories to make your point is ideal because:

Stories are engaging: 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.

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!

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.

Try it Yourself

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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