Storytelling for Leaders: What Makes a Great Story?

Updated March 04, 2021 - Julian Mayhew

The business landscape is changing quickly. Organisational structures are flatter and reporting lines more complex. Employees, customers and clients are spread around the world. People are struggling with information overload.

Yet, leaders still need to influence and persuade in this constantly changing environment. Storytelling gives them the opportunity to do this.

With stories, leaders can inspire employees to excel, align themselves with investors and communities and engage more effectively with customers. Creating an authentic, trustworthy and compelling narrative is vital to a leader’s success.

Storytelling can create huge value for the organisation at very low cost. It’s clear to see why businesses and leaders want to understand how to become great storytellers.

Good stories have a number of features: they surprise us, they make us think, they stick with us and help us remember ideas in ways that text can’t.

Never has there been a time when business has been so hungry for storytelling than today - Alexander Mackenzie, Cranfield Uni storytelling expert

Why is storytelling important for leadership?

Great storytellers have an unfair advantage. They can recruit and hire the best people by creating a compelling vision, they engage better with the press and media, they raise funding more easily for their project or business and they close business partnerships more quickly.

Great leaders are great storytellers

People relate to stories more easily and are more likely to remember the message behind it. This is the true whether we are communicating informally or in a more formal environment, such as a presentation.

Some of the key benefits of storytelling include:

  • Highlights behaviours you want to encourage in teams
  • Makes technical information and data much more memorable
  • Engages with your audience on a deep level, not just on a superficial level
  • Let’s you share the lessons and values that define your leadership
  • Helps persuade and motivate people to follow your cause
  • Inspires others to take action

Storytelling lessons from recognisable brands

What makes a great brand? What makes a great leader? You can learn important storytelling lessons from some of the world’s leading companies by understanding how they build their brand and communicate their vision with their customers.

Airbnb example

Storytelling lies at the very heart of Airbnb’s marketing. A section of their storytelling is focussed on the people who own the homes listed and the travellers who go there. They have added an entire section to their website for it

They show how connecting with others through compelling stories is important to their brand and interesting to their potential customers. They focus on the stories and on the people, recognizing that this is the language by which humans communicate, so that is the approach that will attract more customers. You get a sense that Airbnb really care about their community.

Airbnb storytelling webpage

Screenshot from the Airbnb travel stories website.

What makes a great story?

If we remember who the memorable people in our lives have been, whether it be from movies, school or politics, we usually remember those with great presence and ability to communicate well. We often associate these people with stories we remember about them.

When telling a story, aim to deliver on these three to make it memorable:

  • Inform - share intellectually what we know
  • Engage - to communicate in a way that captures the attention of the audience
  • Inspire - to stimulate imaginative curiosity

When we are communicating well, we move seamlessly between the three states naturally. However in the business environment, we often end up focussing on the first, informing people with information without engaging or inspiring our audience.

Once the story has been learnt, you need to focus on delivery and engagement - understand how you can inspire others with your story.

A story can be roughly broken down into three sections – the problem, the journey and the solution:

  • The problem – What issues did you identify in your industry? What service or product was there a lack of?
  • The journey – How did you go about researching a solution to this problem? How did you develop your product or service?
  • The solution – How will your product or service change the industry or solve the problem?

Use humor as part of your storytelling

Example of humorous storytelling presented by Stephen Cooper

Stephen Cooper gives a humorous speech in which he tells a story about trying to persuade his school to allow him to conduct lessons outside. He uses humor as a great way to connect with the audience.

Watch the full video here: Inspirational Storytelling: Stephen Cooper

Focus on meaning and lessons learnt

The power of the story lies in finding meaning in the moment. Often, the story and the lesson learnt turn out to be metaphors. A leader doesn’t need to interact with an employee to have a story about good leadership.

The story could be about travelling, playing football or even skydiving, as long as the lesson learnt from overcoming the obstacle is relevant to the message.

Stories are about change

All stories are about change, whether that change is forced upon us (for example by a competitor) or decided by us (for example by creating a new product line). Our lives pivot one way or the other at moments of change and choice. You simply need to find meaning in these moments for your story, in order to influence and persuade others of your message.

Practice Impromptu Storytelling

Practice telling a story with plot twists along the way.

Learn More

The best stories revolve around mistakes, failures and disasters

The greatest stories usually have obstacles which need overcoming, such as recovering from poor product sales or missing a flight due to traffic.

The mistake, failure or disaster is what gives your story tension and fills it with emotion. The obstacle should be the pivot point of your story and what makes it memorable.

Lehman Brothers story of disaster

Show your vulnerable side

Characters in movies are memorable usually because of two factors:

  • We see them struggle
  • We see them care about others

By sharing relevant stories about their struggles and how they’ve helped others, leaders offer evidence that we can trust them to lead us towards some objective.

Linking storytelling to business

In companies all over the world executives are sitting around tables with the same three questions:

  • How did we get to where we are?
  • What has enabled our success in the past?
  • Where do we go from here?

A leader needs to be a good storyteller as storytelling is at the heart of every successful business. It is the stories that are told around the boardroom table that define the quality of leadership in the executive team.

Executives need to be able to communicate their vision of the future with their team, in order to shape morale and give focus to employees.

Two different types of storytelling

There are two types of storytelling, strategic storytelling and the more familiar one you might tell to a friend. The key difference is that with the strategic storytelling, you’re trying to create a vision for the future which hasn’t happened yet. However it’s the same structure behind all narratives that connect us on an emotional level.

Storytelling with book as an example

Questions to ask yourself when deciding on your story strategy

All leaders must be able to tell stories; leadership is storytelling and leaders are storytellers. A lot of time and energy goes into building a strategic vision and aligning everyone around it. When deciding on your story strategy, consider these questions:

  • What are the consequences of success or failure? (e.g. your product might get overtaken by a competitors)
  • What is the end vision or objective?
  • What are the obstacles you’ll encounter trying to get to your end goal? (e.g. political obstacles or even not enough resources or employees)
  • How will you overcome these obstacles?
  • Can you highlight other similar stories that were successful, whether it be from another business or colleague? This will help motivate your team.

Storytelling for leaders: Online courses

We’ve collated a short list of useful online courses to help you improve your storytelling ability. The courses go into detail about how to craft the perfect story for your team or business.

Examples and further information

Here is more information about effective storytelling, from industry leaders and institutions around the world.