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Storytelling For Leaders – Ten Steps to Inspire Action

Do you remember watching the 2008 Olympics in Beijing? It was engrossing television – I found myself staying up later than I normally would to watch swimming, a sport I wouldn’t usually be very interested in. NBC said its show, featuring Michael Phelps’ eighth gold medal, was its most-seen Saturday program in 18 years. From 11 p.m. to 11:30 p.m., when the Americans swam in their medal-winning medley relay, 39.9 million viewers watched, according to Nielsen Media Research.

What keeps us engaged is the drama of competition. Drama that is expertly created by the media, through the use of stories that connect more personally with athletes and athlete families. Beyond national pride, it is the drama that makes us care about who wins and who loses.

We don’t just watch Michael Phelps win gold medals, we see his mother’s emotion as she pushes him to victory. We hear about the difficulties of being a single mother. His achievement is truly incredible, but it is made all the more compelling and memorable by the stories told around the competition.

Why is this relevant for leadership?

Because skilled leaders also know how to use drama or stories to connect with people in the same way. If you want an employee or coworker to change a behavior, you need to do more than ask them to act differently. Telling them just doesn’t work. Even logical and convincing arguments that clarify the benefits are often not enough.

Personal stories grab attention in ways that instructions or logical arguments don’t. People relate to stories on an emotional level, reducing their resistance and connecting with the storyteller.

The top ten tips below will help you incorporate storytelling into your leadership repertoire, to inspire others to action.

1. Engage your audience. To influence your audience, you must demonstrate that you understand their concerns and interests, while giving them reasons to listen to you. One way to capture their attention is to start with a provocative question. Provocative, because the subject really interests them and the answer is not obvious.

2. Use a story early. A story will have maximum impact at the beginning of your post. A good story connects with your audience on an emotional level, allowing you to engage their hearts as well as their minds.

3. Keep a story diary. Your life experiences provide a rich tapestry of stories. Everyone has the right stories, but you have to capture them and use them. Keep a written journal of experiences that created “aha” moments for you, either your own or the experiences of others. Refer to your notes when planning your next presentation.

4. Select a story for each audience. Choose a topic that your audience can relate to and is interested in. i.e. don’t use a baseball story with a group of European businesswomen. The ideal story should capture a struggle or predicament that matches the situation your audience is facing. Remember, your goal is to get them thinking and collaborating with you.

5. Be specific but don’t ramble. Provide just enough detail to engage your listener. Details make a story interesting and make a person relate to what you are saying. Too much detail can cause a person to disconnect.

6. Be authentic. You must be believable. The real world is messy and unpredictable and people will learn as much from adversity and failure, potentially even more from failure than from success. Don’t limit yourself to stories with happy endings. The truth is better than a made-up story that makes your point but feels canned and contrived.

7. Deliver your message with emotion. Deliver your message with candor. Revealing your own emotion will help connect with others. Emotion is conveyed through your words but also with gestures, expressions and in the pitch, volume, tone and speed of your words. Think about your style of presentation as well as the content of your message.

8. Engage all the senses. People think and learn differently. Some people will benefit from painting a picture with the words or diagrams. Others may learn by listening to someone speak or by reading. Some need to experience a hands-on demonstration of the concept.

9. Use visual aids with care. Often people rely on a set of small font text slides to tell their story. Although visual aids attract attention, use them sparingly. Less is more when it comes to PowerPoint slides. Remember that a picture is worth a thousand words.

ten. Practice and test your stories. Storytelling is a skill that takes time to develop. Practice, practice, practice. Be sure to test your story on a friendly crowd before airing it in prime time.

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