Be a Better Leader: Master the Art of Storytelling
By: Herminia Ibarra, author Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015)
The overwhelming success of the TED conferences and videos has produced a cottage industry of books and workshops that teach people how to do a TED-type talk.
People are signing up in droves to learn because communication skills are at a premium today, no matter what we do.
As we step up to bigger leadership roles, we find ourselves having to present our ideas more often and to more audiences who don’t necessarily share the same assumptions or bases of expertise as our own.
So, we have to rely on the least common denominator to get our message across. That is usually a good story.
Story Is the Main Ingredient
TED talks have a recipe that anyone can follow. It often starts with a story from the speaker’s personal experience; the story illustrates and motivates the main point the person wants to make.
Once the audience is hooked by the story, the main points — the technical or scientific bits — are easier to follow and retain. The talk usually ends with the moral of the personal story, reminding the audience that the message, no matter how arcane, is personal. It’s embodied.
For example, author Elizabeth Gilbert begins her TED talk about the nature of creative genius by talking about the predicament in which she found herself after the unexpected success of her book, Eat, Pray, Love.
Everyone told her, and she herself believed, that she had reached the pinnacle of success in her thirties. It would only be downhill from there. How would she motivate herself to do her job as a writer for the decades to come? She set out to answer that question for herself by researching the creative process.
According to psychologist Jerome Bruner, a message is twenty times more likely to be remembered accurately and longer when it is conveyed through a well-constructed story than when it is based on facts or figures.
I am not sure what I would have remembered from Gilbert’s talk had she simply cited the studies and presented a model about conditions under which creative genius is manifest.
The outline below lays out the very basics that help the storyteller engage the audience:
Elements of a Good Story
All great stories, from Antigone to Casablanca to Star Wars, derive their power from a beginning-middle-end story structure and these other basic characteristics.
A protagonist: The listener needs someone to care about. The story must be about a person or group whose struggles we can relate to.
A catalyst: In the beginning, a catalyst is what compels the protagonist to take action. Somehow, the world has changed so that something important is at stake. It’s up to the protagonist to put things right again.
Trials and tribulations: In the middle of the story, obstacles produce frustration, conflict, and drama and often lead the protagonist to change in an essential way. As in The Odyssey, the trials reveal, test, and shape the protagonist’s character. Time is spent wandering in the wilderness, far from home.
A turning point and resolution: Near the end of the story, there comes a point of no return, after which the protagonist can no longer see or do things the same way as before. The protagonist either succeeds magnificently (or fails tragically).
Creating your Own Story
You probably already know which stories are your best ones. What you need to learn now is how and when to tell them in the service of your leadership. One way to learn is to pay attention to people who are good at telling stories.
What do these storytellers do? It helps even more to practice. One great advantage of the different job-expanding methods outlined above is that they also provide ready-made, live audiences for practicing telling your story.
Any context will do in which you’re likely to be asked, “What can you tell me about yourself?” or “What do you do?” or “Where are we going?”
Start with your clubs and associations: volunteer to speak at every occasion that comes up. Or, if this is too radical a step, join an organization like Toastmasters, or take a storytelling seminar that will have you practicing in front of a safe audience of strangers.
As you get better, seize opportunities inside your organization: a farewell party or the annual off-site. One of my managers happened to take a storytelling class, by serendipity, the week he was scheduled to give a big presentation to his organization. He threw out the PowerPoint presentation he’d assembled and told three stories instead. He told me he had never had such positive feedback on his speaking.
Tell and retell your stories. Rework them as you would work on draft after draft of an epic novel until you’ve got the right version of your favorites, the one that’s most compelling and feels most true to you.
Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader. Copyright 2015 Herminia Ibarra. All rights reserved.
Herminia Ibarra is an expert on professional and leadership development. She is the Core Chaired Professor of Leadership and Learning at INSEAD, the founding director of The Leadership Transition executive education program at INSEAD. In addition to Act Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, Ibarra is the author of Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career (Harvard Business Review Press, 2003).