Applying Storytelling Techniques for Leaders and Mentors

I have dealt previously with common storytelling themes and the criteria used for building great stories in scenarios ranging from legal and business industries to presentation and leadership. This article looks at another layer in the form of storytelling applications.

Probably the most commonly perceived application of storytelling is the use of an engaging narrative in the introduction of a presentation or a talk. It’s a fine way to hit the ground running and set up instant engagement with an audience. One carefully crafted story can introduce the topic you’re talking about, themes which you will later explore and also tell the audience a bit about yourself without telling them about yourself.

Nevertheless, storytelling offers so much more besides an original way to make an introduction. “The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller” said Steve Jobs, a man who shot Apple into the business stratosphere based on an enthralling brand story. A good example of harnessing the power of the story was the company’s Think Different campaign which was attributed with tripling the company’s profits, even though the company had no ground breaking new products at the time.

“It’s more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy,” is another well-known quote from Jobs. This one has been attributed to the early days of Apple and, taken in combination with the Think Different slogan and visual imagery such as the ground breaking 1984 ad, it exemplifies an ongoing storytelling theme. The principal storytelling application used by Apple was the illustration of a concept – being a rebel and thinking differently – which appealed so universally because who wants to believe that they are just like everybody else?

This storytelling application was also extremely effective for galvanising Team Apple. Many businesses ignore the power of storytelling when it comes to energising a team (or individuals). Nevertheless, history provides many examples of leaders rallying troops through the use of stirring speeches. Think Henry V on the eve of Agincourt, Churchill’s ‘Fight them on the Beaches’ or even the Spice Girls extolling teenage girls around the world to embrace Girl Power. In the case of Apple, employees were included in this incredibly strong narrative of Apple vs ‘the mould’, instilling an almost evangelical sense of brand purpose running right through the Apple core (excuse the pun!), from the design team to Apple Store workers.

Another storytelling application commonly used by savvy leaders is to use the device to address pain points. Dealing with an issue in the workplace, or working process, through the use of stories has the effect of depersonalising it and shifting the perception of blame.

A successful business leader once told me that she liked to use stories to highlight issues and diffuse office tensions, using the phrase ‘putting the pin back in the hand grenade’ to describe the effect. She would use stories based on previous experiences to illustrate scenarios where mistakes had led to positive outcomes. This device provided room for reflection and fuelled pragmatism and self-belief and opportunities for frank discussion.

She is not alone amongst mentors and leaders who have come to appreciate the extra dimension which storytelling brings. Recounting stories is as old as time and yet still there is far too much stigma surrounding its use as a viable tool in business. The substance and authenticity of storytelling can bring far more weight to a situation than reaching for vacuous buzz words which mean very little and have become diluted by overuse.