How to tell a powerful leadership story

People flying on open books

In the classic comedy movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Steve Martin delivers the sarcastic line to John Candy: “When you’re telling those little stories, here’s a good idea – have a point!” It’s also good advice for telling impactful leadership stories.

Leadership stories

Leadership stories are carefully crafted anecdotes designed to change opinions and behaviours. They can be powerful and memorable and carry an emotional pull which even the best crafted presentation can’t match.

Over the years, many of the executives I have worked with have been masters of the craft, using their experiences (often with the aid of a simple prop and metaphor) to explain a point of view, vision or behaviour.

The simple power of storytelling

I learned the power of storytelling many times while serving as Communications Director for a UK water company. As part of our ‘Speakers Panel’ initiative executives were required to deliver presentations at local community groups.  I went equipped with an impressive presentation showing our network and impressive stats about our investment program and operations, but was upstaged by one of our waste-water treatment workers – and a tomato.

Following on from me, he showed the tomato and explained how they grew in abundance at our works – the seeds having past through the digestive system of our customers and through the sewer pipes. 

The local audience loved it and probably learned more about our operations through that one simple anecdote than all of my slides. 

The operator’s story was human and relatable – but had a clear objective in mind – persuading the public of the company’s essential role in wastewater recycling and what customers pay for in their bills.

The lesson was well learned – people love stories – and props!

How to tell a good story

Whilst I have sat through hours and hours of presentations in my career, the main things I remember are the stories. They usually have common traits, so here are a few pointers from my experience:

  • Have a point.  The best stories have an end in mind – you have to think about what your audience will take away from the story and what your objective is.
  • Know your audience – it’s no use taking the Board presentation to a consumer audience.  What will make your story entertaining and thought provoking?  People buy from people – what are their values and how can you make your story relatable?
  • Balance your story – use facts, show evidence, and make a single clear point, rather than trying to communicate too many ideas.
  • Use a metaphor and a prop as a hook – good communicators use a metaphor or prop (or both) to engage their audience.
  • Follow basic storytelling structure with a hero, a villain, a conflict, a guide, and a turning point.

Bring it to life – the more you appeal to the senses, the more likely you will be to capture the attention of your audience

How to find your story

The best stories are already in your organization or in the depths of your experience and memory. Fascinating stories lie in wait to be uncovered in every organization from examples of innovation to incident recovery, to people just simply living your values (or not). Stories can be about the past, but also about the future and transformation.  In many organizations, there are stories that are often repeated and past on from one generation of people to the next.  

With a great story, your message will literally take flight.

Rob Salmon

If you would like help with finding your leadership story and telling effectively, then please contact us and our experts will be happy to have a chat.