Telling tales: Storytelling as a communication tool

My blog for this week can be found on Rachel Miller’s Diary of an Internal Communicator site. You can follow Rachel on Twitter at  @AllthingsIC

You can also read it below:

On July 10, I was tuned into Radio4 on my way to meet a client.  At 9 o’clock, the economic historian Professor Niall Ferguson started his presentation of the BBC Reith Lectures on what constitutes a vibrant and independent civil society. To be honest, it didn’t sound that interesting and I was just about to switch over when my attention was caught as he begun …“nearly 10 years ago I bought a house on the coast of South Wales. With its rugged, windswept Atlantic coastline, its rain-soaked golf courses, its remnants of industrial greatness ….”, he continued his tale of clearing up the thousands of plastic bottles that littered the coastline in front of his house…intrigued I listened on…
2 days earlier I had watched Andy Murray lose the Wimbledon final and witnessed the transformation of how viewers perceive him. His image of being dour, dispassionate and media shy had failed to endear him to the nation – until that tearful and poignant runner up speech.  Here we saw another side to the player which connected with the audience and won the hearts and minds of the people.

The threads that connect these 2 vignettes are storytelling and engaging with people on an emotional level.

Story telling has been around for 1000s of years and we can probably all remember being captivated by stories in our childhood. Where the characters come to life and you ‘see’ the rich visual images that your imagination has fabricated. As we get immersed into a story, we begin to become a part of it, our hearts are touched and we can ‘feel’ what the characters are ‘feeling’ and going through.

Story telling is a crucial communication strategy and is a powerful method for anyone, especially leaders to use. For example, when leading people into the future, taking people through change, influencing, unifying people towards a common purpose, transmitting values, motivating, inspiring… Incorporating stories into your messages help to develop a shared sense of identity.

Create a story and you are doing more than just ‘telling them’. You can listen to someone tell you to ‘to change’ but it becomes much more powerful if you told a story of someone who has gone through change. It creates an empathetic understanding which enables you to learn and figure out the lesson yourself.
Story telling brings hard data, facts and figures to life. It is difficult to connect, inspire and get people to act on just logic and reason. An emotional engagement results in greater buy-in. You cannot achieve that with a mere PowerPoint. Can you imagine any of the following rhetoric being delivered in this way?

– “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends…. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up” (Martin Luther King Jr)
– “…and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth” (Abraham Lincoln)
– ” We shall go on to the end…. we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields…” (Winston Churchill)
– ” And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country” (John F Kennedy)

How do you make your story compelling? Here are 10 tips for telling a good tale:

  1. Know your audience – what are their needs and interests, what issues matter to them? If you work in an organisation –  listen, ask questions, collect evidence, engage with differing perspectives before hand
  2. Connect by adding a human element to your story…connect the abstract, numbers, data to someone…
  3. Keep it short and simple and relevant to the context
  4. Appeal to shared  values and beliefs
  5. Be authentic  and speak from the heart – your passion and sincerity will shine through
  6. Be inclusive and  use  ‘we’ and not ‘I’ , ‘they’,  ‘them’
  7. Engross your audience with the use of  metaphors, analogies and specific  details
  8. Bring your characters to life – appearance, occupation, department they work in …
  9. Base your story on reality…otherwise you will get found out eventually
  10. Make use repetition – memorable phrases or sound bites

Language is a powerful tool through which leaders can influence.  Armed with a good story you can inspire, encourage and energise….Here is a video of Margaret Martin, founder of a  social enterprise capturing hearts and mind whilst pitching for funding …

How do you use storytelling in your organisation? In your messages?

 I work with leaders to craft, develop and communicate their leadership brand, with women who are progressing their leadership and with those who are leaving employment to run their own businesses. I also help teams to become engaged, energised and high performing. I love working with people who want to flourish and create purposeful and fulfilled lives. Connect with me @verawoodhead


About verawoodhead

I'm an executive coach, leadership facilitator and learning & development consultant working with managers and leaders to develop the skills and behaviours to inspire performance and drive results; achieve promotion ; make successful career changes, be resilient and thrive at work. Within organisations, I help to facilitate better conversations, design learning interventions which deliver practical and lasting solutions aligned to business strategy and goals. Connect with me on Twitter @verawoodhead
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6 Responses to Telling tales: Storytelling as a communication tool

  1. Jamie says:

    Wonderful post, Vera! What I notice about stories is the way the room falls silent and the attention of the group is riveted. When I begin telling a story it’s a palpable change. Stories are what stay with me most from presentations I’ve heard. I can still recall many of them. Thanks for the reminder of the power of stories.

  2. Thanks for sharing Vera.

  3. sherry says:

    I have a new grandson, the books are poised, the stories written. Already I am eexcited to read the plots to a wide-eyed, excited toddler. And at work? Well it’s just the same; with a good story to start the ball rolling change is fun and people walk with you onto the next chapter.

    • verawoodhead says:

      I am sensing the enregy and excitement in your post Sherry. Storytelling is such a wonderful way of keeping traditions, myths, family stories live and vibrant through the generations. Enjoy – both of you

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