Studer: Storytelling can be a powerful leadership tool
“I remember the story.”
Storytelling is an important part of speaking — it can resonate and carry a wonderful message. The listener may not remember all the bullets on a PowerPoint slide, but they often take stories home as memories. For centuries, stories have been a main staple in helping generation after generation learn.
Here’s one story that stuck with me: President John F. Kennedy was visiting a NASA facility, Cape Canaveral if I remember correctly, and was asking each employee what they did (a common practice when top executives tour a facility). As the President asked one by one, each employee would explain their role. President Kennedy then came across a man who did maintenance in the building. Kennedy asked him what his role was.
“I’m putting a man on the moon,” he said.
It was an echo of the President’s famous goal, and more importantly, it showed how the worker connected the work he was doing to the overall mission of the organization.
That story is the driver of the message that this employee connected his individual role to the greater mission. That’s what makes the story itself the true teaching point.
We may have a memorable story, but stories don’t typically explain the how. How does a leader illustrate to each employee that their actions are part of the greater goal of the organization? Stories can have such a great impact and, when combined with the desired outcome, they will help people and organizations perform better.
I’ve done many public presentations in my lifetime and I’ve been asked about how I’ve honed the way to share stories when I speak. First, it takes a lot of practice. I remember a high school teacher I worked with named Bernie Staller, the department chair of Future Farmers of America, and I still recall listening to his stories and wondering how I could ever learn to tell one like him.
Through all that time I have learned a certain method that works for me. Maybe it will work for you. I didn’t enter my consulting career with a defined plan of storytelling. I just learned over time what worked and what didn’t. It was truly learning by repetition.
Before that, I had plenty of practice as a teacher for special needs children, who are very open to telling you what they like and don’t like. Also, in the recovery community, we are encouraged to share our experiences which leads to sharing our life stories.
Through decades of sharing stories, here are a few tips I’ve picked up:
1. Start with the end in mind. While a good story is helpful, before you share, set a goal of what you would like to happen after your story. What should people take away from your story? Maybe it is to ease your audience. Maybe it’s to pull them in and get their attention. Maybe it’s to make them feel more connected to you and/or the action you hope happens when you are done. Before I begin, I establish that when I’m done, this is what I will accomplish.
2. Connect to the “why.” Early on, connect to why the message is important. How will it help the listener or those they want to influence? In 1999, while working in health care, I spoke to the leaders at Sarasota Memorial Hospital. The day went well. My last session was with the leadership of the medical staff. During the day, I had shared steps to make the hospital run better. The board was very cautious about how the medical staff would receive my message, which included change. Some went with me to see how the doctors would respond, going as far as to warn me about a certain physician who they described as challenging. Having done my homework, I learned some current results of the hospital. Two results stuck out. First, they had high staff turnover and were using an unusually large amount of staff from a temp agency. At times, temporary staff is a great option, however too many and too often is not good. Second, the operating rooms tended to start late. This will mess up a physician’s schedule the entire day. After a nice introduction, I started my talk by asking a question.
“How would you like to work at a hospital where there were no agency staff and the operating rooms started on time?” I asked.
The doctor I was warned about shot up his hand. “Tell us how,” he said.
He wasn’t difficult when we started with the why. The why got the group’s desire for the how: How can we help make this happen?
3. Try to connect to the listener’s heart and mind. The more the story can touch the heart and mind, the more effective it is. Yes, we want the group to be impacted. However, the more the message resonates with both the mind and the heart, the greater the chance of the desired action after the conversation.
4. Practice. No matter how well planned, practice will make it better. Practicing in private is better than no practice. Sharing a story or talking with others will make it much better. The key is to be open to any feedback.
The goal is more than being able to tell a story. It is sharing the message the story conveys which will help the person, group, organization or community be better.
Quint Studer is the founder of the Studer Community Institute and a successful business leader, speaker and author. He is also the entrepreneur in residence at the University of West Florida.
Are you facing a small business or workplace challenge? Quint Studer can help. Email your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org, and it could be the topic for one of Studer’s upcoming PNJ columns.