4 Storytelling Tips That Will Make You A Better Leader
As human beings, we’ve been telling stories for thousands of years—to share our experiences, to pass down lessons, to understand and relate to one another. But in the workplace, storytelling also serves as an essential, powerful tool for effective communication.
“It’s simply a more interesting way to listen to information,” explains Kate Tellers, Senior Producer and Director of MothWorks at The Moth. “You can’t play down the fact that we’re so excessively communicated to at work, and sometimes we just simply need to make something interesting. But a lot of the time, we need to inspire someone to care. And storytelling is that universal language, where when someone shares something that they care about with us, then we end up caring about it too. So we can get people excited around an idea, or a value, or perhaps some drier information that might not have been as interesting before.”
The Moth is committed to promoting the art and craft of storytelling. In addition to producing close to 600 live shows each year, The Moth also explores how people can use the essential elements of storytelling in unlikely locations such as the workplace. Through its MothWorks program, the organization runs customized workshops for companies such as Google, Nike, and Ford, demonstrating the power of storytelling as a communications tool in business.
“A well-told story is a way for someone who you may have a more transactional relationship with to become human,” says Tellers. “And that humanity inspires a deeper level of respect and engagement. So we find that storytelling is a great way to engage people and interest them in things they might not have been be interested in before and to forge deeper connections that you might not find in a work environment.”
So what does it take to tell a great story? Tellers offers five key pieces of advice:
1. Make it personal. “The greatest stories are those in which we reveal a piece of ourselves,” says Tellers. When it comes to connecting with your work and the people around you, it’s helpful to start with the “why.” Ask yourself: What makes you care about the work that you do? What part of you outside of your work is present inside of that world? If you’re in financial services, for example, what is it behind the numbers and data that’s at the emotional core of your work?
Understanding your personal connection is important when communicating with others. As Tellers points out, it’s powerful to be able to say to an audience: “I also understand that this is not always the thing that we are the most passionate about or this idea may seem foreign or not interesting or out of the realm of what we typically do. So here’s my personal story of why I’m excited about this and how I came from the place where you are to where I’d like you to be.”
2. Show passion. “It has to be a story that you care about,” says Tellers. “What gets you excited about what you’re talking about? Why do you care? If the audience knows why you care, they’ll have a reason to care.” In other words, the story needs to have stakes. And they don’t necessarily need to be significant. Says Tellers, “You can conceivably make a great story about a smaller thing if the storyteller is very interested in it.”
She uses the example of when Tiffany Haddish passionately shared the crazy, amazing story of how she ended up taking her “Girls Trip” co-star Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith on a Groupon swamp tour in New Orleans. “It’s just this perfect illustration,” says Tellers. “She showed us what she really cared about, and it really paid off in spades.”
3. Demonstrate change. According to Tellers, the mark of a great story is that the experience being shared has changed the person in some way. “It doesn’t have to be a drastic change,” she adds. “It could simply be a perspective shift or a reinforcement of a belief or an idea.”
When communicating in business, ask yourself what change you want to see in your audience. Tellers advises, “If you’re pitching a new idea to people, start in a place where you can relate to and understand any reason why they would have skepticism or questions or feel discomfort. Identify that and then use the story as the map to where you want to land them. You’ve given them a relatable way to come to a place where you have a common understanding.”
4. Focus on one big idea. “You always want to think about what you’re leaving your audience with thematically,” Tellers advises. “What’s the theme of your story, what’s the big idea?” Your story will be filled with lots of specifics, of course. “In fact,” says Tellers, “one of the most beautiful things in storytelling is that specificity breeds universality. So the more specific you are in a story, the more universal the story becomes.” But think about how every single detail in your story relates back to that big idea. Or, as Tellers says, “Your theme is your editing tool.”
When Tellers thinks about great stories, she thinks about Stephanie Peirolo, who has a heartbreaking, powerful story about the origin of the Health Care Rights Initiative, a non-profit that helps patients and caregivers navigate the health care system. Her personal experience serves as the perfect way to communicate why the organization is so important.
The way Peirolo speaks so openly about her late son also demonstrates the power vulnerability holds—the way it humanizes us and brings people together. In fact, it’s this vulnerability in storytelling that Tellers sees as a new trend in leadership that women especially should use to our advantage; the more we open up about our shared experiences, the better off we’ll be.
“We’re poised to use it more and more,” she says.” As we’ve started to share the stories and experiences that have been shared less, as women are obviously outnumbered and less represented in business, this is a way to bring us together and allow us to rise.”