Once upon a time I was mesmerized by a story. Have you ever been mesmerized by stories that made you happy, sad, joyous or angry? Are you fascinated by those who touched every nerve in your body; those speakers who brought tears to your eyes and stirred an emotional, but passionate anger in your heart? After hearing that speaker; that speech, you knew you had to do something. You gave a donation; you volunteered; you were focused on the company’s goals. After hearing the CEO, the preacher, the club president, you supported the mission and you wanted to do your part to fulfill the company’s vision or spread the good news. Yes, you were motivated to do the right thing.
I have a secret. Effective leadership and storytelling go hand in hand. Have you ever thought of yourself as a storyteller? Think about it. As a storyteller you are both the messenger and the message and to be an effective leader you must learn to be a good storyteller. Howard Gardner states that not only should the leader be a good storyteller, but the leader must also “embody that story in his or her life. The leader is a symbol as well as a “keeper of the stories” (Spiritual Leadership, Henry & Richard Blackaby, 2001, p.80).
Think about the people you know who are good storytellers? This person can be someone in your faith community, your neighbor or someone at your job. This person could be a teacher, a friend, the mayor and yes, even your boss. What impact has this person’s storytelling had on your place of work; your social group, your neighborhood or your faith community? As he or she was telling the story did you also reflect on the person’s character? Were you more mesmerized by the story because of the messenger or was it the message alone that moved you to action? It’s wonderful when it is both!
Now, reflect on the time you moved a group forward through your storytelling. During a critical time in my church, I was able to defer the dismissal of our pastor through a compassionate story of forgiveness and second chances. On other occasions, I was able to move people because of the many stories I told about my uncle and grandmother. I portrayed how my grandmother and my uncle were my role models because of their faithfulness, their boldness and their commitment to what they believed in. I have a long tenure both in my church and at work and therefore, I am often asked by leadership about “how did we get here.” My hope is that I am asked to tell the stories, not only because of my tenure, but because they trust my intelligence, respect my character and see me as a leader.
In their book, Spiritual Leadership, Henry and Richard Blackaby said that “a story is a “compelling method of communicating vision…graphs and charts can convey data and engage people’s minds, but a story…can engage people’s heart and gain their commitment” (p.80, 2001). They also believe that leaders’ stories need to have three components: stories from the past, stories for the present and stories about future possibilities.
Yet another author, Charles Olsen, (Transforming Church Boards, 1995), persuasively argued that storytelling can enliven a church board and even energize a church body. He persuasively argued that history giving and story telling, along with biblical-theological reflection and prayerful discernment would move a church board past burnout and beyond “business as usual” to a board that can enthusiastically lead the faith community to visioning the future.
Storytelling possibilities are easy to imagine in churches, mosques or synagogues, but what about the business world. D. A. Benton believes that storytelling is one of 22 vital traits to becoming a Chief Executive Officer (CEO). She states that a good storyteller can set themselves apart from the rest of the crowd. A good storyteller gets involved with his or her thought processes; often paints pictures; usually humanizes his or her points and often will make him or herself colorful in the process as they tell the story (How To Think Like A CEO 1996). She said that “with storytelling, the scenic route gets you there just like the direct one, but you and the audience enjoy it a lot more” (p. 209). Storytelling helps “make information memorable, recallable, clear, useful and appropriate…and “the key for successful storytelling is [the ability] to fit stories into the conversation, have a good memory to recollect them for the proper occasion, and recall who has already heard them” (pp. 209-210).
Now let’s reflect one more time. Try to remember that story and the storyteller. Were you able to understand the messenger? Did you find the messenger interesting and were you persuaded that he or she was also smart? And finally, and more importantly, do you still remember the details of the story?
D. A. Benton writes that as a good storyteller, people will understand you better, that they will “remember what you say longer, find you smarter and [by the way] more interesting if you use good anecdotes to make your points” (pp.212-213).
So put your thinking cap on, practice that speech, and reflect how you can paint a picture, that will excite us, and above all, motivate us toward a more compelling and positive future. Are you a storyteller? Of course you are; we all are. Our goal now is to be a good storyteller. The end.