When was the last time you had to explain a topic in front of a group of people? Did you use PowerPoint and statistics to make your point? Better yet, did you get a sense that the group remembered much of what you said a day or a week later?It is becoming increasingly clear that persuasion from mountains of data does not stick to people nor does it inspire them to take the desired actions. Storytelling, an age-old art form, has emerged as a powerful leadership tool in organizations that traditionally shunned creative thinking. From executives looking to rally the troops to school teachers explaining a concept to career changers describing their next calling, storytelling is back with a punch.
Robert McKee, one of the most respected Hollywood screenwriters and author of Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting believes executives should toss out their PowerPoint slides in favour of telling good stories. In an interview with the Harvard Business Review in 2003, he says that stories “fulfill a profound human need to grasp the patterns of living, not merely as an intellectual exercise, but within a very personal, emotional experience.”
McKee feels it is possible to engage people by reason and conventional knowledge but only half way. The other half comes by combining an idea with emotion, thereby winning over people’s hearts. The act of weaving information into a compelling story often succeeds in arousing people’s emotions and passions. It is at this juncture the audience bonds with the speaker’s ideas and remembers the story. Not surprisingly, it is harder to tell a good story, which may explain why thousands of entrepreneurs, individuals and employees from leading companies attend McKee’s three-day story seminar each year.
So, what makes a great story? Aristotle in his ancient work Poetics describes stories as having a middle, beginning and an end. There are complex characters, a plot that sees a reversal of fortune and, finally, a lesson learned. The reversal of fortune or what McKee terms the “inciting event” that throws life out of balance along what was a smooth journey is the important ingredient. What fascinates and inspires people is the struggle, the uphill battle to restore balance despite opposing forces and scarce resources.
Difficult decisions are made with the help of a few trusted supporters. Ultimately, the protagonist goes through a transformation to become one with self by discovering the truth and growing both older and wiser. The most memorable movies and literary works echo McKee’s interpretation of story, which is one reason why his students continue to win awards for their screenplays.
Storytelling is fundamentally connected with one’s self-knowledge, self-awareness and life experiences. Stephen Denning, author of The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling offers some narrative tips for effective storytelling. First, spark action that allows listeners to imagine a “What If …” scenario. Then communicate the “Who am I” story, which in turn could lead to the “Who We Are” organizational story. Transmit values and incorporate collaboration into stories that build rapport and prompt discussion. Tame the rumour grapevine in an organization by gently dismissing the rumour (if false) in favour of a story that puts reality and truth in perspective. Solicit feedback and better solutions by sharing knowledge about past mistakes.
Finally, lead people into the future by evoking the “Where Are We Headed” story. So, the next time you hear a “Once Upon a Time” story, look around to see if the speaker captivates and inspires the audience.

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