Effective Storytelling: How the Greatest Leaders Motivate Their Team

In our blog post 5 Things Highly Successful Leaders Do Differently we’ve touched upon storytelling skills as one of the differentiating factors of successful leaders. Storytelling is not a new concept, it’s been around since the start of civilization. Telling stories is a universal human condition. It’s easy to forget numbers or facts after a meeting, but a good story stays in the mind of the listener far longer.

Why should all leaders tell stories?

Leadership is all about inspiring others to give their all and achieving the seemingly impossible. The goal is to have an extremely motivated workforce that believes in the company’s goals and values. That is the ideal scenario, but in reality, it’s much harder to retain employees and keep them motivated and engaged. Storytelling is one of the most effective methods to share your vision and ensure your staff believes in the vision. Not only will it help you establish a sense of connectivity between your employees and yourself, it is also a powerful tool to reach your strategic goals.

Scientific evidence of the effectiveness of storytelling

First of all, there’s scientific evidence. While many businesses have experience themselves how effective storytelling is to increase employee engagement, there is a real scientific explanation as to why that’s the case.

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“Storytelling evokes a strong neurological response. Neuroeconomist Paul Zak‘s research indicates that our brains produce the stress hormone cortisol during the tense moments in a story, which allows us to focus, while the cute factor of the animals releases oxytocin, the feel-good chemical that promotes connection and empathy. Other neurological research tells us that a happy ending to a story triggers the limbic system, our brain’s reward center, to release dopamine which makes us feel more hopeful and optimistic.”

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(Source: Harvard Business Review)

The neurochemical that is responsible for making our brains susceptible for storytelling. The more we’re engaged in a story, the more oxytocin is released. The more oxytocin is released, the easier it is to persuade us to help others. So the effectiveness in storytelling lies in the fact that it increases people’s willingness to cooperate. And it’s not by coercion or deliberate persuasion, but they voluntarily do so as they are convinced of an idea or plan.

Other good reasons to tell stories

  • It helps you motivate and inspire employees
  • It leads to higher employee retention
  • It helps you get your employees’ support
  • It helps develop a sense of shared understanding and connectivity with your employees
  • It helps you to build mutual trust between yourself and your employees
  • It allows you to share your experience and lessons learned without being ‘preachy’
  • It helps you align your organizational goals with your employees’ goals

10 Tips for effective storytelling

1. Know your message

Before you start telling your story, you need to be aware of who your audience is and what your goal is. But don’t try to squeeze too many messages into your story. Focus on one main message that will really stick to your audiences minds.

2. It’s not just about what you say

Effective storytelling is about more than just what is being said out loud. If you want your message to come across, you also need to consider how you’re telling the story. Your body language and your intonation can convey emotion, which in turn is important to capture your audience.

3. Have a clear narrative structure

Every story needs a beginning, a middle and an ending. While you do not have to come up with a Shakespeare-level story, your story should still follow the narrative structure of one. Following Freytag's narrative structure will help you bring order into your story. But don’t be afraid to use creative stylistic elements such as flashbacks or forwards, following a narrative structure doesn’t mean that your story has to be in chronological order. 

Effective Storytelling: Freytag's Pyramid (Narrative Structure)

4. Build up tension  

In fact, flashbacks or flash forwards are a great way to build up tension and increase your audience’s anticipation. Your story does not need to be about an epic adventure like in The Princess Bride, but just finding a new angle to an old tale can create tension. This tension is important because it leads people to share the same emotions as the protagonist, and are more likely to continue to feel that way and might even copy the character’s behaviors.

5. Create a protagonist people want to root for

Speaking of the protagonist, it is essential that your story has a protagonist. The main character does not need to be a person, it could be a product or a special project. The important thing is that you create a protagonist that people can identify with and will root for.

6. Share your own experiences

Though you shouldn’t make yourself the protagonist, you should still draw from your own experiences. Share the failures and struggles you have overcome, and how you managed to come out triumphantly in the end. Sharing your experiences with your staff will also create a bond and mutual trust between you and your employees.

7. Keep a balance between reality and creativity

Your stories should always be rooted in reality, such as personal experience, but you’re allowed creative freedom. If you’re just telling the story as it is, it won’t engage your audience. You need to capture their attention by making ordinary events extraordinary.

8. Create mental images

Using visual language such as metaphors and analogies will create mental images in your listeners’ minds, which will make it much easier for them to follow the story, and to recall it later. But don’t overdo it with the flowery language and (bad) puns, the focus of your story should always be its message.  

9. Keep it short and simple

Which is why your story should be no longer than 3 minutes, ideally it should be 1 to 2.5 minutes long. Any longer and your audience gets bored and mentally disconnects from your story. A good story doesn’t need to get a message across.

10. Tug on the emotional strings

All of the above tips have one message in common: Your story will only leave a mark in your audience’s minds if it manages to reach you’re their emotions. To tug at the emotional strings, your content needs to be character-driven and have emotional content. That way, the audience will remember your message much longer, and on a much deeper level. 

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